The Sedition Act of 1918, Second Order Thinking and how not to handle a major Flu Pandemic — Mistakes Were Made

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In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson with the help of Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918. The law extended the Espionage Act of 1917 and covers a broader range of offenses. The main component of the law was to ban any speech or expression of opinion that would cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds. The law also forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. People imprisoned under the law received sentences of imprisonment ranging from five to twenty years. The law only applied to times when the U.S. is in war, and given the U.S. was involved in World War I, the law made sense.

The problem with the law was the second order thinking impact of the law wasn’t thought through by Wilson and Congress. Second order thinking is when one looks past the immediate results of their actions and also looks at the subsequent effects of those actions. Think of playing Chess, and seeing and interpreting the whole board instead of just focusing on your next move, It’s usually the secondary and even third-order effects which cause disasters.

The world was suffering through an epic influenza epidemic in 1918. The flu, better known as the Spanish flu, killed millions, some say as high as 100 million. The final death numbers are unknown because record keeping was spotty back then.

Given the consequences of running afoul of the 1918 sedition act and wanting to keep war morale high, many public health officials started lying about the spread of the Spanish flu and its effects.

In September 1918, a navy ship from Boston carried passengers sick with the Spanish flu to Philadelphia. The disease soon spread through the Navy yard. Philadelphia’s public health director, Wilmer Krusen, declared that he would, “confine this disease to its present limits, and in this we are sure to be successful. No fatalities have been recorded. No concern whatever is felt.” The next two days, two sailors died of the Spanish flu. Krusen stated they died of “old-fashioned influenza or grip,” not Spanish flu. The next day 14 sailors and a civilian died. Every subsequent day the disease accelerated. Newspapers assured readers that the Spanish flu posed no danger.

In a matter of weeks, the Spanish flu spread across the country. Philadelphia had scheduled a big Liberty Loan parade. Doctors urged Krusen to cancel it, fearful that hundreds of thousands of people in one place would vastly spread the disease. The doctors went to the press about the dangers of the disease, but editors refused to run the information and also refused to print letters from the doctors. The parade went on as planned. The Inquirer had a headline stating, “Scientific Nursing halting Epidemic.” In reality, the nurses couldn’t stop the epidemic because none were available. Most were in Europe helping U.S. soldiers with the war effort. Krusen finally had to accept the reality of what was going on with the epidemic in the city. He belatedly shut all schools down and banned all public gatherings. Newspapers were still saying the order is not “a public health measure,” “and there is no cause for panic or alarm.”

Back to reality, the epidemic was killing up too 759 people in one day in Philadelphia. Nearly 12,000 Philadelphians died from the flu, nearly all in a matter of six weeks.
The lies weren’t just related only to Philadelphia. The U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue said, “There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.” New York City public health director declared “other bronchial diseases and not the so-called Spanish influenza..caused the illness of the majority of persons who were reported ill with influenza.” The Los Angeles public health chief said, “If ordinary precautions are observed there is no cause for alarm.”

The public eventually wised up and figured out their public officials and newspapers weren’t being honest with them. This wasn’t a regular old flu. In San Antonio alone, 53% of the population got sick with influenza. Victims could die within hours from the Spanish flu. Symptoms included blood coughed up from the lungs, bleeding from the nose, eyes and ears. Once again, this wasn’t no ordinary flu.

People lost trust in the press and government and fear rampaged over the country. Was everyone going to die? How long would this epidemic last? How many people had already died from it? Ironically, with the public not believing the government or the press morale plummeted. Remember, morale was the number one thing the government was tying to keep elevated but its actions ended up doing the reverse. People started panicking and looking out for themselves.

The epidemic eventually ended as the human body adapted to the virus. Wilson and Congress were only trying to stop people disparaging the Government and the war effort. Unfortunately, the law had an unforeseen secondary order effect of effecting public health officials thinking, in the middle of one of the biggest pandemics to ever hit the U.S.

How many lives could have been saved if the officials were honest about the Spanish flu and quarantined people and shut down all public events? Their inactions and lies did nothing but help the Spanish flu spread quickly. The disease is called the Spanish flu because to maintain morale, (here’s that phrase again) wartime censors minimized early reports of illness and mortality in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the U.S. Papers were free to report the epidemics effects in Spain because Spain was not involved in World War I. The stories created a false impression that the disease was mainly confined to Spain, thus it’s called the Spanish flu. This mistake was not repeated with the Corona Virus.

The Trump administration made many mistakes with their handling and early reporting of the Corona Virus. They did not however, censor public health officials or the press about the seriousness of the virus. By the time the public figured out the truth in 1918, it was too late the virus had swept across the nation. Panic ensued, though I don’t think people were making runs on toilet paper and bottled water back then.

There is no way Wilson or Congress knew a serious pandemic was about to sweep through the U.S., however if they used Second Order thinking they could have at least seen the fallacies of the Sedition Act. They could have added a clause making an exception for public health and safety. Then again, interpretation of the law may have been the issue. Instead of a strict adherence to the law, St. Louis, unlike Philadelphia shut down large gatherings and schools early on. This helped curb the spread of the virus. Thousands of people died unnecessarily because of the misguided thinking from public health officials.

In the last few weeks, we have seen China not being truthful about the number of people infected by the Corona Virus. We have seen Iran not being truthful about the death count from the Corona Virus. One thing we know for certain when the next pandemic hits, countries will mislead and lie about it, to the detriment of their citizens.

Most of the research for this article is from the book , “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” by John M. Barry

Originally published at on March 16, 2020.

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recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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