Opinion

World War I’s profound impact on state still felt

By Christopher Gergen and Stephen Martin

Guest columnists

One hundred years ago this spring, the United States entered World War I, plunging into a conflict defined by chemical weapons and mass slaughter on a scale that had previously been unimaginable. Equally hard to predict: the war’s profound impact, both then and now, on the Tar Heel State.

In her new book “North Carolina and the Great War: 1914-1918,” Jessica Bandel, a research historian with the N.C. Office of Archives and History, delves into this transformative time in our state’s history. Her highly visual and comprehensive account, published by the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and distributed by UNC Press, covers everything from the run-up to the war to its aftermath. Through its compelling mix of photography and storytelling, the book complements a special World War I exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh that runs through next year.

The immediate effects of the war were immense, as Bandel shows. In the mountains, the lumber industry boomed as rail lines expanded. On the coast, Wilmington experienced its first spike in shipbuilding in a half-century. With sugar in short supply, the Mint Cola Co. in Salisbury experimented instead with cherry syrup, creating the Cheerwine soda that has become a hallmark throughout the Southeast. Hospitals, military bases and an internment camp for German civilians unable to leave America all sprung up quickly. Many of these factories and facilities rapidly disappeared after the war ended. Still, a tragic, permanent legacy remained: nearly 2,500 North Carolinians were killed, with thousands more suffering physical and mental trauma from the fighting in Europe.

Profiles of numerous state residents who served in the war are highlighted throughout the book and also on a blog where Bandel regularly shares additional material. Their stories bring the past to life for us – while underscoring the fact that the epic events of a century ago very much continue to shape the state we live in now.

Bandel’s book focuses less on the long-term impact of the war. In an interview, however, she identified key ways in which it helped shape North Carolina’s trajectory over the past 100 years. Perhaps the most tangible outcome: the creation of one of our state’s biggest economic engines – Fort Bragg.

America’s involvement in World War I resulted in three new U.S. Army bases across North Carolina, with Camp Polk in Raleigh, Camp Greene in Charlotte, and Camp Bragg in Fayetteville, which had an early focus on artillery training. Camps Polk and Greene shut down as the Army de-mobilized after the war. Camp Bragg nearly met the same fate but was ultimately elevated to a permanent post in 1922.

Fort Bragg later experienced explosive growth during World War II. Today, it is the nation’s largest military installation, in terms of population, with more than 50,000 active-duty personnel and tens of thousands of civilian employees, reserves, and families connected to the base. Its estimated annual economic impact in the surrounding 11-county region is nearly $10 billion.

The war also helped accelerate the drive for women’s rights.

Women in North Carolina and across the country quickly began to fill industrial, farming, and professional jobs left vacant as men took on new roles as soldiers. In one memorable example, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a Tar Heel native and owner of The News & Observer, could not find enough men to fill Navy administrative jobs as typists, clerks, and bookkeepers. He began hiring women, which was a groundbreaking move. Even more unconventionally, he insisted that a woman “who works as well as a man ought to receive the same pay.”

Though men reclaimed many of these jobs as they returned home, women had gained momentum in the fight for equal rights. Indeed, the 19th amendment, which awarded women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920 with support from President Woodrow Wilson. He backed the effort in part because of the major contributions women had made during the war. Today, women account for 54 percent of registered voters in North Carolina.

Bandel’s book is a testament to the tremendous upheaval our state endured a century ago, an era of turmoil that many of us know little about. The war’s lasting imprint here at home is a powerful reminder of why we do well to remember it.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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