“It’ll probably be without the sense of disillusionment, without the wildness, without the fatalism, without the survivor’s guilt, without asking ‘Why am I alive?’” Barry says. “I don’t think anybody who goes on a cruise ship next year is going to be wondering, ‘Why am I alive? How come I made it?’ Psychologically, that was all part of the Roaring ’20s.”
Behind the flappers, bootleggers and Gatsbyesque decadence was a hard-won fatalism that came from the level of loss and devastation wrought by the war and the flu, which, unlike Covid, disproportionately killed younger Americans, contributing to a sense among some who survived that since they could die young, they might as well live hard.
Where the Covid pandemic has stretched on and on, with Americans mostly staying at home for the better part of a year, the flu swept through most cities in a matter of weeks but exacted a much heavier toll. Where Covid has killed roughly 2.7 million people worldwide, the influenza pandemic of 1918-’19 killed 50 million to 100 million people at a time the global population was less than one-fourth its current size.
“The world had come apart. Everybody knew people who died — everybody. And in most cases, they knew a lot of people who died,” says Barry.
Barry also notes that the influenza pandemic disproportionately affected young adults, whereas older people have suffered most from Covid. One study by Metropolitan Life found that during the 1918 pandemic, 3.6 percent of all industrial workers ages 25–45 died within the period of a few weeks. “That’s not case mortality; that’s mortality,” Barry says, adding, “In 1918, the deaths among young children were astronomical.”
One similarity between then and now: Like the influenza virus, the novel coronavirus isn’t going to simply disappear. It doesn’t actually depend on human beings in order to survive; it’s ambivalent about whether mankind exists at all.
“This virus seems to pass between people and other mammals very, very easily. That was also true in 1918,” Barry says. In that sense, coronavirus is not unlike the 1918 flu virus, parts of which live on in the seasonal flus we experience every year. It’s a rather sobering reality, says Barry: “This virus is here to stay.”
What can we learn from life after the flu pandemic? What do we get wrong as we salivate about the prospect of another Roaring ’20s? And how do the flu pandemic’s lessons differ from the takeaways of the Covid era?
To sort through it all, POLITICO Magazine spoke with Barry this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Right now, with vaccines being distributed and the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly in the endgame stage in the U.S., a lot of people are pretty vocal about their hopes for the summer. There’s been speculation about a “roaring 2020s” 100 years after the actual Roaring ’20s. What does your research on the end of the great influenza pandemic tell you about what we’re likely to see in the years ahead?
John M. Barry: Well, it’s an area where I don’t think the 1918 pandemic is necessarily a great precedent. I think we will probably get into a Roaring ’20s type of situation, but it will have a very, very different mood.
Metropolitan Life found that [during the influenza pandemic], 3.6 percent of all industrial workers between the ages of 25 and 45 died in a period of weeks. That’s not case mortality; that’s mortality. It [disproportionately affected] a targeted demographic: young adults. It’s a different experience than what we’ve gone through.
In 1918, the first wave was extraordinarily mild. One statistic largely tells that story: The French army had 40,000 soldiers hospitalized [with the flu] and fewer than 100 deaths — and that’s without modern medicine. That’s the first wave. When the first wave ended, there were actually medical journal articles saying, “It’s gone. It has disappeared.”
The second wave was much more lethal and significantly more intense. It was the one that really counted. In the second wave, the military generally had 10 percent case mortality — and in many instances, much higher. One of the biggest differences between 1918 and today is duration. The second wave would move through a community in six to 10 weeks. It was different.
The other thing is, of course, the war — particularly in Europe. You had 20 million people killed in World War I, [including] almost 10 million soldiers. The United States only lost a little over 50,000 [troops]; the war, in terms of deaths, hardly touched us.
The economy was largely shut down — not so much by government decree, but because of absenteeism: Everything was a war industry. Engineers weren’t available to run railroad trains and things like that. Everything backed up. [President Woodrow] Wilson had turned it into “total war.” Every aspect of society was aimed at winning the war, from self-censorship in the press to laws that made it punishable by 20 years [in prison] to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government” in the United States. Most states banned the teaching of German; sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” — nonsense like that. Probably more effort went into trying to get Americans to conform their thinking than at any other time in history, including the McCarthy [Red Scare] period.
You also had the utter and total disillusionment worldwide with the peace treaty. Supposedly, we fought the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” etc. And all of the ideals that we claimed to go to war for were abandoned in the peace treaty. John Maynard Keynes called Woodrow Wilson the “greatest fraud on Earth.” Wilson’s top aides — about a dozen of them, several of whom later became secretaries of State — were so disgusted with what Wilson agreed to that they thought about resigning en masse. So, you’ve got the most brutal war in history, fought for the stupidest reasons, with the worst generalship that paid no attention to human life.
The end of the war came as a surprise. Nobody anticipated that it was going to end in the middle of November 1918. Everything was gearing up for a major offensive by the U.S. and its allies in the spring of 1919. The end was really abrupt and unexpected. So, when it did end, there was an extraordinary amount of euphoria — and that occurred, in many cases, almost simultaneously with the end of the pandemic.