Economic Hardship and Labor Upheaval During the Transition to Peace
After World War I, the United States faced hard economic times and problems related to labor, race, and reintegration of veterans.
Discuss the causes of the postwar economic recession, and its effects on race relations and organized labor
- Woodrow Wilson’s administration failed to prepare for demobilization. As a result, many soldiers returned to a shortage of jobs and no benefits.
- Fearing that Republican gains in the Senate would mean the appointment of Republican commission members, Wilson favored dismantling wartime boards and regulatory agencies.
- Major problems at the end of the war included labor strikes and race riots, and a lag in the economy due to farmers’ debts. The Red Summer of 1919 saw an increase in violence in more than two dozen cities, as returning veterans (both white and African American) competed for jobs.
- In the 1920s, anti-Communist sentiment rocked the United States. Suppression of strikes and labor-union activity showed the federal government would not tolerate any activity deemed subversive or Communist.
- Red Summer of 1919: The summer and early autumn of 1919 during which race riots occurred in more than three dozen cities in the United States.
- demobilization: The disorganization or disarming of troops who were previously mobilized or called into active service, along with an overall change from a war climate to peace.
The nation needed to turn from a wartime climate to domestic peace following World War I. The Wilson administration did not fully plan for the process of demobilization following the war, and even with some advisers attempting to direct the president’s attention to “reconstruction,” his tepid support for a federal commission to oversee the change evaporated after the election of 1918. The combination of a major recession, labor strikes, and social upheaval including race riots, made for a difficult time for the nation.
Demobilization proved chaotic and violent. Rather than consenting to the appointment of commission members to counter Republican gains in the Senate, Wilson favored the prompt dismantling of wartime boards and regulatory agencies. The military discharged four million soldiers with little planning or money and few benefits. A wartime bubble in farm prices burst, leaving many farmers bankrupt or deeply in debt after purchasing new land. Major strikes in the steel, coal, and meatpacking industries followed in 1919.
An economic recession hit much of the world in the aftermath of World War I. In many countries, especially those in North America, growth was continual during the war as nations mobilized their economies. After the war ended, however, the global economy began to decline. In the United States, 1918–1919 included a modest economic retreat, but the next year saw a mild recovery. Yet a more severe recession hit the United States in 1920 and 1921 when the global economy as a whole fell sharply.
Labor and Race Tensions
Rapid demobilization of the military had occurred without plans to absorb veterans, both African American and white. With the manpower mobilization of World War I and immigration from Europe cut off, the industrial cities of the American North and Midwest experienced severe labor shortages. This, along with the removal of price controls, allowed unemployment and inflation to soar. Northern manufacturers recruited throughout the South and an exodus of workers and their families ensued. By 1919, an estimated 500,000 southern African Americans emigrated to the industrial cities of the North and Midwest in the first wave of the so-called Great Migration, which continued until 1940.
Anti-Labor Union Sentiment
The organized labor force during the 1920s also suffered a great deal. The country was fearful of the spread of Communism in America, partly due to the violent overthrow of the government in Russia by Communists, and public opinion hardened against workers who attempted to disrupt the order of the working class. The public was so anti-labor union that in 1922, the Harding administration was able to procure a court injunction to destroy a railroad strike of about 400,000 workers. That same year, the government took part in ending a nationwide strike comprising about 650,000 miners. The federal and state governments had no toleration for strikes and allowed businesses to sue unions for any fiscal damages that occurred during a strike.
Postwar patriotism and fears of Communism after the Russian Revolution produced the Red Scare in the United States in 1919–1920.
Describe how the Red Scare contributed to antilabor sentiment, the Palmer Raids, and the Sedition Act of 1918
- The Red Scare of 1919 and 1920 was a widespread suspicion of revolutionary political movements, often displayed in anti-labor union sentiments. Labor unions were considered politically subversive and revolutionary due to their ideological links to the Russian Revolution of workers.
- In April 1919, two bomb plots were uncovered in the United States, including one involving 36 bombs mailed to members of the political and economic elite and another consisting of eight bombs planted in eight locations.
- The bomb plots led to the Palmer Raids, which were mass arrests and deportations of suspected leftists led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in November 1919 and January 1920. The raids proved unpopular and were deemed unconstitutional. The Red Scare lost its potency due to the overreach of the raids and Palmer’s false prediction of a Communist uprising on May 1, 1920.
- In addition to passing the Sedition Act of 1918, by 1920, several states had passed laws banning the use of violence to cause social change. This gave police unspoken authority to harass anyone considered suspicious or unsuitable, especially anarchists and others with left-wing political leanings.
- Bolsheviks: The Russian Communist political organization founded by Vladimir Lenin that helped overthrow Tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent Provisional Government in 1917 to establish what eventually became the Soviet Union.
- Palmer Raids: Attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice to arrest and deport radical leftists, especially anarchists. The raids and arrests occurred in November 1919 and January 1920 under Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The raids occurred in the larger context of the Red Scare, which described the fearful reaction against radicals immediately following World War I.
- Sedition Act of 1918: Legislation that expanded the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, including expressing opinions that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or that interfered with government bond sales.
The Red Scare of 1919–1920 had its origins in the hyper-nationalism of World War I and was marked by a widespread fear of Bolshevism and anarchism. Concerns about the effects of radical political agitation in American society and its alleged spread in the U.S. labor movement fueled the paranoia that defined the period. This concern was further inflamed following an anarchist bomb plot in 1919; revolution and Bolshevism became the general explanation for all challenges to the social order and were used to excuse even such simple expressions of free speech as the display of certain flags and banners.
Founded by Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Bogdanov, the Bolsheviks, by 1905, were a mass political organization in Russia consisting primarily of workers governed by the principle of democratic centralism. A faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), the Bolsheviks split from the party’s other Socialist faction, the Mensheviks, in 1903 and ultimately became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, collectively known as the “Russian Revolution,” the czarist autocracy was dismantled and replaced by Communists. In the first revolution of February 1917 in Petrograd, now St. Petersburg, members of parliament assumed national control and formed the Russian Provisional Government. The army leadership believed it did not have the means to suppress the revolution and subsequently forced the abdication of Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor.
When the Provisional Government chose to continue fighting World War I despite the Russian Army suffering huge losses, the Bolsheviks demanded an immediate end to the war and won over the common people. In the second phase of the revolution, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin overthrew the Provisional Government and appointed themselves leaders of government ministries and seized control of the countryside. The Bolsheviks founded the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic that would, in 1922, become the chief constituent of the Soviet Union.
The Red Scare and Organized Labor
In 1919, American authorities saw the possibility of revolution at home in cases such as the five-day Seattle General Strike in February, during which more than 65,000 workers in several unions struck for higher wages, and the September Boston Police Strike for better wages and working conditions that resulted in several nights of lawlessness and the restoration of order by the state guard.
Newspapers exacerbated those political fears into xenophobia, a fear of people from other nations, because varieties of radical anarchism were perceived as answers to poverty and anarchism’s advocates often were recent European immigrants. Moreover, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) backed several labor strikes in 1916 and 1917 that the press portrayed as radical threats to American society inspired by left-wing, foreign agents provocateurs. Thus, the press in 1919 misrepresented legitimate labor strikes as, “crimes against society,” “conspiracies against the government,” and “Plots to establish Communism.”
In the wake of the Seattle General Strike, the U.S. Senate created a special five-man subcommittee from the panel whose original mandate was to investigate German subversion during World War I. Known as the “Overman Committee,” it was to study efforts to propagate Bolshevism, and in hearings during 1919, it developed an alarming image of Bolshevism as an imminent threat to the U.S. government and American values.
The Palmer Raids
In April 1919, authorities discovered a plot to mail 36 bombs to prominent members of the U.S. political and economic establishment, including J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and immigration officials. U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, another target of the mail bombs, attempted to suppress radical organizations through exaggerated rhetoric, illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions, and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists. In June of that year, eight bombs simultaneously exploded in eight cities. Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C., was hit by an explosion that killed the bomber, an Italian-American radical from Philadelphia. American authorities saw the threat of revolution in the bomb campaign, and Palmer ordered the U.S. Justice Department to launch what became known as the “Palmer Raids” in November 1919 and January 1920.
The raids were intended to round up and rid the nation of radical leftists, especially anarchists. Yet fewer than 600 of Palmer’s raids were substantiated with evidence, and thousands of resident aliens were illegally arrested and deported. Initially the press praised the raids, but they were criticized as unconstitutional by 12 prominent lawyers. Defensively, Palmer warned in 1920 that a left-wing revolution aimed at government overthrow would begin on May 1, known as May Day, the International Workers’ Day. When it failed to happen, he was ridiculed and lost much of his remaining credibility. In July 1920, Palmer’s promising Democratic Party bid for the U.S. presidency failed.
Wall Street was indeed bombed on September 1, 1920, near Federal Hall and the JP Morgan Bank.While both anarchists and Communists were suspected, no one was indicted for the bombing. The Red Scare effectively ended in the middle of 1920 after Palmer’s predicted May Day uprising passed without incident.
Red Scare Legislation
The anti-immigrant, anti-anarchist Sedition Act of 1918 was approved in Congress to protect wartime morale by deporting people with undesirable politics. In 1919–20, several states enacted “criminal syndicalism” laws outlawing advocacy of violence in effecting and securing social change, which included free speech limitations. Passage of these laws provoked aggressive police investigations and unwarranted arrests and deportation of those suspected of Communist or left-wing leanings. Regardless of ideological nuances, the Red Scare did not distinguish between Communism, Socialism, or social democracy and enabled an overreach of government power while weakening civil liberties in the United States.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Mexican population in the United States grew, and African Americans migrated to the North.
Analyze the causes and challenges of both the Great Migration of African Americans and the immigration of Mexicans in the United States
- Throughout the mid-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century, Mexican migration was not subject to any restrictions, and Mexicans were free to move across the border.
- Because Mexican labor was important to the U.S. economy, the Mexican population was allowed many immigration allowances, such as forgoing literacy tests under the Immigration Act of 1917.
- In the First African-American Great Migration (1910–1930), about 1.6 million African Americans migrated to northern and midwestern industrial cities. They left to look for jobs and to escape the discriminatory and often dangerous conditions of the rural South.
- The Great Migration created the first large urban black communities in the North, and drastically changed the demographics of both the industrial North and the rural South.
- Emergency Quota Act: Legislation, also known as the “Emergency Immigration Act of 1921,” that restricted immigration into the United States. Although intended as temporary legislation, the act, “proved in the long run the most important turning-point in American immigration policy,” because it added two new features to immigration law: numerical limits on immigration from Europe and the use of a quota system.
- African-American Great Migration: The movement of six million African Americans out of the rural southern United States to the Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1910 to 1970. Some historians label the period between 1910 and 1930 as the first Great Migration, in which about 1.6 million migrants left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern and midwestern industrial cities.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and during the early years of the twentieth century, America underwent a change in national demographics that was precipitated by increased Mexican immigration and a Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the northern part of the country.
Following the end of the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848, migration from Mexico was not subject to restrictions and Mexicans moved freely and frequently across the border into the United States. Typically, Mexicans moved in order to work as construction, railway, or seasonal agricultural laborers. The immigration laws of the United States during this time, such as the Emergency Quota Act, generally allowed exemptions for Mexico, while being more restrictive to citizens of the Eastern Hemisphere.
Mexicans received special allowances due to the importance of Mexican labor to the U.S. economy. One example of these allowances was the Immigration Act of 1917, under which all potential immigrants had to pass a literacy test and pay a head tax. At the request of growers in the Southwest who depended on farm labor from Mexico, however, the Secretary of Labor waived these requirements for Mexican immigrants. The abundance of individuals, companies, and groups interested in the availability of inexpensive labor ensured that the immigration laws in place throughout the early twentieth century did not adversely affect the movement of Mexican migrants, in spite of calls on the part of some of southern congressmen to put an end to the open border policies.
From 1910 to 1970, approximately 6 million African Americans moved out of the rural southern United States into the Northeast, Midwest, and West in what historians have called the “Great Migration.” Some historians differentiate between the first Great Migration (1910–1930), numbering about 1.6 million migrants who left mostly rural areas to migrate to northern and midwestern industrial cities, and a Second Great Migration (1940–1970), in which 5 million or more people moved, including many to California and various western cities. The Great Migration created the first large urban black communities in the North. Conservative estimates put at 400,000 the number of African Americans who left the South from 1916 through 1918 to take advantage of a labor shortage following World War I.
Causes and Challenges
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, less than eight percent of the African-American population lived in the northeastern or midwestern United States. In 1900, about 90 percent of blacks still lived in southern states. Between 1910 and 1930, the African-American population increased by about 40 percent in northern states as a result of the migration, mostly in the major cities. Cities including Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City had some of the biggest increases in the early part of the twentieth century. Blacks also were recruited for industrial jobs, such as positions with the expansion of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Because changes were concentrated in cities, which also had attracted millions of new or recent European immigrants, tensions rose directly with competition for jobs and housing. There was no government assistance, but often northern industries such as the railroads, meatpacking, and stockyards took it upon themselves to recruit workers.
The primary factors for migration from the South were segregation, the widespread violence of lynching, and a lack of opportunities. In the North, African Americans could find better schools and adult men could vote (joined by women after 1920). Cities that had been virtually all white at the start of the century became centers of black culture and politics by the middle of the century. Segregation still imposed severe economic and social costs, but allowed northern “Black metropolises” to develop an important infrastructure of newspapers, businesses, jazz clubs, churches, and political organizations that provided the staging ground for new forms of racial politics and black culture.
Numerous examples of postwar racial friction, sparked by Nativism and the Great Migration, reached a peak in the 1919 Red Summer.
Identify the causes and effects of the race riots of 1919
- Nativists and labor unions, fearing that immigrant workers would drive down wages and disrupt the organization of unions, found common ground in their call for immigration restriction.
- A major debate during the early twentieth century was whether to institute literacy tests for immigrants, which led to the establishment of the Dillingham Commission to study the effects of immigration on the United States as a whole. Lobbied heavily by nativists, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and subsequent Immigration Act of 1924 were passed, placing numerical quotas on immigration.
- During the first Great Migration, many African Americans moved to northern industrial centers to search for work and to escape racism in the South. They were willing to work for less pay and often were called on as strikebreakers.
- The Red Summer of 1919 involved primarily white attacks against blacks in cities such as Chicago. It was also the first instance of blacks fighting back against white violence. Subsequently, the African Blood Brotherhood formed armed resistance, while the National Equal Rights League asked President Wilson to take action.
- National Equal Rights League: The oldest nationwide human rights organization dedicated to the liberation of black people in the United States. Its origins can be traced to the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies in 1833.
- Dillingham Commission: The United States Immigration Commission, formed in February 1907 by the United States Congress, which was then under intense pressure from various nativist groups to study the origins and consequences of recent immigration to America; named after the commission’s chair, Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont.
- Haynes Report: A study, drafted by Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor, that examined the violence-filled Red Summer of 1919 and identified 38 separate riots in widely scattered cities in which whites attacked blacks.
- Nativism: The political position of demanding a favored status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants.
The industrial cities of the North and Midwest experienced severe labor shortages following World War I. Northern manufacturers recruited throughout the South, sparking an exodus of African-American workers that became known as the ” Great Migration.” This resulted in postwar social tensions related to the demobilization of veterans of World War I, both black and white, and competition for jobs among ethnic whites and blacks. At the height of the tensions came the Red Summer of 1919, when whites carried out open acts of violence against blacks, who were forced to fight back. Beyond the problems that occurred due to ethnic tensions within America, there was also racial friction resulting in the great influx of European immigrants. This backlash by those born American against people who sought a new life in the United States was known as ” nativism.”
Nativism in America
The movement gained its name from the term “Native American,” referring not to indigenous people or American Indians, but rather to those descended from the inhabitants of the original thirteen colonies. Nativist movements included the Know-Nothing or American Party of the 1850s; the Immigration Restriction League of the 1890s; and the anti-Asian movements in the West, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907,” by which Japan’s government stopped emigration to America. Labor unions were strong supporters of limits on immigration because of fears that immigrants would lower wages and make it harder to organize unions.
From 1890 to 1920, nativists and labor unions campaigned for immigration restriction. A favorite plan was the literacy test to exclude workers who could not read or write English. Responding to these demands, opponents of the literacy test called for the establishment of an immigration commission to focus on immigration as a whole. The United States Immigration Commission, also known as the “Dillingham Commission,” was created and tasked with studying immigration and its effect on the United States. The findings of the commission further influenced immigration policy and upheld the concerns of the nativist movement.
Following World War I, nativists in the 1920s focused their attention on Catholics, Jews, and southeastern Europeans, and realigned their beliefs behind racial and religious nativism. The racial concern of the anti-immigration movement was linked closely to the eugenics movement that was sweeping the United States. Led by Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race, nativists grew more concerned with the racial purity of the United States. In his book, Grant argued that the American racial stock was being diluted by the influx of new immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Polish ghettos. The Passing of the Great Race achieved wide popularity among Americans and influenced immigration policy. A wide national consensus sharply restricted the overall inflow of immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe. The second Ku Klux Klan, which flourished in the United States in the 1920s, used strong nativist rhetoric, but the Catholics led a counterattack.
After intense lobbying from the nativist movement, the U.S. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921. This bill was the first to place numerical quotas on immigration. It capped the inflow to 357,803 immigrants arriving from outside of the Western Hemisphere. However, this bill was only temporary, as Congress began debating a more permanent bill.
The Emergency Quota Act was followed with the Immigration Act of 1924, a more permanent resolution. This law reduced the number of immigrants able to arrive from 357,803 to 164,687. Though this bill did not fully restrict immigration, it considerably curbed the flow of immigration into the United States. During the late 1920s, an average of 270,000 immigrants were allowed to arrive, mainly because of the exemption of Canada and Latin American countries.
The Great Migration and Work Competition
Beginning about 1915 and continuing through the 1930s, in what became known as the “Great Migration,” more than 1.5 million blacks left the South and moved to northern cities seeking better living conditions including more work and an escape from the common vigilante practice of lynchings, which were extra-judicial killings of blacks for various reasons.
Segregation was still a reality, even in the North, as blacks entered cities and competed for jobs and housing, along with millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. As more African Americans moved northward, they encountered racism and had to battle over territory, often against ethnic Irish, who were defending their power bases. While African Americans faced difficulties, their chances were still far better in the North.
African Americans had to make great cultural changes, as most went from rural areas to major industrial cities and had to adjust from being rural laborers to urban workers. Black workers filled new positions in expanding industries, such as the railroads, and assumed many jobs formerly held by whites. In some cities, they were hired as strikebreakers, especially during the strikes of 1917. This increased resentment among many working-class whites, immigrants, or first-generation Americans. Following the war, rapid demobilization of the military without a plan for absorbing veterans into the job market, and the removal of price controls, led to unemployment and inflation, which further increased competition for jobs.
The Red Summer of 1919
The “Red Summer” is a term for the race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities in the United States during the summer and early autumn of 1919. In most instances, whites fell upon African Americans in mass attacks that developed out of strikes and economic competition.
The Chicago Race Riot was the worst example of the mob violence that swept the country. On July 27, 1919, an African-American teenager drowned in Lake Michigan after being stoned by a group of whites for violating the unwritten segregation between whites and blacks on the city’s beaches. Police refusal to arrest the white man identified by witnesses as the instigator sparked rioting and open violence between black and white gangs, with most of the unrest occurring on the South Side near the city stockyards. When the rioting and fighting finally ended on the 3rd of August, 15 whites and 23 blacks were dead, another 500 were injured, and 1,000 black families had lost their homes to fires set by rioters.
The Haynes Report
In the autumn of 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the director of Negro Economics for the U.S. Department of Labor, drafted a study of the violence-filled summer to be used by the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The so-called Haynes Report identified 38 separate riots in widely scattered cities, in which whites attacked blacks. In addition, Haynes reported that between January and September 1919, white mobs lynched at least 43 African Americans, with 16 hanged and others shot, while another 8 men were burned at the stake.
Published in major newspapers, the Haynes Report was a call for national action. Haynes said the states had shown themselves, “unable or unwilling” to put a stop to lynchings, and seldom prosecuted the murderers. The fact that white men had been lynched in the North as well, he argued, demonstrated the national nature of the overall problem: “It is idle to suppose that murder can be confined to one section of the country or to one race.”
Unlike earlier race riots in U.S. history, the 1919 events were among the first in which blacks widely resisted white attacks. In September 1919, in response to the Red Summer, the African Blood Brotherhood, a radical black liberation organization, formed in northern cities to serve as an “armed resistance” movement. Protests and appeals to the federal government continued for weeks. A letter in late November from the National Equal Rights League (NERL) appealed to President Woodrow Wilson ‘s international advocacy for human rights: “We appeal to you to have your country undertake for its racial minority that which you forced Poland and Austria to undertake for their racial minorities.”
During the Chicago riot, U.S. Department of Justice officials reported to the press that supposed communist groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Bolshevik supporters were, “spreading propaganda to breed race hatred.” FBI agents filed reports that leftist views were winning converts in the black community. One cited the work of the NAACP, “urging the colored people to insist upon equality with white people and to resort to force, if necessary.”
J. Edgar Hoover, at the start of his career in government, analyzed the riots for Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, blaming the events on “Negro agitation” and incitement by Socialists. In November, Palmer reported to Congress on the threat that anarchists and Bolsheviks posed to the government. More than half the report documented radicalism in the black community and the “open defiance” black leaders advocated in response to racial violence and the summer’s rioting.
The Spanish Flu
The Spanish flu of 1918 was a global influenza pandemic that killed millions more people than did the Great War.
Discuss the contributing factors that led to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918
- The Spanish flu was an unusually severe and deadly influenza pandemic that spread across the world quickly due to the conditions of World War I and an increase in modern travel.
- World War I produced living conditions in which the flu thrived and spread quickly. The immune systems of soldiers were compromised by stress and malnutrition, leading to the evolution of a more deadly strain of the virus.
- In August 1918, a stronger strain of normal flu emerged. Rather than affecting typical victims such as the very young and elderly, the new strain killed young, generally healthy adults.
- After the fall of 1918, new infections became rare. Most likely, the pandemic ended because doctors became more knowledgeable about treating the illness.
- pandemic: Affecting a wide geographical area and a large proportion of the population.
- H1N1: A subtype of the Influenza A virus. Some strains of H1N1 are endemic in humans and cause a small fraction of all influenza-like illness and a small fraction of all seasonal influenza. Other strains of H1N1 are endemic in pigs (swine influenza) and in birds (avian influenza).
- Spanish influenza: A disease pandemic that spread to nearly every part of the world between 1918 and 1920, killing between 20 and 100 million people, more than the number of deaths in World War I.
In 1918, an unusually severe and deadly influenza pandemic that became known as “Spanish flu” or “Spanish influenza” spread across the globe. The majority of victims were healthy, young adults, in contrast to typical influenza outbreaks that predominantly affect infants, elderly, or already weakened patients. An estimated 50 million people died, 34 million more than the number of lives lost in World War I. The virus struck a fifth of the entire world’s population, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.
Breakout and Transmission
The Spanish flu was an H1N1 influenza virus, which is a subtype of Influenza A with strains that can appear in humans and animals. It first appeared in the late spring of 1918 and, in its first phase, was known as the “three-day fever.” It struck without any warning signs and then dissipated, with victims recovering within days and only a few deaths being reported. Yet the flu returned with a vengeance as the year progressed. Health officials were taken off guard by the swiftness and severity of its spread and did not know how to treat or control the sickness. Some patients died within hours while others held on for a few days, succumbing to suffocation after their lungs filled with fluid.
In the United States, the disease was first observed in Haskell County, Kansas, in January 1918, prompting a local doctor to warn the U.S. Public Health Service’s academic journal. On March 4, 1918, cook Albert Gitchell reported feeling sick at Fort Riley, Kansas. By noon on March 11, 1918, more than 100 soldiers were hospitalized and within days, 522 men at the camp had reported being sick. By March 11, 1918, the virus had spread to Queens, New York. Eventually more than 25 percent of the American population was stricken by the flu, causing such fear that within a single year, U.S. life expectancy figures were lowered by 12 years.
While World War I did not cause the flu, the close quarters in which soldiers were housed increased transmission of the pandemic and amplified the flu’s mutation into an increasingly deadly form. Some speculate that the immune systems of soldiers were weakened by malnourishment, while the stress of combat and chemical attacks increased their susceptibility.
Another large factor in the worldwide occurrence of the spread of the flu was increased travel. Modern transportation systems made it easier for soldiers, sailors, and civilian travelers to spread the disease, especially with the increase of troop movements during the war.
In August 1918, a more virulent strain appeared simultaneously in Brest, France; Freetown, Sierra Leone in West Africa; and Boston, Massachusetts in the United States. Allied troops came to call it the “Spanish flu,” primarily because the pandemic received greater press attention after it moved from France to Spain in November 1918. Spain was not involved in the war and had not imposed wartime censorship.
Deadly Second Wave
The second wave of the pandemic struck in the autumn of 1918 and was much deadlier than the first. The first wave resembled typical flu epidemics in which those most at risk are the sick and elderly, while younger, healthier people recovered easily. But in August 1918, when the second wave began in France, Sierra Leone, and the United States, the virus had mutated into a much deadlier form.
This mutation has been attributed to the circumstances of World War I. In civilian life, evolutionary pressures favor a mild strain of flu: Those who get very sick stay home, and those mildly ill continue with their lives, thereby spreading the mild strain. In the trenches, however, the evolutionary pressures were reversed: Soldiers with a mild strain remained where they were, while the severely ill were sent on packed trains to overcrowded field hospitals, spreading the deadlier virus.
The second wave began and the flu quickly spread around the world again. It was the same flu as the first wave, but it was now far more deadly. Most of those who recovered from first-wave infections were immune, but mutation caused the infection to attack adults who, like the soldiers in the trenches, were otherwise young and healthy. Consequently, during modern pandemics, health officials pay attention when a virus reaches places with social upheaval, looking for deadlier strains of the virus to develop. This effect was most dramatically illustrated in Copenhagen, Denmark, which escaped with a combined mortality rate of just 0.29 percent (0.02 percent in first wave and 0.27 percent in second wave) because of exposure to the less-lethal first wave.
End of the Pandemic
After the deadly second wave, new cases dropped abruptly to almost nothing after the flu’s original peak. In Philadelphia, 4,597 people died in the week ending October 16, but by November 11, influenza had almost disappeared from the city. One explanation for the rapid decline of the disease is that doctors simply became more knowledgeable and skilled at preventing and treating the pneumonia that developed after the victims contracted the virus.