In the hundred years since, we have been assured that the victims of the tragedy did not die in vain. Thanks to their sacrifice, we are told, sea routes were moved south, regulations were changed to require sufficient lifeboats for all passengers, the International Ice Patrol was established and other essential safety measures were adopted.
And so it happened. But not at first. Not until after a squalid sequel of political grandstanding, finger pointing and whitewashing.
No sooner had the British liner Carpathia docked in New York with the Titanic’s survivors when William Alden Smith, an eager, self-promoting U.S. senator from Michigan, bounded up the gangplank to inform J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line who was among those rescued, that Smith was chairing a special inquiry into the disaster, and that Ismay and the crew would be detained for the proceedings.
Ismay had cabled New York from the Carpathia to arrange for a ship to take the him and the surviving crew back to England for an official investigation there. But the cable had been intercepted, and Smith had scented opportunity. On April 19, just four days after the sinking, the hearings began at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. (Subsequently, they would be moved to Washington.)
Sir James Bryce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, described Smith as a person of “singular incompetence” who was “always anxious to put himself forward where any passing notoriety can be achieved.” Bryce may have exaggerated, but there is no question that Smith was an ambitious politician with axes of his own to grind.
A maverick Republican with a marked distaste for big business, Smith had previously clashed with plutocrat J.P. Morgan. Smith was aware that although the Titanic had sailed under British registry and with a British crew, the White Star Line itself was owned by Morgan’s financial empire. So, in addition to garnering the widespread publicity that would attend the hearings, Smith saw a golden opportunity to embarrass Morgan.
Unfortunately for him, Smith’s qualifications to conduct the hearings were not equal to his investigative zeal, with the result that he frequently embarrassed himself. At one point, he actually inquired of a witness what icebergs were made of. “Ice” came the reply. Later, he asked if the passengers could have saved themselves by taking refuge in the Titanic’s watertight compartments – a question that earned him the sobriquet, “Watertight Smith.”
Despite his multiple gaffes, Smith managed to compile over a thousand pages of valuable eyewitness testimony. He also gave the public a villain in the person of White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay.
Ismay’s very survival made him suspect. Although he insisted that he was no more than an ordinary passenger on the Titanic, as chairman of the line he was ultimately responsible for the lack of lifeboats and other failures that had contributed to the loss of so many lives. Furthermore, there is evidence that this “passenger” had pressed the Titanic’s captain, E.J. Smith, not to slacken speed despite radio warnings of icebergs in the ship’s vicinity.
Most embarrassing of all was Ismay’s claim that he had taken the last vacant seat in one of the last lifeboats to leave the doomed vessel because there were no other passengers in sight at the time. That may well have been true; there had been no lifeboat drills and confusion reigned during the sinking. But Ismay’s claim was met with understandable skepticism, and he himself was branded a coward and worse.
If the American hearings had featured grandstanding and finger pointing, the proceedings in Britain included a liberal application of whitewash. The British hearings were conducted under the auspices of the Board of Trade, the very government agency whose antiquated regulations had permitted the Titanic to sail without providing enough lifeboats for all passengers.
That aside, there was the matter of British prestige. In 1912, Britain was still the world’s preeminent maritime power – but just barely. A rising Imperial Germany was challenging the supremacy of the Royal Navy, and even Britain’s passenger ships were facing stiff competition from Germany’s Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher-Lloyd lines. Public opinion in Britain had good reason to focus more on the heroism shown by the Titanic’s officers and crew and less on the incompetence that had caused the collision with the iceberg. As Lord Mersey, the chairman of the British inquiry, expressed it: “The importance of this Enquiry has to do with the future. No Enquiry can repair the past.”
Curiously, given the different lines of questioning pursued, both the American and British hearings came to the same conclusion: The sinking of the Titanic had been an Act of God, rather than the result of negligence. And both investigative bodies made broadly similar recommendations for preventing a recurrence of the tragedy.
Yet in the end, a rough justice prevailed over the politics that had driven the investigations on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Act of God verdict did not stand. The British inquiry may have acquitted Captain Smith and the White Star Line of negligence, but a British jury found otherwise. In 1913, a man who had lost a son on the Titanic sued the White Star Line and won a heavy judgment. Other lawsuits followed. In 1916, the White Star Line settled the victims’ claims for the loss of life and property for $664,000. That was tantamount to an admission of guilt.
Similarly, J. Bruce Ismay had been officially exonerated by the British inquiry, but he was convicted by the court of public opinion. He would shortly resign as chairman of the White Star Line and retire to a remote estate on the west coast of Ireland, there to remain until his death in 1937.
The official posturings, evasions and petty politics have long since been mercifully forgotten. What we remember today are the sacrifices and the heroic deeds that illuminate the celebrated disaster. These are what make the story of the Titanic as compelling today as it was a century ago.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.