Julian M. Pleasants begins his work asserting that World War II resulted in “far-reaching changes to the economy, to the social fabric, to education, and to cultural mores” (p. ix). Not only did the war effect change but it also “helped move North Carolina toward becoming a more productive, energetic, and enterprising state” (p. 11). As evidence, he points to military construction, industrial and agricultural expansion, and government spending; the presence of “new residents [who] challenged the status quo”; a “shift of the population from rural to urban”; and cultural alterations that “challeng[ed] the conventional wisdom about the place of women and African Americans in society” (pp. 5, 6, 4). That seems a useful agenda, and Pleasants covers those topics in a well-organized, thematic approach. Unfortunately, the insights that approach engenders are limited. The chapter on the military offers brief histories of the state's bases, while the chapter on economic expansion offers a cursory assessment of its varied industries. Too often those sections read like a textbook. The chapters on the social, cultural, and demographic changes include more interesting vignettes but demonstrate no long-lasting alterations. While presenting a readable history of the state's wartime domestic events, the concept of structural change disappears. When Pleasants rediscovers the idea of change in his conclusion, he does so with platitudes about how “the war ended the Great Depression and led to the return of prosperity,” “expanded the power of the commander-in-chief,” and “reshaped the global role of the United States” (p. 302). When he finally turns to North Carolina, it is with similarly trite assessments about how the war left “North Carolina … much better off” financially, how it led to improved schools, roads, and infrastructure, and how it “altered [the soldiers'] myopic and ethnocentric worldview,” giving them “a more tolerant, less homogeneous mind-set” (pp. 304, 303). Those assessments, as Pleasants acknowledges, could be made for any number of states. That shortcoming arises throughout the book, as Pleasants often loses sight of what is unique to North Carolina amid a welter of context. The state disappears in the opening section on the “prelude to war,” while the chapters on African Americans and “rationing, war bonds, and victory gardens” focus on national occurrences supplemented with but few local examples. The book has its strengths, including focused studies on conscientious objectors, submarine attacks, higher education, and “Tar Heel heroes.” Pleasants goes deeper on those topics to present interesting, insightful, and extended local accounts, and he makes substantive use of oral histories. Sadly, even those sections have their limits, as when he mentions that “NC State [College] was especially important in several critical fields during the war” (p. 201). “Important,” yet the school gets one paragraph in a thirty-five page chapter on higher education. The scholarship is solid, the writing is clear, and the organization is tight, but Pleasants fails to achieve his purpose. Breadth trumps depth, creating a traditional wartime study that does little to demonstrate how the war proved “beneficial” to North Carolina. Those first learning about the era will find this work useful; those seeking deeper insight or a thorough examination of how the war changed North Carolina will need to look elsewhere. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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