On Wednesday night, President Joe Biden will address a joint session of Congress on his plans to support the nation's recovery from the devastating coronavirus pandemic. The human cost of the pandemic — more than 572,000 American and more than 3 million global deaths — will probably be foregrounded in the speech.
While such an approach would reflect Biden's promise to bring empathy back to politics, it would also be a noticeable departure from the speech President Woodrow Wilson delivered a century ago during another deadly pandemic — when he made no mention of the devastating impact of the epidemic. The contrast in presidential addresses is reflective of the changing expectations of the political system and the very different contexts in which these two epidemics affected the United States and the world.
Wilson spoke to Congress on Dec. 2, 1918, three weeks after World War I ended and three months after the deadly influenza epidemic began spreading in the United States. Since September of that year, the entire country had experienced spikes in the number of cases and rapid increases in deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Although the public health response varied widely, most of the U.S. population encountered some combination of restrictions on assemblies, school closings, prohibitions on church services and, in a fraction of cities and states, requirements to wear masks in public.
The scale of death was staggering. From October 1918 to March 1919, there were an estimated 675,000 deaths from influenza and pneumonia — nearly six times the number of deaths from these same causes over the same period just one year earlier. In Washington, where members of Congress crowded into the House chamber to hear the president speak, the 2,000 deaths from pneumonia and influenza recorded in October and November added up to more than 30 times the total from these causes for the same months in 1917.
And yet, Wilson made no mention of the lives lost to the epidemic. Instead, the president spoke to Congress about the war, pursuing economic recovery at home and securing international peace.
Wilson began his speech with an acknowledgment that the past year was "so crowded with great events, great processes and great results that I cannot hope to give you an adequate picture of its transactions or of the far-reaching changes which have been wrought of our nation and of the world." Wilson's praise for the war effort began with the unprecedented number of men sent overseas, reaching nearly 2 million since the year began. In addition to proclaiming "our great pride that we were able to serve the world with unparalleled energy and quick accomplishment," Wilson praised "the mettle and quality of the officers and men we sent over and of the sailors who kept the seas, and the spirit of the nation that stood behind them."
Wilson also celebrated those who contributed to the war effort on the home front. And, after praising the contributions by American women to the effort, he called for passage of the suffrage amendment to "make them the equals of men in political rights as they have proved themselves their equals in every field of practical work they have entered, whether for themselves or for their country."
Then he put forth his economic recovery agenda, calling for "a return to peace footing," with recommendations for employing demobilized soldiers, reducing taxation and gradually relinquishing federal control of the railroads. The most dramatic statement in Wilson's address was the announcement that he would personally go to Paris to negotiate the terms of peace, even as he recognized "the great inconveniences that will attend my leaving the country, particularly at this time." To him, the biggest challenge the United States faced was not the pandemic, but the international peace terms.
Wilson ended his address to Congress, as most presidents have done, with an appeal for unity, something that was mostly ignored by Republican members, who refused to join their Democratic colleagues in the round of applause at the end of the address. In the days that followed, Wilson's speech received a mostly positive response from newspapers across the country, even as many reported on the reluctance of Republican senators to support the peace process. A review of newspaper editorials following the president's address has not turned up any evidence that his failure to acknowledge the epidemic prompted either criticism or praise, even as these same newspapers continued to report on cases, deaths and health measures undertaken because of the epidemic.
What does Wilson's address to Congress reveal about the similarities and differences between the epidemics of 1918-1919 and now?
First, the expectations of the American president during times of crisis have changed dramatically in the century since the 1918 epidemic. Whereas Biden has frequently acknowledged the human costs of this epidemic, Wilson never spoke about the epidemic in any public speech or other communication, even during the worst weeks before his address to the nation. Addressing the public health crisis was a responsibility of the states, hospitals and civic organizations. Although the lack of a coordinated federal response had deadly consequences, it was not controversial.
Second, both speeches illustrate the challenge of managing public messages at a time when the danger posed by an epidemic appears to be decreasing. Even as newspapers reported on Wilson's speech, they offered very different assessments of the state of the pandemic. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the highest single-day total of deaths on Dec. 3, yet St. Louis Health Commissioner Max Starkloff declared that the epidemic was "less virulent" and predicted rapid decreases in deaths in coming days. In Los Angeles, the lifting of bans on entertainment venues on Dec. 2 was greeted by the Los Angeles Times as proof that the "funless" season had truly come to an end: "The influenza epidemic is over."
In short, many Americans decided that they were done with the pandemic, and urgent measures responding to it faded from the headlines. And this is perhaps the biggest takeaway from Wilson's speech. In December 1918, as in April 2021, Americans were eager to return to normal and put the epidemic behind them. But epidemics do not end all of a sudden. In fact, 40% of deaths attributed to the influenza epidemic occurred in the four months that followed Wilson's address.
As public health officials continue to remind us, the downward trajectory in coronavirus cases and deaths does not mean the danger has passed. In addition to dealing with emerging variants and persistent forms of vaccine hesitancy, this pandemic has revealed stark disparities in health outcomes that will probably continue even as our response to this disease enters new stages. On March 11, Biden commemorated the anniversary of a virus "that was met with silence and spread unchecked," producing "more deaths, more infections, more stress, and more loneliness" in the months that followed. Wednesday's speech provides an opportunity to consider how history will judge, as Biden predicted earlier this spring, the ways that Americans "overcame one of the toughest and darkest periods in our history."
E. Thomas Ewing is professor of history at Virginia Tech. His research on the history of epidemics, including Russian flu (1889) and Spanish flu (1918), has been published in Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses, Current Research in Digital History, Computer IEEE and Medical History. This piece was written for The Washington Post.
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