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Titanic Lies

May 26, 1999

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people and the moral choices they made in their hour of peril, has been
replaced by political parables about the arrogance of wealth, the dangers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 things,
government regulation.

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 Titanic.

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, 16 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 result.

This did not prevent governments from enacting new regulations designed to
keep ship owners 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, but 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 faithful cinematic 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
occasionally homicidal, 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
passengers' consequent freedom from seasickness; speed was incidental.

It is true that the Titanic approached the Atlantic iceberg zone at a very
respectable speed of 25 m.p.h. But her captain's failure to slow down was
nothing unusual for the times. In good weather, North Atlantic captains
customarily maintained their speed until they actually sighted an iceberg.

Their custom may have been wrong, but it was essentially the same custom
that you follow when you hear that there is debris on the freeway,
somewhere up ahead. You don't slow down or stop immediately; you wait
until you actually see the debris. It's a risk, but it's not a risk that
testifies to your arrogance or hubris.

Well, what about lifeboats? 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 current government regulations. 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 was extraordinarily favorable
for the launching of lifeboats.

Immediately after the Titanic disaster, before governments enacted
lifeboats-for-all legislation, 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. Suddenly,
Bride saw a crewman trying to steal Phillips's lifejacket. 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 triumphant.

That 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?

--------------------------------
Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of The Titanic Story: Hard Choices,
Dangerous Decisions
(Chicago: Open Court, 1999).


See also Ludwig von Mises's classic work The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality.


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