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

marlon mosley
6 min readMar 16, 2020

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…

marlon mosley

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