The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 17, Number 8
The Real Titanic Story
by Stephen Cox
In 1997, a stupendously expensive film was made about the sinking of the Titanic, and the
film was stupendously popular.
Its success was hardly surprising. Eighty-seven years after the Titanic's fatal encounter with an
iceberg, her story remains
intensely interesting--and deservedly so. It is one of the great stories of the world.
During the many decades of the story's retelling, however, a peculiar thing has happened.
The real story, which is the story
of individual people and the moral choices they made in their hour of peril, has been replaced by
political parables about the
arrogance of wealth, the dangers of modern technology, and the pressing need for that dullest of
The Titanic story began to be politicized as soon as news arrived that the ship had gone
down in the North Atlantic during
the early hours of April 15, 1912. Senator William Alden Smith, a "progressive" Republican and
friend of activist
government, called the White House to find out what President Taft intended to do about the
disaster. He discovered that
Taft did not hold the typical twentieth-century assumption that the president of the United States
is responsible for solving
every problem in the world. Smith was told that Taft intended to do nothing about the
So Smith took over the job. He had the Senate create a special investigative committee, with
himself as chairman, and he
tried to uncover evidence of corporate guilt in the liner's sinking. Unfortunately, from his point of
view, sixteen days of
elaborate, ill-informed, and frequently bullying interrogation of witnesses failed to confirm his
suspicions. Thirty-six days
of hearings conducted by a much more judicious investigative body in Britain produced a similar
This did not prevent governments from enacting new regulations designed to keep
shipowners from wantonly destroying
their vessels and the lives of their passengers. Nor did it prevent the Titanic story from being told
in the way it has generally
been told ever since.
The image that endures in the popular imagination is that of a ship that functioned as a
plaything of the rich and a gulag of
the poor, a ship that was built and navigated with callous disregard for human life. One recent
book about the disaster
seriously entertains the idea that the ship was intentionally sunk so that its owners could claim
the insurance money. Very
few writers think much of ideas like that; most regard the ultimate cause of the disaster as the
"arrogance" of wealth and the
"hubris" of modern technology.
Film and video versions of the story have often carried an anticapitalist spin. In Titanic, a
German propaganda film of 1943,
the managing director of the White Star Line, which owned the ship, demands that the Titanic set
a speed record, no matter
what; the catastrophe ensues. A 1996 CBS melodrama shows the same British capitalist, J. Bruce
Ismay, claiming a seat in
one of the Titanic's lifeboats, while male passengers from steerage are excluded. Even the most
recounting of the disaster, the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, suggests that the
company's servants systematically
kept steerage passengers away from the boat deck.
Then there is the 1997 Paramount film Titanic. Like its subject, it is the most expensive
vehicle ever constructed; but it is
not exactly a vehicle of ideas. Call it a vehicle of impressions, then; and the major impression it
conveys is that the Titanic
carried two contrasting worlds of humanity--the world of the rich, who were arrogant, stupid, and
and the world of their impoverished victims.
The hero is a starving artist who nevertheless (or therefore) understands life; the equally
fictional heroine is a privileged
dilettante at war with her social class, among whom she alone appreciates art, understands Freud,
and is frank about sex.
Arrayed against this ideal pair are such hopeless lunatics as Mr. Ismay, who causes the disaster
by forcing a reluctant
captain to try reaching New York ahead of schedule because he wants Titanic (the largest ship in
the world) to attract the
attention of the press.
After the speeding vessel strikes the iceberg, Ismay displays stupidity and cowardice, the
hero and the heroine courageously
exemplify their love, and lifeboat seats are sold to the rich.
What can you do with a boatload of fictions and clichés? You can look at the facts.
The Titanic was built for the emigrant
(steerage) trade and depended on that trade to make money. Her expected competitive advantage
came not from her promise
of speed but from her promise of comfort and dependability. Her steerage accommodations were
regarded as the equal of
the first-class accommodations provided by previous generations of North Atlantic steamers.
The Titanic's advanced features were the product of late-nineteenth-and
early-twentieth-century capitalism's startling
progress in meeting the needs of all classes of consumers.
And there is more to be said about the issue of speed. The popular myth is that the Titanic
got into trouble because she was
trying to set a North Atlantic speed record--something she was incapable of doing, even if she
tried. The most that has been
plausibly alleged about speed records is that Ismay may have wanted the Titanic to beat the
speed of her sister-ship,
Olympic, on her own maiden run to New York in June, 1911.
Titanic could easily have beaten that "record." Had she beaten it, however, her achievement
would have been very little
noticed. Newspaper comments about the Olympic's maiden voyage focused on her size and her
freedom from seasickness; speed was incidental.
The Titanic, as everyone knows, had boats for only half the people on board. Yet her 1178
lifeboat accommodations were
far in excess of the 962 required by government regulations of the time. And it is by no means
clear that more boats would
have saved more lives. Few of the Titanic's boats were filled, and two of them were never
launched; there wasn't time, even
though the ship took almost three hours to sink, in absolutely calm, clear weather, weather that
favorable for the launching of lifeboats.
Immediately after the Titanic disaster, before governments enacted lifeboats-for-all
legislation, the North Atlantic steamship
companies equipped their vessels with lifeboats for all. They had to do so, for business reasons;
otherwise, passengers and
crews would have refused to travel with them. But lifeboats-for-all is hardly a sovereign remedy
for shipping disasters.
Heavy, unwieldy, tricky to launch and operate, lifeboats are often as likely to kill you as they are
to save you. If, as is all too
probable, a stricken ship takes on a serious list, at least half the lifeboats will be unlaunchable.
Unsettled weather can
immobilize the rest, or turn them into death traps.
The best hope for a sinking ship is that other ships will come to her rescue, summoned by
radio--which was the "arrogant"
modern technology, developed by "reckless" modern capitalism, that saved the Titanic's
refugees. The Titanic's wireless
operators broadcast a distress call that was heard by the Carpathia, a ship of a competing line,
which raced through
iceberg-crowded seas and arrived in time to pluck Titanic's passengers out of her lifeboats before
normal North Atlantic
weather could return and annihilate them all.
Think for a moment about the Titanic's wireless operators. They were two young men
named Jack Phillips and Harold
Bride. They had been sending distress calls for almost two hours when Captain Smith came to
the wireless cabin on the boat
deck and told them, "You can do no more.... You look out for yourselves."
But when the captain walked away, they went back to work. Water was coming into the
room; the ship was about to go
under. Suddenly, Bride saw a crewman trying to steal Phillips's life jacket. The two boys fought
him and probably killed
him. Then they ran out on deck, where some people were desperately trying to launch one of the
Titanic's last lifeboats. A
wave ran along the deck and washed the boat and the people into the freezing water.
Swimming in the dark, Bride and Phillips found the boat, which had been overturned, and
crawled onto its bottom. Before
morning, Phillips died. Bride lived--barely. He was badly frostbitten. Yet when he was rescued
by the Carpathia, he started
back to work again, helping the ship's wireless operator send the hundreds of messages that he
had to send as a result of the
Titanic's sinking. Bride was still on the job when the Carpathia docked in New York and
officious Senator Smith arrived to
summon witnesses for his Senate inquiry. Bride was carried off the ship--injured, exhausted, and
This is not a story about the arrogance of wealth, the hubris of modern technology, or the
helplessness of the working class.
It is one of the hundreds of stories about individual moral decisions (stories of heroism, stories of
disgrace, stories of people
doing the best they could) that give the Titanic its perennial interest. They are stories of real
people making real choices. We
too can choose: do we prefer the reality, or the myth?