Politics and pestilence

A simpler time? Not really …

Around the time President Woodrow Wilson decided to commit U.S. troops to end the stalemate of World War I, he also pushed through legislation that in some ways was the day’s equivalent of the USA Patriot Act. The laws, known as the Espionage and Sedition Acts, allowed the government to punish opponents and control the media to an extent only dreamed of by those in power today.

Though later declared unconstitutional, the sedition acts allowed the government to jail anyone accused of uttering anti-American or anti-war sentiments. Thousands of immigrants, activists and unionists were rounded up on dubious charges. Many were beaten or otherwise mistreated while in captivity. Even in the bucolic Northstate, several people were arrested under suspicion of espionage simply because they resisted the government’s call to buy war bonds.

Fear of offending the government caused the press to become cowed, and newspapers bent over backward to appease the Wilson administration. This helped the administration cover up the extent of the original flu infestation in the army camps in the spring of 1918, which killed thousands of recruits and may have sown the seeds for the disease’s return that autumn.

Press and government collusion also allowed for obvious pieces of misinformation to be published, such as a story that ran in The Enterprise on Oct. 24, 1918, headlined “War Making Our Boys Healthier.”

Another local flu story illuminated the widespread labor unrest of the time, exposing a food processing plant in Los Molinos that had a government contract to provide dehydrated food to the army. When state health officer Harold Gray visited the plant, he found a quarter of the workers sick, “housed in poorly ventilated bunkhouses, nursed only by other employees who are rapidly spreading the infection.”

The plant’s owners refused to shut the plant, saying “there was no law compelling [it] to close down because some … employees were sick.” This caused Gray to accuse the company not only of spreading flu but of fostering the equally frightful disease of “IWW-ism.”

During the pandemic, a national election was held. For the first time, politicians eschewed stump speeches in favor of newspaper ads. Some, like Oroville health officer W.F. Gates, had to quit the race entirely.

Turnout was low, and many wore masks to polling stations. The national mood was sour. President Wilson, a Democrat, saw his postwar agenda crumble as voters gave the Republican Party national victories in both the house and senate. Wilson suffered from a bout of the flu himself, but recovered in time to oversee the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Suffering an incapacitating stroke a few months later, he was ushered out of office amidst a hysterical Red scare and a wave of deadly race riots and labor strikes.