While things seem grim at the moment, it is essential to look back 100 years and see the progress we’ve made after other horrible disruptions as a society.
In World War I, old-world mentalities that didn’t respect human life met new world technologies. Over 20 million people died in four years. It was common to lose a million men in single campaigns, with some days killing over tens of thousands of soldiers. The Great War was the most brutal war in human history.
It ended with the 1918 influenza. It was a ruthless killing machine that claimed many of its victims within 12 hours in a horrifying death. Perhaps two-thirds of the deaths came in the first 24 weeks. Some believe half the deaths took place from September to December in 1918, and the rest over two years. It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS did in 24 years. In total, 17 million to 100 million people died in the pandemic.
Over 5% of the world may have died in two years.
The concept of germs and cells were controversial new discoveries. Vaccines, sanitation, toilet paper, toilets, and electricity were still novel concepts. Radio and television didn’t yet exist. Ventilators and ICU beds would have been alien technology. Air conditioning had not yet been invented. In most of the world, the sick would still have to tend to their crops to eat.
During this time, the Wilson Administration used the Espionage Act to jail journalists that wrote truthful articles about the war or pandemic. It’s called the Spanish Flu because Spain had the only free press in the world due to its neutrality in the war. The rest of the world thought Spain was unique, when in fact, their governments and media were suppressing the truth.
Furthermore, the Postmaster General censored periodicals through the mail, which was the main source of news. He stopped delivering any journals that didn’t enthusiastically support the war.
The Attorney General Thomas Gregory had the Library of Congress report the names of patrons that checked out certain books and said the government needed to monitor “the individual casual or impulsive disloyal utterances.” He revised John Adams’ Sedition Acts. It became punishable by 20 years in jail to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States.” Even if the statement was factually accurate, the offender could be imprisoned.
The Federal government enforced the law by creating the American Protective League. Within a year, 200,000 Americans became confidential informants. They used violence to silence dissent, punished “slackers” and “food hoarders”, and investigated why neighbors hadn’t bought enough Liberty Bonds that helped fund the war. Like in Orwell’s 1984 or North Korea today, willing citizens organized spying rings to turn in fellow citizens.
The Wilson Administration didn’t stop there. John Berry writes in his great book “The Great Influenza, “The War Industries Board allocated raw materials to factories, guaranteed profit, and controlled production and prices of war materials, and, with the national war labor board, it’s at wages as well. The Railroad Administration virtually nationalized the American railroad industry. The Fuel Administration controlled fuel distribution (and to save fuel it also instituted daylight savings time). The Food Administration – under Herbert Hoover – oversaw agricultural production, pricing, and distribution. And the government inserted itself in the psyche of America by allowing only it’s voice to be heard, by both threatening dissenters with prison and shouting down everyone else.”
The same individuals that survived war, plagues, famine and the loss of liberty went on to fight the Great Depression and a Second World War that killed 75 million people.
They went through all of that, and yet, America and the world became more prosperous and freer in the second half of the 20th century than any generation that existed previously in human history.
Even if the present is tough, the future of a society is not always guaranteed to come crashing down in flames. Humans are always finding ways to become safer, healthier, and more prosperous.
Individuals in 1918 probably didn’t think our level of abundance could be possible, but it was. We should never give in to the idea that we are at a point of permanent financial ruin where liberty has been lost forever and our children will never have what we had. Our history proves it isn’t guaranteed.