About Erik Larson’s ‘Dead Wake’ and the Lusitania

Everyone remembers the dry, dull facts about the sinking of the Lusitania from fifth history class, right? Maybe in a little more detail from high school or some random Western Civilization class picked up somewhere?

Dead Wake 2 - Erik Larson(Erik Larson)

If you find yourself open to the concept that there might be a bit more drama to the sinking of the luxury liner RMS Lusitania than your educational experience might be floating to your memory, than the Erik Larson book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is the book for you.

Dead Wake 3 - RMS Lusitania(RMS Lusitania)

Erik Larson tells the story of the fate of the RMS Lusitania in five sections. We learn of the operators of the Cunard Steamship Company of Liverpool fairly early in the story as the Lusitania is due to set sail from New York City on its final voyage. Before the May 1, 1915 sailing, a warning was placed in newspapers warning passengers of all British ships to set sail “at their own risk.” For what it is worth, Larson shares with us that the Cunard Line claimed the Lusitania to be safe, too fast for submarines, and at minimal risk in advance of the sailing.

As the RMS Lusitania set sail, World War One had been waging for nearly a year between the Central Powers mainly of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and, from 1917, the United States.

Dead Wake 4 - RMS Lusitania(RMS Lusitania)

While non-military vessels like the Lusitania were considered off-limits from a military perspective in 1915, history shows that the Lusitania both carried armaments to offer aid to the Allied Powers. Naval combat was a capability for this vessel, too. Human flight being barely a decade old in 1915, the primary means of human movement between Europe and America was through commercial sailing.

The Central Powers felt differently concerning the notion of the RMS Lusitania being off limits as a military target. The leading opposition to British naval superiority at the time of the World War One was Germany with its innovative U-boat fleet of submarines, or “Undersea Boats.” The leading figure relevant to the fate of the story of the Lusitania is Walther Schwieger. Schwieger was the German u-boat captain known to rescue dachshund puppies. As seen from the Allied perspective, Schwieger is known to torpedo merchant vessels and let the crews of torpedoed vessels drown.

Dead Wake 5 - William Thompson Turner & Walther Schwieger(William Thomas Turner, left, and Walther Schwieger, right)

William Thomas Turner was captain of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed. Turner survived the attack, despite taking a reputation hit for not properly combing through contradictory advice for how to avoid the attack that sank the vessel. Per Larson, British intelligence was not forthcoming  in saving his reputation after the fact, or in advance of the Lusitania sinking.

I was deeply curious about why material facts that would have prevented the sinking of the Lusitania, or saved the reputation of its captain, would be withheld from the public record. The rationale forwarded in Deep Wake was that the isolationist sentiment in United States under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made for a reluctant entry into World War One. Given the loss of American life in this tragedy, a cynical calculus suggests that allowing the Lusitania to sink would outrage America into a more active war footing.

Dead Wake 6 - Woodrow Wilson & Winston Churchill(Woodrow Wilson, left, and Winston Churchill, right)

Winston Churchill served as the First Lord of the Admirality when the Lusitania sank. The Admirality had the super-secret spy entity Room 40 at its disposal. Room 40 knew of the U-Boat movements in the waters where the Lusitania was torpedoed. Owing to sensitivity of not wanting to divulge to the Central Powers that the British had knowledge of their U-boat movements and other communications, there arguably was an additional calculus to not divulging facts to the Lusitania. In subsequent official inquiries, Churchill flatly lied in pointing blame at Turner for the Lusitania sinking while possessing proof that countered his own testimony.

1198 of 1959 passengers died on the Lusitania. The vessel listed to starboard and sank in 18-minutes. Lifeboats, lack of drills, and chaos around retrieving life preservers and wearing them caused death. The last two sections of the book covered the sinking and the historical aftermath for key figures in the story.

Stephen King even sited this book as an inspiration for his book ‘The Outsider’ on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in May 2018. See the link from Colbert‘s show starting at 5:45-mark.

Overall, my ranking of the book was 3.5-stars out of five (5).

Matt – Saturday, June 2, 2018


Freedom of the Press and Feminism in 2017’s movie The Post

The Steven Spielberg-directed movie The Post (2017) is showing in a theater near you. Starring for the first time with Spielberg is actress Meryl Streep as well as co-star Tom Hanks, who works with the visionary director of Jaws (1975) for the fourth time.

The Post 2(Meryl Streep)

The film tells the story of a cover-up of the background for the involvement of the United States in what is known in America as the Vietnam War. In overcoming a cover-up of the background for being in that war, two leading newspapers battle over the political intrigue of U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon in publishing material that we see is documented from the opening scenes of the movie.

As indicated in the current Biography listing for Steven Spielberg for the Biography (1987- ) series and its related website:

“The movie centers on the actions of The Washington Post publisher (Streep) and editor (Hanks) as they attempt to go public with the Pentagon Papers, a trove of government secrets, over the objections of President Richard Nixon‘s administration.”

Streep plays Katherine (Kay) Graham, who takes over publishing responsibilities for The Washington Post after the death’s of her father and former publisher Eugene Meyer and then her publisher husband Phil Graham. Much of the anxiety over gender roles for her generation were central in the story of The Post by design.

The Post 3(Tom Hanks)

That the movie tackled the cover-up that seemingly ends under Richard Nixon’s presidency is due to Kay Graham‘s bravery in choosing to publish the editorial work of Ben Bradlee (played by Hanks) as well as the reporting work of Ben Bagdikian (played by Bob Odenkirk). It was Bagdikian that gets the classified Pentagon Papers after the Nixon Administration successfully sued The New York Times to stop publishing on this subject.

The Post 4(Bob Odenkirk)

The subject of a press free from an over-stepping government concern is topical from a U.S. and world political history. The subject of fake news was a point-of-contention in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Tension between the current administration and the press remain strong, and was a decisive trope raised within The Post. I again stress that the push and pull between the press and the presidents feels topical. That the figure of a strong female example (Streep as Kay Graham) was explored also bears repeating as relevant in today’s political and social American landscape. The presented example was thoughtfully raised.

I was pleased with the movie, and my feeling is that the movie will likely be recognized in the Academy Awards nomination season. This movie definitely examines political subjects, though I find the end product less overtly personal or politically intimate than Spielberg works such as Munich (2005), Saving Private Ryan (1998), or Schindler’s List (1993) felt.

The Post 5(Steven Spielberg)

That there is a thing known as The Pentagon Papers as well as a presence for The Washington Post today, in a sense, tells you something that you should know about how the movie works out. There is a disclosed ruling about whether publishing The Pentagon Papers was legal. There is an outcome for whether Kay Graham and the newspaper survived and prospered under Graham family control. Overall, I found this movie pleasing while close to satisfying without rising to the level of must-see cinema.

Matt – Monday, January 15, 2018.

Visionary leadership in ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln introduced me to the writing of Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian “best known for authoring biographies of American presidents, including Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln” (Biography.com).

While interesting to note that Goodwin has treated three presidents that died in office, as well as a fourth that succeeded the last to die while in office, the subject of this review is my reading of Goodwin’s treatment of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

Team of Rivals 2(Doris Kearns Goodwin)

While I felt going into this reading that I had a fairly decent layperson’s understanding for the way that history viewed the sixteenth president of the United States, what I found with this reading is that my understanding was (and perhaps still is) a largely textbook understanding of the man and his presidency as offered through some of my grade school, high school, and slight introduction to the man in college.

Team of Rivals introduced to me some of the means for how Abraham Lincoln went about making decisions, receiving information, taking advice and council from those around him, and largely had a keen insight tempered with reflection that guided a compassionate, and perhaps a largely Midwestern United States viewpoint, of the larger world. The means and feeling of these points were revealed in a way that helps me understand the man in a way that a history class would not.

I enjoyed getting to know Lincoln, Senator William Henry Seward of New York, Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, and judge Edward Bates of St. Louis, Missouri, the four men who, together with Lincoln, made up the first candidates of the political party in the United States that today is called the Republican Party, even if the politics of what a Republican was then is quite different than today. It is partly through the introduction to these men that Kearns Goodwin offers what was a partly well known tale:

“The unifying theme is the growing sectional polarization over the issues of slavery and its expansion. But each story follows a separate track until they begin to converge with the death of the Whig Party and the birth of the Republican Party in the mid-1850’s.”–quote borrowed from a 2005 New York Times review of the book by James M. McPherson.

The four men entered Lincoln’s cabinet when he became president following his 1860 election. The men disliked each other, yet served the president well in large part owing to Lincoln’s deft, compassionate insight into human motivation. The book gets into how Lincoln conducted the war and politics, not so much the interpersonal touches that I found in reading about Theodore Roosevelt at the hands of Edmund Morris.

Team of Rivals 3(The team of rivals)

Since I came away with the reward of new insight and a larger understanding for the professional relationships that Abraham Lincoln had in his presidency, I give Team of Rivals 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Saturday, September 9, 2017

George Stephanopoulos apologizes to his ideals in All Too Human in recapping service to U.S. President Bill Clinton

All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos serves as a young yet powerful political consultant’s experience inside the presidential administration of former United States President Bill Clinton. The presentation is largely early presidential career biography with firsthand storytelling for Stephanopoulos in his early 30’s, from transition to the 1992 campaign for president through much of Clinton‘s first of two terms as United States President in 1996. This book gives insight into much of Stephanopoulos‘ role within the campaign, the first term administration, and offers the political junkie a lens through which to see a layperson’s view into the day-to-day of becoming, then serving, inside a presidential administration.

All Too Human 2 (George Stepanopoulos)

George Stephanopoulos spends much of All Too Human apologizing for his actions in serving idealism and ambition as a political aide to the most powerful person in the world. He ends up confessing to an endless compromise of pragmatic decisions that wound up undercutting the good fight for an agenda that he, Stephanopolous wanted for the administration of 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

All Too Human 3 (Former First Lady and President Hillary and Bill Clinton)

Much of my motivation for reading the book, which I started last fall when I thought that Clinton would wind up in the White House again as First Gentleman, was to reacquaint myself with the dynamic of both Bill Clinton and former U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Getting to know them more, through the eyes of somebody near the inside for the better part of five years, seemed like a way to gain insight.

Truth be told, I struggled through much of the second part of the book because I lived so much of the Bill Clinton presidential narrative the first time around. The nature of the advice and council that Stephanopoulos offered never really is addressed in the book, though largely I think his role was to be a voice in the room, understand the moods of the president and his wife while serving as a buffer for them, and to sometimes help as speechwriter.

All Too Human 4 (Bob Woodward)

It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos was played a bit, within the evaluation of the Clintons and others, for bad council that Stephanopoulos had given in offering background for Bob Woodward‘s book The Agenda. It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos butted heads with Dick Morris, who championed much of the re-election campaign for Bill Clinton‘s second presidential term by moving the president from many Democratic Party positions in America towards, at the time, more Republican Party positions.

All Too Human 5 (Dick Morris)

I sense from Stephanopoulos own account that he never came to grips with accepting, if even understanding, much of why the Clintons needed Morris for getting a second term. I think this was evidence that fed the narrative feeling of the tale; the tale of of George Stephanopoulos losing some degree of influence and idealism and suffering over the loss of the moral platform that he felt he shared with former president Bill Clinton.

Overall, the presentation was clearly and forthrightly told. While difficult to stay with at times, I found myself entertained. My rating for the book is 3-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 2 – Nonfiction

Continuing with the example of the New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter), this reading list for 2016 includes works of non-fiction read this past year.

  • “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris on 9/12/16 – 4/5 stars.

With The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, Colonel Roosevelt completed a satisfying 3-volume look at the life of the 26th president of the United States.

A man of his time, the colorful, multifaceted, military progressive leader was a proponent of projecting military power with a well-read personality. Looking at Roosevelt 100-years later, I see an embodiment of the contradiction of a country wherein he was macho trending to misogyny, a man-of-the-world trending toward racist / antagonist of “hyphenated-Americans,” a naturalist / conservationist that liked to hunt / kill for food, sport, death, and trophy. He also was well-read yet anti-dielectic, progressive yet conservative, insightful about male human nature yet bullying.

As argued in the book, Theodore Roosevelt quite possibly was the most interesting American of his time. The narrative of this three-book biography told an interesting, human story of Roosevelt the man, the leader, the servant, the husband, the father, and the rest. The volumes worked. I recommend them should you be inclined to read them.

  • “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff on 11/08/16 – 4/5 stars.

Quality biography of a time, place, and sensibility of a world, woman, and the circles of a queen that are largely unknowable due to time and tellings lost to the principle that “history is told by the victors.”

The life that can be gleaned is remarkable and presented in today’s terms quite fairly, in my opinion. That a Pulitzer Prize winning woman, Stacy Schiff, tells this story helps the quality of the narrative, in my opinion. Certainly there is context I would have struggled to bring out. Schiff also is talking to an American audience that can appreciate how certain analogies were placed in a context informed by Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra.

Some reviews on Goodreads mention finding the writing style somewhat verbose. Taking that further, the decision to not separate paragraphs more was mentioned. I disagree.

4-stars out of five.


Matt – Wednesday, December 21, 2016