Paul Greenberg

Happy days are here again

The skies above are clear again

So let's sing a song of cheer again

Happy days are here again

No wonder the Titanic became not just a metaphor for a whole, calamitous century but a cliche. The story of its maiden and final voyage in 1912 featured a whole pantheon of modern gods that have failed: science and technology, expertise and efficiency, mathematical probability, the worship of the biggest and best. ... In the case of the Titanic, they all added up to one more chapter in man's unending history of hubris.

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The RMS Titanic, largest and greatest liner of its advanced time, would be beyond the reach of fate or chance, safe from the forces of mere Nature. ("We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable." --P.A.S. Franklin, vice president and general manager, White Star Line.)

With its watertight compartments, advanced navigational equipment, failsafe mechanisms and latest communication systems, the great ship was a product of the best engineering and design of its Edwardian time. Britannia ruled the waves. What could go wrong?

Everything, of course.

The great ship, 900 feet long, 25 stories high, weighed 46,000 tons. A modern wonder of the world, it carried more than 2,200 passengers and crew. (Only 710 would survive.)

The odds against the ship's encountering an iceberg on its course, let alone being sunk after a collision with one, were overwhelming.

But everything that could go wrong did.

One by one the decks of the floating palace disappeared into the icy North Atlantic as the band played on.

. .

In the end, what sunk the Titanic was no modern phenomenon at all. It was as old as the Greek tragedies: Hubris. It was man's certainty that, thanks to his superior intelligence, his specialized knowledge, his brilliant innovations and modern advances, he can overcome all obstacles, avoid all perils, and sail blithely on.

But it turns out there is an ocean after all, and a limit even to the arrogance of man.

Warnings were dismissed, the fatal speed maintained, and assumptions held to. Never fear, anything unforeseen could be handled by midcourse corrections. There would always be a way to avoid trouble, or at least postpone it, no matter how close it loomed.

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The same sublime confidence that led the Titanic to disaster on the high seas in the advanced year 1912 also dominated the era's international relations.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.