“Today, we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone: 500,071 dead. That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.”
— President Joe Biden, remarks on 500,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, Feb. 22
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When remarking on the deaths of Americans from the illness caused by the coronavirus, President Joe Biden likes to compare the total to the deaths the nation has suffered in war. In his inaugural address, for instance, the president noted: “A once-in-a-century virus, it silently stalks the country. It’s taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II.”
Now, about a month later, he had added two more wars to his comparison when he marked 500,000 dead in a solemn and moving address at the White House.
Leave aside the question of whether it makes sense to compare deaths from illness to wartime deaths. (Annual deaths from cancer top 600,000 in the United States.) The metaphor is understandable: This is a battle against a deadly foe.
But is Biden’s math right?
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When Biden gave his inaugural address, the COVID-19 death account was between 400,000 and 405,000, depending on the tracker. The total number of U.S. deaths from World War II was 405,399, according to the Congressional Research Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs. So that was close enough for government work, especially because the COVID-19 deaths figures probably are undercounted.
That World War II figure included battle deaths (291,557) and other deaths in service but not in theater (113,842).
So Biden’s latest statement does not make much sense. If you start with a base of 405,399 and add in World War I and the Vietnam War, using the same metrics of battlefield deaths and in-service deaths, you end up with many more than 500,000.
— World War I: 116,516 deaths
— World War II: 405,399
— Vietnam: 58,220
That adds up to about 580,000.
(For Vietnam, Veterans Affairs also lists an additional 32,000 in-service-but-not-in-theater deaths, which would push the total above 600,000.)
Using just battlefield deaths, you come up with a much different number — about 392,000. That’s because more than half the deaths in World War I were not on the battlefield, in part because the 1918 flu pandemic at the time also claimed many lives in the military. But it would be pretty disingenuous for Biden to use a figure that included more than battlefield deaths in his inaugural address, then switch a different metric just a month later, without noting the change in metrics.
If Biden was using only battlefield deaths, he actually could have said more people died of COVID-19 than in combat during all U.S. wars against foreign enemies. That’s because fewer than 500,000 died in battle if you add up every war from the Revolutionary War to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Not counting the Civil War.)
If Biden had liked the sound of comparing COVID-19 deaths to three wars, he would have been closer if he had added together all deaths from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. That yields a total of 500,193.
A White House official told The Washington Post that the president intended to refer to combat deaths in World War I, World War II and Vietnam, which is under 400,000, but that he inadvertently omitted that qualifier in his remarks.
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A president’s words have impact. The president’s death comparison to World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War ended up being cited in The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other news media. That’s because people assume when the president uses a figure like this, it’s been properly fact-checked, especially when speaking in a high-profile event like this.
Apparently the president meant to refer to battlefield numbers in his remarks, even though he did not do so when he first made his war-to-COVID-19 comparison in his inaugural address. It’s confusing that the White House would change the metric like this, but that would be correct. At the very least, the White House needs to note the president’s mistake on the official transcript so his math error does not keep getting repeated in news reports.
Biden earns Two Pinocchios.