The most egregious example of governments and military leaders exploiting diseases to their advantage took place during the colonizing and settling of the Americas in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Intentionally or not, Europeans brought diseases for which they had immunity and Native Americans did not with them when they...
The most egregious example of governments and military leaders exploiting diseases to their advantage took place during the colonizing and settling of the Americas in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries. Intentionally or not, Europeans brought diseases for which they had immunity and Native Americans did not with them when they explored and conquered North and South America.
This occurred as early as Columbus's colonization of Hispaniola. Upon his arrival, the Native American population was estimated at anywhere from 60,000 to several million. However, after a few decades of Spanish settlement, the population had dwindled to around 500, the rest having been killed off by influenza, smallpox, and other diseases. The Aztec Empire also fell so easily to the Spanish partly as a result of an overwhelming epidemic of smallpox. The Spanish and Portuguese governments and military units, being more immune to these diseases due to centuries-long exposure, took advantage of the decimation of Native American populations to overwhelm and conquer the lands of Central and South America.
Native American populations in North America became similarly weakened by diseases, particularly smallpox, and British and American governments, military personnel, and settlers took advantage of this weakness to overcome indigenous peoples and take over their lands by force. In at least one documented instance, British forces specifically targeted Native Americans with smallpox-infected blankets, hoping to decrease the populations of Native American tribes so that they could more easily overcome them.
In other pandemics throughout history, governments or individual leaders did not usually deliberately exploit them, but rather used the opportunity of chaos and instability to bring about political change. For instance, the Black Death, which began to ravage Europe in the mid-fourteenth century, caused such widespread devastation and destruction that England and France called a truce to their long-fought war, the British feudal system fell apart, and the Vikings became so weakened that they stopped spoiling other peoples and ceased their early colonization of North America.
In the case of the 1918 virus that became commonly known as the Spanish flu, government officials such as President Woodrow Wilson, not wanting to draw attention from the national effort in World War I, attempted to minimize and even lie about the danger of the virus. This is an example of exploiting a disease politically by attempting to cover up its severity. In total, about 20 to 50 million people worldwide died from the 1918 virus, including about 675,000 Americans. More American soldiers were killed by the Spanish flu than were killed in battle during World War I.