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Titanic Lies

Tags Media and CultureU.S. History

05/26/1999Stephen D. 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 The real story, which is the story of individual people and the moral choices they made in their hour of peril, has been replaced by political parables about the arrogance of wealth, the dangers of modern technology, and the pressing need for that dullest of things, government regulation.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?



Contact Stephen D. Cox

Stephen Cox is professor of literature and director of the humanities program at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of "The Stranger Within Thee": Concepts of the Self in Late Eighteenth-Century Literature (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980); Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (University of Michigan Press, 1992); The Titanic Story (Open Court, 1999); The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (Transaction, 2004); The New Testament and Literature (Open Court, 2006); and The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison (Yale University Press, 2009).

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