Social Impacts of WW II
The Second World War triggered a series of rapid and far-reaching social changes in Newfoundland and Labrador. The establishment of foreign bases provided the Commission of Government with an unforeseen amount of wealth, which it used to improve social services. Advancements were made in health care, education, transportation, communication, and other fields. The presence of thousands of visiting Canadian and American troops also altered values and attitudes previously entrenched in Newfoundland and Labrador society. Standards of living rose, styles of dress changed, new friendships – both romantic and platonic – were forged, and the introduction of American radio and other forms of entertainment did much to integrate Newfoundland and Labrador into North American culture and distance it from Great Britain’s. Ultimately, the social changes of the 1940s helped shape the country’s constitutional future, which cumulated in Confederation.
When war broke out in 1939, Newfoundland and Labrador was in financial straits – unemployment was rampant and government spending that year exceeded its income by more than $4 million. Widespread poverty and destitution had resulted in high rates of tuberculosis, malnutrition, and infant mortality, which the country’s poorly funded health system could do little to combat. Because the Commission had little money to spend on roads or telecommunications, many rural residents were isolated from other communities and practiced a way of life that had remained largely unchanged for generations.
The establishment of Canadian and American bases in the early 1940s, however, sparked an economic revival in Newfoundland and Labrador as millions of foreign dollars were poured into the local economy. The Commission, which in 1941 reported a surplus for the first time in years, suddenly possessed ample resources to initiate much-needed social reforms. In August 1942, it made school attendance mandatory and free of charge for children between the ages of seven and 14. It also created a Labour Relations Office to protect the interests of Newfoundland and Labrador contract workers being recruited by North American employers.
Although the Commission increased spending on health care, communication, and transportation, it was the United States and Canadian Armed Forces that made the largest contributions in these spheres. The Americans helped modernize the island’s communication system by installing aerial cables from St. John’s to Stephenville, reconstructed the 54-mile highway between Holyrood and Argentia, and helped upgrade the Newfoundland Railway’s Whitbourne to Argentia track. They also made various health services available to the public during the war, and later turned over to civilian use their hospitals at Fogo Island, Goose Bay, Pleasantville, and other areas.
The Canadians also provided Newfoundland and Labrador with much in the way of social capital, including airports at Torbay, Gander, and Botwood, and hospitals at St. John’s and Gander. The establishment of the Canadian airfield at Goose Bay had a particularly profound effect in western Labrador, where almost overnight, radio, air travel, and snowmobiles put the previously remote and undeveloped area in close contact with the rest of the world.
Less quantifiable, though immensely pervasive, were the social impacts brought about by the sudden exposure of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to the thousands of American and Canadian military personnel stationed in their previously isolated country. Establishments like the Caribou Hut and the Red Triangle Club frequently hosted dances and other forms of entertainment which promoted extensive intermingling between resident civilians and foreign troops. Marriages between local women and visiting servicemen were common, and US Consul General George Hopper estimated that more than 350 such unions took place between January 1942 and April 1944. Hopper, however, frowned on these marriages, believing that the women were taking advantage of impressionable young troops to earn American passports. In reality, all new wives still had to pass through normal immigration procedures before entering the United States.
Sporting events offered another opportunity for social mixing and cultural exchanges. Newfoundland and Labrador civilians competed against visiting troops in boxing matches, hockey games, baseball, and at the annual St. John’s Regatta. The Americans installed the country’s first softball field at Fort Pepperrell, and also introduced handball. The Canadians, meanwhile, showed local residents how to ice dance, an event which essentially replaced skates with winter boots.
Military officials were not opposed to these social interactions and frequently invited civilians onto the bases for movie nights or other events. The radio station VOUS (Voice of the United States) also did much to bring American popular culture into local homes. However, as North American entertainment and consumer products became more widespread during the war, local values and attitudes changed. Newfoundland and Labrador Governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn wrote in 1944 of a spreading materialism: “It may be said that the establishment of United States bases in the Island has led to a demand among the poorer sections of the community not only for the basic domestic requirements but also to what might be termed luxury articles, such as radio sets, etc., and to a desire for better and more expensive food stuffs.”
Although relations were generally positive, tensions did arise between foreign military personnel and Newfoundland and Labrador civilians. Before base construction could begin, the American and Canadian Armed Forces often had to appropriate land from local residents. In Argentia, the US military exhumed three cemeteries and expropriated 201 private properties, some of which had been passed down through generations. Although the Canadian and American governments compensated all dislocated landowners with cash, it was widely felt that payments received did not equal the emotional costs of having to move. In St. John’s, the sudden invasion of thousands of military personnel led to a general feeling of overcrowding, which in 1944 prompted the Canadian government to limit the number of dependents its enlistees could bring into the country.
Sexually transmitted diseases also became prevalent at some communities near the bases, where hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of unmarried servicemen were stationed. American military authorities were quick to blame local women for spreading venereal disease (VD) among troops, even though it had not been of major concern in Newfoundland and Labrador before the war. In Stephenville, for example, base authorities ordered American Military Police to give prophylaxis kits to any servicemen they saw socializing with women suspected of having VD.
Following the war, the American and Canadian Armed Forces turned many of their facilities and structures over to the Commission of Government for civilian use. As a result, the country inherited an array of modern hospitals, airports, communication systems, paved roads, sewers, recreational centres, and other assets it would not have otherwise been able to afford. Many of these facilities are still in use today, including the airports at Stephenville and Torbay (today the St. John’s International Airport).
Perhaps of more profound and far-reaching significance, however, was the wartime exposure of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to North American culture. This not only helped shift the country’s society away from Britain and towards its western neighbours, but helped lay the foundation for confederation with Canada – a decision that continues to spark much intense and emotional debate.
Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site