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Pandemic Lessons (Not) Learned

May 22nd, 2020 by dk

I’ve been reading up on the 1918 influenza pandemic, so that you might not have to. You’ve heard that virus called the Spanish Flu, but that might not be correct. You may also have heard that American suffering came in three waves, but you might not know why. The lessons learned have never been more important than they are now.

John M. Barry authored the definitive history book on the matter. “The Great Influenza” traces the virus’s probable origins to the corner of Kansas nearest Oklahoma and Colorado in early 1918. Something else happened at exactly the same time that contributed significantly to the crisis.

Keep in mind that America was at war in 1918 — most of the world was. The United States sold war bonds to finance its involvement in World War I. But that’s not all it was selling. 

President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, which provided a steady supply of upbeat stories about the battles abroad. Behind the scenes, journalist Arthur Bullard was whispering a dangerous idea to the CPI’s chairman, George Creel: “The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

Creel had been an investigative journalist for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Two of his committee members pioneered public relations. They did not think of themselves as propagandists, but patriots. Truth and falsehood were considered “arbitrary terms.” What mattered most was keeping Americans feeling confident.

The Sedition Act of 1918 followed. Disseminating bad news about the war became punishable with up to 20 years in prison. Newspapers changed. Postmasters could impound any publication that ran afoul of the law.

Government posters and advertisements urged people to report anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories … cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war,” according to Barry. Most other nations had similar practices.

Spain never entered World War I. Its newspapers continued to print bad news. The first widely distributed reports of the pandemic came from Spain when King Alfonso XIII became ill in May 1918. The bad news may have come from Spain, but the virus itself probably did not.

Thanks to the Sedition Act, the American public didn’t know exactly what to believe. Our government willfully and diligently lied about the war effort, so why should they be trusted to tell the truth about the virus? Everybody had to make their own calculation about what activities were safe and what precautions were necessary.

Barry put it this way: “People could believe nothing they were being told, so they feared everything, particularly the unknown.”

Does any of this seem familiar? Government-mandated happy talk produced erratic public support for masks, social distancing or other preventative measures. The virus waned in the summer of 1918, but it came back with a vengeance that fall. A third wave came in early 1919 before it finally died out.

The Sedition Act was officially repealed in 1920, but the practice of bolstering public opinion with misinformation never really went away. And now, sadly, the same consequences appear to be revisiting us.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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