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.

9 thoughts on “Woodrow Wilson and the 1918 Flu Pandemic”

    1. TRUMP WILL GO DOWN as the WORST president of the 20TH CENTURY!!

      ONLY A DRIVE DEMOCRATE WILL HELP THE U.S.A.!! GO DEMOCRATES!!!

      REVERSE REPUBLICANS HAVE MADE & SEALED THEIR PLACE IN HISTORY!!!

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      1. AGREE, now for a long shot, are you related to my 3rd Great Grandparents Mary Ann Robinson 1817-1850 & George Phipps 1810-1892 from Hook Norton England & Died in Iowa, they had 3 boys Luke, William & George Jr.

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  1. Interesting! Also in 1918 we had “The American Public Health Association” [APHA] where Surgeon General Blue was in charge of said pandemic. The 1st outbreak here was 11 Mar 1918 at Fort Riley Kansas. you’ll find some great articles like this one… Albuquerque morning journal. September 14, 1918, CITY EDITION, 2nd column, top “Steps Are Taken By Blue To Head Off Epidemic Of Influenza Here” con’t page 2 message for doctors… https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84031081/1918-09-14/ed-1/seq-2/

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  2. I have never understood Trump’s rationale for not dealing with the virus from the beginning. If he had, we would have saved trillions of dollars helping citizens and businesses, saved lives, and most probably the economy. Trump decides to lie to America and the world and we all suffer, due to his inexperience and his “strategy”. The only consolation that I can imagine with all the bad things that have happened is Trump cannot win a second term. Perhaps that was the only true benefit of him totally screwing-up and ruining everything? A second term of trump would have been worse than the first term, if that would be possible? All the negative things he has done will not reflect positively in history and he will go down as a very terrible president, corrupt and incompetent. After he is gone we will find out all about why he hid his taxes and what his connection is with Russia. This has been a very dark and stressful 4 years of his “rule” and I will be glad when he and his crooked family are prosecuted for their criminal acts.

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    1. Part of Trump’s weakness in his handling of the corona virus pandemic is from his lack of experience as a public sector administrator. Working in the private sector is completely different from working the public sector. There is a different discipline regarding public sector management. Plus, Trump had no military experience, not even in the National Guard. Again discipline and education regarding management of the militia is paramount for a strong military. Finally, since 9/11/2001, most of the responsibility of disasters, pandemics and other national tragedies are handled through Homeland Security which can include FEMA, the CDC and the National Guard to name a few. And finally, Trump’s biggest weakness is not relying on the collection of experts at his disposal, rather than trying to do it all by himself. A good leader surrounds himself with people who will guide him to make the right decisions. No professional in a position of power tries to work it alone, they rely on their support staff to guide them in the right direction.

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  3. Interesting that the response to the 1918 pandemic was to conceal and downplay it and the article gives Woodrow Wilson a pass with ‘he was in war time’ and ‘presidents weren’t expected to give a personal response (whatever that means) to crises back then’. That is nonsense. By that logic, there would have been no expectation for a presidential response to the Great Depression. It is just a lame segway to throw shade on Trump. Academics are really smug smarmy people. And as for the “Democrates” who feel different outcomes would happen with different leadership, you are deluded. Epidemics are generally resolved only by running their course. Without human interaction too many humans are left without the necessities of life. Transmission of disease is inevitable. Isolation of the infected and protection of the vulnerable, along with development of effective therapies, are the only tools available. The “Democrates” have been totally inept at plying these tools. In fact they seem to have taken this as an opportunity to rid themselves of some burdensome elderly folks. And people try to blame Trump for a disease no human has the power to control.

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