Chief Curator Sara Willen narrates the story of President Woodrow Wilson, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Paris Peace Conference.
World War 1, roughly about 120,000 American soldiers died. 675,000 Americans died at home of the influenza. And the most vulnerable were not the elderly, the most vulnerable were the healthiest. The average age of death was 28 years old, and those deaths were so sudden and so horrific, that it is almost unimaginable.
President Wilson not only makes any mention of the pandemic, he actually took no notice of it. He was so focused on what was happening 3000 miles away, on the war which would make the world safe for democracy, that he paid no attention to the democracy at home. He never once talked about the pandemic in America.
Woodrow Wilson had gone over to Paris almost the second the war was over. He wants to get to the Paris Peace Conference at the palace of Versailles as soon as possible and he arrives just in time for what is considered the second wave of the flu. At the Paris conference, he is adamant about what he wants and it is in direct opposition to what is wanted by the French and the British. The French had been invaded three times by the Germans in the last 50 years, and they were sick of it. And now they blamed Germany for starting World War 1 and they wanted pay back.
In April, he takes sick. In the night, he has a very high fever, ghastly symptoms, and he has a change of demeanor, which is marked. He’s seeing things, he’s suddenly very concerned with the arrangement of furniture in his bedroom. However, as soon as he’s able, he decides, “I’m going back to the table and I’m going to start negotiating again.” He has been ill for five days. He is not recovered by a long shot. His mental state is not the same.
But something far more significant happened and that is that all of the things that Wilson went to Versailles to fight for, which was a peace without victory, the democratic Germany, everything he stood for, he abandoned. And that was a signal that there was something very, very wrong with the president. His own doctor said he was never the same again. And also credited the influenza with causing Wilson’s massive stroke about six months later.
Historians as a rule, agree, almost on nothing. On one point there is universal agreement and that is, had the treaty of Versailles been what Wilson had intended rather than what he signed off on, Germany would have taken a very different course.