Let’s celebrate Independence Day on a high plane.
That was the advice 100 years ago, and it seems just as good in the 21st Century, where bombings, scary news and hate-mongering appear to reign far beyond reason or expectation.
But are we really worse off? Are modern times really the scariest?
Step into the 1917 time machine, where we might glean a different perspective. A century ago, Americans and much of the developed world had reason to be scared.
World War I raged on July 4, 1917. The first American soldiers had just arrived in France to help European Allies already fighting The Great War for three years. After neutrally avoiding the conflict, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress declared war on ship-sinking Germany on April 6.
At the time, only 190,000 Americans wore military uniforms, despite a population of 90 million. That number, however, burgeoned as volunteers and conscripts headed overseas.
By war’s end the U.S. had invested 4.7 million men and women serving in the regular forces, the National Guard and drafted units at home and abroad. About 116,500 of them died. Also at war’s end in November 1918, a whopping 17 million were dead worldwide from the 4 ½-year conflict then thought to be The War to End All Wars. That’s scary times.
Also at war’s end, more men, women and children continued dropping like flies from a pandemic inadvertently spread by the war. That’s scary times.
From that Spanish Influenza Pandemic another 675,000 Americans would die and about 28 percent of the U.S population would be sickened before the pandemic ended in 1919. It infected nearly one-third of the world’s people. That’s scary times.
Casualty numbers in such upheavals are tough to gather, but in addition to the U.S. dead, another 204,000 were wounded, bringing the U.S. casualty toll to about 320,500. Worldwide, 20 million war-injured were added to the 17 million deaths to make about 37 million casualties. That’s scary times.
The flu pandemic, possibly first diagnosed in March 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas, killed a whopping 20 to 40 million people worldwide. Headstones in cemeteries throughout the nation, including on the Mississippi Coast, are credited to the killer pandemic.
The virus showed no favoritism, hitting the armies of Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Japan and America alike and spreading to starving, war-weary civilian populations. Returning American soldiers brought the now more virulent flu back home. And after the Armistice, Americans sent to Europe for peacetime build-back were stricken.
The crisscrossing, hitch-hiking virus repeated this scene across the globe. With deadly guns and deadly influenza, the war and its aftermath was a double-whammy. That’s scary times.
But 100 years ago on July 4, 1917, Americans were fevered by patriotism, not the flu or what the future might hold. In fact, Southerners who didn’t have much to do with the Fourth of July in the decades following the Civil War were now wholeheartedly observing the nation’s birthday.
In April that year, the government had created the Committee on Public Information to influence public opinion on American war participation. For July 4, the committee asked newspapers to publish thoughts on observing Independence Day “on the high plane of national patriotism.”
The Daily Herald
This newspaper, then called The Daily Herald, printed the committee article on the front page.
“This coming Fourth of July should be observed throughout the land in a spirit which recalls all the significance of the day to a democracy at war for its ideals and its threatened existence,” it read.
“Noise and useless illumination and unthinking celebration have no proper place in times such as these ... Citizenship has taken on today a new significance ... Sacrifices will be asked on the battleline and behind it ... We are engaged today in a struggle which will determine whether the ideas on which our Republic was founded shall survive.”
Let’s step out of the 1917 time machine. Take a deep breath and contemplate: What defines scary times?
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.