The Devastating 1918 “Spanish Flu” Was Exported from the United States, But Don’t Call it the Kansas Virus.

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"Not in Kansas anymore." Art by Mr. Fish.

Don’t say we werent warned.  As President Trump’s subversion of science wreaks havoc with American society, the reappearance on bestseller lists of John Barry’s 2004 classic workThe 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 worldwide scourge 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 continue, “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.” 

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.



Joshua Scheer