I finished The Great Influenza, the other day. I think one of the major lessons I took away from the book was the way in which the public officials’ actions acted against the efforts of scientists and doctors in treating and limiting the epidemic.
I first heard the term in college, in a class on the Vietnam War. It referred to the increasing discontent of the nation with the lies of its leaders. Johnson, in particular, was seen as a primary culprit of this. Per example, Hue, 1968.
Days before the Tet Offensive was launched against American positions, Johnson officials had proclaimed that the war was practically won and that the Viet Minh were co longer capable of mounting a major offensive.
This was all too obviously contradicted by the major fighting in Hue and throughout the south. Especially with pictures of the American embassy in Saigon under attack. It was the first truly televised war and the constant exaggerations by the Johnson administration of troop levels, of enemy killed, of ground taken led to a disillusioned populous.
This was considered the beginning of the credibility gap, though I would argue that it began much earlier. I don’t know when it began, but it was definitely present during the Spanish Influenza epidemic.
During the epidemic, government officials throughout the country refused to believe the scientists who told them that contact with those already sick could easily make others sick. The officials, instead of imposing strict quarantines, simply told their people that the influenza was at its peak and that there was nothing to worry about.
This attitude, taken not only by public officials towards civilians, but by military personnel towards soldiers in spite of warnings from some of the brightest medical scientists in the world, caused incalculable suffering.
Troops transferred between camps, carrying the disease on what became death trains. Voyages across the Atlantic to carry troops from American camps to Brest or St. Nazaire, became floating sick wards, many of the soldiers dying from the gruesome disease. I touched upon this topic in a previous post, but I didn’t fully discuss the idea of a credibility gap.
After weeks of lies from officials telling the public that all was in hand and that the disease had peaked, the public stopped believing them. They ignored what the mayors and the legislators and the executive officials said. They simply tried to survive. The leaders be damned.
Thus my argument that the credibility gap extended far before the Vietnam War. And if you want some humor, there’s also a comic troupe that performed during the majority of the war and beyond called the Credibility Gap.