This is the conclusion of a series on the H1N1 Influenza A virus known as Spanish influenza, that killed 675,000 Americans between 1918 and 1919. We are telling the story, as much as possible, through the words of reporters of the time.
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt
Germany, Germany above all.
Above all in the world.
— “Das Lied der Deutschen” (“The Song of the Germans”)
The New York Times PARIS, April 4, 1919, 7:30 PM — “President Wilson is supposed to have an attack of influenza. On account of what was diagnosed as a bad cold, he was kept in bed today by Admiral Grayson, his physician and naval aid. This evening, there were indications that he had contracted influenza in a mild form.”
Wilson had left the U.S. for Paris shortly after the end of World War I, to pursue his belief that he could lead the way towards the creation of a League of Nations that would guarantee the end of all war.
Dr. Gary Travers Grayson, a Rear Admiral in the Navy, and Wilson’s confidant and physician, had good reason to mislead The New York Times by calling Wilson’s affliction “a bad cold.” Because the Spanish Influenza pandemic conflicted with the war effort, as well as the peace effort under Wilson, the president never addressed the nation about the deadliness and severity of the viral pandemic, fearing it would hurt the country’s morale. At least 675,000 Americans died from the disease, and more troops were killed by the viral flu than by German bullets. Fifty million died worldwide.
On April 5, 1919, Admiral Grayson fessed up to The New York Times, while putting a positive spin on the president’s influenza attack. “Grayson Says Submission to Orders Saved Him from a Serious Illness,” the Times reported.
On May 2, 1919, on the front page of The New York Times was a story covering the destructive Mayday riots in Paris, and in Boston, and Cleveland.
“1 DEAD, MANY HURT IN CLEVELAND RIOT . . . DISORDER IN OTHER PLACES Radicals Battle with Police in Boston Streets . . .”
“One man dead, twelve policemen and scores of civilians injured were the causalities in the Socialist May Day celebration in Cleveland tonight following a series of riots in which army tanks and motor transport trucks were used by the police, soldier, and civilians in their efforts to suppress the disturbances which broke out in various sections of the city during the afternoon.”
On the morning of May 1, 1919, Munich was in the hands of Bolsheviks. The Freikorps, composed of professional German soldiers, swept through the city, rooting out the revolutionaries, and executed hundreds, according to John Toland, author of “Adolf Hitler,” published by Doubleday in 1976.
Hitler had joined a small group called the Social Revolutionary Party, a precursor of the National Socialist Workers Party, better known as the Nazis. He began speaking to groups in the street and in pubs with his guttural voice; he appealed to the working man. Germany had been betrayed, he told them, by the Jews and the Marxists. Someday, Germany’s greatness would be restored, he promised.
Third World Destruction
The 1918-19 pandemic was particularly destructive in the Third World, though it took many months for the truth to emerge.
London Associated Press April 17, 1919: “Almost 5,000,000 persons have died in British India from Spanish influenza, and fully a million others are believed to have died in the native states from the same cause, according to a report of the Indian Government made public here . . .”
“The hospitals were so choked it was impossible quickly to remove the dead to make room for the dying. Streets and lanes of the cities were littered with dead and dying people . . .”
The New York Times: Brussels, April 24, 1919: “Belgian Congo Swept by Influenza: Great loss of life of the natives of Belgian Congo, as a result of an influenza epidemic, is reported in dispatches. Some estimates place the number of deaths at 500,000.”
From the beginning of the pandemic, vaccines and cures were promised by men like Dr. Royal Copeland, the Commissioner of Health for New York City. None were ever found.
During the pandemic, Copeland refused to close New York City’s theaters or schools. He did take one action, however, that New York City is considering implementing now, when it gets the okay to reopen: he asked businesses throughout the city to stagger the hours of their workers, to prevent crowds forming in the city’s mass transit system.
The Spanish influenza lingered in pockets around the world well into 1920.
During an interview with Dr. Bruce Polsky, the epidemiologist advising East Hampton Town in its effort to recover from the current COVID-19 viral pandemic, he spoke about the 1918-19 viral disease now classified as H1N1 influenza A.
He agreed that Spanish influenza likely did not come from Spain. Spain was neutral during the First World War, allowing its press to freely report news about a disease that the warring nations suppressed.
Some researchers believe that a mutated virus crossed over from a bird or a pig to a human somewhere in the farm belt of America. They point to an outbreak of the H1N1 influenza at Fort Riley in Kansas on March 4, 1918. “It’s not a farfetched idea that it could have originated (in Kansas) but in terms of knowing with any real precision, I don’t think we can say,” Dr. Polsky said.
“There is really not universal consensus as to where the virus originated or as to the source. But we do know that birds and swine do have influenza viruses.”
So, Dr. Polsky was asked, what happened to the Spanish influenza virus at the end of the 1918-1920 pandemic?
“I think that by the end, about a third of the world’s population was infected,” he said, meaning 500 million out of 1.5 billion. “Once you have a substantial proportion of the world’s population infected and you have antibodies present, then you are in better shape, you can call it herd immunity if you like. You go from a situation where there is no immunity in the human population in the world to having one out of three people with immunity. The virus loses in that circumstance and ends up petering out over time.”
League Of Nations
Woodrow Wilson finally succeeded in creating the League of Nations, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. European nations signed on, but only after forcing Germany to agree to extreme conditions that included an unstainable reparation payment plan.
Wilson could not get his own congress to ratify it. Awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, he returned to the U.S. from Paris. Despite being weakened by his bout with influenza, he campaigned to pressure Congress to ratify the treaty.
On October 2, Wilson suffered a severe stroke. The headline on The New York Times’ front page on October 3 announced that Wilson was “a very sick man.”
The lead story the next day was quite different. “President Wilson Better, Sleeping Naturally Once More.”
The fact that their president was incapacitated was concealed from the American people by Admiral Grayson and the First Lady, Edith Wilson, almost to the end of his second and final term in March 1921. He died in Washington less than two years later.
America withdrew from the world stage.
Wilson was not the only wartime president to contract the influenza virus during the pandemic. On September 20, 1918, The New York Times reported, “Franklin D. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who has been abroad for two months, arrived in New York yesterday and was taken to the home of his mother, Mrs. James Roosevelt, 47 East Sixty-fifth Street, suffering from a slight attack of pneumonia caused by Spanish influenza which he contracted on the ship, Mrs. Roosevelt said last night.”
Roosevelt eventually recovered. In August 1921, FDR was struck by a second viral disease, polio. He recovered from that disease as well, but it left him a paraplegic.
Despite that fact, FDR was elected governor of New York State in 1928, then President in 1932. He guided the nation back from 12 years of isolationism, through the Great Depression, and most of World War II, dying in office April 12, 1945.
In 1932, the Nazi Party solidified its political grip on Germany by winning two national elections. Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, shortly before Roosevelt officially took office.
In May 2020, Kristian Blickle, a financial economist, wrote a preliminary staff report for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on the impact of the influenza pandemic on German politics. “The deaths brought about by the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 profoundly shaped German society going forward,” she wrote. In her analysis, the far right benefited greatly. “The disease may have fostered a hatred of ‘others,’ as it was perceived to come from abroad.”