China in 2020 Is Not Kansas in 1918

President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Whatever the origin of the novel coronavirus, the record of the Chinese Communist Party should not be minimized.

There’s bad uses of history, and then there’s Max Boot’s uncommonly silly Washington Post column on Sunday defending the Chinese Communist Party by comparing it to Kansas in 1918.

Consider Boot’s central argument against the United States imposing any consequences on the Chinese regime for its extensive and lengthy coverup and obstruction of research on the coronavirus:

The 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed 50 million to 100 million people around the world, is now known as the “Spanish flu.” But it actually started in Haskell County, Kan., and it was spread around the world by U.S. soldiers initially infected at Camp Funston in Kansas. It should be known as the “American flu” or “Kansas flu.”

The influenza became a global pandemic in no small part because U.S. officials failed to warn their own citizens — or the world. . . . So should the nations of the world have punished the United States and demanded reparations for its role in spreading one of the most destructive diseases in history? That would seem to be the logic of the China hawks who demand that China be punished because the novel coronavirus originated there. . . . The United States would be better advised to focus on . . . genuine abuses rather than playing the pandemic blame game — lest other nations start demanding reparations for the 1918 flu.

Reparations for 1918? Hoo boy. There’s a lot wrong here; let’s go one at a time.

First, Boot glosses over the considerable historical debate over where the 1918 outbreak began. The Kansas theory was largely popularized by John Barry, in his 2004 book The Great Influenza. While Barry conceded that there was no direct evidence connecting the January 1918 outbreak in an isolated, rural Kansas county to the U.S. Army base at Camp Funston, he advanced an apparently persuasive argument that Haskell County had “the first recorded instance anywhere in the world of an outbreak of influenza so unusual that a physician warned public health officials.” A decade later, however, working from newly unearthed records, Canadian historian Mark Humphries pinpointed an earlier origin — China’s Shanxi province:

Humphries finds archival evidence that a respiratory illness that struck northern China in November 1917 was identified a year later by Chinese health officials as identical to the Spanish flu. He also found medical records indicating that more than 3,000 of the 25,000 Chinese Labor Corps workers who were transported across Canada en route to Europe starting in 1917 ended up in medical quarantine, many with flu-like symptoms. . . . Humphries discovered that a British legation official in China wrote that the disease was actually influenza, in a 1918 report. . . . At the time of the outbreak, British and French officials were forming the Chinese Labor Corps, which eventually shipped some 94,000 laborers from northern China to southern England and France during the [First World War]. . . . The Chinese laborers arrived in southern England by January 1918 and were sent to France, where the Chinese Hospital at Noyelles-sur-Mer recorded hundreds of their deaths from respiratory illness.

Humphries concluded that this allowed him to trace “an unbroken epidemiological chain from the interior of China to the battlefields of Europe,” whereas, “although Barry was correct to conclude that flu was first reported in the civilian population at Haskell, it is unlikely that it was the origin site for the 1918 virus given the clear existence of another severe wave three months earlier which was reported across US Army hospitals.” Humphries’s study convinced some historians to abandon Barry’s thesis:

“This is about as close to a smoking gun as a historian is going to get,” says historian James Higgins, who lectures at Lehigh University [and] has researched the 1918 spread of the pandemic in the United States. “These records answer a lot of questions about the pandemic.”

The debate continues; there are still experts who stand by virologist John Oxford’s theory of a French point of origin. Even Barry, however, says today that the origins are uncertain and “my own feeling is probably more likely in China.”

Second, by suggesting that the U.S. government might owe “reparations” for sending Americans abroad in 1918, Boot completely ignores both the geopolitical and the medical contexts of the era. No matter what news arrived from Kansas, the absolute last thing that Georges Clemenceau would ever have requested in the spring of 1918 was a halt to shipping American soldiers to France. The French and British had bled their nations white fighting the Germans, who — finally freed of the need to devote huge numbers of troops to the Russian and Italian fronts — launched a massive offensive in March designed to be a knockout blow. With the manpower of the European combatants virtually exhausted — the same reason for shipping in Chinese labor — the arrival of a million Americans over the course of 1918 was seen as providential. The Americans played a key supporting role in stopping the German spring offensive, which was finally brought to an end by an outbreak of the Spanish flu among the German army, incapacitating nearly half a million men in June 1918. Americans played an even more important role in the Entente’s fall offensive that ended the war. France and Britain would have hazarded any risk of disease to keep the doughboys coming “over there.”

Moreover, morale-driven press censorship was at least as extensive in Britain, France, and Germany in 1918 as it was in the United States. The reason why news came from Spain was precisely that Spain was neutral in the war. The lack of honest public reckoning with the pandemic was pervasive and hardly limited to the United States.

The medical context was also quite different. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was not discovered until 1928. The influenza virus was first isolated in 1933; until then, it was not known whether influenza was caused by a virus or by a bacterium. The first direct studies of the 1918 virus were not conducted until the 1990s. The virus could be fought with masks and social distancing, but the medicine of the day was defenseless to stop its spread or protect its victims. And in a world that had lived with pervasive death from infectious disease since the dawn of human history, nobody in 1918 thought in terms of the kinds of lockdowns we are experiencing today — even if the pandemic hadn’t erupted in the middle of a global war.

Third, judging from Boot’s use of “Kansas flu” and his Twitter feed, he seems to think he can score some sort of tribal points by going after Kansas, apparently because it’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s home state:

The problem with the U.S. response to the 1918 pandemic, however, was federal, and not the fault of Kansas. Indeed, Barry’s thesis of a Kansas origin was based heavily on a timely alarm raised by a local Kansas doctor. Boot himself quotes Joshua Zeitz in Politico, who cites instead the actions of federal officials: “The U.S. Surgeon General, Rupert Blue, assured Americans that ‘there is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed.’ . . . Colonel Philipp Doane, who led health and safety at the military shipyards where the disease first spread, dismissed the ‘so-called Spanish influenza’ as ‘nothing more or less than the old-fashioned grippe.’” Boot leaves off the inconvenient place where Zeitz goes next: “Woodrow Wilson, who mobilized a formidable public relations effort to generate popula[r] support for the war, said nothing.”

Woodrow Wilson was the father of progressivism in the Democratic Party, and the Patient Zero for many of today’s progressive ideas. Wilson, a Ph.D. political scientist and university president, began the Democrats’ romance with academia and with government by unelected “experts.” He coined the idea of an evolving, “living constitution” that “is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton” and laid both the intellectual and the political foundations of the politically insulated administrative state that treated public oversight as “a clumsy nuisance, a rustic handling delicate machinery.” The roster of Wilson’s sins against America is a lengthy one, but the domestic toll of his policies in the 1918 pandemic response surely merits a place on the list. That has nothing to do with Haskell County, Kans.

It’s not just that Wilson said nothing and did virtually nothing to help the response; as Zeitz, Barry, and others properly note, it was not expected in 1918 that the federal government would play a leading role in public-health responses other than through its ability to quarantine people at the border. In Barry’s words:

When the United States entered the war, Woodrow Wilson demanded that “the spirit of ruthless brutality . . . enter into the very fibre of national life.” So he created the Committee on Public Information, which was inspired by an adviser who wrote, “Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms. . . . The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters very little if it is true or false.”

At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the Sedition Act, making it punishable with 20 years in prison to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State . . . or to urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things . . . necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war.” Government posters and advertisements urged people to report to the Justice Department anyone “who spreads pessimistic stories . . . cries for peace, or belittles our effort to win the war.”

This led to active censorship, such as Wilson’s Justice Department threatening a Wisconsin newspaper with prosecution for accurate reporting on the pandemic. It also played a large role in encouraging local as well as federal public-health officials to tell outright lies about the Spanish flu. That was a policy directed from bureaus in Washington, not cattle farms in Kansas.

Fourth, in attempting to deflect consequences from the Chinese regime, Boot isn’t content to mangle century-old history; he’s also downplaying what happened this year. He frames a “whatabout Trump” parallel for Xi Jinping’s regime by talking only in terms of delays in locking down Wuhan. This ignores the extensive pattern of Chinese misconduct. Chinese officials knowingly peddled the false claim that the virus could not spread person to person. These claims were duly parroted by the World Health Organization. In January, even sophisticated Western experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci were “unclear” on how contagious the virus might be, uncertainty that Fauci now says was based on Chinese “misinformation right from the beginning.” Chinese officials arrested whistleblowing doctors, ordered a halt to testing and the destruction of samples, and refused to provide a sample of the virus for Western researchers to study. These were all practical obstacles to research and public-health responses even by governments (not only our own) inclined to be skeptical of official Chinese pronouncements. Meanwhile, 5 million people left Wuhan, and hundreds of thousands of people entered the United States from China before the Trump administration restricted travel at the end of January. Given recent reevaluations of how early the virus was spreading, it now looks as if we knew too late to shut the proverbial barn door.

These are not a reason to let American leaders, from Trump on down, off the hook for their own subsequent actions. But neither is “whatabout Trump” a valid excuse for defending the Chinese Communist Party and whitewashing the very real effect that its actions have had on America and the world. Boot asks plaintively: “Rather than seeking to punish China for a disease that has killed at least 4,633 of its citizens and cost it billions of dollars — isn’t that punishment enough? — the United States should cooperate with Beijing in developing a vaccine and cure.” He never asks whether Beijing can be trusted to do so.

Moreover, there are serious reasons to believe that China’s responsibility runs deeper: that the virus was loosed on the population owing to laxity at the viral-research labs in Wuhan, effectively a viral Chernobyl. Boot scoffs at the “unlikely event that the outbreak was the result of a lab accident,” but the timeline as we now know it makes it implausible to accept the official Chinese explanation that the virus jumped from animals to humans at a wet market in Wuhan. Even the Washington Post “fact check” that Boot cites concedes that a “Jan. 24 analysis published in the Lancet found that three of the first four cases — including the first known case — did not have market links. Daniel R. Lucey, a pandemics expert at Georgetown University, put it simply: ‘In my opinion, the virus came into the market before it came out of the market.’” That leaves Boot without a theory of what did happen. Jim Geraghty has traced the extensive circumstantial evidence to believe that the labs were studying the virus and that an accidental release is the simplest explanation of what happened; I won’t rehash all of Jim’s reporting, but you can start here, here, and here.

Boot claims that the Wuhan-lab-accident theory is simply a matter of Trump citing “secret evidence,” an ironic contention sandwiched between Boot’s citation of “warnings of the U.S. intelligence community starting in early January” and “New York Times reports that the White House is pressuring intelligence agencies” — both assertions made without a single identified source. In fact, the director of national intelligence confirmed on the record — in the very statement that Boot cites — that “the IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” And for what it’s worth, if you’re banking on unnamed sources in the intelligence community, “a senior intelligence official” reportedly told Jerry Dunleavy of the Washington Examiner: “A majority of the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 17 spy agencies believe the coronavirus likely originated with an accidental lab escape from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. . . . The official also noted dissenting agencies remain open to the theory.” The Chinese government has, of course, obstructed inquiry into the origins in Wuhan, so for now all we can do is extrapolate from the best available evidence.

Regardless of whether the virus entered the general population in Wuhan from sloppy lab procedures, wet-market bat sales, or some other mechanism, the record of the Chinese Communist Party cannot so easily be minimized. Wuhan, we’re not in Kansas anymore.


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