Woodrow Wilson and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

By Kaleena Fraga

These days, all anyone can talk about is coronavirus. Our conversations are consumed with social-distancing, quarantine measures, and questions about testing. Many have drawn similarities between the pandemic of today to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

So how did Woodrow Wilson respond to the Spanish flu?

The 1918 Influenza Pandemic

The 1918 influenza had competition when it came to the world’s attention span: the first wave hit during WWI. Military camps throughout Europe reported cases, but European governments chose to keep reports of the illness secret.

Spain, however, had no stake in the conflict. The country had chosen to remain neutral. Having no reason to suppress reports of the flu, Spanish newspapers reported the spread of a new illness.

For this reason, the world dubbed it the “Spanish influenza.”

The illness seemed to run its course. But a more powerful, second wave of the Spanish flu hit that summer. This time, it was so deadly that it could kill a healthy person within 24 hours.

The U.S. Government and the Spanish Flu

When the second wave of the flu hit, the U.S. government sought to downplay the crisis. They aimed to maintain morale in wartime by avoiding negative news stories. In Europe, governments censored any mention of a flu pandemic.

Wilson never made a statement about the Spanish flu. Even when, in the month of October 1918, 195,000 Americans died.

Because of the wartime circumstances, negative reports were severely discouraged. Wilson had created the Committee of Public Information a week after declaring war, which sought to downplay any negative news.

The Committee believed that: “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

In Philadelphia, where one of the worst outbreaks occurred, the Philadelphia Inquirer shrugged off increasing panic. “Do not even discuss influenza,” the paper suggested. “Worry is useless. Talk of cheerful things instead of disease.”

Across the country, as the flu spread, public health leaders toed the line. They stated that the Spanish flu was nothing more than a common form of influenza.  Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed.”

Woodrow Wilson and the Flu

Wilson in Paris | The Atlantic

Behind the scenes, Wilson did worry about the flu. Ships full of troops arrived daily from the battlefields of Europe, and Wilson wondered if such crossing should be halted. Generals reassured him that there was no need.

“The shipment of troops should not be stopped for any cause,” Gen. Peyton C. March told the president.

In April of 1919, the president traveled to Europe himself. The war had ended in November. But the spread of the flu continued. And Wilson got sick. The president’s condition deteriorated so quickly and drastically that his personal doctor, Cary T. Grayson, worried that Wilson had been poisoned.

Even as Grayson told reporters that Wilson had a cold, he fretted about the president’s condition. ” I was able to control the spasms of coughing,” Grayson wrote, “but his condition looked very serious.” The president couldn’t even sit up in bed.

Worse, in the midst of fragile negotiations, the president began to act strangely. He acquiesced to French demands that had once seemed impossible; Wilson believed he was surrounded by spies; one colonel noted that the president had lost “his quickness of grasp, and tired easily.”

Wilson did recover. But he suffered a stroke months later that crippled his administration, and set up his wife as a de facto president.

Wilson chose to ignore the spread of the Spanish flu. Today, the Trump administration has been critiqued for its slow response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Important differences exist between the two presidents and the two diseases. Wilson lived in an era where presidents weren’t expected to offer a personal response to crises. In addition, Wilson was a wartime president. President Trump exists in the Twitter age—an immediate, personal response is expected.

Presidencies are defined by crises in any era. Just as Wilson is judged for his actions during WWI, it’s certain that history will measure the success of the Trump administration by the president’s response to this pandemic.

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