Mary L. Dudziak is the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, where she also directs the Project on War and Security in Law, Culture, and Society. She is vice president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In 2015 she was the Kluge Chair in American Law and Government at the Library of Congress. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Study, among others. Dudziak is the author of War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (2012), Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall's African Journey (2008), and Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2nd edition, 2012). She has also edited September 11 in History: A Watershed Moment? (2003) and coedited Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders (2006). She is writing about war, war powers, and political accountability in twentieth-century U.S. history.
This lecture will recount U.S. entry into World War I through the story of one lifeboat adrift in the Atlantic Ocean through a cold February night in 1917. Three Americans, who had sailed on the British liner Laconia when it was torpedoed, were onboard the same lifeboat. The fates of these Americans and their country were bound together on that perilous night. Their story, based in part on first-person accounts by survivors, illuminates more than the horror of civilians caught in a warzone. It shows the way American casualties were at the center of U.S. war politics in the ultimate shift in favor of joining World War I. The lifeboat, and the tales told about it, were at the center of an explosive political moment as the country and the president shifted toward declaring war. Ultimately this episode shows the way American deaths in the Atlantic Ocean were an indispensable element in mobilizing the country for war.