Huntington historian Libby O’Connell, a member of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, announced on Tuesday a 30-month commemoration of the war many observers say helped propel the nation and the New York region into the modern age.
O’Connell, who until last September was chief historian for The History Channel, said it is important to remember what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars” for the forces it helped set in motion — including the civil rights and women’s movements, and the expansion of the U.S. military from what had been a tiny standing force into a global power.
Locally, World War I led to the modernization of aviation and other industries, and eventually to the suburbanization of Long Island.
“New York was at the forefront of seismic changes brought on by this war,” O’Connell told an audience of diplomats, educators and veterans outside the New York Public Library’s main building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
The war, which historians regard as the world’s first global conflict, involved all the major powers, including the United States, which entered in 1917. The war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, killed some 9 million military personnel and 7 million civilians in fighting that raged from the coast of France to the Arabian Peninsula, to the Caucasus mountains in southwest Asia.
World War I helped spur the development of Long Island by energizing the nascent aviation industry, including Sperry Gyroscope, which designed bomb sights and guidance systems at a plant in Lake Success. The war also brought tens of thousands of soldiers to the Camp Upton training center, at what is now the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Suffolk County.
The war’s aftermath began shaping today’s Europe and Middle East, embittering a young Adolf Hitler, harbingering the Cold War with the creation of the Soviet Union, and redrawing the map of the Middle East with colonialist lines that continue to kindle opposition from disaffected populations there.
Here at home, women who filled office and factory jobs vacated by men who went off to war successfully pressed for the right to vote. The early civil rights movement was invigorated by returning black soldiers.
Terrance C. Holliday, a Hempstead resident who headed veterans affairs for New York City, said civil rights gains can be traced in part to the performance of black and Puerto Rican soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment. Known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” they distinguished themselves while fighting under French command, after white American soldiers refused to serve with them.
“World War I set in motion the way society is today,” said Holliday. “Now, we have black four- and five-star generals.”
O’Connell, whom President Barack Obama named to the commission in 2014, said the commission will encourage schools, local governments and community organizations to take on projects to boost awareness of World War I’s legacy.
The commission is planning a July 23 open house on Governors Island in New York Harbor, with war re-enactors, period music performances, films, and a tour of buildings on the island that contributed to the war effort. More events are planned for next year.
“There were a lot of injustices 100 years ago,” said O’Connell, who is related to victims of the 1915 torpedo sinking of the Lusitania passenger ship off the coast of Ireland, which helped persuade the United States to join the war. “That war helps us recognize how far we’ve come, and that we’re on the right road. That’s worth commemorating.”