I’m currently reading the Great Influenza by John M. Barry. It is a book about the epidemic Spanish Influenza that killed nearly twenty-five million worldwide during and after the Great War. One thing that strikes me as poignant is the overriding hubris of the government in censoring news about the disease.
It was war time, yes, but that does not justify an executive branch to infringe on a first amendment right as granted by fiat of the legislative and by popular accord of the people. Wilson took other measures in hand, securing an almost autocratic control of the homefront in service to the battle front. Intimidation to ensure sales of the Liberty Bonds, censorship put in place to ensure that no news would be released if it might affect the morale of the people or the troops.
Most relevantly, this last, led to a serious failure of leadership during the fall and winter of 1918, when the Influenza was at its worst. Newspapers reported that nothing was wrong. Look at the reassurances of public health officials. It’s going to be all right, the government will protect us. Others simply remained silent, saying nothing about the influenza virus.
This censorship proved to cause more problems than it solved. As Barry points out, and as is relevant today, it created a breach of trust between the people and the government. The lies bandied about by Wilson’s appointed health officers was evidenced by a simple walk in the street. Bodies lay on porches and in hallways. Morgues and cold stores overflowed with bodies. How could this much death lead to so little concern on the part of the government? It must be a farce.
This wouldn’t be the first time the government lost the trust of the people, and it wouldn’t be the last by any means.