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.

Shifting Tides: The Midterms of 1966

By Kaleena Fraga

In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.

Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.

No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.

Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.

Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.

In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.

Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.

“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.

Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”

In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.

From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.

The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?

 

Ghosts of the White House

By Kaleena Fraga

Happy Halloween from History First!

Since John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in 1800, the executive mansion has had its fair share of inhabitants–from this world and the next. Jared Broach, who offers tours of haunted places in America, calls paranormal sightings in the White House “verified.” To say otherwise, he noted, would be “calling eight different presidents liars.”

One of the first people to live in the White House–Abigail Adams–is reported to continue to roam the halls. Witnesses have claimed to see her en route to the East Room–where she once would hang laundry–and some White House staff have smelled wet laundry and the scent of lavender. Why Abigail Adams would prefer to spend her time in the afterlife doing laundry at the White House, instead of relaxing at home in Massachusetts, is beyond the comprehension of History First.

Harry Truman wrote a letter to his wife in 1945 expressing the haunted feeling of his new home–he was only two months into his term at the time.

“I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches–all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right in here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth–I can just imagine old Andy [Jackson] and Teddy [Roosevelt] having an argument over Franklin [Roosevelt].”

Truman wasn’t the only one to imagine Jackson’s lingering presence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who wanted desperately to believe in the afterlife after the death of her sons, and then her husband, also felt Jackson. She told friends that she had heard Jackson “stomping and swearing.” Jackson has also been spotted lying in his bed in today’s Rose Room, and others have heard his “guttural laugh” in the White House since the 1860s. In addition to Jackson, Mary Lincoln also once reported seeing the ghost of her dead son, Willie, at the foot of her bed, and even thought she heard Thomas Jefferson playing the violin.

In 1946, Truman wrote another letter to his wife detailing a more concrete supernatural experience. He writes that he went to bed, and six hours later heard a strong knock on his bedroom door.

“I jumped up and put on my bathrobe, opened the door, and no one there. Went out and looked up and down the hall, looked in your room and Margie’s [the president’s daughter]. Still no one. Went back to bed after locking the doors and there were footsteps in your room whose door I’d left open. Jumped and looked and no one there! The damned place is haunted sure as shootin’. Secret Service said not even a watchman was up here at that hour.”

“You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off.”

Perhaps the White House’s most famous ghost is Abraham Lincoln–killed only a month and a half into his second term in office. Grace Coolidge first reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost in the 1920s, staring across the Potomac at old Civil War battlefields. Other first ladies also sensed Lincoln’s presence. Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked out of a room near the Lincoln Bedroom, said she strongly felt Lincoln’s presence one night. Two European visitors, staying down the hall, said that they had felt the same thing. Lady Bird Johnson, after watching a documentary about Lincoln, admitted to similar feelings in the private residence, where Lincoln had once worked out of his office.

Other visitors to the White House have had more tangible crossings with the assassinated president. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands visited the White House in 1942, and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. She claimed to have heard a knock on the bedroom door, and to have discovered Abe Lincoln on the other side–an experience so frightening that she fainted outright.

Winston Churchill liked to tell a story about his own ghostly Lincoln encounter during a visit to the White House in 1940. As Churchill tells it, he had just stepped out of the bath and picked up a cigar. Walking into the next room wearing nothing and still dripping wet, he found Lincoln by the fireplace.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”

Even Ronald Reagan’s dog, Rex, seemed to sense something unsettling about the Lincoln Bedroom. It was the only room in the White House that the dog refused to enter. Reagan himself said that Rex had twice barked “frantically” in the Lincoln Bedroom, then backed out and refused to come back in. The president went on to say that one night while the Reagans were watching TV in the room below the Lincoln Bedroom, Rex began to bark at the ceiling. The president thought the dog might be detecting some sort of spy equipment, perhaps an electrical signal too high pitched for Reagan to hear himself.

And yet Rex the dog wasn’t the only one to feel uneasy about the Lincoln Bedroom during the Reagan administration. The president related a story in which his daughter Maureen and her husband both saw a ghosty figure in the bedroom, looking out the window.

It seems that the ghosts of the White House have been fairly quiet in recent years–or perhaps the current and recent inhabitants are hesitant to tell their stories.