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Coronavirus will change America forever. Past crises offer hints of what's to come.

New York coronavirusBrendan McDermid/Reuters

  • The coronavirus pandemic has already changed the US in major ways. Like other crises the country has faced, it will alter the nation in irrevocable ways. 
  • All historic crises have byproducts that ripple through time. Celebrations for World War I's end exacerbated the Spanish flu pandemic. World War II would lead to the mass production of penicillin, the first antibiotic.
  • With nearly over 45,000 already dead in the US and millions unemployed in a matter of weeks, the crisis is pushing Americans to embrace new perspectives about the safeguards the country should have in place — including universal health care — in case something of this magnitude strikes again. 
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The legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, if written today, would be the unspeakable tragedy of hundreds of thousands of dead worldwide, major cities under lockdown, millions suddenly out of work, the largest economic stimulus package in US history, and the heroic sacrifices of health care workers. 

And it would be impossible to tell this story without discussing the ways in which President Donald Trump left the US utterly unprepared. As coronavirus spread across China and into other countries, Trump ignored myriad warnings of an impending public health and economic catastrophe. He spent weeks downplaying the threat, assuring Americans he had everything under control even as his administration struggled to develop effective tests needed to diagnose and treat the infected.

The US is now the epicenter of the pandemic. There will be more to the story than the sheer number of people killed by the virus, the economic catastrophe it induced, and Trump's bungled handling of the pandemic.

All historic crises have byproducts that ripple through time. Some are predictable, some are utterly unexpected. Celebrations surrounding the end of World War I exacerbated the Spanish flu pandemic in the US. World War II would lead to the mass production of penicillin, the first antibiotic. The Great Recession fostered enhanced financial protections for Americans. The 9/11 terror attacks catalyzed the longest war in US history. 

This pandemic will also change society in irrevocable ways. 

With nearly over 45,000 already dead in the US and millions unemployed in a matter of weeks, the crisis is pushing Americans to embrace new perspectives about the safeguards the country should have in place — including universal health care — in case something of this magnitude strikes again. 

And as New Yorkers gather at their windows each night at 7 pm to cheer for frontline health care workers, it's also possible this crisis — as depressing and draining as it's been — will inspire a new generation of doctors, nurses, and scientists.  

The pandemic is exposing many of America's flaws, particularly the dangers of hubris and the toxicity of the movement against science. It's raising questions about the status of the US as a global power.

And there are rising concerns that public health tracking by the government will cause constitutional debates down the line. Much like the 9/11 terror attacks, coronavirus has sparked a new debate regarding the tradeoffs between liberty and security.

At the moment, it's impossible to know where this crisis will lead. The US does not yet have a robust system of testing in place for the virus, meaning the country lacks a full picture of the scale of the outbreak within its borders. But we can gain perspective on where this road might take us, and maybe even find hope, by examining the ways America changed in earlier crises.  

The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

The Revolutionary War led to the establishment of a country that would grow to become the most powerful, wealthy nation on the planet in the course of roughly 160 years. The Continental Army defeated the world's greatest empire at the time, sending shivers down the spines of monarchs across Europe. 

The consequences of the American Revolution: 

  • 4,435 US service members died. 
  • The US was established as an independent nation, and it continues to stand as the world's oldest democracy. 
  • The Revolutionary War gave rise to the US government and its three branches (legislative, executive, judicial), and the US Constitution.
  • Gen. George Washington, who led the Continental Army against the British, became the nation's first president.
    • He set the standard for future leaders of the nation as not only the head of government but also the head of state. In other words, he made the president not just a leader in terms of governance but also one who serves as a symbol for the nation and its values. 
    • Washington appointed Cabinet secretaries who laid the groundwork for the major federal agencies that keep the country functioning in the present day.  
  • The war did not just rob Great Britain and King George III of the 13 colonies while fostering the foundations of the US, it inspired a wave of insurrections and independence movements in other countries for years to come. The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, was addressed to more than Great Britain — it was a message to the world. It continues to be relevant in the present day.  
    • The French were key allies during the Revolutionary War, and (after Morocco) one of the first nations to recognize the independence of the US. They witnessed a successful uprising firsthand, and carried the lessons learned into the French Revolution less than a decade later. In 1789, the National Assembly in France used the American Declaration of Independence as inspiration in the drafting of drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. 
    • Well over a century later, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in 1945 borrowed from the Declaration of Independence, referring to its opening words as an "immortal statement," in a rebuke of colonialism as he declared Vietnam's independence from France. The historic moment led to events that spiraled into a bloody conflict that ultimately claimed the lives of roughly 60,000 Americans, led to civil unrest in the US, and embarrassed the US government on the global stage. 
    • Over half of the 193 countries in the UN have a founding document that could be called a declaration of independence. "Most of those countries came into being from the wreckage of empires or confederations, from Spanish America in the 1810s and 1820s to the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s...Many looked back directly to the American Declaration for inspiration," according to historian David Armitage.
  • The Founding Fathers allowed slavery to persist, which would contribute to the suffering of millions and catalyzed the American Civil War less than 100 years later. 
    • The Founders, many of whom owned slaves, declared independence on the notion "all men are created equal." But they did not live up to those words in their writing of the US Constitution, which initially designated black people as three-fifths of a person — a compromise for Southern states who wanted slaves counted as part of their population to boost their representation in Congress. 
    • The legacy of slavery continues to haunt the US, and has contributed to structural racism that's led to myriad inequities among racial minorities. 
  • By ending with the establishment of the US, the Revolutionary War would in time indirectly lead American leaders to embrace the notion of "Manifest Destiny," or the belief that Americans were destined to spread democracy and capitalism across North America. 
    • This philosophy led to a massive expansion of US territory. In the process, it fostered the forced and violent removal of Native Americans. 
    • The US population went from around 5 million in 1800 to 23 million by 1850 (roughly a decade before the Civil War). 
    • The debate over slavery was exacerbated by the massive territorial expansion. It raised questions as to whether new states in the Union would have slavery, and the debate became so contentious (particularly after the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case) that it ultimately spiraled into the Civil War. 



The Civil War (1861-1865)

Alexander Gardner/AP

The Civil War continues to stand as the bloodiest conflict in US history. The conflict nearly destroyed the nation, and continues to incite divisions in the present day. Southern states seceded amid a national debate over slavery, in an effort to perpetuate the enslavement of their fellow humans and in rebellion of the federal government. The South (the Confederacy) ultimately lost to the Union. 

The consequences of the Civil War: 

  • It's estimated between 618,000 to 750,000 Americans were killed during the war.
    • The death toll shook America to its core, and led to the establishment of a network of federal cemeteries (such as Arlington National Cemetery). 
  • The war resulted in the end of the slavery in the US, which was solidified in legal terms via the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. 
    • The war also led to the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868), which guaranteed all citizens "equal protection of the laws." It also granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, which included ex-slaves. 
    • Additionally, the war led to the 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870), which granted African-American men the right to vote.  
  • The end of slavery did not mean an end to racism in the US, nor did it result in the cessation of the state-sanctioned or legalized oppression of people of color. 
    • In the years following the war, Southern states would move (via both legislation and various forms of intimidation) to bar black people from voting while instituting de jure segregation or the separation of races by law. These restrictive, racist laws were known as "black codes."
    • The laws and practices meant to disenfranchise and segregate black Americans were collectively known as Jim Crow. They were not eradicated until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the legacy of Jim Crow lived on and people of color continue to face obstacles to voting in the present day. 
  • In the decades that followed the Civil War, particularly in the early years of the 20th century, the history of the conflict was essentially rewritten nationwide to portray the Confederacy not as traitorous army fighting to perpetuate slavery, but as a band of heroic soldiers battling against northern aggression. 
    • This whitewashing of history, often referred to as the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy," led monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers to be erected in cities nationwide. 
    • In recent years, there's been a growing public debate over whether it's appropriate to publicly memorialize leaders of an army that fought in favor of slavery, and many cities have begun to take such monuments down.
    • There's also been a debate over the Confederate flag and whether it's a symbol of heritage, as proponents of the displaying the flag claim, or a symbol of hate. 
  • The Civil War did not just change American society, it also changed the way conflicts were fought and recorded. 



World War I (1914-1917)

The US entered World War I in 1917, years after fighting erupted in Europe, and held off on getting involved until public sentiment began to shift after the sinking of the Lusitania passenger ship by a German U-boat and the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. But the bloody conflict still scarred a generation of Americans, and set the stage for World War II to occur barely two decades later.

The consequences of World War I:  

  • Over 116,000 US service members were killed in World War I, including over 53,000 in battle. There were nearly 40 million casualties worldwide. 
    • The war left many soldiers with what was known as "shell shock" at the time. Today, we refer to this as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 
  • Congress voted to declare war against Germany in April 1917. It was only the fourth time the US had voted to declare war in its history. In doing so, the US reinstituted the draft and greatly expanded the size of its military. 
    • A system of conscription was introduced after Congress passed the Selective Service Act in May 1917. Roughly 2.8 million men were drafted into the US armed forces as a result. 
    • The US mobilized over 4 million people in total over the course of the war (there were roughly 4.7 million service members worldwide). 
  • Many historians argue that if the US not entered the war then Germany would've won. 
    • America's entry into the war did not only mean it sent soldiers to fight and die, it also led to a massive economic contribution: the US loaned roughly $7 billion to the Allies from 1917 to the end of the conflict. 
  • The war led to many technological innovations, and saw new weapons introduced on the battlefield: tanks, poison gas, drones.
    • The war also led to the introduction and widespread implementation of Daylight Saving Time, among other societal changes (including popularizing wristwatches and the zipper). 
  • The conflict also changed aviation forever, as it was the first time powered aircraft were widely used in warfare. 
  • The war led President Woodrow Wilson to propose the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. The US never joined because of isolanist lawmakers, and the organization failed to prevent another world war. 
  • In the years that closely followed the end of the war, the US saw a wave of social changes, including women's suffrage in 1920.
  • The end of the war also led to the collapse of major empires that had ruled over regions for centuries, including the Ottoman Empire.
    • This led Western powers to partition the Middle East. But they largely ignored the region's complexities and the map they drew would end up inciting and inflaming divisions that continue to trouble the Middle East (and US interests there) to this day. 




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