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Woodrow Wilson Got the Flu in a Pandemic During the World War I Peace Talks

Woodrow Wilson Got the Flu in a Pandemic During the World War I Peace Talks


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On the night of April 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson began to suffer from a violent cough. His condition quickly worsened to the point that his personal doctor, Cary Grayson, thought the president might have been poisoned. Grayson later described the long night spent at Wilson’s bedside as “one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious.”

The culprit wasn’t poison, but the same potent strain of influenza nicknamed the “Spanish flu” that would eventually kill an estimated 20 million worldwide, including more than 600,000 in the United States. Wilson’s illness was made even worse by its timing—the president was left bedridden in the middle of the most important negotiations of his life, the Paris Peace Conference to end World War I.

Before the Flu, a Deadlock

Wilson came to the Paris negotiations armed with his visionary “14 Points” strategy for achieving world peace. It included calls for open and transparent peace treaties, freedom and self-determination for all European nations, disarmament, and above all the creation of a “general association of nations”—later called the League of Nations—to actively prevent all future wars.

But parts of Wilson’s post-war scheme were adamantly opposed by the other chief powers at the Paris Peace Conference, namely France and Great Britain. The French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, openly clashed with Wilson over the level of economic punishment to inflict on the Germans. Clemenceau demanded billions in reparations for the monumental loss of French lives and property at German hands, but Wilson wanted to spare Germany such humiliation and focus instead on building up the League of Nations.

By April, the Paris negotiations were deadlocked, and that was precisely the moment when Wilson fell ill. The president was confined to his bed for five days battling a 103-degree fever and racking coughs while his doctor, Grayson, lied to the press that it was nothing more than a bad cold.

READ MORE: US Presidents Who Became Ill in Office

Post-Flu Neurological Disorders

WATCH: The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier than WWI

The 1918 “Spanish” flu was notorious for aggressively attacking the respiratory system. The infection was worst in the young and previously healthy, whose immune systems could overreact to the virus and drown the lungs with fluid, killing patients in a matter of days. But for those who survived the initial onslaught, some also experienced neurological symptoms.

Even after their burning fevers subsided, flu victims described “post-influenzal manifestations,” psychotic delusions and visions that resulted from damage to the nervous system, says John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.

“The most comprehensive study of the 1918 pandemic noted how common neurological disorders were,” says Barry. “They were second only to the lung. This included psychosis, which was usually temporary.”

From numerous sources, it appears that Wilson suffered from similar effects during his fight with the flu at the Paris Peace Conference.

“He became paranoid,” says Barry. “Wilson thought the French had spies all around him. He was bizarrely obsessed with his furniture and his automobiles, and pretty much everyone around him noted it.”

Wilson’s chief usher, a man named Irwin Hoover, wrote later that “something queer was happening in [the president’s] mind” and that “[o]ne thing is certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.”

The British prime minister, Lloyd George, came to visit Wilson during his recuperation at the Hôtel du Prince Murat and labeled Wilson’s condition a “nervous and spiritual breakdown” in the middle of the heated Paris negotiations.

Although instances of “the psychoses of influenza” had been reported by physicians as early as the Russian Flu outbreak of 1889, there was no treatment for the condition, which usually went away on its own. One hypothesis is that the neurological disorder experienced by Wilson and others was caused by brain swelling (encephalitis) associated with the flu.

Wilson Capitulates in Paris

When Wilson was finally well enough to re-join the Conference, he scarcely resembled the man who had fought so doggedly for his principles. The flu had weakened both his body and his mind, and Wilson simply didn’t have the strength or the will to stand his ground.

“The impact was pretty dramatic in my view,” says Barry. “Wilson had been adamant, insisting on the ‘14 Points,’ self-determination, and ‘peace without victory.’ Clemenceau had even accused him of being ‘pro-German.’ All of a sudden, Wilson caved in on all 14 points except the League of Nations, and only because Clemenceau threw him a bone.”

For Wilson’s negotiation team in Paris and his supporters back home, the Treaty of Versailles signed in June 1919 was a betrayal of everything Wilson had stood for, and set the stage for more conflict and death on European soil.

William Bullitt, an assistant to the Department of State and a loyal Wilson attaché at the Paris negotiations, immediately proffered his resignation.

“I was one of the millions who trusted confidently and implicitly in your leadership and believed that you would take nothing less than ‘a permanent peace’ based on ‘unselfish and unbiased justice,’” wrote Bullitt. “But our government has consented now to deliver the suffering peoples of the world to new oppressions, subjections, dismemberments—a new century of war.”

READ MORE: Germany's World War I Debt Was So Crushing It Took 92 Years to Pay Off

Most of Wilson's '14 Points' Are Abandoned

The young aide’s assessment was tragically prescient. Historians agree that one of the chief causes of the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party was the humiliation and economic desperation inflicted on the German people by the Treaty of Versailles. Instead of safeguarding the world from future wars, the Treaty of Versailles helped pave the road to World War II.

Did Wilson’s illness play a significant and disruptive role in the Paris peace negotiations? Barry said it certainly had an impact.

“You can’t absolutely prove that he wouldn't have caved in on everything anyway, but if you know anything about Wilson, there’s nothing in his behavior that suggests he was a compromiser on issues like that,” says Barry. “Quite the reverse. He was insistent that it was ‘his way or the highway’ on pretty much everything.”

Returning to the United States, things only got worse for Wilson. First, Congress rejected American participation in the League of Nations, the last surviving remnant of the “14 Points,” and then Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered.

WATCH: The Last Day of World War I on HISTORY Vault


How the Woodrow Wilson Influenza of 1918 & the TrumpVirus Pandemic of 2020 Brought Fascism to America

he 2020 TrumpVirus pandemic that is killing so many of us today has deep roots in World War I and the Woodrow Wilson Influenza that killed 50,000,000 back then.

Along with mass death, both viruses have brought fascism to America. To avoid a full-on replay, we need to know how.

Like today’s TrumpVirus catastrophe, the global pandemic of 102 years ago was almost entirely avoidable. It was not an innocent accident or Act of Nature. It spread from the fascist decisions of one man: Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson was elected president in 1912 as a liberal democrat. He sold himself as a man of peace. But he was (like Donald Trump) a KKK-supporting White Supremacist. In 1915, for no good reason, he sent US troops crashing into Mexico City to “teach a lesson” to “our little brown brothers.”

In 1916, Wilson narrowly won re-election with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Then he dragged us in.

US involvement in WWI was hugely unpopular. Its best-known opponent was the legendary Indiana-born Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Workers and unionists by the tens of millions saw him as an “American Saint.” Tireless, incorruptible, and charismatic, he drew huge crowds wherever he spoke, and might well have become our first Socialist president in 1920.

But on September 11, 1918, using dubious dictatorial powers, federal agents imprisoned Debs for speaking against the war. Wilson’s Gestapo-style “Red Scare” illegally arrested, assaulted, and murdered countless grassroots organizers, activists, and laborers. Armed federal thugs broke into private homes, trashed offices, and assaulted peaceful protestors. J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent Federal Bureau of Investigations busted citizens who merely criticized Wilson in private conversations or carried his own quotations on placards at public marches.

Wilson’s 1918-1920 federal assault on the US Constitution was every bit as totalitarian as the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 or the CIA-sponsored Chilean putsch of 1973. Its purpose was to destroy an American Socialist Party widely embraced as a legitimate alternative to the Democrats/Republicans, and to guarantee Eugene Debs did not become president.

In 1920, Gene got 900,000 votes while locked in a federal prison cell. Had he been free to campaign, with his grassroots movement intact, he might have uprooted America’s two-party system and transformed our political economy forever.

But there was also a virus on the loose. Some 650,000 Americans were dead from the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. Like Trump in 2020, Woodrow Wilson caused its spread.

Opinions differ about where the global pandemic originated. But the virus that killed so many Americans erupted in rural Haskell County in southeastern Kansas.

Historian John Barry believes the virus may have crossed from a pig to a farmer. As the flu spread, a local doctor warned federal health officials. Had they not been distracted by war, and had they responded with reasonable medical attention, the area would have been quickly quarantined. Few would have died. The virus might have been a minor footnote.

But Wilson was beating the drums of war. A young farmer brought the disease to the Army’s Camp Funston (later Fort Riley) 300 miles away. The astonishingly contagious virus tore through a cramped, overcrowded camp with more than 50,000 recruits. Soldiers, nurses, and ordinary citizens who took sick in the morning were often dead by nightfall.

By any standard of sanity, the camp and region should have been immediately isolated. But Wilson was hell-bent on war. His hastily constructed, absurdly packed barracks stretched across the nation and became the perfect network for mass breeding and spreading a communicable disease. Countless soldiers stuffed onto deathly trains spread Wilson’s flu like wildfire. Even deadlier ships took it overseas.

Countless previously healthy young men and women were pitched into mass graves or the ocean long before they saw battle. Survivors spread the virus into Europe, then worldwide. It became known as “the Spanish Flu” because only Spain, which was neutral in the war, openly reported on the hideous death toll, which soared into the millions, on their own soil.

Wilson upped the ante by staging mass rallies to sell war bonds. In Philadelphia, some 200,000 gathered. Then at least 15,000 quickly died. Corpses were stacked in the streets, where rats and wild dogs soon roamed. Medicines, caskets, and gravesites disappeared as medical personnel fell dead. Bereaved families hid bodies at home, then dumped them into unmarked mass graves.

As today in Trump’s disease-ravaged backwaters, civilization itself hovered at the brink of collapse.

Alone among big US cities, San Francisco limited 1918’s early death toll with masks and social distancing. But when the flu returned in the fall, skepticism and fatigue won out, and the dead piled up.

Focused on war, Wilson’s network of military camps was perfectly designed to spread the flu, which he caught himself in Paris, 1919. Deathly ill, he approved harsh German reparations that fed the rise of Hitler. A stroke soon followed, debilitating him for the final year of his term. “Madness,” he mourned, “has entered everything.”

(Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt also caught the flu. He recovered, but three years later fell victim to polio, and never walked again).

Had Wilson fought the virus instead of the war, some 675,000 Americans might have been spared their useless, painful deaths. Millions more might have avoided the terrible poverty, pain, and political terror that came with the shredding of the social fabric.

A century later, Donald Trump could also have spared America its viral catastrophe.

Before its arrival, Trump dismantled well-established agencies specifically designed to fight predictable pandemics like this one. When the virus hit, he ignored desperate medical professionals who warned him very explicitly of what was about to happen.

Desperate to preserve the illusion of a booming economy, Trump refused to protect public health. He let vital supplies and equipment run short, then made states fight for them. He promoted untested treatments like hydroxychloroquine (in which he has personal investments), advocated drinking bleach, and attacked Obamacare and other vital insurance programs.

Like Wilson’s pandemic, nearly all the Trump-COVID disease, death, and economic ruination could have been avoided.

Trump’s malignant neglect has not so far killed 650,000 Americans. But he may get there yet with the rapid escalation of the death toll by demanding “business as usual” without sane precautions.

As during WWI, the US has again been at the brink of transformation. Powered by Millennials, the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders drew in the 2016 and 2020 primaries a dozen times more votes than did Debs a century ago.

In response, like Wilson, Trump demands dictatorial powers. Authoritarian imposition, fascist death squads, illegal assault, wrongful imprisonment, vindictive retribution, armed street thugs, an anti-immigrant “final solution,” and a fascist iron fist are all on the Trump wish list.

Like Woodrow Wilson’s pandemic, today’s TrumpVirus nightmare shreds our health, kills our kin, destroys the heart of our legal infrastructure, the soul of our social fabric, and what’s left of our ravaged civilization.

If this is Mark Twain’s historic rhyming, it demands nothing less than an epic transcendent response … without which our nation and our species might well perish.


Woodrow Wilson Got the Flu in a Pandemic During the World War I Peace Talks - HISTORY

BIDEN We're about to go into a dark winter. [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. On this week's show, we remember how during the fall of 1918, the Spanish flu roared back with a similar vengeance and similarly incoherent and inconsistent advice from state public health authorities.

JOHN BARRY There are people dying 24 hours after the first symptoms. People very rapidly know they're being lied to. They lose all trust in authority rumor and panic spread.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, how and why America has always claimed ownership of the work of Britain's very own Will Shakespeare.

JAMES SHAPIRO It is explosive. It is potentially toxic. But that's why it speaks to us. We get it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up, after this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is out this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We have a lot of history coming up this hour, some sweet, most sour, pretty much all of it fascinating and all tending to the inevitable conclusion, to paraphrase Samuel Beckett, that the sun shines, having no alternative on the nothing new. We start with the specter still haunting us this Thanksgiving weekend.

NEWS REPORT Hospitalizations around the country have nearly doubled since late September. Some hospitals are already talking about rationing care,.

NEW REPORT New cases, nearly triple the daily rate we were seeing just a few weeks ago. 44 states reporting a rise over the past week. Deaths also climbing. [END CLIP]

BIDEN We're about to go into a dark winter, a dark winter. [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE The murderous second wave is upon us. Just as the Spanish flu returned to menace in the fall of 1918. Ultimately, that flu killed more than 50 million people worldwide, including at least 675,000 Americans. Yet President Woodrow Wilson never addressed the nation's loss in any way. The first wave to hit Europe's First World War battlefields was in the spring. Not wanting to look weak, the Germans, the British, the French and nearly everyone else kept mum. About all this and more, we spoke earlier this year to John Barry, author of The Great Influenza The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. He told us it was only covered by newspapers in neutral Spain, which in fact is how the flu got its name.

JOHN BARRY Spain was not at war, so it didn't that its perhaps because the king himself got sick. So there was a lot of press about it and it got the name Spanish Flu. It was well-established elsewhere before it ever arrived in Spain.

BROOKE GLADSTONE We do know that it spread on our shores out of control from a military base outside of Boston. Right?

JOHN BARRY That was the first place that the second wave hit in the United States, I mean, the virus clearly changed in the first wave, it was generally mild. There were actually medical journal articles saying this looks and smells like influenza, but it's not killing enough people, so it's probably not influenza.

BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a mutation between the first and second wave?

JOHN BARRY Almost certainly. I mean, we can't prove that through molecular biology, but epidemiologically it seems quite certain.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide were infected. That would equal if you adjusted for population somewhere between 200 and 400 million, today. 675,000 killed in the U.S.

JOHN BARRY An estimated 28 percent of the U.S. population was hit.

BROOKE GLADSTONE The second wave was the deadliest here. It was in the fall of 1918, right at the end of the war. But what would we have seen if we'd cracked open a local newspaper in autumn 1918?

JOHN BARRY Lots of war coverage, but very little about the pandemic. Wilson had created something called the Committee for Public Information, a propaganda arm, and the architect for that committee said truth and false are aribitrary terms, but that is very little if it is true or false. So that was the attitude of the government propaganda machine. It also had passed a law making it possible, with 20 years in jail to quote, order, print, write or publish and disloyal, scurrilous, profane or abusive language by the former government of the United States.

BROOKE GLADSTONE This was the Sedition Act of 1918, right?

JOHN BARRY Yeah, a congressman was sentenced to more than 10 years in jail under that act. So publishers were threatened with it. Wilson himself at one point told a cousin, thank God for Abraham Lincoln, I won't make the mistakes he made, allowing a free press to flourish during the Civil War.

BROOKE GLADSTONE But Lincoln closed 300 newspapers!

JOHN BARRY Plenty of negative press about him in the reelection campaign of 1864. And again, going back to that committee of public information, a guy who ran that George Creel wanted to create, quote, one white hot mass with fraternity, devotion, courage and deathless determination. They really tried to make Americans conform that one way of thinking. I don't think we've ever experienced that before or since. More than the McCarthy period, more than any of the red scares, the press was determined to be as patriotic as anyone. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, What the Nation demands is that treason, whether thinly veiled or quite unmasked, to be stamped out. I could go on and give you other examples. You know, you had on the one hand, the carrot, the idea that the press was supposed to be patriotic and inspire people to help in the war effort, and on the other hand, you had the stick of that Sedition Act, so the result as a general rule was a very cooperative, complacent press where there was, in fact, fake news because they were cooperating with the government line.

BROOKE GLADSTONE But all this intensity was also employed to muzzle coverage of the flu.

JOHN BARRY Exactly. There was a concern that any negative news, no matter what it was about, would damage the war effort by hurting morale.

BROOKE GLADSTONE But surely there were exceptions. The Jefferson County Union Paper in Wisconsin - you've talked about?

JOHN BARRY Correct, when the pandemic hit there and they started to tell the truth about it, they were threatened with prosecution under the Sedition Act. There was no Tony Fauci back then. One national public health leader quoted by the Associated Press said this is no ordinary influenza by another name. Another said the so-called Spanish influenza is nothing more or less than old fashioned grippe.

BROOKE GLADSTONE That sounds a little familiar.

JOHN BARRY Yeah, a few miles outside Little Rock was Camp Pike. 8000 soldiers were admitted to the hospital in four days. The camp commandant stopped releasing the names of the dead. The doctors there wrote a colleague: Every corridor, and there are miles of them, have a double row of cots with influenza patients. There is only death and destruction. The camp called upon Little Rock to supply civilian doctors and nurses and linens and coffins and the Arkansas Gazette just a few miles away in its headline writes, quote, Spanish influenza is playing the Grippe, same old fever and chills. You have essentially the same thing happening everywhere. Des Moines, Iowa, for example, the city attorney was part of the emergency committee writing the response to influenza. He wrote Publishers', quote, I would recommend that if anything be printed in regard to the disease or be confined to simple preventative measures, something constructive rather than destructive, unquote. And of course, you know, that carries with it the potential for prosecution.

BROOKE GLADSTONE What was constructive, what was destructive in this formulation?

JOHN BARRY Public health guidance, such as keep your windows open, avoid crowds, washing your hands, things like that - that would be considered constructive. Actually, printing news of what was happening was destructive.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Hmm. You also had remarkable details about the Espionage Act that involved the post office.

JOHN BARRY Right, and the postmaster was not going to allow anything negative, and what they regard as negative was actually just the truth, in many occasions. Anything that they regard as depressant to morale. Back then, of course, many in the news media was distributed solely through the mail. So, that effectively was completely silencing publishers, effectively putting them out of business.

BROOKE GLADSTONE It would seem to be a terrifying time to be an American.

JOHN BARRY It was a violent, terrifying disease. People could turn so dark blue from lack of oxygen but I quoted one physician writing a colleague that he couldn't distinguish African-American soldiers from white soldiers because their pallor was so similar. In some camps, 15 percent of the soldiers with the disease had nosebleeds. But you could also bleed from your mouth and you could bleed even from your eyes and ears. And when they are being told that this is ordinary influenza by another name, there are people dying 24 hours after the first symptoms. People very rapidly know they're being lied to. They lose all trust in authority, rumor and panic spread. It leads to a fraying of society and the worst cases, almost a breakdown of society.

BROOKE GLADSTONE You contrast the cities of Philadelphia and San Francisco.

JOHN BARRY Philadelphia may be the most extreme example. Literally thousands of people are dying and they finally, belatedly closed schools and bars, and theaters and so forth, and finally took this act. One of the Philadelphia newspapers actually said, quote, This is not a public health measure. You have no cause for panic or alarm, unquote, beyond absurd. Of course, you're not going to believe anything you read either or that paper or any paper. In Philadelphia society really did almost begin to break down. There are reports of people starving to death because no one had the courage to bring them food. In San Francisco, by contrast, the mayor, medical leaders and the community business leaders, the trade union leaders all signed a joint statement in huge type in the newspaper full page said wear a mask and save your live. It turns out those maps were not very useful. But that is a very, very different message than this is ordinary influenza with another name. San Francisco functioned. It seemed to come together when schools closed, teachers volunteered even as ambulance drivers, which, of course, is a pretty risky thing to do. Compare that to Philadelphia, where people could starve to death because nobody had the courage to bring them food. I think it's directly related to the fact that people were told the truth and the leadership trusted the public. Both Philadelphia and San Francisco were extremely hard hit by the disease. San Francisco is right around fifth in the country in terms of excess mortality, which was about the same as Philadelphia. But in one city you can see an absolute fraying of society. And in the other city you see the community coming together and helping each other.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Woodrow Wilson got the flu. It resulted in intense disorientation, decreased mental functioning. That was a symptom of this particular pandemic. At the absolutely wrong time.

JOHN BARRY You know, it was widely noted that people did become extremely disoriented and in some cases psychotic and recovered, and Wilson got sick at Paris while negotiating the peace treaty. Everybody around him from Erwin Hoover, who was the White House officer that Herbert Hoover commented on, how they had never seen him like this. His mind wasn't functioning. German territories were essentially ceded to France. France was allowed to economically explore German regions. Germany was saddled with huge reparations payments. And essentially every historian of the rise of the Nazis credits or blames that peace treaty for part of the rise of Hitler and subsequently World War Two. John Maynard Keynes called Wilson the greatest fraud on Earth after that peace conference.

BROOKE GLADSTONE The greatest fraud on Earth. Wilson never, ever spoke about the flu, though, did he? We look at newspaper accounts, those are muzzled and confused. What were you able to find about how people understood what was happening or or how they mourned the dead or tried to protect themselves?

JOHN BARRY It was a very serious scientist named Victor Vaughn, who during the war, became a colonel, head of the communicable disease division for the Army. And right at the height he wrote at the current rate of acceleration continues for a few more weeks, civilization could easily disappear from the face of the earth. That is how bad it was beginning to get the happened right that right at the peak and things began to improve.

BROOKE GLADSTONE What about the artists? The novelists? We know Katherine Ann Porter wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider, but there doesn't seem to be a lot written by observers, even by survivors.

JOHN BARRY You know, that has always puzzled me, the lack of literature about this. Nonetheless, it is clearly out there in the public mind. Christopher Isherwood was in Berlin in Berlin, stories from which great movie Cabaret came when the Nazis entered Berlin. You said you could feel it like influenza in your bones. This kind of sense of deep dread, and this is 15 years after the pandemic. You certainly expected this readers to recognize dread that he was referring to. So it was out there, even if people weren't writing about it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE There was a period of generations where there was nary a mention of the epidemic. I don't think I was an exception to the rule. We knew more about the bubonic plague than we knew about the 1918 pandemic. How do you account for that?

JOHN BARRY You know, it was so fast. That's part of it. Probably two thirds of the deaths worldwide occurred in a period of 14 or 15 weeks. And in any given community, it was roughly half that length of time. Influenza would hit a city in six weeks, seven weeks, eight weeks later, it was gone. You know, there may have been a third wave depending where that city was, but that would come months later. And the third wave was still lethal enough, but it was nothing compared to the second wave. You had this incredible brevity and life largely returned to normal pretty quickly, and it was ending almost simultaneously with the end of the war. November 11th, people are out celebrating practically to the moment in many cities that they were coming out of their lockdown. So I'm talking now I can sort of see part of the forgetfulness, except for those who had personally suffered. Two thirds of the dead were people aged 18 to 45 and the elderly hardly suffered at all. But kids under the age of five died at a rate equal today to all cause mortality for a period of 23 years. Just think of that. Kids dying today from all causes over a period of 23 years compressed into a period of a few weeks in 1918, and think of the toll that would take on parents.

BROOKE GLADSTONE But I have to ask you, 675000 dead in the U.S. adjusted for population, that would be two million. Yeah. And yet when it was over, was there ever a moment of national mourning? Was there ever a monument erected to the dead? Was there ever a recognition of the immense tragedy?

JOHN BARRY In terms of individual recollection? Yes, I remember telling my aunt, who was about 10 years old during a pandemic, what I was doing, and she essentially grasped her chest, practically started crying. So it was not something forgotten by individuals that tradgedy. As a society, no. I thought about this for 20 years and I haven't got a decent explanation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE Thanks so much.

JOHN BARRY Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE John Barry is the author of The Great Influenza The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History and professor at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. We first aired that interview in phase one, coming up, something new and completely different, Shakespeares Rough-and-ready relationship with American history. This is On the Media

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In 1918, the flu infected the White House. Even President Wilson got sick.

In the fall of 1918, as President Woodrow Wilson scrambled to end World War I, the flu pandemic began its lethal march across the country, killing at least 675,000 Americans over the next two years.

Churches were closed. Public dance halls were shuttered. No corner of the nation’s capital was spared — not even the White House.

On Friday, President Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump have contracted the novel coronavirus, the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 flu.

Trump — who has repeatedly played down the risks of the virus and eschewed the masks his own scientists recommend — was diagnosed after one of his top aides, Hope Hicks, tested positive.

In 1918, Wilson’s personal secretary was among the first in his administration to be sickened. Margaret, his eldest daughter, got it. Secret Service members did, too. Even the White House sheep were not spared.

Also not spared: the president of the United States.

In April 1919, Wilson traveled to the Paris Peace Conference for talks on ending the Great War. Soon after arriving, the president become ill with a fever and violent fits of coughing that left him nearly unable to breathe.

Wilson's condition deteriorated so quickly that his personal doctor, Cary T. Grayson, thought he had been poisoned.

“But it soon became obvious the diagnosis was simpler, if only marginally more reassuring,” wrote John Barry in “The Great Influenza.”

Wilson was so ill that the talks were nearly derailed. The president could not even sit up in bed.

In a hand-delivered letter to Wilson’s chief of staff back in Washington, Grayson wrote that the night Wilson became ill “was one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious.”

Wilson's administration worked furiously to keep Wilson's diagnosis a secret. Grayson told reporters that Wilson had a cold and just needed some rest, blaming the president's illness on the rainy weather in Paris.

Meanwhile, Wilson’s condition worsened. And he began acting strange.

“Generally predictable in his actions, Wilson began blurting unexpected orders,” A. Scott Berg wrote in his biography of Wilson. “Twice he created a scene over pieces of furniture that had suddenly disappeared,” even though the furniture had not moved. Wilson also thought he was surrounded by spies.

Wilson’s entourage was worried — not just about his illness, but also about the talks falling apart because of what the illness was doing to his behavior.

Barry recounts how in a meeting at Wilson’s bedside, he told negotiators: “Gentlemen, this is not a meeting of the Peace Commission. It is more a Council of War.” Barry described a frightening portrait of a president:

The talks went on, with Wilson relying on deputies before he could return to face-to-face talks. Ultimately, he yielded to several French demands that he had previously said were nonnegotiable. The president fully recovered, only to be stricken by a major stroke a few months later.

In the years since Wilson’s death in 1924, scholars have debated whether he actually suffered a stroke during the conference — not the flu.

Barry opposes those theories. Wilson’s symptoms, which included “high fever, severe coughing, and total prostration,” Barry wrote, “perfectly fit influenza and have no association whatsoever with stroke.”


In 1918, the flu infected the White House. Even President Wilson got sick.

Churches were closed. Public dance halls were shuttered. No corner of the nation's capital was spared - not even the White House.

On Friday, President Donald Trump announced that he and first lady Melania Trump have contracted the novel coronavirus, the deadliest pandemic since the 1918 flu. Trump - who has repeatedly played down the risks of the virus and eschewed the masks his own scientists recommend - was diagnosed after a top aide, Hope Hicks, tested positive.

In 1918, Wilson's personal secretary was among the first in his administration to be sickened. Margaret, his eldest daughter, got it. Secret Service members did, too. Even the White House sheep were not spared.

Also not spared: the president of the United States.

In April 1919, Wilson traveled to the Paris Peace Conference for talks on ending the Great War. Soon after arriving, the president become ill with a fever and violent fits of coughing that left him nearly unable to breathe.

Wilson's condition deteriorated so quickly that his personal doctor, Cary T. Grayson, thought he had been poisoned.

"But it soon became obvious the diagnosis was simpler, if only marginally more reassuring," wrote John Barry in "The Great Influenza."

Wilson was so ill that the talks were nearly derailed. The president could not even sit up in bed.

In a hand-delivered letter to Wilson's chief of staff back in Washington, Grayson wrote that the night Wilson became ill "was one of the worst through which I have ever passed. I was able to control the spasms of coughing but his condition looked very serious."

Wilson's administration worked furiously to keep Wilson's diagnosis a secret. Grayson told reporters that Wilson had a cold and just needed some rest, blaming the president's illness on the rainy weather in Paris.

Meanwhile, Wilson's condition worsened. And he began acting strange.

"Generally predictable in his actions, Wilson began blurting unexpected orders," A. Scott Berg wrote in his biography of Wilson. "Twice he created a scene over pieces of furniture that had suddenly disappeared," even though the furniture had not moved. Wilson also thought he was surrounded by spies.

Wilson's entourage was worried - not just about his illness, but also about the talks falling apart because of what the illness was doing to his behavior.

Barry recounts how in a meeting at Wilson's bedside, he told negotiators: "Gentlemen, this is not a meeting of the Peace Commission. It is more a Council of War." Barry described a frightening portrait of a president:

"Colonel Starling of the Secret Service noticed that Wilson 'lacked his old quickness of grasp, and tired easily.' He became obsessed with such details as who was using the official automobiles. When Ray Stannard Baker was first allowed to see Wilson again, he trembled at Wilson's sunken eyes, at this weariness, at his pale and haggard look, like that of a man whose flesh has shrunk away from his face, showing his skull."

The talks went on, with Wilson relying on deputies before he could return to face-to-face talks. Ultimately, he yielded to several French demands that he had previously said were nonnegotiable. The president fully recovered, only to be stricken by a major stroke a few months later.

In the years since Wilson's death in 1924, scholars have debated whether he actually suffered a stroke during the conference - not the flu.

Barry opposes those theories. Wilson's symptoms, which included "high fever, severe coughing, and total prostration," Barry wrote, "perfectly fit influenza and have no association whatsoever with stroke."

How did Wilson's illness affect world civilization? Would the peace terms have been different? Would the war have gone on?

"No one can know what would have happened," Barry wrote. "One can only know what did happen. Influenza did strike Wilson."


Trump isn't the first sitting U.S. president to contract a potentially deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic — so did Woodrow Wilson in 1918

President Donald Trump announced Friday that he has tested positive for Covid-19, and he isn't the first sitting president to contract a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus in the middle of a pandemic.

Former President Woodrow Wilson became ill with the 1918 flu when he was in Paris in April 1919 organizing a peace treaty and the League of Nations following World War I.

Wilson wasn't a healthy man and "always frail," said Howard Markel, a physician and medical historian at the University of Michigan. He would go on to have symptoms such as headache, high fever, cough and runny nose, Markel said. Many of Wilson's aides would also contract the flu, including his chief of staff, he added.

Trump tweeted overnight that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the White House confirmed that aide Hope Hicks had tested positive and had some symptoms.

Trump was experiencing "mild symptoms" after testing positive for the coronavirus, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows confirmed to reporters Friday morning. The announcement came hours after the administration confirmed that White House aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus.

For Wilson, the virus "took its toll on him," Markel said. "That can have neurologic and long-term complications. And he was already at the time traveling and living on a train and giving five to 10 speeches a day. That's not healthy."

When he got back to the United States, Wilson went on a whistle-stop tour to get the League of Nations ratified, which ultimately failed, Markel said. While on his tour, Wilson became thinner, paler and more frail, Markel would write in a column. He lost his appetite, his asthma grew worse and he complained of unrelenting headaches, he added. He would later have a bad stroke.

"His wife basically took over the presidency after that," he added.

Many infectious disease experts and medical historians have drawn other parallels between 1918 and today. Schools and businesses were also closed and infected people were quarantined a century ago. People were also resistant to wearing face masks, calling them dirt traps and some clipped holes so they could smoke cigars.

Several U.S. cities implemented mandates, describing them as a symbol of "wartime patriotism." In San Francisco, then-Mayor James Rolph said, "[C]onscience, patriotism and self-protection demand immediate and rigid compliance," according to influenzaarchive.org, which is authored by Markel. But some people refused to comply or take them seriously, Markel said.

"One woman, a downtown attorney, argued to Mayor Rolph that the mask ordinance was ➫solutely unconstitutional' because it was not legally enacted, and that as a result, every police officer who had arrested a mask scofflaw was personally liable," according to influenzaarchive.org.

As with Trump, some reports and historians have suggested that Wilson downplayed the severity of the virus. But Markel said that is a "wrong and a false trope of popular history."

The federal government played a very small role in American public health during that era, he said. Unlike today, there was no CDC or national public health department. The Food and Drug Administration existed, but it consisted of a very small group of men.

"It was primarily a city and state role, and those agencies were hardly downplaying it," Markel said.

Unlike today, Wilson did not get sick during his reelection, Markel said. He said the public needs to know "how healthy or how not healthy" Trump is before the election on Nov. 3.

"When you're voting for a president now, you really are potentially voting for the vice president," he said. "Because what if Trump gets sick and gets incapacitated or worse between Election Day and Jan. 20 because of Covid? Well then the elected vice president becomes president."

"The importance of him being clear, open and honest — or his doctors — with his health conditions is something I'm skeptical we'll see. But it is critical," Markel said.


The importance of watching the health of a U.S. President: the Spanish flu and a flawed peace treaty

President Woodrow Wilson in Paris, Jan. 1919. Credit: United States. Army. Signal Corps, photographer/Library of Congress

As we reflect on the centennial of the end of First World War, it's worth remembering that another calamity was just beginning in 1918: the Spanish flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people, more than twice the number of men who had just been shot, blasted or gassed to death in the trenches.

By the time the Paris peace talks began in early 1919, this particularly virulent strain had already infected one third of the global population. As Laura Spinney notes in her new book on the subject, the Spanish flu "resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death." It could also induce neurological problems such as lethargy and paranoia even after the normal symptoms abated.

In a textbook still used today, Principles and Practice of Medicine, the Canadian physician Sir William Osler remarked that "almost every form of disease of the nervous system may follow influenza." Certainly, this was true of the 1918-19 pandemic strain, to which Osler himself succumbed.

Researchers recently used nucleic acid recombinant techniques to recreate the Spanish flu virus genome from the lung tissue of victims long buried in permafrost. Unlike the ordinary flu, the reconstructed strain can directly infect the brain tissue of laboratory ferrets. Specifically, it strikes the olfactory bulb, disrupting wake-sleep cycles and inducing symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease.

This research opens a better view into how this illness behaved a century ago when U.S President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France for the peace talks.

An accomplished scholar and sincere progressive about everything except race, Wilson was known for his intellectual verve. In early 1918 he had outlined his famous Fourteen Points, in which he called for free trade, open diplomacy and a new balance of European power along with an international body to prevent future wars.

Emergency hospital during Influenza epidemic Camp Funston Kansas. Credit: Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health Medicine - NCP 1603, CC BY

The Fourteen Points also disavowed any malice towards Germany, which is why Berlin accepted them as the basis for negotiations.

Compared to the exhausted and embittered British and French, the United States (and Wilson himself) thus emerged as the key player in early 1919, the one party capable of forging a durable peace.

But on April 3, 1919, Wilson fell ill with flu-like symptoms. Recognizing that "the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance," his physician downplayed the sickness and ordered bed rest.

Ever since, historians have wondered about this episode, both concerning Wilson's prior health problems and his performance when he returned to the negotiating table a week later.

Lost chances and dark outcomes

Wilson wasn't the same man. He tired easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied upon by housemaids. He achieved some of his specific goals but was unable or unwilling to articulate a broader vision for a better world.

In other words, he acted like a man with residual neurological problems stemming from a recent bout of Spanish flu.

Over the next crucial weeks, Wilson lost his best chance to win the peace by agreeing in principle to draconian terms favoured by France. The final settlement punished Germany with a formal admission of guilt, enormous reparations and the loss of about 10 per cent of its territory.

In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France to take part in peace negotiations and to promote his plan for a League of Nations, an international organization for resolving conflicts between nations. Credit: CC BY

The stunned Germans had little choice but to sign on June 28, 1919.

Back in the U.S. that fall, Wilson suffered a major stroke just as opposition to the treaty by isolationist senators gained steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations hampered by the absence of his own country.

The rest, as they say, is history

Right-wing leaders in Germany raged at their nation's betrayal. Among them was Adolf Hitler, who blamed Jews and leftists for undermining the war effort and swore revenge on the Allies. In 1940, he insisted on humiliating France by dictating its surrender terms in the same train car where the 1918 Armistice had been signed.

Could a more forceful Wilson have secured a better peace? Would that peace have kept monsters like Hitler on the fringes?

Of course, we can't know. But by bringing medical and historical research together, we can get closer to what actually happened, and think better about what might have happened.

We can also use this incident to reflect on the awesome power of U.S. presidents, then and now, to shape the fate of unborn millions. Surely that calls for a close watch over their mental health.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Spanish Flu, Woodrow Wilson, and My Family

Perhaps you’ve heard of the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. It was horrific. The deadliest in history, it infected an estimated 500 million worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed as many 50 million victims, including some 675,000 Americans. My father’s mother was one of the victims, so it has particularly meaning to me. And the pandemic had a particularly bad influence on the American involvement in World War I.

An article from that time indicates that the epidemic began on 5 th March 1918 among the Chinese workers contracted at the Fort Riley military base in Funston, Kansas. Another one also refers to this influenza outbreak which affected 1,100 soldiers. Since that publication, it is generally accepted that the Spanish Influenza pandemic began at that time. However, I believe that it is problematic to assign such a specific date to the beginnings of the pandemic, since its origins are likely to be much more complex and varied. What is certain is that the outbreak did not start in Spain. Spain got the blame because it was a neutral country in WWI and had no wartime press censorship. The countries involved in the war censored news about flu cases in their own countries. When Spain reported its cases, that news was reprinted and everyone got the idea that that’s where the epidemic started. The origins might have started in China or elsewhere. But the clearest signs were those in Kansas. So, for whatever reason, America has a strong link to this disease.

This first epidemic wave of the spring of 1918 was benign, affecting many soldiers but causing few deaths. In the French army, 24,886 influenza patients were recorded in May, with 7 deaths 12,304 in June, with 24 deaths and 2,369 patients in July with 6 deaths, all of whom were diagnosed with “grippe” (influenza). Reports by the American army doctors indicate that there were 1,850 cases of “influenza” in April, 1,124 in May, 5,700 in June and 5,788 in July. The first 5 American soldier victims of the influenza died during July.

In Europe, the flu was devastating both sides. 70,000 American soldiers were sick in some units, the flu killed 80% of the men. General John Pershing made a desperate plea for reinforcements. But that would mean sending soldiers across the Atlantic on troop ships.

Even with the number of sick and infected soldiers, President Wilson decided against his chief physician’s advice and sent in thousands of more soldiers on transport ships to the frontlines in France, which seemed to have resulted in the virus spreading across the world. This was not surprising, since troop ships were crammed from stem to stern with soldiers, causing a spread of the illness among the troops. There’s nothing more crowded than a troop ship it’s just being jammed in there like sardines and if somebody has a respiratory disease, everybody’s going to get it. Looking at what happened from afar, Wilson’s decision resulted in the virus spreading across the world, from Kansas to the front lines and outward from there.

President Woodrow Wilson failed to inform the people of America about the devastating effects of Spanish Influenza. When US soldiers arrived in France on what was called ‘floating coffins’, around 200,000 soldiers fell sick, with many being affected on the transport ships. To soldiers and civilians alike, what was attacking them was not any ordinary influenza, but they had no answers.

The most shocking part of the flu was the deafening silence of the government and neither national nor local governments addressed the fast-moving pandemic. With a lack of information and almost no advice from public health officials, people in the United States had no answers but expected a mass extinction had the disease continued to grow and develop at the pace it was going.

The year 1917 saw the formation of the Committee on Public Information by Wilson’s executive order, which aimed at getting more recruits for the war. By the summer of 1918, as the disease started to tighten its grip over the country, the government was focusing on the War and encouraging people to do their bit for the War but made almost no mention on anything else.

The Committee was not used to combat the pandemic. In fact, there were even cases of people being prosecuted over public discussion of the flu.

The fact that the government was attempting to keep the “morale” up turned out to be extremely damaging. The president had been able to sell the war to the people even though he had initially promised that America would not enter World War 1, but fell short on informing the people about a much greater threat with the potential to wipe out the world.

During the war, cities in the U.S. foolishly held parades, and this helped spread the disease. For Philadelphia, the fallout was swift and deadly. Two days after the parade, the city’s public health director Wilmer Krusen, issued a grim pronouncement: “The epidemic is now present in the civilian population and is assuming the type found in naval stations and cantonments [army camps].”

Within 72 hours of the parade, every bed in Philadelphia’s 31 hospitals was filled. In the week ending October 5, some 2,600 people in Philadelphia had died from the flu or its complications. A week later, that number rose to more than 4,500. With many of the city’s health professionals pressed into military service, Philadelphia was unprepared for this deluge of death.

By the time the Paris peace talks began in early 1919, this particularly virulent strain had already infected one third of the global population. This was when President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris. An accomplished scholar and sincere progressive about everything except race, Wilson was known for his intellectual verve. In early 1918 he had outlined his famous Fourteen Points, in which he called for free trade, open diplomacy and a new balance of European power along with an international body to prevent future wars. The Fourteen Points also disavowed any malice towards Germany, which is why Berlin accepted them as the basis for negotiations.

Compared to the exhausted and embittered British and French, the United States (and Wilson himself) thus emerged as the key player in early 1919, the one party capable of forging a durable peace. But on April 3, 1919, Wilson fell ill with flu-like symptoms. Recognizing that “the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance,” his physician downplayed the sickness and ordered bed rest.

Ever since, historians have wondered about this episode, both concerning Wilson’s prior health problems and his performance when he returned to the negotiating table a week later.

Wilson wasn’t the same man. He tired easily and quickly lost focus and patience. He seemed paranoid, worried about being spied upon by housemaids. He achieved some of his specific goals but was unable or unwilling to articulate a broader vision for a better world. In other words, he acted like a man with residual neurological problems stemming from a recent bout of Spanish flu.

Over the next crucial weeks, Wilson lost his best chance to win the peace by agreeing in principle to draconian terms favored by France. The final settlement punished Germany with a formal admission of guilt, enormous reparations and the loss of about 10 per cent of its territory. The stunned Germans had little choice but to sign on June 28, 1919.

Back in the U.S. that fall, Wilson suffered a major stroke just as opposition to the treaty by isolationist senators gained steam. He died four years later, his vision of a strong League of Nations hampered by the absence of his own country.

Right-wing leaders in Germany raged at their nation’s betrayal. Among them was Adolf Hitler, who blamed Jews and leftists for undermining the war effort and swore revenge on the Allies. In 1940, he insisted on humiliating France by dictating its surrender terms in the same train car where the 1918 Armistice had been signed.

Could a more forceful Wilson have secured a better peace? Would that peace have kept monsters like Hitler on the fringes? Of course, we can’t know. But by bringing medical and historical research together, we can get closer to what actually happened, and think better about what might have happened.

The entire scenario of the Spanish Flu epidemic sings of irony. The Flu may have started inside the United States. Wilson helped the spread of the disease by sending troops to Europe in overcrowded boats. Wilson’s American government had a policy of secrecy about the disease, and that added to the spread of the disease. And finally when Wilson himself caught the disease, he could not defend his Fourteen Points in the negotiations, and this ultimately led to an ugly Peace Treaty. The result: the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II.

You can thank the Wilson and the Spanish Flu for a lot more than 50 million deaths. My grandmother’s death, for one.


Spanish Influenza in the President's Neighborhood

When Americans consider threats to democracy during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, they usually think of the bloody world conflict that became World War I. As the war was ending in 1918, another often-forgotten adversary arrived in the United States: an outbreak of the Spanish influenza, a deadly pandemic which significantly impacted global populations, including Washington, D.C. Scientists estimate that the Spanish influenza infected one-third of the world’s population, and as the influenza spread, the President’s Neighborhood found itself in the middle of a deadly outbreak. 1

“Spanish influenza” is something of a misnomer, as there is no evidence that the outbreak began in Spain. However, it became known as the Spanish flu due to the quantity of infection reports in the Iberian Peninsula—including the illness of Spanish King Alfonso XIII. 2 The U.S., France, and other war-weary nations had similar rates of infection in their populations, but war censorship led reporters to underestimate the disease to protect morale. Meanwhile, Spain, a neutral country, reported deaths from the flu without hesitation. 3 As a result, the outbreak was commonly referred to as the “Spanish influenza.”

Washington, D.C. public health officials attempted to warn citizens of the symptoms and spread of influenza using posters like this one.

The virus originally flourished in the close quarters of the trenches and military encampments of World War I, and the international movement of soldiers facilitated infection across borders. By October 1918, the city of Washington, D.C. became a breeding ground for the highly contagious H1N1 strain of the flu. As civilian cases multiplied, local health officials initiated bans on public gatherings in order to quell the spread of infections. Across the city, public schools and universities closed their doors, and Congress and the Supreme Court adjourned. 4 Meanwhile, emergency hospitals opened across the District as nurses desperately tried to care for the constant influx of patients. Influenza cases continued well into the next year, disproportionately affecting healthy residents in their mid-twenties and thirties, a group normally predisposed to fight infectious disease. The infection of the strong and youthful, in addition to babies and the elderly, caused life expectancy in the U.S. to drop by twelve years in 1918. 5

Nurses care for the sick at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1918.

This proximity to the outbreak meant that those working within the White House were vulnerable, and the Spanish influenza affected members of the Wilson family and staff. The first documented case of influenza within the administration was reported at the height of the pandemic in October 1918, when President Wilson wrote to Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams, emphasizing “I would have answered your letter of October 14th sooner, had not my Secretary been absent with the influenza.” 6 That same month, First Lady Edith Wilson responded to the outbreak by sending 1,000 roses to sick young women working for the war effort in Washington, “with an expression of sympathy and the hope of speedy recovery.” 7

The pandemic did not only affect human patients. In January 1919, The Washington Post reported that two of the White House sheep, known for grazing on the White House Grounds and raising money for the war effort, were “in an animal hospital and…said to have influenza symptoms.” 8 Fortunately, they made a speedy recovery under the care of the Department of Agriculture and returned to the lawn in less than two months. 9

White House sheep grazing during the Wilson administration.

Despite the unprecedented scale and mortality rate of the Spanish influenza, an armistice remained the most critical matter for those working for the Wilson administration. After nearly four years of war, a ceasefire was reached in November 1918, but post-war peace was far from finished. The Paris Peace Conferences began in January 1919, where the “Big Four” (France, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Italy) met to discuss peace in Europe and abroad for future generations. 10 Travels to Paris for the negotiations further increased the risk of staff catching the disease, as cases in Europe persisted into 1919. In February, multiple members of Wilson’s staff caught the influenza during a transatlantic voyage from Brest, France, to Boston, Massachusetts, including several Secret Service members, Chief Usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover, and Charles Swem, Wilson’s stenographer. 11 President Wilson’s eldest daughter, Margaret, also fell ill that month during a trip to Brussels and was “confined to her room in the American Legation.” 12 They all recovered upon returning to the U.S.

President Woodrow Wilson is pictured above with Allied leaders, with whom he would negotiate during the Paris Peace Conference. Wilson fell ill at the conferences in spring 1919.

Even President Wilson could not avoid the contagious disease, and became ill in the midst of the peace talks. In April 1919, Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, personal physician to the president, wrote to a friend, explaining that: “These past two weeks have certainly been strenuous days for me. The President was suddenly taken violently sick with the influenza at a time when the whole of civilization seemed to be in the balance.” 13 The extent of President Wilson’s illness was not revealed to the American people, however. Instead, Grayson informed the press that it was merely a cold caused by the “chilly and rainy weather” in Paris to maintain confidence in the president. 14 Wilson’s absence came at a critical moment of the negotiations. The Big Four were attempting to solve larger questions of German reparations, the creation of the League of Nations, and the threat of Bolshevism—all of which were jeopardized by Wilson’s sickness. 15 As Grayson’s assuring reports of Wilson’s speedy recovery were printed in The New York Times and The Washington Post, influenza confined Wilson to his bed, where he was barely able to talk or stand upright. 16 The press reported his condition back to concerned American audiences daily. One columnist for The Washington Post wrote:

The country will be anxious regarding President Wilson until he is again at work…It is a time when an hour lost means the loss of millions of hours to these individuals who are awaiting to begin reconstruction…the allied world hopes for the sake of its material interests that his illness will be light and brief. 17

President Woodrow Wilson walks with Rear Admiral Cary T. Grayson, his personal physician and close confidante.

Back at the White House, worried citizens expressed sympathy for their sick president abroad and well-wishers across America sent “scores of telegrams” to the Executive Mansion. 18 To the country’s delight, Wilson recovered his strength and quickly returned to negotiations.

A promising American politician and future White House resident also caught the deadly virus and survived—Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt. In September 1918, The Washington Times reported that Roosevelt fell ill with Spanish influenza during a voyage to France. 19 Aboard the U.S.S Leviathan, close to one-sixth of the men onboard became infected, claiming almost two thousand victims. 20 Severely weakened, Roosevelt was carried off the ship on a stretcher after docking in America and transported via ambulance to his mother’s home in New York, where he made a full recovery. 21

Washington Times report of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's illness in 1918.

It is difficult to imagine the course of American history if Woodrow Wilson had succumbed to the disease during post-war peace negotiations or if Franklin Roosevelt had not survived the pandemic. Not all of their countrymen would be so lucky—over 675,000 Americans died during the unprecedented outbreak. Fortunately, by March 1919, cases had steadily decreased in the Washington, D.C. area, but by then, almost 35,000 residents of the District had contracted influenza in some form. 22 Small spikes in infection, like President Wilson’s illness in April, continued until the pandemic ultimately abated globally by 1920.

These stories of the Spanish Influenza remain salient today, particularly following the global outbreak of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. As of the publication of this article, over one million people have succumbed to the virus since December 2019—and tens of millions more have been infected, including celebrities, athletes, members of Congress, and world leaders. 23 The connections between 1918 and 2020 are a striking reminder that the present is never far removed from the past. As in 1918, 2020 witnessed the widespread closure of schools, strict mandates surrounding social gatherings and interactions between citizens, and American concerns about the health of leaders in the White House and abroad.


Woodrow Wilson’s Case of the Flu, and How Pandemics Change History

Vittorio Orlando, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson meet to discuss the Treaty of Versailles, during which Wilson became ill with the 1918 flu. Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

On the evening of April 3, 1919, in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson began to cough he soon took to bed, feverish and unable to move. He had contracted what had become known as the Spanish flu, the President’s physician wrote confidentially to the White House, and it had made Wilson “violently sick.” By then, the influenza had rampaged around the world for more than a year and was on its way to killing at least twenty million people, including at least six hundred thousand Americans. Wilson was in Paris for the treaty negotiations following the end of the First World War, which sought to shape the postwar global order and settle the status of the defeated Germany. He became ill at a decisive moment, making the virus an insidious actor in one of the twentieth century’s most consequential episodes of great-power diplomacy.

How does a pandemic alter history? To capture the scale of lives lost and economies shattered, and the national mobilizations often required, it has become common to compare the catastrophe to a war against an “invisible enemy.” This is the preferred metaphor of Donald Trump, a self-pronounced “wartime President,” and also of many other national leaders who are struggling forward in these days of COVID-19. Yet, among other shortcomings, war metaphors fail to capture the natural and intimate character of a severe and contagious illness, and how its effect on individual behavior can often be subtle and difficult to measure.

In the days before Wilson was stricken, he had argued heatedly with the French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about the price, in territory and reparations, that Germany should be made to pay as the aggressor in the war. Wilson thought that the Allies should go easy on Germany’s nascent postwar republic and prioritize his idealistic, ahead-of-its-time project, the League of Nations, and the enlightened principles of self-determination among peoples which he promoted. But France had twice endured German occupation during the previous half century, and Clemenceau sought what the French public saw as a just and prudent resolution: tens of billions of dollars to rebuild France, plus buffer zones on the country’s eastern frontier, including the occupation by French troops of the German Rhineland.

By April, Wilson and Clemenceau had argued themselves into a mutually aggravating deadlock. When Clemenceau learned that Wilson was ill, he asked Lloyd George, “Do you know his doctor? Couldn’t you get round him and bribe him?”

Wilson, sequestered during his recovery in the Hôtel du Prince Murat, an elegant town house in the Eighth Arrondissement, soon appeared changed by his bout with flu. He became obsessed with “funny things,” as an aide put it. He grew fixated on the furniture in the house and came to believe that he was surrounded by French spies. “We could but surmise that something queer was happening in his mind,” Irwin Hoover, the President’s chief usher, said. “One thing is certain: he was never the same after this little spell of sickness.” Hoover’s remarks are recounted by the historian John Barry in “The Great Influenza,” his magnificent narrative of the pandemic of 1918 and 1919. Barry points out that Wilson’s reported disorientation can be a complication of severe influenza.

During the second week of April, an exhausted Wilson gave up most of the demands that he had been pressing Clemenceau to meet. The President accepted the demilitarization of the Rhineland and its occupation by France for at least fifteen years, along with an open-ended process for calculating Germany’s reparations bill. In the judgment of Margaret MacMillan, the author of “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World,” an authoritative account of the postwar negotiations, Clemenceau suddenly found himself with “the best possible deal for France.” Infamously, the achievement was a Pyrrhic one. The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, and which ratified Wilson’s concessions, proved to be a settlement so harsh and onerous to Germans that it became a provocative cause of revived German nationalism during the nineteen-twenties and thirties, and, eventually, a rallying cause of Adolf Hitler.

Barry considers in his book whether Wilson might have been a more forceful and stubborn negotiator in Paris if he hadn’t contracted the flu, and whether, therefore, the history of the twenties and thirties in Europe might have turned out differently. He is appropriately skeptical of such counterfactual speculations we cannot know what might have happened if Wilson had remained healthy and vigorous, only “what did happen,” as he writes. “Influenza did strike Wilson. Influenza did weaken him physically. . . . precisely at the most crucial point of negotiations.” Nazism’s triumph over Germany was caused by much more than the blowback from the Versailles Treaty, yet there can be little doubt that the treaty’s punishing terms, including the highly visible French occupation of German territory, did help Hitler to mobilize and narrate German grievances. Lloyd George, who had opposed, in particular, the French occupation, later concluded in a memoir that the “odious accompaniments of such an occupation of German towns . . . had much to do with the fierce outbreak of patriotic sentiment in Germany, which finds its expression in Nazism.”

Wilson recovered from the influenza, but suffered a severe stroke six months later, and was incapacitated through the remainder of his Presidency. He should be remembered as a thoroughgoing failure as a pandemic-time President. In addition to the debacle of Versailles, he never once spoke publicly about the flu as it decimated the United States. He was so narrow-mindedly focussed on the American war mobilization that he generated “a kind of furious intolerance” for any other subject of governance, Barry told me, and he suppressed dissent in the United States in ways that “went beyond anything seen in the McCarthy period or any other time.” He added, “Much like Trump, he did not tolerate criticism from friend or foe. Even if a friend evidenced any distance from him, he exiled that person. All this makes Wilson’s complete silence on the pandemic understandable in only one context: he would do nothing to distract him or the nation from the war effort. His focus was absolute—there was the war, and nothing else.”

It was unfortunate that Wilson fell so ill in Paris we can easily forgive his frailty in the run-up to Versailles, but not his record of prolonged indifference, before then, to public suffering at home among the citizens who elected him, or the racist convictions that led him to support institutionalized segregation. For now, it seems hard to judge which presents the greater record of Presidential failure during a pandemic: Wilson’s silence or Trump’s bombast, self-contradiction, and self-promotion. It may be partly just bad luck that the two worst pandemics to strike the United States in the past hundred years coincide with the terms of two Presidents so plainly unprepared for their responsibilities. Yet it bears reflection that, even a century ago, as is so obvious today, the country requires a President at least as knowledgeable about and committed to sound science and public health as to diplomacy and national defense.



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