Friday Open Thread ~ "What are you reading?" edition. Volume 9
John Barry: The 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’ Was a U.S. Export, But Don’t Call It the Kansas Virus
"The final lesson of 1918, a simple one yet one most difficult to execute, is that...those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first, and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart."
Don’t say we weren’t warned. As President Trump’s subversion of science wreaks havoc with American society, the reappearance on bestseller lists of John Barry’s 2004 classic work, “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History,” is a reminder that presidential irrationality is not unprecedented. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Barry joins host Robert Scheer to compare the two pandemics and the United States’ response to each.
Back in 1918, Woodrow Wilson was deprived of the jingoism card played by Trump in labeling the current worldwide scourge “the China virus” because the first wave of massive fatalities was exported from a huge military base in Kansas. Wilson relied on the patriotic fervor of war to play down the health risk in dispatching huge numbers of likely infected US troops to Europe and on to the rest of the world, leading to the death of between 50 to 100 million people, far exceeding the direct human cost of the “Great War” itself. The name “Spanish flu” derived from the first news of the global influenza pandemic being reported by the media in Spain.
“I think that it was clear that in 1918, people died, and in many cases their society began to fray–in some cases, worse than that–because the government was lying,” Barry tells Scheer. “Now, the motivation in 1918 was entirely different than it is today. We were, of course, at war. And going into the war, [Woodrow] Wilson had some legitimate reasons to be concerned about what would happen […]so he created an infrastructure to intensify patriotism, more so than at any other time in our history.
“Because of that context,” the historian continues, “because there was this feeling that anything negative would detract from the war effort, the national government, largely echoed by local governments and echoed by the media […] distorted the truth and in some cases told outright lies about the disease, with very, very horrendous consequences. This time around, it’s more for the political self-interest of the White House that these things are happening.”
There’s no question that The Great Influenza, John Barry’s book, is now recognized as the classic book, and so forth. However, when it first came out–and I want to refer to the New York Times review. You’ve written op-ed pieces for the New York Times, they’ve singled your book out as notable in every respect, and so forth. But at the time, while they said it’s a great telling of the story, great science reporting, there was a caveat. And what the reviewer said, “Barry feels no compunction about pausing to offer little op-ed digressions on such matters as free speech and the dangers of government repression.”
Listen to the full conversation between Barry and Scheer as the two discuss the patriotic jingoism that was at play during both pandemics as well as other subjects on which the historian is an expert, such as the separation of church and state.