Gareth Porter discusses the parallels between the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 Spanish Flu. Though it’s commonly called “Spanish Flu” Porter reminds us that it really originated in Kansas, where it was first spread to American troops at a training base, and then to Europe via the U.S. Army, before finally coming back to the United States in a much deadlier form. If the U.S. hadn’t entered the war and sent thousands of men overseas in cramped ships and trenches, the flu never would have become what it did. In fact, more American soldiers died from the flu in World War I than from bombs and bullets. Woodrow Wilson’s reckless enabling of the spread of this virus is just one example on his long list of egregious crimes, including lying the U.S. into the war, which tilted what had been a stalemate toward a decisive allied victory, which in turn led to the overly harsh terms of German surrender, ultimately enabling Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. Without Hitler, of course, we never would have World War II, which is also what allowed Stalin to consolidate the Soviet Union, and probably allowed Mao and the other communist leaders of 20th century Asia to enact their brutal and genocidal regimes.
Discussed on the show:
- “How Generals Fueled 1918 Flu Pandemic To Win Their World War” (The American Conservative)
- The Zimmermann Telegram
- Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II
- Beer Hall Putsch
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist on the national security state, and author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. Follow him on Twitter @GarethPorter and listen to Gareth’s previous appearances on the Scott Horton Show.
This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: NoDev NoOps NoIT, by Hussein Badakhchani; The War State, by Mike Swanson; WallStreetWindow.com; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom; ExpandDesigns.com/Scott; Listen and Think Audio; TheBumperSticker.com; and LibertyStickers.com.
The following is an automatically generated transcript.
Scott Horton 0:10
All right, y’all welcome it’s Scott Horton shelf. I am the director of the libertarian Institute editorial director of antiwar.com, author of the book fool’s errand, time to end the war in Afghanistan. And I’ve recorded more than 5000 interviews going back to 2003, all of which are available at Scott horton.org. You can also sign up to the podcast feed. Full archive is also available at youtube.com/ScottHortonShow.
my very favorite reporter in the whole wide world, the great Gareth Porter, welcome back to the show, sir. How are you?
Gareth Porter 0:48
I’m fine. Thanks, God. Be back again. And thanks for having me. Very happy to have you here.
Scott Horton 0:53
Now everybody knows that Woodrow Wilson is the single worst person who ever existed. He’s the father of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. And for that matter, Pol Pot and Harry Truman and George W. Bush, and all of the worst butchers of human history. But one thing that he oftentimes gets away with is the Woodrow Wilson flew. They tried to call it the Spanish flu, even though it originated in Missouri. But the only reason it became a global pandemic at all is because of what you write about here in this great article at the American Conservative magazine, how generals, how Woodrow Wilson and his generals fueled the 1918 flu pandemic, to win, quote unquote, should be ironic quotes win their world war. So tell us just what happened here with this. Massive last, the last real global pandemic that broke out hundred and two years ago.
Gareth Porter 2:02
Right? I mean, this is the really the forerunner of the present pandemic, it was far worse in the sense that, you know, many more people died worldwide and presumably in the United States because of the 1918. influenza pandemic, then, is it expected to suffer illness and death in this one?
At least 50 million people worldwide and possibly as many as 130 million may have died from the 1918 pandemic. And it was called the Spanish flu. for reasons that are a little bit obscure, but clearly, blaming it on the ons on the Spanish was totally unfair because it didn’t start in Spain. I think
Scott Horton 2:53
it was just because everybody else had wartime censorship, but Spain wasn’t in the war, and so they weren’t censoring their journalism and so All the people sick in Spain, we’re getting covered in the news. And so people thought that
Gareth Porter 3:04
was they they paid the price of honesty and right but not being a participant in the war. They got blamed for it and that that’s convenient for Americans because, as best we can tell, it really did start in the United States.
Scott Horton 3:19
And yet we still call it the Spanish Flu this whole time.
Gareth Porter 3:22
That’s right. It still comes down to today people are, are largely almost completely unaware of the fact that it that it didn’t start in Spain and start the United States.
Scott Horton 3:33
But even then it wouldn’t be fair to call it the Missouri flu because if it was the Missouri flu, it would have just stayed in Missouri. But what happened was the national government took control of this flu and spread it throughout the world.
Gareth Porter 3:45
Well, actually, it wasn’t Missouri, it was Kansas. Were born by my birth state. And it started Of course on a government, a US Army Training Bay. The largest in the country actually at Fort Riley, Kansas. And, you know, it was, before that there was an outbreak in this county of Kansas, where some farmers got a very, extremely lethal form of influenza, influenza, excuse me, and some 30 died. And some of those people apparently then went to this army camp at Fort Riley, where there are some 50,000 soldiers or draftees being trained to go to war, World War One. And that was the beginning of it’s spread across the United States, then to Europe and then back to the United States in a much more lethal form. That’s the very short one sentence history of that, of that. So so called Spanish flu.
Scott Horton 4:56
Well go ahead and elaborate and tell us because I think it’s such an interesting story. And clearly you know all about this stuff from I don’t know what previous research that you’ve done, I think,
Gareth Porter 5:05
well, it was a matter of basically looking at some of the research that has been done in relatively recent years. And there’s a historian named Carol Byerly, who has, as far as I can see done the most interesting and most complete research on the role that the US military played in spreading this virus. And so I relied fairly heavily on her work as well as some other things that have been published over the last several years. But But what the story that emerges here is one of the US military really being completely uninterested in the well being of its troops. And really not taking any steps to try to bring this under control while it was spreading in the, in their camps in the United States, Now, of course, you had actors who were doing their best to try to deal with the virus, you know, in treating the the draftees that were were coming, becoming sick, and in many cases dying. But they were unable to really stop the spread of it because the military was insisting on going ahead with their training, and then sending troops off to Europe, on troop ships where there were, you know, they were in close quarters, obviously, and it was a perfect sort of petri dish for the virus to spread among the troops, many of whom had already picked it up, of course, in the in the tank camps and then passed it on to other troops who had not caught it yet. And so at first, the interesting thing here is that the The influenza that had been picked up in the United States in the initial period of 1918, this would have been in the spring of 1918. And into the summer was not nearly as lethal as the one that would come later on. Relatively few troops actually died because of it. And most of them did recover. And were able to go to Europe and and pay interest to participate in the fighting in the trenches in France, but in the process, you know, many of them did get sick, they would be taken out, replaced by new recruits from the United States, newly sent over on the troop ships. And that process then allowed the virus to mutate and to become much more lethal in the process. And so what then happened was that you had troops Reading the much more lethal virus in Europe. And the troops ships coming back to the states landing on American shores. And initially, as I understand it in Boston, then in Philadelphia, and those, those cities were among the first to have the the virus spread extremely rapidly in the urban populations and hundreds of thousands were affected. And of course, then it spread across the rest of the country. But the real story here is just how the virus spread initially from the States, then to Europe, and then back again, to two key cities. And the story of Philadelphia is one particularly interesting I didn’t talk about it in my article, but we know that Philadelphia was a place that had begun to experience a serious outbreak in September of 1918 and despite that fact, the city fathers were felt that they were under pressure to show their patriotism. And to do so they had to hold this parade to sell Liberty loans, the bonds that people bought to support the war. And, and in order to do that they had to have all these floats passed by the main streets of Philadelphia and 200,000 people gathered aside the the main street to watch the parade basically, right next to one another. And that again, was a an opportunity for the virus to spread with maximum rapidity. So Philadelphia was hit extremely hard in the two weeks that followed that, as I understand it, 10s of thousands of people got sick and many people died. So this was a case Where a patriot system was, was employed to, to bring out the maximum number of people despite the fact that it was already understood that the virus was spreading very rapidly. So though,
Scott Horton 10:14
well, and you know, if they really want it to be patriotic, they could have just lynched another innocent German, you know, but now they killed many more 10,000 people died. And, you know, all to raise money for a war that America had no business in whatsoever in the first place. And and then, you know, I guess it’s told also that while Philadelphia went ahead with their parade, it was, I guess in St. Louis, they canceled it. And that’s right. That’s right. People show that as the flattening of the curve that it really does work if you do it that way.
Gareth Porter 10:50
Exactly. It was a perfect illustration of the big difference between a city that essentially caved in to to the requirement to show their patriotism on one hand, and and a city that was wise enough to say no, no, this doesn’t make any sense, we’ll protect our citizens.
Scott Horton 11:09
And it’s not a direct comparison between the strain of influenza 100 years ago and the COVID virus that we’re dealing with now, this thing was far more dangerous. But also, if I understand the story, right, they didn’t really know what a virus was at that point. They didn’t know if it was a bacteria. I think they didn’t know what bacteria were, but they didn’t know what viruses were as separate and distinct. They just knew there’s some kind of germ going around here. That meant that they, you know, were stalking people all right next to each other and doing all kinds of things that we would now look at as barbaric and counterproductive that spread the disease further, besides just putting them all in a rat infested trenches together.
Gareth Porter 11:49
Yeah, they didn’t understand what a virus was, but it was clear to medical people, that the way in which it was spreading had to do with people in close proximity to one another, and that that’s the way that it had to be dealt with in order to really have that curve flatten out and try to get it under control. And that’s where the military was really deaf and dumb with regard to the need to act very quickly, and and another part of the story that I write about in the piece, and perhaps the really the climactic part of this entire tale, is how, in September of 1918, General john Pershing, who was the commander of US troops in France, was was demanding yet another contingent, major contingent of replacements as well as new divisions that he could add on top of his existing forces in order to put maximum pressure on the Germans. And so he was asking for 179,000 troops as I recall, to be sent In November of 1918, and the the army chief of staff who was in charge of the logistics of meeting Pershing’s demands for new, new contingents of replacements and more divisions for the war, knew that there was a very serious problem here of trying to meet that that request because of the virus because of the influenza. At that point, and on September 3, that’s when the initial person a request was made. But but in October, the Army Chief of Staff sent a message back to Pershing saying you will get your troops the troops that you asked for. If we can do so, Unless the the influenza prevents us from doing so. And he mentioned that they had already had 200,000 people in the military suffer from being sickened by influenza. So that’s just a clear measure of just how serious it would become on the homefront. And just how terrible the cost was in terms of sending more recruits off to to Europe, on troop ships, and in fact, a key part of the story here is that the the Army’s acting Surgeon General, who was the hero of this hotel, was insisting that they take steps to try to bring the the influenza under control before proceeding with this. Another major contingent of replacements being set off. And he wanted them to do a number of things to try to, to control the influenza in the camps, in particular by giving them first of all, hesitating to send more troops off to the camps until the the influenza was under control in the camps and in the surrounding area. And that initially there was agreement to do that. But then after the army, the Army’s majors, Surgeon General asked for additional additional measures to prevent the military from going ahead full scale with sending troops off in troops ships without first taking measures to to pause the, the training, you know, this was this met with immediate resistance from the army chief of staff who said he wasn’t willing to go as far as the army Surgeon General wanted him to go. And he then insisted that he go to the president and ask for permission to go ahead with his own plan. And so there was a meeting in the White House betweening between the Army Chief of Staff and Woodrow Wilson, in which the Chief of Staff presented his his meant the measures that he wanted to take and said that he was getting resistance from the Surgeon General of the Army. And Wilson said, Well, why why aren’t you willing to pause here as the Surgeon General is requesting? And the Army Chief of Staff said, Well, I’m afraid that if we do that The Germans will be encouraged by the fact that there’s been a pause in the in the schedule for sending the replacements off to Europe. And so Wilson then sort of gave him the permission to go ahead, refusing to intervene with the with the Army’s plan. And so that’s why the nearly 200,000 troops were on were going to be sent to Europe despite the fact that it was known that there would be a heavy toll on them on the way over and and in Europe. Now, of course, was never fully completed because the war ended on November 11 1918. And that’s because the German High Command had already told the the German leader that there was no way to continue this war, they could not continue it, and they insisted that he Except Wilson’s 14 points as the basis for ending the war and essentially surrender to the United States. So all the United States government had to do at that point was to say, we’re ready to talk peace with Germany, and the war would have ended and there would not have been any need to send more troops over there.
Scott Horton 18:18
well, and of course the whole thing was a hoax. I mean, if you think the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the fake Gulf of Tonkin attack, which I know you’ve done such a great job writing about in the past as well. If you think those are bogus excuses for a war. How about that. Zimmermann telegram. Haha.
Gareth Porter 20:02
Whereas this was the classic case, wasn’t it?
Scott Horton 20:04
You know, I mean, the deal was they were saying to the Mexicans, the Germans said to the Mexicans the offer was that if you guys will join the war on our side, when we’re done defeating the allies, then we will help you invade and reconquer the American Southwest. The Germans who couldn’t even get a boat out of Port who were under total blockade by the British, we’re gonna somehow help Mexico take back New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah, Nevada. Uh huh. Yeah, this is just as much as I’m going to help Mexico take back the Southwest the day after tomorrow, I guess. slightly, slightly preposterous.
Gareth Porter 20:46
This is along the same lines as as the famous intelligence that Iran was planning to attack all US troops.
You know, this is this is the same thing over and over again. In different guises at different times in town place.
Scott Horton 21:02
And you know, I’ll really encourage people to read the great book, Wilson’s war, how Woodrow Wilson’s great blunder cause the rise of Hitler, Stalin and World War Two by Jim Powell, where he goes to show that the war was absolutely a stalemate. You know, Wilson slogan was peace without victory. But that’s where exactly where they were at the time that he intervened was the the Germans were on French soil, but they were completely exhausted, and in various stages of freezing to death and mutiny and so forth, and they just could not go any longer at all. And the British and the French were in the very same position, everyone completely exhausted. The war essentially over. They could have just had a mutual retreat back to their countries leave the lines right where they were, and instead, Wilson came in and he tilted the balance of the war. so far. Towards the British in the French, that they were able to strip Germany of all of their, you know, outlying territories and so forth. And so humiliate them and put all the war reparations on them and everything that they did leading to the hyperinflation. And the, you know, Hitler’s first attempted put in the 20s, the Beer Hall Putsch, which failed in Bavaria, but then was the real birth of the Nazi Party. And I think all historians, including Woodrow Wilson, I mean, pardon me, including Winston Churchill, who did so much to try to get America into that war, agreed later, that if America had only stayed out, there never would have been the Nazi Party. There never would have been, you
Gareth Porter 22:42
know, my my comment on on Woodrow Wilson and World War One is that if one wanted to read about a war that is bound to make you into a pacifist, then read about World War One and the entry of the United States into the war because that is so No way that you can find out about the facts without being convinced that you never want to see another war. You know, again, because you know, you cannot trust the people who are asking you to go to war,
Scott Horton 23:12
right. And then it’s important to that. The other consequence was, after the revolution in Russia had taken place that Wilson bribed Korean ski the leader of the interim government to stay in the war. And that was one helped lead to the second revolution in October, when Lenin and Trotsky were able to seize power and create the Soviet Union, but also meant that the Russian army was nowhere nearby to protect the interim government from the coup. And so, of course,
Gareth Porter 23:46
which of course reminds me as well that that, you know, part of the reason that the German High Command was, was ready to throw in the towel was because the face they knew that they faced insurrection from their own troops. In fact, that’s exactly what happened before the war ended,
Scott Horton 24:03
and no no Lenin no Stalin and no Stalin, no mouse, a tongue and mouse tongue was the world’s worst butcher. He made Tamerlane and Ganga, his con combined look like I don’t know Jimmy Carter’s kill 40 million of his own people and help spread communism throughout Asia, which, of course, became the excuse for the rise of the American Empire to replace the British one in the name of containing the communism that Woodrow Wilson had created.
Gareth Porter 24:31
Well, I wouldn’t go along with the the idea that that most of them spread communism all over East Asia. But anyway, yeah, I mean, there was always your
Scott Horton 24:40
support at Hoshi men and support support.
Gareth Porter 24:42
How can he man
Scott Horton 24:45
he’s been in Korea too.
Gareth Porter 24:48
Yeah, but but, you know, he men did you know, 90% of the work himself. And you know, it was, it was relatively you know, the role of the Chinese played at has been exaggerated for obvious effect by people who wanted to exercise, you know that, you know, communism is, you know, is taking over East Asia and we’ve got to do something about
Scott Horton 25:12
it again, no, no Soviet Union, no Communist China pretty hard to imagine you would have had communism in Vietnam. You know, without both of those things in the background there, you know, somehow, but regardless, if there had been, you know, communism in Russia or China, but there had been some in Vietnam, no one would have cared, right, the whole idea was the domino theory that they had to pre, you know, stop and all of that anyway. And, and, you know, importantly, that this was the excuse for the American Empire, because even the Hawks, they didn’t want to occupy Europe forever. They didn’t want to occupy Asia, they wanted to come home and save that money. But then the threat was this terrible leftist communist enemy taking over the world. And so the isolationist right became the National Review, William F. Buckley Hawk, Cold War, right? And a and they almost got us all killed. They built a stockpile of 40,000 nukes these guys in the name of containing communism, it’s a miracle we’re even having this conversation right now.
Gareth Porter 26:17
Well, I agree with that. I mean, I don’t know how we managed to survive, managed to avoid some kind of nuclear accident at least over the last 7080 years. It’s quite astonishing. But but just for a moment to come back. Sure. Well, World War One and Wilson and the, the 1980s influenza. The point that I additional points that I haven’t made thus far that I think needs to be added to this story is that it’s important to understand that more American troops died during war war during world war one from the influenza that the United States helped to incubate. Then were killed. by German attack, there were 63,000 American troops who died from the influenza and 50 53,000, roughly, who died from German shells or gas or whatever. So this was the main the main way that we managed to get American troops killed during the war.
Scott Horton 27:23
Yeah, absolutely incredible. And it just goes to show the mindset of a president of a general that this is acceptable collateral damage, as the now fired in the age of the internet. The Secretary of the Navy, was explaining to the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt last week, that Yeah, I know you’re scared. You’d be scared on the fire from the Chinese too, but I expect you to do your job. Even if you’re sick. Even if you’re afraid of getting sick, that that’s your roll. You signed up, you gotta die for this thing. That’s the way it is. And then You know, luckily, he personally insulted the former commander. And so that got him fired, rather than telling these guys that, yeah, essentially, you might have to be sacrificed just so we can float around in circles in the Pacific. Not even that we’re at war, but well, geez, we might as well be because this virus came from China and this ridiculous argument that he had.
Gareth Porter 28:22
Yeah, absolutely. I want to emphasize, as I do in the article, the the parallel the important parallel between the insensitivity the lack of concern of the US military, about the well being of their troops in the context of this useless war, in 1918, and the insensitivity of the Pentagon and the Navy brass to the well being of their sailors on board, the Theodore Roosevelt out there in the Pacific. You In 2020, you know, the fact is that there was a big outbreak on board the ship. And we still don’t know the whole story. But it’s clear that the captain of the Theodore Roosevelt was alarmed and was trying to get the chain of command, quote, unquote, to do something urgent about it. And he had met some resistance in trying to do that. And that’s why he resorted to getting the word out through the press, sending a message that he copied to 20 people and obviously, knowing that would probably get out to the press and thus causing embarrassment to the chain of command but getting something done about it. Yeah. And so that’s that’s the real underlying story here. And I think it is very important to recognize that this is a fundamental problem the disconnect between the civilian and military elite In the Pentagon, on one hand, and the sailors and soldiers who are serving them in the field on the other.
Scott Horton 30:09
And one more thing along those lines, I’m sorry, we’re almost out of time here, but I’ve got to get your comment on this. I’ve done 10 interviews today, and I still haven’t gotten around to bring this up. But it’s along the same lines about who cares about who here, that is the American government. The military sent a million something masks to the Israeli military, for use in the occupation of the Palestinians, while American civilians are going without. And in fact, the Los Angeles Times reported the other day that the feds are coming in and confiscating their pp. As far as we know, it’s a pretty plausible educated guess here. That’s the material that they sent off to Israel as LA Times put it, they take it without a word, without explaining where it’s even going. And then the next thing we know there In the PBE that our people need here to the Israeli occupiers.
Gareth Porter 31:04
Well, you know what, my comment on that is that people in Congress should right now, take this issue up and insist that people who are responsible for this be cashiered fired and punished very severely for that. I think that it deserves the highest degree of punishment. Yeah. And, you know, I hope somebody does, in fact, do something about it.
Scott Horton 31:30
Yeah. Well, all eyes on Jared Kushner, I mean, he’s supposedly the one calling the shots up there. And he’s the guy that Benjamin Netanyahu used to sleep in his bedroom when he came to visit. So you know, if anybody in any civilians in the White House are responsible for this decision being made, you probably start with him.
Gareth Porter 31:51
Well, this is more of the same of, of a political elite in charge in the White House and in the Pentagon. On basically prioritizing Israeli interests and the interests of their elite in the in the Pentagon, over the interests of the American people and of the soldiers and sailors who are bearing the brunt of these policies.
Scott Horton 32:20
Yep. Well, Colonel hackworth couldn’t have said it better himself. And you know, he was a colonel. He was the most decorated officer from the Vietnam War. And then he spent the rest of his life until he died of agent blue poisoning bladder cancer from the agent blue they sprayed him with but he spent the rest of his life fighting for the enlisted man, a class war on behalf of the enlisted to protect them from the officers who don’t care about them at all.
Gareth Porter 32:46
And if there’s going to be an impetus for change in the nature of of the Pentagon’s power in the present, period, I think it probably will come from the families of servicemen. going public and getting support from American people. I hope that that that will happen. Yep.
Scott Horton 33:08
Well, and you know, we’ve seen because the the virus is spreading on the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz as well right now and throughout the Navy, and we’ve seen the heat maps of the virus spreading around military bases all around this country. And so all these people who put his real first now that it’s your boys on those bases, who can’t get a mask, and you wonder why their masks are going to Israel, you know, maybe now you know how the Palestinians feel.
Gareth Porter 33:38
Scott Horton 33:39
All right, you guys. Sorry for editorializing all over your interviews, Gareth. But you know how I am.
Gareth Porter 33:45
You’re into. It’s your man, your show, man.
Scott Horton 33:48
All right. Well, thanks very much again for doing it, Gareth. I sure appreciate it.
Thanks, God. All right, you guys. That is Gareth Porter the great He is the author of manufactured crisis, the untold story of the Iranian Nuclear scare the book on Iran’s nuclear program everything you need to know. And then most recently, the CIA Insider’s Guide to Iran and the Iran crisis and that’s co authored with john Kiriakou. He’s the CIA insider there. And you can find this article how generals fueled the 1918 flu pandemic to win their world war at the American Conservative calm. The Scott Horton show anti war radio can be heard on kpfk 90.7 FM in LA, APSradio.com, antiwar.com, Scotthorton.org and libertarianinstitute.org
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