During World War II, 407,317 Americans died in a fight for global democracy. The dead were heralded as representatives of the Greatest Generation and honored in books, movies and memorials.
The Vietnam War claimed 58,220 lives in a bitter battle that divided the nation. Heroic tributes eluded both the deceased and survivors as a new generation developed a deep skepticism toward government.
And on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists killed 2,977 as the country recoiled in horror. Strict surveillance measures were embraced as the military plunged into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have lasted the better part of two decades.
The U.S. has suffered horrific death tolls throughout history, from one-day cataclysms to wars to pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed a staggering 675,000 Americans. Another 116,151 died in those same years fighting in World War I.
Each wave of death brought unprecedented societal changes. Historians expect the coronavirus outbreak will be no different, even if their exact nature remains elusive. The final COVID-19 death toll andhow Americans judge the government’s response to the virus are sure to color how we look back on this crisis.
Will this be another World War II moment, where a nation rejoices in its unified effort to vanquish a common enemy, or another Vietnam stalemate with citizens debating whether the actions of leaders led to needless deaths and suffering?
“If it starts to appear that this situation is badly bungled and leaders have failed us resulting in more deaths than necessary, the potential is greater for a national upheaval,” says Mark Atwood Lawrence, historian and Vietnam War scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.
Since the first U.S. coronavirus death was reported in Seattle on Feb. 29, more than 33,000 lives – about one-fifth of the global toll – have been lost to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the pathogen.
While a national self-quarantine seems to be helping slow the outbreak, the grim meter keeps ticking. For those who have lost loved ones, the pain is omnipresent. For others,sobering images provide a window into what has been lost, from caskets being laid into a field on New York City’s Hart Island to white body bags in a vacant room at Detroit’s Sinai-Grace Hospital.
Initial models forecast as many as 2.2 million American deaths from the coronavirus if no social distancing measures were implemented. That number dropped into the hundreds of thousands as states enacted a range of stay-at-homemeasures, from issuing fines to violators to simply urging greater personal responsibility. The nation’s de facto infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, now says deaths could be capped at 60,000.
The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that in 2017, 647,457 Americans died from heart disease, 599,108 died from cancer, 169,963 from accidents (nearly 40,000 of those due to cars), 146,383 from strokes, 83,564 from diabetes and 55,672 from influenza or pneumonia.
As much as holding the number of coronavirus victims at 60,000 will be viewed as a victory to some, a death toll reached in mere months that equals 11 years of fighting in Vietnam will leave a lasting scar, says Douglas Brinkley, historian and author at Houston’s Rice University.
“This is a seismic event in U.S. history that will be recalled for generations to come, and what will be remembered more than the economic woes is the death toll,” says Brinkley, who predicts memorials will be erected to honor the doctors and nurses who died helping people, if not the virus victims themselves.
Brinkley says this loss may be felt even more acutely across the country than the deaths resulting from post-World War II conflicts or tragedies such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833 people in 2005. The reason: the ubiquity of the shared experience.
“The sheer scale of COVID-19 matters,” he says. “We’re not talking about an isolated region or city that was hit, this has canvassed the country and given everyone a giant timeout to deal with an unwelcome reality.”
Part of what must come out of any national trial where lives are lost is a narrative that most of the country can agree on, says Carolyn Marvin, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications and author of “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the Flag.”
That critical collective story is what allows people to understand the sacrifice and gain something from the experience, she says. But with the U.S. bitterly divided along political lines, it’s possible a unified post-COVID-19 narrative won’t come together quickly or perhaps at all.
“If that happens,” Marvin says, “then we will have lost the opportunity to understand ourselves better as a country capable of coming together as a stronger unified group.”
1918 Spanish flu hit mostly the young
Previous moments of great loss in U.S. history elicited varying reactions.
The Civil War, which took 750,000 lives between 1861 and 1865, ended slavery and brought a fundamental reshaping of a nation that had been at risk of imploding under its differences.
In 1918, the nation had fewer people and wasn’t connected by technology as it is today. That means the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic took its toll town by town, with some suffering greatly and others less so. Mostly what caught the public’s attention was the ghastly nature of the illness, says John M. Barry, author of “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.”
“It wasn’t so much about the numbers as the way people were dying, some within 24 hours, turning dark blue due to lack of oxygen, some bleeding from the eyes and ears and 28 being the peak age of death,” Barry says.
The big lesson from that epidemic that may apply today is the devastating second wave of Spanish flu deaths that hit after the country reopened prematurely, allowing the virus to spread more.
“If we can keep our deaths to 60,000, that would be a victory, but it involves keeping our current measures into May,” he says.
World War II killed nearly half a million Americans, but because the outcome was a triumph over fascism those deaths were lionized, says historian Brinkley. Not only that, but the nation as a whole reveled in its collective sense of accomplishment.
“That event was so costly in terms of lives, but it also gave rise to a sense of American exceptionalism and can-do-ism,” he says.
In fact, much like the horrors of the Spanish flu and World War I were followed by the Roaring ’20s, a period of fiscal prosperity and cultural renaissance, the post-WWII years were marked by both a baby and economic boom that cast those who died as heroes that helped usher in better times.
While so far COVID-19 has “pulled back the curtain of Oz and revealed a nation unready for a medical crisis,” Brinkley is hopeful that the resulting deaths will not be in vain and instead will bring about a re-dedication to scientific rigor and national preparedness for future pandemics.
The Ronald Reagan administration and other government officials were criticized for not doing more during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that took hold in the early 1980s and to date has killed more than 650,000 Americans. In subsequent years, the crisis helped raise awareness about safer sex practices and LGBTQ rights.
The Vietnam War likely presents the most stark example of when a large number of Americans died for a cause that did not triumph, as the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam only to let the Communist regime it had been battling at great cost take charge.
The war, which lasted from 1964 to 1975, had a notable turning point in the court of public opinion. It happened when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite said in a 1968 broadcast that he believed the war was, at best, a “stalemate.” Weeks later, President Lyndon Johnson sensed he had lost public support and declined to seek reelection.
Historian Lawrence hopes that our coronavirus tragedy echoes the Vietnam conflict “in the sense that it could produce an intense debating about the role of government in our lives, something I sense the upcoming presidential debates will be full of.”
COVID-19 to change US in a ‘deep way’
When it comes to shocks to the national nervous system, few events seared more than 9/11, which, much like COVID-19, had its biggest effect on New York City.
But the pandemic “already has and will continue to affect us in a deep way for a much longer period of time because of the scale of deaths and the economic impact,” says Joseph Margulies, professor of law and government at Cornell University and author of “What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity.”
Margulies says that while 9/11 “gave the powerful sensation of carnage falling from the sky on a cloud-free Tuesday morning,” the way COVID-19 has unfolded gradually and nationally means “we are still starting to sort out what this means to us all and it may take time.”
In some ways, one could argue that the exact number of those killed in a tragedy doesn’t matter simply because the unexpected loss of even one American life can have the same impact as the passing of thousands. Consider the shock that swept the nation after the Boston Marathon bombing, when three people were killed.
Instead, what is of paramount importance in the wake of any deadly event is simply sharing a sense of loss and grief, says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
“This virus is a modern-day terrorist attack on us all, so if I lost my father or friend to 9/11 or Oklahoma City or COVID-19, the loss is the same,” Watkins says. “The sacrifice is the same.”
Twenty-five years ago on April 19, a bomb placed in a truck by Timothy McVeigh ripped through a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 128. The dead included children at a day care center. A nation reeled, domestic terrorism took center stage and government buildings were wrapped in protective monoliths.
Watkins has been planning a big remembrance event for Sunday, one set to include dignitaries and victims alike. Because of the outbreak, it will be cut back and livestreamed.
Nonetheless, she says, there is no mistaking the mission behind marking that dark day in 1995.
“Whenever we go through these national tragedies, people have to have a chance to rebuild their lives and move forward,” Watkins says. “So many are dying now, but we have to make the very best of the very worst. We might take baby steps together, and maybe there will be mistakes on both sides of the political aisle. But we should all be working together now for America.”
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