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The historian in me is fascinated by how Americans in crisis make use of the past to predict the future. To those inclined to look backward, the so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 offers pundits the obvious historical analogy to our covid-19 moment.

A century ago, the flu killed roughly 50 million people worldwide, negatively shaped the global order for years afterward, and was spectacularly mishandled by political leaders trying mightily to ignore it.

Lacking a crystal ball, I propose that if we want to realize a silver lining, we should pay closer attention to how the Spanish flu played out in American politics and society as that epidemic ran its course.

The public history of the Spanish flu and its aftermath in the United States is complicated and, on the secondary level where I teach, poorly conveyed by textbooks and in many classrooms.

For the first time, by 1918 Americans could no longer escape the fact that they were living in a global milieu and caught up in affairs beyond their borders. U.S. participation in World War I led to the conscription of nearly 3 million Americans, with almost 1 million sent to fight in Europe. By the armistice in November, both the flu and disillusionment had set in.

Rejecting the Versailles Treaty because it would tie America to suspect international commitments within a League of Nations, in the 1920 presidential election voters also threw out the party responsible for Versailles, electing a nonentity in Republican Warren Harding, who made vague promises about returning to "normalcy."

Race relations grew increasingly fraught. Chicago experienced a brutal race riot in the summer of 1919, and Tulsa, Okla., followed suit two years later. The quest to curb disorder included ratification of the 18th Amendment in January 1919, abolishing the sale and distribution of alcohol.

The immediate postwar years coincided with the first votes cast by women (in the election of 1920); marvelous technological developments including national radio broadcasts, the proliferation of Hollywood movies, and the rapid evolution of air travel, as well as a burst of artistic creativity ranging from jazz to Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance poetry and prose.

However, national leaders in the 1920s were not up to the task of shepherding the nation through the problems it confronted.

Real reform had to wait for the next major crisis: the Great Depression of 1929. The architect of that reform, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed at the outset of the New Deal that the only thing Americans had to fear was "fear itself."

We deserve true reform in the aftermath of this crisis, but wishful thinking won't make it so. Given the current climate, it seems highly likely that fear may yet prevail.


Chris Doyle is a history teacher at Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Conn.

Editorial on 05/14/2020

Print Headline: Lessons from the Spanish flu


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