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Pandemics are nature’s weapons of mass destruction
Historically speaking
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It is interesting that, with all the advancements today in weaponry and defense, the thing that kills the most people is natural and too small to see with the naked eye. When we put so much emphasis on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, a virus that we should have prepared for is the thing that most endangers us. The emergence of COVID-19 reminds us again that, if you take on nature, you might end up on the wrong side. Humans certainly are capable of mass destruction; however, historically speaking, we are nothing when compared to disease.

Think of some of the largest events in history. World War II killed around 70 million, the Holocaust around 6 million, and the communists are estimated to have killed around 100 million. Yet, HIV/Aids has killed over 36 million, 1968’s Hong Kong flu 1 million, the Asian flu in 1956-1958 2 million, and finally the Black Plague somewhere between 75-200 million.

In most American wars the total number of deaths is larger from disease than from battlefield wounds, at least before modern medicine. The Mexican American War had 1,733 battlefield deaths and more than 11,000 from disease. The Civil War had more than 140,000 battlefield deaths but more than 224,000 from disease. The Spanish American War only saw 385 battlefield deaths but an additional 2,000 from disease.

The last of the wars where disease claimed more lives than guns is World War I. We lost more than 53,000 men in the trenches of Europe, but another 63,000 men died from disease. However, this did not include the Spanish Flu, one of the worst pandemics in world history that came right on the heels of WWI. The Spanish Flu killed 50-100 million people worldwide and at least 675,000 Americans.

The problem was that we were still a rural society. Most of our men in these wars lived on farms and in isolated communities. You put all these men together from around the country and they bring their diseases with them. For many of these early wars, it was childhood diseases like measles, chicken pox, small pox, and mumps that killed off many. Then of course a bunch of young men came together without mothers and wives and they lived in filth which brought about the greatest killer, dysentery. Finally, there was lack of any knowledge, until after the Civil War, of germs. In that bloodiest war, we could have cut the deaths in half if soldiers had followed the most basic of instructions that is currently being hammered into our heads – wash your hands.

Diseases have always been part of the American story. With first contact, Europeans brought diseases to America that obliterated the native population. Historian Jared Diamond explains in his ground- breaking work, Guns, Germs, and Steel, how this happened. As most of us know by now, diseases come from animals. Swine flu, bird flu, and our current COVID-19 are believed to have come from bats. At the time, Middle Ages Europeans and Native Americans had a very different relationship with animals. Native Americans had only domesticated the dog, whereas Europeans not only had domesticated all of our current barnyard animals but were partially living with them. This close relationship not only spread more diseases to Europeans but eventually made them immune to diseases. However, when they brought these diseases to America, the Natives had no such immunity built up and their populations were devastated. 

Europeans also brought over a device of sorts to help new diseases spread. Historian Elliot West in his work, The Last Indian War, demonstrates that it was the horse that helped diseases spread. Without Europeans introducing the horse, in our current language, it would have been easier to flatten the curve. Natives were dying faster than the disease could spread. Yet Natives became such excellent horsemen that they could cover much more ground before they knew they were infected. West shows that the Nez Perce of the Northwest were affected from disease long before they made contact with white men. It is estimated that at least 20 million Natives died from European diseases. 

Historically speaking, what we are learning again is that nature is powerful. All of our modern technology can slow down nature, but we have yet to able to conquer it. COVID-19 is not our first pandemic. We know there have been many in history, but what we have learned is that these types of pandemics are not just a thing in our history. We need to study how we got through in the past and find new ways in the future to obliterate them.


Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or on Facebook.