George Washington and Lafayette on horseback visiting wounded soldiers at Valley Forge during the American Revolution, 1777. Credit – iStockphoto / GettyImages
With its eyes fixed for a long time on external enemies, the military during the American Revolution was forced to fight against an internal enemy, “the most dangerous enemy” – a virus. The epidemic continued to ravage those who wore and did not wear uniforms, causing more “dread than the sword of the enemy”. The nation had reached the point where “no precaution can prevent it from going through our entire army.” Although previously reluctant to do so, the Commander-in-Chief had no choice but to “inoculate all the troops”.
It was February 5, 1777, and General George Washington reported to Congress his unilateral decision to combat a smallpox epidemic that virtually coincided with the first shots of the American Revolution two years earlier. With a death rate approaching 16%, nearly 90% of all deaths related to the American Revolutionary War are due to smallpox. “Necessity not only authorizes but appears to demand measure,” Washington said in a letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., then director general of Continental Army Hospitals, Feb. 6. Washington ordered Shippen to start the first mass. inoculating any army in history – a gesture that saved the military and no doubt helped ensure the survival of the United States. As the nation and the military today face yet another “invisible enemy” in COVID-19, President Biden should look to Washington’s precedent to maintain military readiness and national defense.
In late July, President Biden asked the Defense Department to explore “how and when” to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for military personnel on active duty. The announcement came as a leaked internal presentation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling the Delta variant “more transmissible than” smallpox. Reports indicate that a decision on mandatory vaccinations for the military may be imminent. Washington, as commander-in-chief, has mandated vaccinations to preserve the military and its fighting power. Having been incapacitated for nearly a month by smallpox as a teenager on a visit to Barbados in 1751, Washington understood the risks. His decision preserved the nation. The current president’s decision could also protect the country today.
Read more: How George Washington organized the first mass vaccination campaign in American history
Smallpox, like COVID-19, has been transferred virally through person-to-person contact – Washington likely caught her dining out for breakfast. Like today, there was staunch skepticism, denial, and even outright rejection of the inoculation dating back to its introduction to Boston in 1721 (via a enslaved African). There were even anti-inoculation riots and attacks on a doctor in Virginia in 1768-1769. Unlike today’s vaccinations (which contain an inactive strain), 18th century inoculations insert live virus (via pus from an active patient) into an incision. The person has contracted smallpox, but usually a milder form, which has a greater likelihood of survival. Still, the patient had to be quarantined for an infectious period of about four weeks before acquiring lifelong immunity. It was risky and time consuming but offered better chances than the alternative.
It was almost impossible to prevent the spread of this pathogen in a military camp before the germ theory and where even basic hygiene was lacking – forget about social distancing. Smallpox struck Boston in 1775 as Washington assumed command of the nearby Continental Army. Washington was not anti-vaxxer – he encouraged his wife (who was traveling with the military) and his stepson to get vaccinated – but he initially banned military vaccines, fearing they would sacrifice the combat effectiveness as it involved withdrawing soldiers from the field during the critical early years. of the war.
Anticipating the British invasion of New York in 1776, Washington warned that the inoculation “could prove fatal to the military” by removing those who “may soon be called to action.” For Washington, the British Army was the immediate threat. Any American officer who dares “to be vaccinated, will be cashier and kicked out of the military and his name will be published in newspapers across the continent, as an enemy and traitor to his country,” Washington said.
Washington’s position was to maintain the army necessary to defeat the British and gain freedom and independence. As the Continental Army forced infected soldiers to self-quarantine and limit interactions with civilians in an attempt to slow the spread of smallpox, the virus has still set in. In the winter of 1777, Washington was forced to view the virus as a greater threat than British bayonets.
The Pentagon has also called COVID-19 a threat to national security. Pentagon deputy press secretary Jamal Brown expressed the same sentiments as Washington. The military must counter the Delta variant because it is “vital to protect our force and the nation we are defending,” he said at the end of July. The military health system has said immunization is central to “military public health and deployment readiness.”
Will the US military be called upon to act to deal with a vaccinated adversary? (The Continental Army must have done just that when it faced the British Army which had long been exposed to the smallpox virus and had a higher degree of immunity than the Americans.)? Or, as Washington worried, what if the military inadvertently spreads the virus to a civilian population (foreign or domestic) while embarking on a mission? Disinformation campaigns have already attempted to attribute the pandemic to the US military – such an incident would have global consequences. There are major military, diplomatic and civil-military implications involved.
Biden as Commander-in-Chief, like Washington, has the power to order compulsory military vaccination. This should not be confused with compulsory civilian vaccination. It will undoubtedly also comply with the religious, medical and administrative exemptions established for those on active duty. Currently, active duty military personnel are subject to more than 14 mandatory vaccines, depending on where they serve. This in some cases includes vaccines against anthrax and smallpox (which was officially eradicated by vaccinations in 1980). Those who refuse face disciplinary action, including court martial.
Aside from the politicization of the COVID-19 vaccine before and after the 2020 election, the major hurdle is the rule preventing the military from demanding treatment that is not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Reports indicate, however, that approval will likely come next month. Such an oversight did not exist in Washington’s time, but it justified a more dangerous inoculation based on military necessity. If an army was not immune to smallpox, how could it defend the nation during a pandemic? The inoculations have been shown to be extremely effective. The Continental Army gained immunity and won the war.
Read more: Vaccine hesitation threatens US national security
Despite increased competition with major foreign powers, international deployments, tensions within Congress, widespread political dissent, and disagreements with state governments, COVID-19 in 2021 (like smallpox in 1777) is the most common threat. more immediate for the army and the country. Biden’s “how and when” words suggest that a future term is inevitable.
Washington made his decision because he knew that the security of the military in the midst of great conflicts, wars and uncertainties was essential to the survival of the nation. Only about 64% of active-duty military personnel are fully vaccinated, but they, along with the unvaccinated, may be called upon to defend the United States or to deploy anywhere in the world at any time. The military constantly assesses risk during its planning process, historically and today, and Washington was unwilling to take risks with the lives of its troops or the security of its country.
The “war has changed,” the CDC proclaimed in late July. Washington knew this too in 1777. The order required the general’s “most mature deliberation”, but he gave it. More than 244 years later, it is President Biden’s turn to mandate the vaccination of troops.