Overcoming Adversity, America Becomes Stronger

Overcoming Adversity, America Becomes Stronger

American Red Cross nurses on duty during the 1918 Spanish Flu. Photos from CDC

By Rich Acritelli

It was a little over a hundred years ago that the Spanish Flu struck the world community during the height of the Great War, World War I. While the casualties and deaths were staggering on the Western Front, there was little talk about this flu until the outbreak of COVID-19 today. 

A sign on a streetcar in Cincinatti, Ohio, during the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Photo from CDC

As Americans prepared to fight the enemy in the form of the Central Powers, this silent sickness completely devastated the world with an estimated 200 million people killed from this pandemic. In cities across the U.S. from San Francisco to New York, 675,000 Americans from all walks of life were killed from the influenza. Like the concerns that we see today over the impact of the coronavirus, our country has always had the resiliency of rebuilding from many extremely low moments that have tested the will of our people.

The difficulties of handling this flu were seen during World War I under the leadership of then Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower. Outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at a tank training center, he commanded 10,600 officers and soldiers who were expected to be sent overseas to France. By October of 1918, one third of Eisenhower’s soldiers were sickened with the flu and a quarantine was established on the base neighboring town to contain its spread. As the war came to an end on Nov. 11, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to meet with the victorious powers.  While these figures were determining the merits of the faulty Treaty of Versailles, he was diagnosed with the flu. It was observed that Wilson was sick and fatigued from a deadly sickness that did not discriminate against any one person.

There is no one generation that has been completely immune from national hardships like that of the Spanish Flu. In March 1783, after eight years of war that saw General George Washington defeated on Long Island and New York City, preserve his army at Trenton and through its glorious victory at Yorktown in 1781, there was a major threat by the officer corps. Many of these men were disheartened that they were not yet paid by the Continental Congress and reimbursed for expenses that were owed to these officers. After learning of a possible revolt, Washington traveled to Newburgh, New York, and only months before England completely pulled out of New York City, he spoke with these dissatisfied men and persuaded them not to ruin a historic victory by the army. With attaining the total defeat of the British at hand, the presence of Washington prevented a possible disaster towards independence.

By 1865, Abraham Lincoln was at the cusp of defeating the South and preserving the Union. He did not want any additional setbacks that would allow the continuation of this war. Lincoln lost his son William in February of 1862 and in the same year there were the costly battles of Shiloh and Antietam. Up until placing Ulysses S. Grant as the commanding general of all armies in 1864, Lincoln was constantly disappointed by poor direction of his northern generals who were charged with preserving the Union.  He was saddened at the 53,000 casualties at Gettysburg between the North and South and he desperately wanted to win the war and end the killing between the states.

An unemployed man on the street during the Great Depression. Public domain photo by Dorothea Lange

In 1932, 25 percent of our population was unemployed, there was a lack of confidence under the presidency of Herbert Hoover, and Americans lived in a desperate state. Many of our citizens looked towards New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to guide this country during the Great Depression. Roosevelt was an unlikely figure — an extremely wealthy individual who had lost the ability to walk through the polio disease. He became a major champion of reform and his decisive leadership created programs like that of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority and the Fair Labor Standards Act that established overtime and minimum wage.  

Armed with a big smile, Roosevelt could be seen shaking the hands of farmers and miners and he was motivated to try new ideas. While he did not end the Depression, his presidential commitment demonstrated his resolve to present decisive leadership. Roosevelt guided this nation with determination during an extremely dark time.

Even before America fought in World War II, Roosevelt was the Commander in Chief of one of the weakest military forces out of the industrialized powers. Directly after this nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the so called “sleeping giant” was awoken and led by Roosevelt went on to defeat the totalitarian countries of Germany and Japan. Roosevelt was at the helm of this global fight against these two brutal nations.  “This date that will live in infamy,” he stated at the start of the war and quickly under his direction, Americans moved against the Germans in North Africa and the Japanese at Guadalcanal. Citizens from every part of our society pitched in at home and abroad to fight and gain a total victory. When Roosevelt passed away in the spring of 1945, many Americans recalled the saddest moments of the Depression and the war, and they descended in large numbers to pay respect to his coffin that was moved by train from Warm Springs, Georgia, to Hyde Park, New York.

Older Americans often say that they knew where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated or during the moments that the U.S. was attacked by terrorists on 9/11. Now our people will recall and thank the health care workers that spent countless hours during the height of COVID-19 to aid all of those citizens, especially our local residents that were inflicted with this “silent enemy.”  Every generation has endured some truly terrible moments and right now, we have devoted people that are constantly looking to make each day a better one for those impacted with this current sickness. Like that of years ago, our nation has and will always bounce back from adverse moments to be a genuine example of pride to the current and future generations who will continue to make the United States a dynamic nation.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.