Barryn Eichengreen UC Berkeley

Policymakers often poorly use analogies of past wars, pandemics, and economic depressions to make decisions. Economic historian Barry Eichengreen analyzes why this decision-making approach is detrimental to addressing the current issues of the COVID-19 pandemic and how faulty comparisons have led to fatal consequences in the past.

While people often accentuate the importance of learning from mistakes made in history and hence, carefully analyze history, no two crises are the same. COVID-19, dubbed “the first modern pandemic”, is a historical crisis that nobody who lives through it will likely forget. Not only will people remember the emotional, biological, and economic devastation of this pandemic, but they will also remember how it was a catalyst for change in the U.S., and the world, for issues such as better healthcare and the fight against systemic racism. 

Yet, during this time of uncertainty and progressive action for change, the sense of déjà vu and similarities to the pandemics, wars, economic depressions, and other crises of the past startles many people.

Economic historian Barry Eichengreen said, “when COVID-19 hit, the economic historians among us were immediately asked how does this pandemic compare with the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919? Or, how does the rise of unemployment now compare with the rise of unemployment after 1929? How does the mobilization of resources by the pandemic today compare with the immobilization of resources during World War 2?”

In the webinar, “The Three Horsemen – Pandemic, War, and Depression in the 20th Century,” Barry argues that policymakers often resort to historical analogies for decision-making rules of thumb under a time constraint, and in times of crisis, and that this approach leads to pernicious results.

Economic historian Barry Eichengreen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies past histories very closely, but looks at what the implications are for today. He analyzes preceding crises, such as the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu; the Great Depression; and the 2008 economic recession, along with the decisions of key leaders during these times.

A Series Of Wartime Presidents

At the beginning of this modern crisis, U.S. President Trump referred to himself as a wartime president, leading the nation against an invisible enemy that is the coronavirus. Similarly, on October 14, 1982, former President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs” and declared that illicit drugs were a threat to U.S. national security. Around four decades prior, on January 8, 1946, former President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” and introduced a series of legislation during his State of the Union address that successfully addressed poverty as an immediate, national concern. In these instances, the term “war” referred to a nationwide campaign to reduce a prevalent and serious issue in the U.S. through the legislature. 

How are these three cases different and in 2020, who is commander-in-chief Trump leading through this pandemic? What is he fighting against? Is it the coronavirus? Communist China? The movement to abolish systemic racism? A heterogeneous culture? Political corruption in the U.S.? Censorship? 

More importantly, what is Trump fighting for and what type of wartime president is he?

Most people will choose to answer this question by comparing Trump with past wartime presidents.

When people think of wartime presidents, most think of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the supreme commander of the Allied Forces against the Axis Power in Western Europe during World War II. He later became the 34th President of the United States and led the country through economic prosperity during the Cold War and fight against a perceived Communist threat. He also facilitated the end of the ongoing Korean War that led to the partition of Korean into the North and South. Looking back even further in time, people think of wartime presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. president who preserved the Union during the American Civil War and fought to abolish slavery.

How do President Trump and his actions to combat the coronavirus compare to those of previous presidents when they were literally in war? And, is Trump making decisions about COVID-19 and the current economic recession we are facing, based on past disease outbreaks and financial crises? 

The Response To A 1976  Swine Flu Outbreak Was Made Based On The Same Response To The 1918 Spanish Flu, Only To Have Fatal Side Effects

Other leaders based their decisions on similar analogous crises in the past. Barry Eichengreen explains, “at length, President Harry Truman when deciding how to intervene in Korea, based his decision-making on the analogy of World War I. John F. Kennedy when deciding how to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaned on the Munich analogy. George W. Bush, when deciding how to respond to 9/11, was influenced by the Pearl Harbor analogy.”

In one instance, Eichengreen explained the disastrous consequences of using past analogies to make decisions for current events. On March 24, 1976, President Gerald Ford ordered that all citizens receive vaccinations to protect Americans from the swine flu, after hearing about the sudden death of a healthy 19-year old boy. Private soldier David Lewis told his drill instructor that he felt a bit weak and sick, but not enough to have him stop training. 24 hours later, he was dead and an autopsy revealed that the cause was the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Alarmed by the fast progression of the disease and convinced by the advice of medical experts, President Ford compared H1N1 to the 1918 Spanish flu, the worst pandemic in history that infected 300 million people around the world and killed about one-third of the world’s population, to make a decision on how to handle an outbreak during his Presidency. 

Mass vaccinations started in October. Right after receiving the shot, an alarming amount of people developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition where the body’s immune system attacks nerves and leads to muscle paralysis.

Barry explained, “There’s the case of President Gerald Ford and his advisors when deciding how to respond to an outbreak of swine flu in 1976. They based their reasoning based on the analogy of the 1917-1918 Spanish influenza that killed more than 50 million people globally. It turned out that the swine flu was less contagious and less deadly, but anticipating a public health emergency akin to the Spanish flu, the Ford administration rushed through a vaccine that turned out to have dangerous side effects. So, some 500 Americans experienced serious complications from the vaccine. 25 died as a result and not a single person, except those who came in direct contact with pigs, actually died from the swine flu. So that’s a cautionary tale.”

This cautionary tale in history demonstrated that no two crises are the same and that the approach to one conflict should not follow the approach to a past similar one.

Economic historian Barry Eichengreen concluded that “policymakers often utilize analogies poorly. They fail to check them for fitness to the circumstances at hand. They are over-influenced by some analogies that are seared into our collective consciousness, but may not be representative of current events.”

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic reminds people of past economic recessions, pandemics, and wars, policymakers must make informed decisions that are based on the new variables of current events, rather than seeking solutions based on past consequences and crises.

Karen Jang

Karen Jang is a Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. She is studying Chemistry at Barnard College of Columbia University and Classical Violin at the Manhattan School of Music. Karen is a graduate...