This week President Biden’s mandated that all members of the US Armed Forces (military and civilian) be vaccinated against COVID-19.  While mandatory civilian vaccination is a political landmine subject to religious and other objections (even if some of those objections are unfounded), Biden as commander-in-chief, has the authority to order mandatory military vaccination.  Currently, active-duty military members are subjected to other mandatory vaccinations, depending on where they serve, and COVID-19 is now just one of many shots that troops must take in order to remain fit for duty.  Soldiers, airmen, and sailors even receive vaccines for smallpox which was officially eradicated by vaccinations in 1980. Those who refuse may face discipline, including a court-martial.

Vaccinating our troops has a history as long as the republic.  On Feb. 5, 1777; General George Washington reported to Congress his unilateral decision to combat a smallpox outbreak.  With the mortality rate approaching 16%, nearly 90% of all American Revolution War deaths resulted from smallpox. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure,” Washington reflected in a letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr, then-director general of the Hospitals of the Continental Army, on Feb. 6. Washington ordered Shippen to launch the first mass inoculation of any military in history—a move that saved the army and undoubtedly helped ensure the survival of the United States.

Smallpox, like COVID-19, was virally transferred by person-to-person contact.  Washington was lucky enough to have survived an infection during the 7 Years War but he knew well that many did not and that those who survive are incapacitated during their recovery. His decision to inoculate the troops was a tactical rather than humanitarian act.  Troops in hospital beds win no battles. 

Like today, there was fervent skepticism and fear of inoculation.  Unlike today, however, many of these fears were justified.  Unlike today’s vaccinations (which contain an inactive strain), 18th-century inoculations inserted the live virus (via pus from an active sufferer) into an incision. The person contracted smallpox, but typically a less severe form—leading to a greater likelihood of survival. Still, the patient required quarantining for a roughly four-week infectious period before acquiring lifelong immunity. It was risky and time-consuming but offered better odds than the alternative.

As the nation and the military today face another “invisible enemy” in COVID-19, we should applaud President Biden who took a page from history and followed Washington’s precedent to maintain military readiness and national defense.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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  1. My only question, what took Biden so long? As a daughter and parent of a military officers, this is a no brainer.

    Also I believe only the Janssen vaccine uses attenuated virus. Pfizer and Moderna utilize mRNA transcription technology.

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    1. Okay, I did not want to go into immunology with my readers of a HISTORY blog. Stay tuned folks, next week we will discuss Heisenberg and Diesenhoffer shells….

      I know the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines (can we call them vaccines?) are mRNA. Janssen (of as we like to call it here in PA, Johnson & Johnson) uses altered virus (not technically the same as attenuated but its just me nitpicking).

      As to why it took so long? Let us only look to Washington. L’Enfant designed the streets to impede flow and that has set the stage for gridlock in all things within the district for the last 230 years… Nothing happens when it should and all cross branch military decisions must go up and down the chain of command until someone get brave enough to trust that their superiors will approve. Biden was likely waiting for that black swan event.

      The real question is why would anyone not get one of the three vaccines. Take the J&J vaccine if you fear the technology. Take the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine if you fear lower efficacy. If you are a Trump supporter, take the vaccine to celebrate “Operation Warp Speed.” If you are a Trump dissenter, take the vaccine to shove it in the face of the Fox News crowd. There really should only be 3-5% of religious objectors out there and if the rest of us were vaccinated, we could handle that. Its the people who think being safe is a violation of their rights (and that them spreading a disease is NOT a violation of everyone else’s!) that are the problem.

      I think we should take the Mutual of Omaha approach and shoot them with dart guns. “Okay Stan, I’ll shoot them with the tranq dart and you go tag and [vaccinate] them…”

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