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spanish flu

Perhaps you’ve heard of the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. It was horrific. The deadliest in history, it infected an estimated 500 million worldwide—about one-third of the planet's population—and killed as many 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. My father’s mother was one of the victims, so it has particularly meaning to me. And the pandemic had a particularly bad influence on the American involvement in World War I.

An article from that time indicates that the epidemic began on 5th March 1918 among the Chinese workers contracted at the Fort Riley military base in Funston, Kansas. Another one also refers to this influenza outbreak which affected 1,100 soldiers. Since that publication, it is generally accepted that the Spanish Influenza pandemic began at that time. However, I believe that it is problematic to assign such a specific date to the beginnings of the pandemic, since its origins are likely to be much more complex and varied. What is certain is that the outbreak did not start in Spain. Spain got the blame because it was a neutral country in WWI and had no wartime press censorship. The countries involved in the war censored news about flu cases in their own countries. When Spain reported its cases, that news was reprinted and everyone got the idea that that’s where the epidemic started. The origins might have started in China or elsewhere. But the clearest signs were those in Kansas. So, for whatever reason, America has a strong link to this disease.

Spanish Flu 1918

This first epidemic wave of the spring of 1918 was benign, affecting many soldiers but causing few deaths. In the French army, 24,886 influenza patients were recorded in May, with 7 deaths; 12,304 in June, with 24 deaths and 2,369 patients in July with 6 deaths, all of whom were diagnosed with “grippe” (influenza). Reports by the American army doctors indicate that there were 1,850 cases of “influenza” in April, 1,124 in May, 5,700 in June and 5,788 in July. The first 5 American soldier victims of the influenza died during July.

In Europe, the flu was devastating both sides. 70,000 American soldiers were sick; in some units, the flu killed 80% of the men. General John Pershing made a desperate plea for reinforcements. But that would mean sending soldiers across the Atlantic on troop ships.

Even with the number of sick and infected soldiers, President Wilson decided against his chief physician's advice and sent in thousands of more soldiers on transport ships to the frontlines in France, which seemed to have resulted in the virus spreading across the world. This was not surprising, since troop ships were crammed from stem to stern with soldiers, causing a spread of the illness among the troops. There’s nothing more crowded than a troop ship; it’s just being jammed in there like sardines and if somebody has a respiratory disease, everybody’s going to get it. Looking at what happened from afar, Wilson’s decision resulted in the virus spreading across the world, from Kansas to the front lines and outward from there.

President Woodrow Wilson failed to inform the people of America about the devastating effects of Spanish Influenza. When US soldiers arrived in France on what was called 'floating coffins', around 200,000 soldiers fell sick, with many being affected on the transport ships. To soldiers and civilians alike, what was attacking them was not any ordinary influenza, but they had no answers.

The Most Shocking Flue

The most shocking part of the flu was the deafening silence of the government and neither national nor local governments addressed the fast-moving pandemic. With a lack of information and almost no advice from public health officials, people in the United States had no answers but expected a mass extinction had the disease continued to grow and develop at the pace it was going.

The year 1917 saw the formation of the Committee on Public Information by Wilson’s executive order, which aimed at getting more recruits for the war. By the summer of 1918, as the disease started to tighten its grip over the country, the government was focusing on the War and encouraging people to do their bit for the War but made almost no mention on anything else.

The Committee was not used to combat the pandemic. In fact, there were even cases of people being prosecuted over public discussion of the flu.

The fact that the government was attempting to keep the "morale" up turned out to be extremely damaging. The president had been able to sell the war to the people even though he had initially promised that America would not enter World War 1, but fell short on informing the people about a much greater threat with the potential to wipe out the world.

During the war, cities in the U.S. foolishly held parades, and this helped spread the disease. For Philadelphia, the fallout was swift and deadly. Two days after the parade, the city’s public health director Wilmer Krusen, issued a grim pronouncement: “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments [army camps].”

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Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.

By the time the Paris peace talks began in early 1919, this particularly virulent strain had already infected one third of the global population. This was when President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris. An accomplished scholar and sincere progressive about everything except race, Wilson was known for his intellectual verve. In early 1918 he had outlined his famous Fourteen Points, in which he called for free trade, open diplomacy and a new balance of European power along with an international body to prevent future wars. The Fourteen Points also disavowed any malice towards Germany, which is why Berlin accepted them as the basis for negotiations.

Compared to the exhausted and embittered British and French, the United States (and Wilson himself) thus emerged as the key player in early 1919, the one party capable of forging a durable peace. But on April 3, 1919, Wilson fell ill with flu-like symptoms. Recognizing that "the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance," his physician downplayed the sickness and ordered bed rest.

Ever since, historians have wondered about this episode, both concerning Wilson's prior health problems and his performance when he returned to the negotiating table a week later.

Wilson wasn't the same man. He tired easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied upon by housemaids. He achieved some of his specific goals but was unable or unwilling to articulate a broader vision for a better world. In other words, he acted like a man with residual neurological problems stemming from a recent bout of Spanish flu.

Over the next crucial weeks, Wilson lost his best chance to win the peace by agreeing in principle to draconian terms favored by France. The final settlement punished Germany with a formal admission of guilt, enormous reparations and the loss of about 10 per cent of its territory. The stunned Germans had little choice but to sign on June 28, 1919.

Back in the U.S. that fall, Wilson suffered a major stroke just as opposition to the treaty by isolationist senators gained steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations hampered by the absence of his own country.

Right-wing leaders in Germany raged at their nation's betrayal. Among them was Adolf Hitler, who blamed Jews and leftists for undermining the war effort and swore revenge on the Allies. In 1940, he insisted on humiliating France by dictating its surrender terms in the same train car where the 1918 Armistice had been signed.

Could a more forceful Wilson have secured a better peace? Would that peace have kept monsters like Hitler on the fringes? Of course, we can't know. But by bringing medical and historical research together, we can get closer to what actually happened, and think better about what might have happened.

The entire scenario of the Spanish Flu epidemic sings of irony. The Flu may have started inside the United States. Wilson helped the spread of the disease by sending troops to Europe in overcrowded boats. Wilson’s American government had a policy of secrecy about the disease, and that added to the spread of the disease. And finally when Wilson himself caught the disease, he could not defend his Fourteen Points in the negotiations, and this ultimately led to an ugly Peace Treaty. The result: the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II.

michael hertz

You can thank the Wilson and the Spanish Flu for a lot more than 50 million deaths. My grandmother’s death, for one.

Michael T. Hertz