The great American cover-up: Did Woodrow Wilson cause the spread of Spanish Influenza worldwide?

The devastating Spanish Influenza of 1918 took the world by storm spreading heavily due to the movement of soldiers across the globe in World War I


                            The great American cover-up: Did Woodrow Wilson cause the spread of Spanish Influenza worldwide?

The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic swept across the world aided by the soldiers who moved around during World War I resulting in a death toll of around 21 million to 100 million. There was not enough warning nor information on the deadly outbreak which claimed the lives of over hundreds of millions of people, only to be buried in the past forever.

Up until now, a majority of people believe that the outbreak of the Spanish Influenza started from Eastern Europe after immigrants arrived in the US to work in the limestone mines in 1918. However, modern theory puts forth another view suggesting that the disease started on the prairies of the Midwest in Kansas.

Smithsonian Channel's 'America's Hidden Stories' goes into details about the devastating effects of the terrible flu and how it suddenly vanished off the face of the earth, not to be seen again. 

Masks and cubicles used in USA General Hospital No 4, Fort Porter, New York, 1918 (Getty Images)
Masks and cubicles used in USA General Hospital No 4, Fort Porter, New York, 1918 (Getty Images)

At the time, the spike in the number of patients rose so much that author John Berry, who was working on a book on the flu, alerted the US public health service. His warning went unnoticed as America had a much bigger problem on their hands which was the start of the First World War. With President Woodrow Wilson recruiting as many able bodies from across the country, the disease had the opportunity to spread easily.

In the rest of the country, soldiers were falling sick everywhere with the devastating flu spreading fast and the fact that it could rapidly develop and kill a person in less than 24 hours of them contracting it proved to be frightening. As soldiers from the United States were sent to France and other parts of Europe, Spanish Influenza spread all across the world.

Masked doctors and nurses treat flu patients lying on cots and in outdoor tents at a hospital camp during the influenza epidemic of 1918 (Getty Images)
Masked doctors and nurses treat flu patients lying on cots and in outdoor tents at a hospital camp during the influenza epidemic of 1918 (Getty Images)

Even with the number of sick and infected soldiers, President Wilson went 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.

Wilson's decision to send the troops had a direct consequence and as historian Chris Capozzola says, "This was the first time in historical records where we see Wilson agonizing over the flu."

President Woodrow Wilson failed to inform the people of America about the devastating effects of Spanish Influenza (Getty Images)
President Woodrow Wilson failed to inform the people of America about the devastating effects of Spanish Influenza (Getty Images)

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 expect a mass extinction had the disease continued to grow and develop at the pace it was going.

Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, 1918 (Getty Images)
Red Cross Motor Corps on duty during the Spanish Influenza epidemic, 1918 (Getty Images)

The year 1917 saw the formation of the Committee on Public Information by executive order which aimed at Wilson 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 and was looked over. There were also 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.

'America's Hidden Stories' will air on the Smithsonian Channel on March 18.