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The Russian Flu of 1889: The Deadly Pandemic Few Americans Took Seriously

March 23, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Modern transportation helped make it the first global outbreak.

From America’s vantage in 1889, the Russian influenza posed little cause for concern. So what if it had struck with a vengeance in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg that fall, infecting as much as half the population? Or that it had raged swiftly eastward across Europe, into the British Isles? Or that some of the continent’s most prominent leaders—the czar of Russia, the king of Belgium, the emperor of Germany—had fallen ill with the virus?

To Americans, it was safely over there, a vast ocean away.

But within a few months, the pandemic spread to virtually every part of the earth. Tracing its path, scientists would observe that it tended to follow the major roads, rivers and, most notably, railway lines—many of which hadn’t existed during last major pandemic in the 1840s.

That finding gave credence to the theory that the disease was spread by human contact, not by the wind or other means—and that as long as people could move with ease from city to city and country to country, stopping its spread would be all but impossible. Today, the Russian influenza is often cited as the first modern flu pandemic.

READ MORE: Pandemics That Changed History: A Timeline

A Russian map, dated 1890, detailing the occurrence of influenza by province across Russia.

Coming to America

Most Americans first learned of the pandemic in early December of 1889. The nation’s newspapers covered its growing toll in Berlin, Brussels, Lisbon, London, Paris, Prague, Vienna and other cities. When top European leaders fell ill, Americans were updated on their condition on a near-daily basis.

Even so, the news seemed to cause no particular stir in the U.S. and certainly nothing resembling a panic. But just as railroad transportation had allowed the influenza to cross Europe in a matter of weeks, the larger, faster steamships of the day increased the odds that infected travelers would soon be arriving from across the Atlantic.

Indeed, New York and other East Coast port cities became the earliest U.S. locales to report suspected cases, and seven members of one Manhattan family, ranging in age from 14 to 50, were among the first confirmed patients. Their household’s outbreak had begun with sudden chills and headaches, reports said, followed by sore throat, laryngitis and bronchitis. Overall, “the patients were about as sick as persons with a bad cold,” according …read more


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Why Congress Passed the Defense Production Act in 1950

March 23, 2020 in History

By Erin Blakemore

The Cold War-era law went into effect during a time when President Truman felt the nation was unprepared.

“Are YOU doing all you can?” “We can do it!” During World War II, Americans at home were reminded to do their part by splashy propaganda posters that emphasized pulling together for the national good. Industry did its part, too, thanks to wartime laws that prioritized military production. Seemingly overnight, car factories produced warplanes. Lipstick manufacturers made bomb cases instead. Even nylon, the new synthetic fabric that covered women’s legs at the beginning of the war, was recruited to military applications.

Thanks to the Defense Production Act of 1950, a law with roots in the all-society mobilization of World War II, the United States still has the authority to spur industry in times of national emergency.

READ MORE: How Detroit Factories Retooled During WWII to Defeat Hitler

Defense Production Act Has Roots in World War II

Workers at a Chrysler plant assembling tanks during World War II.

The country was anything but ready for a major conflict in 1941. Due to the Great Depression and a national unwillingness to get involved in conflict overseas, the United States had been unprepared. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor in and the United States’ entry into the war, the nation had to come to grips with its unreadiness.

The country’s industrial sector was still reeling from the Depression, and owners weren’t thrilled about the thought of investing in defense production. “Many American producers of primary materials were reluctant to expand facilities, and many manufacturers reluctantly converted assembly lines from peacetime goods to vitally needed armaments,” writes historian Barton J. Bernstein.

To break through that reluctance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pursued sweeping war powers. The Second War Powers Act gave him the power to requisition supplies and property and force entire industries to produce wartime products. Instead of producing products for civilians, the nation’s factories became powerhouses pumping out planes, tanks, military vehicles, weapons, ships and other defense-related products. U.S. manufacturing output grew by 300 percent during the war, and despite wartime scarcity, consumer spending increased, too, thanks to higher employment and wages.

READ MORE: These World War II Propaganda Posters Rallied the Home Front

Truman Warns of Communist Aggression

The War Powers Acts represented unprecedented presidential power, but most of those powers contracted with …read more