Disease, Diplomacy, and Science in the Cold War: Lessons for Future Pandemics
This module discusses three global health crises of the Cold War era, Smallpox, the “Asian Flu” of 1957-58 and the “Hong Kong Flu” of 1968-69. It examines the ways that global health crises have sewn divisions and led to heightened tension between certain governments; but also the ways that responses to global illness have encouraged intense cooperation and coordination as the international community attempts to discover a cure, vaccine, and way to slow the spread or halt a disease altogether. It also considers the ways that history may most efficiently be used to address the present pandemic moment.
- Lecture: Introduction Video
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
- Participate in discussions about how the international community responded to pandemics and health crisis during the Cold War.
- Evaluate the ways that different constituents responded to pandemics and understand how and where to find different sorts of sources that uncover these various constituent voices.
- Understand how the Cold War shaped international organizations such as the World Health Organization and therefore shaped responses to disease and global health initiatives.
- Video: “The Story of the Killer Disease that Humanity Eradicated”
- Reading: Erez Manela, “Smallpox Eradication and the Rise of Global Governance,” The Shock of the Global: the 1970s in Perspective
- Reading: Donald Henderson, “Smallpox Eradication—A Cold War Victory,” World Health Forum
- Reading: Sanjoy Bhattacharya, “Global Smallpox Eradication,” University of York
- Lecture: Local Stories of a Global Campaign
- Optional Readings: “The Global Eradication of Smallpox: Final Report of the Global Commission,” World Health Organization
- Optional Readings: “Posters from Global Vaccination Campaigns,” World Health Organization,
- Optional Readings: “Smallpox Eradication Campaign Photo Gallery,” World Health Organization
- Interviews: Interviews with WHO officials
- Questions to Consider:
- Why was the SEP successful when other eradication efforts (i.e. malaria) failed?
- Assess the relative importance of various factors in SEP success: International cooperation; Local partnerships; Technologies of vaccine making and storing; funding; international organizations; US involvement; etc.
- Bhattacharya identifies the story of disease eradication as a 1,000-piece puzzle. What piece of the SEP puzzle do you think is most important? Why?
- In official stories of smallpox eradication, why have certain voices predominated over others?
- How can more inclusive stories be told? Who can tell them? Where can they be found?
- What challenged did the SEP program and its leaders face in India and other locations?
- How was the SEP influenced by rising tides of decolonization and third world nationalism?
- What evidence of the Cold War do you see in the SEP? Think here both of conflict and cooperation. Why didn’t the Cold war derail this program?
- Look through the WHO image archive for the SEP campaign. What images or tropes are used to promote vaccination and eradication? Does anything surprise you about the images?
- Reading: Theodore M. Brown, Marcos Cueto, and Elizabeth Fee, “The World Health Organization and the Transition From ‘International’ to ‘Global’ Public Health,” American Journal of Public Health
- Reading: W. Potter, “A History of Influenza,” Journal of Applied Microbiology
- Reading: Thedi Ziegler, Awandha Mamahit, and Nancy J. Cox, “65 years of influenza surveillance by a World Health Organization-coordinated global network,” Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses
- Reading: Lina Zeldovich, “How America Brought the 1957 Influenza Pandemic to a Halt,” JSTOR Daily
- Reading: Philip Thai, “The proven solution to pandemics President Trump continues to reject,” The Washington Post
- Video: The Silent Invader
- Interview: Interview with Maurice Hilleman on 1957 Asian Flu Pandemic. The History of Vaccines
- Lecture: Influenza Pandemics and Global Health in the Cold War
- Questions to Consider:
- What were the elements of the international community’s response to the Asian Flu and Hong Kong Flu pandemics?
- What is the WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance Network (GISN) [or the Global Influenza Surveillance Response System (GISRS)] and how did it operate during past influenza pandemics?
- How did Cold War geopolitics, like the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China from the United Nations, shape international efforts to contain the pandemic?
- The film “The Silent Invader” is an educational television broadcast co-sponsored by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, the University of Pittsburgh, the American Medical Association, and the United States Public Health Service. What are the messages the film is trying to convey? How does it seek to educate viewers on “Asian Influenza” and influenza more generally? How might one argue that this film is a product of American Cold War politics?
Students can work in small groups or individually on one or several of the options below.
Option 1: Using lessons from SEP and influenza pandemics, write a memo outlining how these historic examples might provide evidence or examples for how to deal with current or future pandemics.
- What specific programs or policies from these historic health crises do you think could best inform what is going on now?
- Students will craft a 3-5 page memo with clear subheadings and notes to course materials.
Option 2: Review the WHO vaccination posters and materials. Design a poster for COVID vaccination in a community you suspect will be resistant to vaccinations today. Annotate your poster, explaining why you chose certain elements and what they are meant to convey.
- Have students peruse and review one another’s posters and then discuss what elements work, what does not work, how an international poster could be designed.
Option 3: Choose a moment in time from these lessons and compare the international situation then and now. What is the same and what is different and how might that account for COVID response?
- How can history inform the creation of better health regimes and institutions in the future?
Option 4: Use the SEP and influenza crises to discuss the ways that countries such as India and China managed the Cold War. How did non-superpowers assert their own ideas and needs in a bipolar world order?
- Students will write a 3-5 page paper relating disease eradication to the Cold War.
Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies; Director of Asian Studies
Philip Thai is a historian of Modern China and East Asia with research and teaching interests that include legal history, economic history, and diplomatic history. He is the author of China’s War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of th…