He wrote it himself in a days time, as March gave way to April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson prepared an address to Congress and to the nation that would, in its way, signal the unmistakable arrival of modernity in the new world.
For nearly three years, since the late summer of 1914, Wilson had resisted calls for America to enter the Great War, a European struggle of staggering magnitude.
Now, circumstances had, he believed, forced his hand, he'd take the nation into the storm.
And so on Monday, April 2nd, 1917, Woodrow Wilson went to Capitol Hill and addressed a crowded chamber.
He said it is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars. Civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority, to have a voice in their own governments for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
To such a task, we could dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have. They were noble words, but what no one could know then was that among the wages of war would be one of the deadliest pandemics in history and its fatal work wouldn't simply be done abroad, but at home and soon.
I'm Jon Meacham, and this is Hope through history. Episode five, the 1918 influenza pandemic. Wilson, it crosses his mind, should we be sending troops when this epidemic is going on?
Woodrow Wilson never gave one speech to the American people explaining what was happening or trying to tell them how to protect themselves by going to war.
You're risking your life. It doesn't matter if you risk your life on the front line, the bullets or to the virus.
There's a wholesale effort to turn everybody into a red, white and blue American. There never was such a breakup, an English nobleman remarked of the coming of World War One. All the old boys which have marked the channels of our lives seem to have been swept away. The old world was on the brink of a violent transformation, while the United States, a young, emergent nation, watched cautiously from across the Atlantic when it came to foreign relations.
We just didn't want any except for commercial relations. That is what the rest of the world meant to the United States. It was markets that we could tap outside the United States.
This is the author and biographer Patricia O'Toole, whose works include the moralist Woodrow Wilson and the world he made.
And even though we're a nation of immigrants, and you might think that would lead to a certain kind of internationalism, it was all about assimilating those immigrants and making them American and getting them to detach from the old world. And one of Wilson's reasons for delaying until 1917 the U.S. entry into the war was that you have a country that's basically one third either immigrants or children of immigrants. He was a child of an immigrant, and he really feared that if he took the United States into the war too soon, you would have all these ethnic wars in the United States where the German immigrants and the Austrian immigrants were lining up against the immigrants from the allied countries, the French and English and Irish and Scottish.
In May 1915, a British liner known as the Lusitania set sail from New York to Liverpool, marking her two hundred second voyage across the Atlantic. As the ship rounded the southern coast of Ireland, it was torpedoed by a German U. Boat lurking just 11 miles off the mainland, although the Lusitania was transporting large amounts of ammunitions.
She was a civilian vessel with almost two thousand passengers and crew on board, including one hundred and twenty eight Americans who were defenseless against a military attack.
The earliest big kind of plausible opportunity to enter World War One would have been after the sinking of the Lusitania. He decided the moment was wrong. So after that, he didn't have a good pretext until early 1917, when the British intercepted the Zimmerman telegram, which was going from the German Foreign Ministry to the German envoys in Mexico. And it was encouraging the German envoy in Mexico to get the Mexicans and if possible, the Japanese in league with making war against the United States from the southern border, with the promise that Mexico would get back everything it had lost in the Mexican-American.
More so that's the moment when there's a wholesale effort with the Committee on Public Information to turn everybody into a red, white and blue American. Consider the impact of the Great War. There were 65 million mobilized forces worldwide and eight point five million killed. Twenty one million were wounded. Nearly 60 percent of all who served were either killed or wounded, captured or went missing. Casualties included empires Austria, Hungary, the Ottoman Turks and the Tsarist dynasty. And Russia all fell, at least in part because of the Great War, remaking the map and millions of lives.
Air power became a tool of war from 1914 to 1918, as did tank warfare submarines and poison gas in early August 1918. In the war's closing months, a young corporal in the German army was temporarily blinded during a gas attack. He was awarded the Iron Cross first class at Adolf Hitler.
Never forgot his feeling of powerlessness in the face of the foe.
We're at war and the government is trying to generate an absolutely red hot fury aimed at Germany, and it wanted no distractions. It was quite successful in generating that fury, and it was initially successful in avoiding the distractions.
This is John Barry, historian and author of several bestsellers, including The Great Influenza, an account of the 1918 pandemic that moved President George W. Bush to launch pandemic preparations.
There was a law that made it punishable by 20 years in prison to, quote, utter right print or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the government of the United States, unquote. That law was enforced rigorously. A congressman was jailed for 50. In years, Supreme Court even upheld that law. That's where the fire in a crowded theater came from. So that's the context. Everything was all related.
I once asked David Fromkin, an excellent historian of the war and its impact, who was about to publish yet another book on the subject, why he kept returning to the First World War. Why write about anything else? He asked me, a twinkle in his eye. There was nothing more important. Largely lost to the history of important things was the influenza pandemic that struck the United States in 1918. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history.
It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918 to 1919 in the United States. It was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. The numbers from the CDC are staggering. It's estimated that about 500 million people, or one third of the world's population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide, with about 600 and 75000 occurring in the United States.
Some called it the Spanish flu, but scientists now suspect it originated in the United States and was taken across the Atlantic by American troops. This much is clear. The Great War exacerbated the flu spread given the close quarters within the military and the shrinking nature of life on the globe as peoples from different distant nations came into contact because of the war. Wilson did ask his generals about, you know, we have this flu epidemic here now, they're already well over a million troops in France at this point.
So September 19, 18, and they were getting ready to send another million. And Wilson crosses his mind. Should we be sending troops when this epidemic is going on? And on the advice of his generals, he decided that they should go. But before any troops left to go to Europe, they were tested. Anybody who had any symptoms, who was supposed to go to Europe was left behind in quarantine. Then they go to the ports where they're to get on ships and sail to Europe.
And before they get on the ship, they're tested again. And anybody who has symptoms is left off the ship and put into quarantine.
And then when they get to France, when they're coming off the ship, they're tested again and again. They are put in quarantine if they have any symptoms. So that was about as careful as you could be.
John Barry has quoted this letter from a physician at one US Army camp to a friend that captures the agony of the hour. These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of le grippe or influenza. And when brought to the hospital, they very rapidly developed. The most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen is only a matter of a few hours. Then until death comes, it is horrible. One can stand to see one, two or 20 men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies, we've been averaging about a hundred deaths per day.
Pneumonia means, in about all cases, death. We have lost an outrageous number of nurses and doctors. It takes special trains to carry away the dead for several days. There were no coffins and the bodies piled up something fierce. It beats any site that they ever had in France after a battle an extra long Barrack's has been vacated for the use of the morgue. And it would make any man sit up and take notice to walk down the long lines of dead soldiers all dressed and laid out in double rows.
Goodbye, old pal. God be with you till we meet again. People very quickly learned this was not ordinary influenza by another name. Not only was it infinitely more lethal and much more lethal than coronavirus, but the symptoms were also or could be horrific. Some people died in less than 24 hours after the first symptoms. Other symptoms caused the disease initially to be misdiagnosed as typhoid, cholera, dengue. Some people who could actually bleed not only from their nose, which was extremely common in some army camps, but also from their mouth and much more horrifying from their eyes and ears.
Others turned so dark blue from lack of oxygen that one doctor couldn't tell African-American soldiers from white soldiers because their power was so similar. That, of course, spread rumors of the black plague. In one light, Woodrow Wilson should have been a good man to have at the nation's helm during a pandemic. He was a man of the progressive era and early political scientist, and he had the capacity to follow facts.
He had a great respect for research and for science and for what was happening in medicine. There's no resistance there. I mean, he's a devoutly Presbyterian man, but his father actually, when Darwin came along, did not want to throw Darwin out the way a lot of clergymen did. His father thought that the truth of science was part of the higher truth. He's always aspiring toward the ideal. He doesn't start from a position of the realistic thing is he starts from the ideal and then sees how much of it he can get.
He relied heavily on the oratory to do this. He wanted to think things through and then he thought, well, I will make the best speech I can make about this and try to persuade people to see it my way.
Before entering the arena, Wilson had written insightfully about the national experiment. In a series of lectures he published in 1908 entitled Constitutional Government in the United States, Wilson observed that the American system was Newtonian balanced, ordered, immutable, every sun, every planet, every free body in the spaces of the heavens.
The world itself, Wilson wrote, is kept in its place and reigned to its course by the attraction of bodies that swing with equal order and precision about it themselves, governed by the nice poise and balance of forces which give the whole system of the universe its symmetry and perfect adjustment. In practice, though, things were very different, Wilson observed. The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine but a living thing. It falls not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life.
It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its task shape, to its functions, by the sheer pressure of life.
Government is not a body of blind forces. It is a body of men, which meant that Wilson's response to the influenza was a human one.
One of the points made is that Wilson didn't do anything about the pandemic. And this, of course, strikes us as shocking. But the fact is that no president at the time would have considered mounting a federal response to that crisis. The state of U.S. public health at this point is almost non-existent. But there's a huge resistance to extending federal authority in this area to ran into it when in ninety nine he wanted to is just about to leave office. But he thought that the U.S. Public Health Service should be mobilized into some kind of program for rural areas which were sorely underserved by the medical profession at that point.
And the states really got up in arms about this. And the best he could get was an understanding that if a health crisis arose in a particular state, Washington could ask the governor if federal doctors could come in to help. That's how much hands off the states were in terms of federal assistance in public health. So it actually isn't strange at all if you think of the time and how we conceived of public health that Wilson didn't do anything about the pandemic.
I could sum up Wilson's reaction very succinctly. He did absolutely nothing. Never even made a public statement. His focus was entirely on the war privately, didn't say much about it. Despite medical advice, he continued to send troops to Europe and troop ships, which were essentially floating coffins. The Army Surgeon General staff suggested that at the very least, he rearranged the shipment of troops by sending people from bases where the pandemic had already struck and passed through. Send them because they had some immunity, but he wouldn't even shift the order in which troops were being sent to Europe.
He replied that you're going to war, you're risking your life. It doesn't matter if you risk your life on the front line to bullets or to the virus. The flu first appeared in the US in military camps, it struck the broader population with ferocity in the middle of 1918 and armistice celebrations in November fed the spread. Americans wore masks. They were advised to wash their hands. Lysol advertised itself as a useful tool. Movie releases were postponed for the duration.
Funerals were limited to a quarter of an hour. Social distancing was essential to fighting the pandemic. That and patience in the closing days of 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote Medical science now must turn with its whole might to combating the greatest enemy of all. Infectious disease. President Wilson himself may have suffered from the flu or at least some version of it as the war came to an end. World leaders gathered at the Paris peace conference to negotiate various treaties.
This was Wilson's opportunity to persuade allies such as British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his French counterpart, George Clemenceau, to adopt a framework for a new world order known as the fourteen points. One skeptic observed that even God Almighty had limited himself to 10 points. This was one of Wilson's signature concepts and something upon which he believed the entire American war effort had been based. It was ironic because Wilson himself had a fairly serious attack during the Paris peace conference.
After the war, Wilson was disoriented, became paranoid, physically weakened, couldn't remember things from one hour to the next. Basically, everyone around him commented on how disoriented it was. So did Lloyd George and Clemenceau. And prior to his illness, Wilson was adamant about insisting upon the 14 points that the US had gone to war over. And after his illness, he basically ceded every point except one, the League of Nations. But on every other issue, he gave in to Clemenceau, whose nickname was the Tiger.
So you have this physically weakened and mentally disoriented president of the United States sitting down with the tiger and with Lloyd George. The lesson for all of us that is inconvenient and even debilitating as quarantine and distancing are, they are the only things that have proven to work in the past.
Science is impervious to partisanship.
Facts are facts.
Woodrow Wilson was told by his medical authorities and some military authorities that there was an epidemic of flu that would spread throughout the soldiers and less draconian means were taken. This is the author and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Instead, Wilson did almost the opposite. He put them on ships that were soon called coffin ships because so many people became sick and died because of the proximity they went to Europe. Europe, finally, ultimately around the world, there were tens of millions of people dead of this flu pandemic domestically in the United States, six hundred seventy five thousand. Woodrow Wilson never gave one speech to the American people explaining what was happening or trying to tell them how to protect themselves.
Wilson thought that war morale would be depressed if people focused on the pandemic. That's the nicest way of saying that. The not nice way of saying it is that Wilson was worried about becoming unpopular. He wanted to run for a third term in 1920, and he thought it was more politically beneficial to him to have this be almost a sacred pandemic.
Well, I think there are two very clear lessons from 1918. One is tell the truth. If you want the public to maintain trust in authority and if you want the public to comply with any recommendations you make, you have to be honest and truthful with them. The second lesson involves social distancing was crystal clear that cities that were better at social distancing had better outcomes. And of course, that's been proven to be the case all around the world with the current pandemic.
You still, of course, have to have someone to execute that plan. Football coaches always talk about execution. Well, we didn't execute. Somebody still has to go out and do it no matter what the plan says. So when people are being lied to, when the disease is being minimized or being told this is ordinary influenza, they have nothing to fear of, proper precautions are taken and so forth. And they are seeing people die with horrific symptoms all around them.
They very rapidly lose all trust in anything that they're being told, which spreads a lot of fear, panic. And as it continues, society begins to fray. I think society is based on trust, ultimately. This has been the final episode of this season of hope through history, the aim has been straightforward to remind us that the past was not necessarily simpler or easier than the present, and that challenges that once seemed insurmountable were, in fact, surmounted.
That's no guarantee that we'll meet and pass our own tests. But there weren't any guarantees during the influenza pandemic, during the Great Depression, during World War Two, during the battle against polio or during the Cuban missile crisis. Winston Churchill, as was his want, put it best. The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope. I'm Jon Meacham. Thanks for listening. Thank you for listening to hope through history. A production of kadence 13 in association with history executive produced by me, Jon Meacham and Chris Corcoran, directed by Chris Corcoran, John McDermott and Lori Lockridge, and edited, produced, engineered and mastered by Chris Bazil, Bill Schulz, Rich Berner and Sean Cherry, graphic design, marketing and Publicity by Josephine Francis, Kurt Courtney and Hillary Shuff.
Our theme song is Cold Little Heart by Michael Kiwanuka.