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"One hundred years ago today, the Helena Independent, a newspaper in Montana's capital city, ran a foreboding article. An influenza epidemic had hit the United States, the paper reported, and was spreading rapidly in Boston.

"New England is a long way from the Mountain West, but the way this strain of the virus had arrived on the East Coast -- from U.S. service members coming home from World War I to ports in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia -- must have given Helena Independent readers a chill.

"The previous winter had been a particularly lethal flu season, and Montana hadn't been spared. As the Great War in Europe wound down, finally, American soldiers, sailors, and Marines were coming home to cities, towns, and farms all over this country, Montana included.

"This version of the flu, which we now know to be the second of three waves in the great worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, came on its victims suddenly and was often fatal. And it spread rapidly and quickly."

In these morning essays, I often update notes from previous years. What's striking about those quoted paragraphs above is that I wrote them on this date three years ago -- before I (or much of the world) even knew the word "coronavirus."

"Just three days after the Helena Independent reported on the flu pandemic breaking out in Boston, Montana had its first victim, a 3-year-old boy on the Blackfeet Indian reservation. Two days later, a 15-year-old girl in a ranching town on the Canadian border and an 86-year-old farmer in Great Falls were felled.

"Before the week was out, five more people in northeastern Montana died. One was a pregnant mother; another a 6-month-old infant. Even then a pattern had emerged: For reasons not really understood to this day, the influenza sweeping across North America in the autumn of 1918 was even more virulent among healthy adults in the prime of life. The victims that week included two women in their 20s, a 37-year-old railroad man, and a 40-year-old ranch hand.

"These first mortalities ‘began a tsunami of death across Montana,' researchers Todd Harwell, Greg Holzman, and Steven Helgerson wrote nearly a century later. As the bodies piled up in the state, other anomalies became evident: This pandemic was also deadlier to Indians than whites, and more lethal for men than women.

"But the true horror of this virus was how undiscriminating, overall, it was: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one-third of the human beings on our planet were exposed to the virus, and that it killed one in 10 of those it infected -- some 50 million men, women, and children of all races and creeds.

"At the time, it was called the Spanish Flu because it had first been detected in Spain. The most current thinking among medical researchers is that it may have originated in the United States and was carried by American fighting men abroad. There, in the trenches, barracks, and field hospitals, it mutated into the virulent strain that circled the globe -- and came back to this country on those Navy ships docking in Boston.

"Many people viewed this tragedy as a warning about the insanity of war itself. In ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,' published in 1939, novelist Katherine Anne Porter summed up this view memorably: ‘No more war, no more plague,' she wrote.

"But that very year, also in the autumn, ‘The Gathering Storm' would finally strike, unleashing carnage that would pale that of World War I and even surpass the vast suffering of the 1918-1919 flu epidemic." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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