OR: Why do you think the Spanish Flu has been, until recently, almost lost to history for most people, given that it had such an impact on the world?
Roberts: I think one of the reasons might've been that we've only really got two books on the subject. Laura Spinney's book Pale Rider was about the Spanish Flu and how it changed the world. She goes into all of the various social and economic aspects of the flu. Then there's Catharine Arnold's book, Pandemic 1918, and that also is very interesting about what happened in society during the flu. But other than that, there's absolutely virtually nothing written on the subject. Laura Spinney reckons the Indian Nationalist movement grew up as part of the reaction against the British authorities who were unable to contain Spanish Flu. So even things that happened 30 years later she puts down to this extraordinary epidemic.
OR: As Secretary of War, how did Churchill respond to the Spanish Flu when it started to ravage the U.K.?
Roberts: We were very fortunate that the worst of it didn't come until the war was likely to be won. Had it happened to come earlier, there's no knowing what would have happened. We might've even been forced into an early, indecisive, and somewhat ignoble peace with Germany. It definitely had huge ramifications.
You saw a lot of British soldiers who were being demobbed by Churchill die, but if he hadn't demobbed them, they'd have stayed in camp and probably have died just the same as if they went home. And there was a good deal of self-isolation that took place in 1918 and 1919. And he was, of course, having to send troops all around the Empire. That, which they hadn't really factored in, also increased the amount of devastation that it caused (but not knowingly). These were issues that were always with him. And he thought about them a good deal. He made a speech in March of 1944, which was a really very powerful discussion about the importance of what he called the discoveries of healing science and how they had to be as widely used by as many people as possible. He said: "The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman. Simply on the ground, that is the enemy. And it must be in fact, just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as well as to the most important mansion."
OR: How important to surviving crises is his ability to rally other nations?
Roberts: This is, I suppose, the difference between the invisible killer that we're facing today and the all-too-visible killer of the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht. International cooperation was absolutely essential to winning the Second World War. American involvement was absolutely essential, as was Russian. It couldn't have been won otherwise. So in that sense, yes, of course it was and what Churchill had learned from a life in politics, from the First World War, and from his own writings (especially his biography of the Duke of Marlborough) was all about coalition-building and international cooperation and getting things done that a single nation couldn't do.
So relative to this present pandemic, we’ve seen the generosity that one country can give another when it comes to ventilators. Every country is swapping information as much as possible (or at least every free country seems to be). And the other key aspect of course is keeping the world economy going as much as humanly possible under the circumstances. That's something else that the United States was actually essential to: when it came to the Second World War, it was very much a war that ultimately was being paid on your dollar.
OR: You're also the author of a fabulous biography of Napoleon, who had his own brush with the plague in the Middle East. How did he handle it?
Roberts: When he was involved in the Egyptian campaign, a good number of his men went down with the plague in Cairo in 1799. He showed his tremendous courage in going into the plague hospitals, at one point helping a plague victim be moved from one part of the hospital to a better bed in another part of the hospital, which of course was shocking to his lieutenant. The various marshals and generals around him begged him not to do it. He knew it would be a great — I don't like to use the word PR stunt, in such a historic moment — but nonetheless, you know what I'm getting at. And it certainly was. It was hugely successful. There were paintings painted of it at the time, morale went up. It demystified the plague to a degree and it allowed other people to have the guts to go and help these poor people themselves. He was incredibly lucky not to have caught it. If he had, he probably would have died. So there is this sense that the Napoleon was willing to take extraordinary personal risk in order to make his men better.