1918: The Other Great American Eclipse

By now you know we’re having a total solar eclipse visible nationwide at midday on August 21, 2017. Astrologically, it happens at 28 degrees of the sign Leo. The eclipse shadow will cross the United States northwest to southeast, beginning in Oregon and ending in South Carolina.

The last total solar eclipse that swept coast-to-coast in the same direction and approximately along the same pathway, northwest to southeast, making landfall in Washington State and exiting in Florida, occurred on June 8, 1918 at 17 degrees 16 minutes of Gemini.

It’s interesting and perhaps revealing to compare the 1918 eclipse and the events around it with the eclipse to come in August 2017. The year 1918 was exceptionally important for the U.S. and the world, and it might be that by comparing the events of 1918 and 2017, we can get a rough idea of how the 2017 eclipse will affect the United States.

What Eclipses Do

Solar eclipse effects persist for six months preceding and after the eclipse. Eclipses, read in the context of nations, indicate turning points that settle “hot” political issues, but only partially or temporarily, because an eclipse does not last very long. From start to finish, eclipses last 5 to 6 hours. Totality in 2017—the dramatic moment when the Moon seems to block the Sun’s disk entirely—will last about 2 minutes and 30 seconds at most.

Much of what happened in U.S. politics and foreign policy in 1918 would later be undone, either through legislation or efforts of the citizens. We can expect our eclipse to have similar effects. The eclipse “echoes” will be most noticeable whenever the transiting Moon “triggers” the 1918 eclipse point at 17 Gemini or the 2017 point at 28 Leo.

Eclipses, because they generate temporary shadow, used to have a reputation for bringing evil and bad times, especially for emperors, kings, or other high-ranking leaders. The idea of the “evil eclipse” is obsolete now that we understand that there are eclipses all over the world, including those we in the U.S. cannot see, every few days. In 2017 there will be a total of 68 solar eclipses around the globe. Nobody has ever proven they brought evil to the earth. Maybe their dark reputation stems from the old days when rulers punished astronomers or astrologers who failed to predict eclipses.

If there is evil, don’t blame eclipses. Evil comes only from humankind, not from planets or stars.

Issues of 1918 

In mid-1918, the U.S. for the first time sent large numbers of troops to the Western Front of what we now call World War I. U.S. had been politically neutral, and then later shipped supplies to Britain and France, but kept its men out of the war at the insistence of President Woodrow Wilson. When the U.S. did join the war, its army was too sparse to fight and men were drafted.

U.S. participation lasted until the Armistice on November 11, 1918, perhaps the year’s greatest political event. Sending U.S. soldiers in 1918 to bolster Allied troops fighting since 1914 was the turning point that helped the Allies win and end the war.

Soon after the Armistice, many European countries declared independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Germany, or whatever entity had ruled them against their will. The heyday of the empires had ended. However, the days of the Soviet Union began when Vladimir Lenin won power for his rebel Bolsheviks, later called Communists, who executed the Russian royal family.

But if we are discussing the United States, here are some turning-point events of 1918:

  • In February, the first Pan-African Conference met in Paris, led by U.S. sociologist and writer W.E.B. DuBois.
  • On March 19, the U. S. Congress approved time zones and daylight savings time.
  • On May 15, the first airmail postal service, between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., began.
  • On May 16, a U.S. Congress very nervous about wartime spies and traitors passed the Sedition Act, providing up to 20 years in jail for those who spoke or wrote against the government. However, only a few citizens were tried and sentenced under this law, repealed after the war.
  • On May 21, the U.S. House at last passes a bill allowing U.S. women to vote. It would take another year and a half and a constitutional amendment before votes for women became the law of the land.
  • On June 8, the day of the eclipse, astronomers discover the brightest nova seen since 1604, and name it Nova Aquila.
  • Congress levied a 77 percent tax on those making a million dollars a year or more. This was up from the previous year’s 67 percent. The money raised went to fund the war effort. After the war Congress reduced the tax further. (In 1918, only five percent of the U.S. population paid income taxes!)
  • On August 15, the first full-length cartoon was released to theaters.
  • New inventions of 1918 include the grocery bag, the torque wrench, and the hydraulic brake—things that Americans still use daily. Also that year a patent was issued for a technology essential to television broadcasting, although an actual working experimental television was a decade in the future.
  • Most of the 2 million U.S. men registered for the draft did not have to fight.
  • We can’t ignore the “Spanish influenza” pandemic of 1918, which today’s medical scholars trace not to Spain or to Asia but to the United States. In March 1918 soldiers at Funston Army Camp, Kansas, suffered one of the first outbreaks, and possibly the U.S. soldiers sent abroad helped to carry the killer virus around the world. The epidemic ended as mysteriously as it had begun.

The coming Great American eclipse might bring modern versions of these events. We are fortunate that in the year 1918 the biggest news was peace.

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