By Sheryl Kaskowitz
If you watched the World Series this year, you may have noticed a trend in the nightly renditions of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch: all five performances were by soldiers in uniform. (The only civilian performer, the singer James Taylor, opted to sing “America the Beautiful” instead of “God Bless America” in his tribute to the Boston marathon victims.)
Given the song’s strong associations with war, it seems fitting that the anniversary of its radio premiere falls on the eve of Veterans Day—this year, the 10th of November marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of “God Bless America.” But it may come as a surprise that when the song debuted in November 1938, it was originally positioned as a “peace song.”
The master songwriter Irving Berlin had first sketched the tune during World War I, as the finale for an all-soldier revue, but he ultimately decided not to include it. He later said that he felt it was “like gilding the lily” to have men in uniform performing such an overtly patriotic tune. Of course, this is in stark contrast to our contemporary experience of the song, where a performance by a uniformed soldier is used to underscore the song’s connection to support for the troops.
But back in 1918, Irving Berlin scrapped “God Bless America” from his soldier show. He filed it away in his trunk of rejected songs, where it lay forgotten until the fall of 1938, when the radio star Kate Smith and her manager Ted Collins asked Berlin for a new patriotic song for Smith to sing for a special Armistice Day radio show. As the story goes, Berlin rediscovered his old song, made changes to it, and gave it to Smith to premiere on her show, which aired on the eve of Armistice Day, 10 November 1938.
It is important to note that when Berlin recovered “God Bless America” from his trunk in 1938, much had changed since he had first sketched his song twenty years earlier. A wartime marked by the zeal of George M. Cohan’s “Over There” in 1918 had given way to an increasing mood of isolationism during the 1930s.
According to one public opinion poll given in 1936, 95% of Americans were opposed to US participation in another European war. In the fall of 1938, Irving Berlin told a reporter, “I’d like to write a great peace song […], a great marching song that would make people march toward peace.” Kate Smith expressed similar sentiments on her daytime talk show on the day of the song’s premiere, saying: “As I stand before the microphone and sing it with all my heart, I’ll be thinking of our veterans and I’ll be praying with every breath I draw that we shall never have another war.” Before its name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954, Armistice Day itself had obvious connections to peace; in May 1938, Congress declared the holiday “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Some of the song’s original lyrics reflect its early status as a peace song. In October 1938, Berlin wrote an introductory verse, with lyrics that included a direct reference to anti-interventionism:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free
Let us all be grateful that we’re far from there
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer
The storm clouds in the first line are an obvious reference to the growing strife in Europe, and follow Tin Pan Alley conventions linking bad weather to troubled times. But most importantly, the line “let us all be grateful that we’re far from there” strongly points to a non-interventionist position, one that may have been sympathetic to the suffering in Europe but that did not urge action to bring Americans into the fray. Kate Smith sang this verse in her weekly radio performances of “God Bless America” from the fall of 1938 into the early months of 1939. But when Irving Berlin copyrighted the printed sheet music in February 1939, he had changed “grateful that we’re far from there” to “grateful for a land so fair,” and this is how it has appeared ever since (though the song’s verse is rarely performed today).
So just four months after its debut in the fall of 1938, “God Bless America” was no longer a peace song. In fact, later articles and interviews about the song made no mention of the peace message that was present at the song’s origins.
There are a few reasons behind this shift. One important factor is that the premiere of “God Bless America” happened to occur the day after Kristallnacht, the Nazi Party’s calculated attacks on Jewish communities in Germany and its annexed territories. According to many scholars of World War II, the brutality of these attacks signaled a turning point for a growing American condemnation of Nazi Germany, and a consequent move away from staunch isolationism.
Irving Berlin’s removal of the line “grateful that we’re far from there” was a reflection of his own changing views as much as to shifts in public opinion. As a Jewish immigrant, Berlin showed growing concern about the Nazi Party’s rise in Europe and began to give large donations to Jewish relief work during this period. In her memoir, Berlin’s daughter Mary Ellin Barrett wrote that by 1940, “isolationists in our interventionist family became the enemy, or at best, if close friends, the misguided ones.” A “peace song” was no longer called for, and Irving Berlin himself began to lead the song at rallies in support of American involvement in the escalating conflict in Europe.
So as we celebrate the anniversary of the song’s radio debut, we can reflect on how dramatically its connection to war has shifted. “God Bless America” was rejected as inappropriate for soldiers to sing during World War I, yet performances by uniformed servicemen and -women have now become standard. It was originally written as a peace song for Armistice Day in 1938, but by 1940 had become an anthem for intervention, and it has retained its power as a symbol of support for war in the twenty-first century.
Sheryl Kaskowitz is the author of God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song. She is a scholar of American music who has most recently served as a lecturer in American Studies at Brandeis University. Read her previous blog post.