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.

“Seeking Monsters to Destroy”: Isolationism in America after WWI

By Kaleena Fraga

On November 11, 2018, world leaders gathered in Paris to recognize the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI–on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. In his speech, French president Emmanuel Macron pointedly remarked that:

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

The remark was pointed because Donald Trump had recently declared himself a “nationalist” at one of his rallies. Macron went on to say:

“Old demons are rising again. New ideologies are manipulating religions, and history is threatening to repeat its tragedies. Let us vow once more as nations to ensure peace is the utmost priority, above all else, because we know what it cost.”

Since WWI and certainly since WWII there has been a strong push to erase nationalism, and to instead create a global world order that can prevent mass warfare. Yet this world order was not an inevitable result of world war, and certainly in the months after the armistice in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson faced fierce critics of his plan to create a “League of Nations.”

He first introduced the idea in January of 1918, eleven months before the war ended. Wilson called for a “general association of nations” which would work together to protect a global peace. This eventually became the League of Nations, which Wilson insisted the victors of WWI tie to the Treaty of Versailles.

As the war ended and Wilson’s idea seemed to be solidifying across the Atlantic, the strong strain of isolationism that had existed in American politics since John Quincy Adams warned of “seeking monsters to destroy” began to rise.

Whether this was out of real angst over the idea, or because the president had made a fatal political error, Henry Cabot Lodge sought to defy this shaky new world order.

Wilson to ParisLodge, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, watched Wilson go to Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles without consulting the Senate. Then, although Wilson asked Lodge to not speak publicly about the League of Nations until they could meet at the White House, the president spoke to a crowd in Boston to try to garner support. Lodge saw this as a betrayal.

Two days after the White House meeting in February 1919, Lodge gave a speech in the Senate casting doubt on the League of Nations. Lodge warned against “casting aside these policies which we have adhered to for a century and more and under which we have greatly served the cause of peace both at home and abroad.” He worried that such an agreement would necessitate an enormous American military force “capable of enforcing” the League at “a moment’s notice.”

Lodge asked, using rhetoric that many would recognize today, whether Americans were l of n cartoonready “to give to other nations the power to say who shall come into the United States and become citizens of the Republic?”

Wilson desperately tried to corral support for the League of Nations, but the damage at home had been done. In October of 1919, following an 8,000 mile 22-day tour attempting to muster support at home, Wilson suffered a terrible stroke. The Senate voted against the Treaty a month later. The end of the war was finally declared in a joint resolution in 1921, but the damage to both Wilson, his presidency, and any pretense of an American endorsement of the League of Nations had been done.

In the following two decades the League proved largely ineffective without American support. As Depression haunted people around the world, Americans at home increasingly leaned toward isolationist policies–and many saw WWI as a lesson that American casualties were not worth involvement in conflicts abroad. By the time FDR came to office, he had to combat not only growing fascism abroad, but the bitter memory of Wilson’s failures.

Since the end of WWII, and the creation of international bodies like the United Nations, the new global world order has felt permanent–the result of two world wars. Yet there remains a strong strain of isolationist feeling in the United States and abroad. Whether or not the world continues on a global path, or tips back into nationalism, has yet to be seen.