Pandemics and White House demagogues: How Wilson and Trump made everything worse

Woodrow Wilson in 1914. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The pandemic was spread not just by germs but by politics. The virus would have killed many Americans in any case. But a demagogue occupied the White House, and measures that could have reduced the number of victims — a ban on large gatherings, for instance, as well as an honest reckoning with the public — were discouraged at the highest levels. In the end, a tragedy that was the result of natural forces was made immeasurably worse by human failure.

You may think I’m describing President Donald Trump’s response to COVID-19. In fact, I’m referring to Woodrow Wilson and the influenza pandemic of 1918. According to John M. Barry’s 2005 book “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” a considerable amount of suffering and death could have been prevented were it not for Wilson’s messianic mobilization for war.

“America had never been and would never be so informed by the will of its chief executive, not during the Civil War with the suspension of habeas corpus, not during Korea and the McCarthy period, not even during World War II,” Barry writes. “He would turn the nation into a weapon, an explosive device.
“As an unintended consequence, the nation became a tinderbox for epidemic disease as well.”

One example of how Wilson’s embrace of total war worsened the pandemic will suffice. In Philadelphia, the inept public health director, Wilmer Krusen, refused to take action even after the flu began to rip through the city — spread, as was so often the case, by troops being shipped around the country.

At the same time, Wilson’s propaganda chief, George Creel, exerted enormous pressure on Americans to buy Liberty Bonds in order to pay for the war effort — an outgrowth of Creel’s chilling mantra, “100% Americanism.” The newspapers didn’t dare question the official line, which was that the flu was no big deal. And so Philadelphia went ahead with a parade to promote Liberty Bonds, an event that turned out to be a major vector in the spread of the disease.

All told, about 20,000 people died in the Philadelphia outbreak — and, as described by Barry, death from the 1918 flu was gruesome, with victims turning deep blue as their lungs became unable to process oxygen and with blood pouring out of every orifice.

In all, about 675,000 people in the U.S. died from the 1918 flu (the equivalent of nearly 2 million today), and perhaps as many as 50 million worldwide.

By failing to level with the public, according to Barry, Wilson made a bad situation much worse. Barry writes that “as horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror — not by exaggerating the disease but by minimizing it, by trying to reassure…. In 1918 the lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into the concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other.”

And here’s where the parallels to our current situation are especially telling. Trump wanted to minimize COVID in order to save the stock market — not, as Wilson would have it, to make the world safe for democracy. Nevertheless, both Wilson and Trump played down the seriousness of the invisible enemy that had invaded our shores. As reported by The Washington Post, Trump dithered for more than two months — a time when the threat was becoming increasingly clear, and when steps could have been taken to minimize COVID’s spread.

According to scientists at Columbia University, some 36,000 lives could have been saved in the U.S. if social-distancing had been put in place just a week earlier — on March 8 instead of March 15.

Moreover, although the press isn’t under the threat of censorship today as it was in 1918, Trump has what is essentially his own media outlet — Fox News — which has been spreading disinformation from the start of the pandemic and cheering on the mask-disdaining anti-shutdown protesters who invaded statehouses a few weeks ago. Pandemic disease has become just another manifestation of the partisan divide. The result: More than 110,000 Americans have died, one-quarter of the worldwide total.

The analogies between 1918 and 2020 aren’t perfect, of course. Despite Wilson’s many flaws, he probably couldn’t have avoided entering World War I. The response to the influenza could have been managed better, but there were limits to what could be done during wartime.

Trump, on the other hand, has been an active impediment to anti-COVID measures by spouting false information about drugs and (lest we forget) bleach, by refusing to wear a mask in public and by interfering with state efforts to obtain medical equipment and supplies.

Also unlike 1918, the media are reporting plenty of uncensored, reliable information. The problem today isn’t censorship; rather, it’s a parallel universe of right-wing media more dedicated to advancing Trump’s political prospects than to the truth.

Now we are in the midst of our darkest period in many years, as we deal not just with COVID and economic calamity but with the Black Lives Matter protest movement, a long-overdue response to racism following the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and of the deaths of numerous other Black men and women at the hands of police and racist vigilantes. As others have observed, we are simultaneously reliving the pandemic of 1918, the depression of the 1930s and the turmoil of 1968. A better, more just country may come out of this, but that doesn’t make the moment any easier to process.

One aspect of Barry’s book struck me as both unlike and yet resonant with the present crisis. At root, Barry tells a medical detective story, going into great detail about the lives of a small handful of scientists who attempted to find a vaccine and a cure for the flu. Modern medicine was in its infancy then. When a treatment for diphtheria was developed in 1891, it was the first time in history that any disease had been cured. A quarter-century later, the number of eminent scientists called to work on the 1918 influenza outbreak could be counted on two hands.

And they failed.

Today we know so much more — yet our experts have been groping for answers, too, changing their guidance on face masks and warning us that they may fall short in their frantic search for a vaccine and/or a cure.

Barry quotes one of the 1918 researchers, Victor Vaughan, as saying in disgust: “Doctors know no more about this flu than 14th-century Florentine doctors had known about the Black Death.”

It’s a lesson in humility and patience that we should keep in mind. After all, the flu pandemic eventually burned out of its own accord. COVID will, too. But coming up with solutions to racism, police brutality and economic injustice, the other unfinished business of 2020, is going to be up to all of us.

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