Like the president with the coronavirus, the head of state in the early twentieth century caught the 1919 flu. And the consequences were disastrous.
That a virus changes the course of history is not new, nor is it new that it affects a president of the United States. Donald Trump’s positive for coronavirus has a not reassuring precedent: In April 1919, in the midst of the third wave of the so-called Spanish flu, the then president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, caught the disease just at the crucial moment of the Paris peace conference in which the allies set the reparations that Germany had to pay after its defeat in the Great War. The agreement would lead to the Treaty of Versailles, which would eventually pave the way for World War II.
That flu pandemic caused between 20 and 50 million deaths worldwide in three waves between 1918 and 1919 (a quarter of a million in Spain). However, Wilson, in the same way as Trump, played down it, and, despite the suffering that the disease caused in the United States, with more than 600,000 deaths, he never referred to it in a public intervention. As if the current president’s story were a carbon copy of Wilson’s, historians accuse the latter of the same as Trump, that is, an alarming lack of leadership.
Wilson’s focus was solely on the country’s effort in the war that the Allies won in November 1918. Historian John Barry, author of The Great Influenza (La gran gripe), recently pointed out that in those times he reacted furiously to any issue other than the military, and that, “in a way very similar to Trump, He did not tolerate criticism from friends or enemies ”.
But just like the current president, Wilson came face to face with the virus. After the German surrender, the Allied countries met in Paris in the spring of 1919 to agree on what conditions the losers should meet and what reparations they should provide. The UK and France held the toughest positions. The French had suffered in their own territory four years of war with enormous destruction and loss of human life. On the other side, the United States preferred a softer deal for Germany and the central powers.
The debates between the delegations were tense and the chroniclers speak of heated discussions between the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau and Wilson. But in early April the president of the United States fell ill. “Do you know your doctor? Maybe I could bribe him ”, they say the French politician joked with his British counterpart Lloyd George.
The president was immobilized in bed by illness at the most important moment of negotiations in which the postwar world order was to be defined. In reality, Wilson was only absent from the negotiating table for a short time, because days later he had already recovered, but he was not the same as before the illness. Laura Spinney, author of The pale rider (Criticism), explained to The vanguard A few months ago, some patients with that flu had neurological disorders in the form of small strokes, which could have affected them.
From the testimonies that are preserved, Spinney believes that Wilson may have been a victim of them, which would have led to a sudden weakness at the negotiating table. Spinney’s thesis also affects new habits and customs. An article in The New Yorker explains that the president became obsessed with “curious details”, that he had a fixation on the decoration of the building in which he resided in Paris in those days and that he was convinced that he lived surrounded by French spies. “One thing is certain: he was never the same again after illness”Irwin Usher, the White House chief usher, said later.
During the second week of April, an exhausted Wilson rejoined the talks, but with a different negotiating position which offered much less resistance to French and British claims. Rather, a zero resistance. Overnight America had given in and Clemenceau and Lloyd found the best possible treaty for their interests.
The agreement specified that Germany should make various territorial cessions and drastically reduce its military strength. Further, had to pay huge sums of money ($ 31,500 million at the time), raw materials and industrial production in reparation for the damages caused during the conflict for which the central powers were made exclusively responsible. Just a few weeks ago, Wilson had argued in front of the hard-wing Allies that such severe impositions could backfire.
In fact, there is broad consensus that it was partly so. German public opinion received the Treaty of Versailles like a humiliation and its entry into force contributed to the rise of Nazism, despite the fact that there is controversy over the real weight of that agreement in the events of the following decades. In any case, the savage crisis of the 1920s, further aggravated by the effect of the 1929 crash, raised the extreme right and, in the end, led to a new war.
It would not be, in the opinion of some historians, the only occasion in which the illness of a president of the United States would have weakened his political position in a negotiation of great importance. Although there is controversy about it, some authors point out that the advanced disease of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta conference in February 1945 it would have paved the way for Stalin’s ambitions in the post-WWII world. Roosevelt, passed away two months later.
Laura Spinney recalls, regarding the neuronal damage caused by the flu, that Wilson suffered a brain accident six months after having the disease, just at the moment when he had to defend in the United States Congress the agreements and the country’s entry into the League of Nations, which ultimately did not occur. The attack left Wilson incapacitated. He would die in 1924 and would not see the disaster of the following decades.
In 2010, Germany paid the last interest on reparations from the Great War.
Felix Badia. La Vanguardia