Tag Archives: World War I

President Wilson and the 1918 Infuenza

3 Oct
Woodrow Wilson at Paris Peace Conference in January 1919
Woodrow Wilson, seen here at the start of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919, never publicly acknowledged the pandemic’s toll on his country.
(Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide—including some 675,000 Americans—in just 15 months. But Woodrow Wilson’s White House largely ignored the global health crisis, focusing instead on the Great War enveloping Europe and offering “no leadership or guidance of any kind,” as historian John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, recently told Time’s Melissa August.

“Wilson wanted the focus to remain on the war effort,” Barry explained. “Anything negative was viewed as hurting morale.”

So begins Meilan Solly’s historical piece. You may read her entire Smithsonian story here.

Considering the candidates and campaign context of 1920 in light of 2020

21 Sep
Image may contain Funeral Human Person Crowd Clothing and Apparel
Republican Warren G. Harding spoke to voters from his front porch in Ohio.
Photograph from A.P.

Here in stately, spacious Kalorama, a Washington, D.C., neighborhood less familiar and storied than nearby Georgetown, politics makes strange neighbors. Over on Tracy Place, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump occupy a large, charmless house whose chief selling point, one suspects, was its fuck-you proximity to the post-Presidential residence of Barack and Michelle Obama, several houses away, on Belmont Road.

A short walk from either takes you to 2340 S Street, into which Mr. and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson moved after leaving the White House, in March, 1921. Wilson’s successor, Ohio’s Senator Warren G. Harding, and his wife, Florence, were packing up their house a few blocks away, at 2314 Wyoming. Harding was a serious poker player, and today his old house is occupied by the Ambassador of gambling-friendly Monaco. The Wilson House, a small museum that is Kalorama’s chief tourist attraction, has been closed during the covid-19 pandemic. With awareness of Wilson’s racism cancelling his once-good name, someone has placed a Black Lives Matter sign, looking hasty and apologetic, against a small pane of glass near the front door.

The last four of Wilson’s eight years in the White House were an epic drama. Reëlected in 1916 on an implied promise of nonintervention (“He kept us out of war”), he soon became the Commander-in-Chief of an American military victory and, on the streets of Europe, the rhapsodically received oracle of a permanent peace that would be sustained by a League of Nations. Crushed by his own country’s resistance to this vision, he suffered a stroke in 1919 after barnstorming the U.S. in support of the League. The following year, he was too infirm to fulfill his hopes of bucking the two-term tradition and running for a third.

When considered against the electoral circumstances that exchanged Wilson, a Democrat, for Harding, a Republican, some of the tumults of 2020 appear to be a centennial reiteration, or inversion, of the calamities and longings of the 1920 campaign. Then the country—recently riven by disease, inflamed with racial violence and anxious about immigration, torn between isolation and globalism—yearned for what the winning candidate somewhat malapropically promised would be a return to “normalcy.” Early in 2020, the term remained useful to supporters of Joe Biden, with its suggestion of Presidential behavior once more within the pale. The word’s nostalgic tenor soon enough made it anathema to left-wing Democrats, and the cyclonic circumstances of the past six months may have made it feel obsolete to Biden himself, but it is still what he is talking about when he calls for removing Donald Trump: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of our national character?” In terms of the Presidential decency on which so much depends, there is nowhere to go but backward.

So begins Thomas Mallon’s engaging reconsideration of the 1920 presidential selection and campaign. You may read his entire New Yorker piece here.

Compare the Flu Pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 With Caution

5 Jun

H1N1 flu stowed away with soldiers returning from World War I.

H1N1 flu stowed away with soldiers returning from World War I. (Keystone View Co./Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, CC BY 4.0)

People have turned to historical experience with influenza pandemics to try to make sense of COVID-19, and for good reason.

Influenza and coronavirus share basic similarities in the way they’re transmitted via respiratory droplets and the surfaces they land on. Descriptions of H1N1 influenza patients in 1918-19 echo the respiratory failure of COVID-19 sufferers a century later. Lessons from efforts to mitigate the spread of flu in 1918-19 have justifiably guided this pandemic’s policies promoting nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as physical distancing and school closures.

So begins a thoughtful consideration of the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 with the current Covid-19 pandemic. The authors–a historian and a virologist–urge caution in what conclusions can be drawn from the comparison. You may read the Smithsonian reprint of piece here.

A Trove of Sad, Funny, and Familiar Stories From the 1918 Flu Pandemic

5 May

"The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined," Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother.

“The package may be small, but you will know it does not need to hold the love I send, for that cannot be confined,” Hildreth Heiney wrote to her fiancé in 1918. The man in the photograph, identified as John, may be her brother. UCLA BIOMEDICAL LIBRARY / PUBLIC DOMAIN

ON NOVEMBER 21, 1918, AN Indianapolis schoolteacher named Hildreth Heiney wrote to her deployed fiancé, Sergeant Kleber Hadley, about the sudden appearance of face masks in response to the global influenza pandemic. “Yes, I wore one, and so did everybody else,” she wrote cheerfully. “There were all kinds—large and small—thick and thin, some embroidered and one cat-stitched around the edge.” An order to wear masks in public had just taken effect in Indiana, and Heiney seemed to take it in stride. “O, this is a great old world!” she went on, poking fun at funny-looking mask-wearers. “And one should surely have a sense of humor.”

Heiney’s colorful letters are part of a remarkable collection of “personal narratives, manuscripts, and ephemera” about the 1918–1919 flu in the biomedical library of the University of California, Los Angeles. There are letters from California mayors about influenza death rates; Thanksgiving postcards written by children; and laconic Yankee diaries, such as this tragic entry from a Mrs. Slater: “Rained. Spent the day home. Veree Clark died of influenza. E.F. King’s wife funeral. Buzzed wood home.”

So begins Jessica Klein’s fascinating report on the influenza pandemic of 1918 materials at the UCLA Biomedical Archives. You may read her entire Atlas Obscura report here.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM 1918 INFLUENZA DIARIES

13 Apr

Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918

Seattle police officers wearing masks in 1918 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

When Dorman B.E. Kent, a historian and businessman from Montpelier, Vermont, contracted influenza in fall 1918, he chronicled his symptoms in vivid detail. Writing in his journal, the 42-year-old described waking up with a “high fever,” “an awful headache” and a stomach bug.

“Tried to get Dr. Watson in the morning but he couldn’t come,” Kent added. Instead, the physician advised his patient to place greased cloths and a hot water bottle around his throat and chest.

So begins Meilan Solly’s introduction to selections from 1918 diaries during the Great Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. You may read her entire Smithsonian post here.

What the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Meant for American Churches

14 Mar

The headline for Oct. 7, 1918 in Maysville, Kentucky, one of the many places where American churches were closed in the fall of 1918 – Chronicling America/Library of Congress

Almost fifteen years ago, the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan began to work on The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital EncyclopediaUpdated in 2016, it surveyed how fifty American cities experienced and responded to the “Spanish flu.” The authors wrote a narrative essay and timeline for each city, but even more valuably, they digitized thousands of documents and images. I first used the influenza encyclopedia to research an essay for one of my own digital projects, a 2015 history of Bethel University’s experience of warfare since 1914.

So writes historian Chris Gehrz in his fascinating look at churches and the 1918-9 influenza epidemic in the U.S. You may read his entire Anxious Bench post here.

Legislating Alcohol in America 100 Years Ago

7 Jan

On Jan. 16, 1919, after nearly a century of activism, the Prohibition movement finally achieved its goal to rid American society of “the tyranny of drink.” Passed by Congress on Dec. 18, 1917, the 18thAmendment, prohibiting “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” was ratified and would take effect at midnight on Jan. 17, 1920.

For 13 years, the United States was officially “dry,” but from its very inception, the law was controversial and difficult to enforce, and its effect on the country’s problems with alcohol was debatable. In 1933, Prohibition came to end with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, the first and only time in American history where ratification of a constitutional amendment signaled the repeal of another.

So begins a concise summary of Prohibition at the National World War I Museum. You may read the entire post here.

The 1918 Parade That Spread Death in Philadelphia

14 Nov

Northwest Iowa Center for Regional Studies

A Red Cross nurse wearing a face mask, c. 1918

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world, more than died in the battles of World War I. In the United States, the hardest-hit city was Philadelphia, where the spread of the disease was spurred by what was meant to be a joyous event: a parade.

So begins Allison C. Meier’s JSTOR Daily post about Philadelphia’s influenza disaster in 1918. You may read the entire post, with links, here.

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American Indians and World War I

9 Jan

Captain Ben Davis Locke (Choctaw) with American Indian soldiers

Captain Ben Davis Locke (Choctaw), in front, with American Indian soldiers at Camp Stanley, 1918. Courtesy of Francine Locke Bray.

The American Indians in WWI Centennial Commission and the Sequoyah National Research Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have launched a new website. You may explore it and its links here.

How Peter Jackson Made WWI Footage Seem Astonishingly New

17 Dec

As the director of elaborate fantasy epics like the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, Peter Jackson has become known for meticulous attention to detail. Now he has put the same amount of care into making a documentary.

With “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson has applied new technology to century-old World War I footage to create a vivid, you-are-there feeling that puts real faces front and center and allows us to hear their stories in their own words.

So begins Mekado Murphy’s New York Times post on a new documentary on World War I. You need to watch some of the sample links in the post here!

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