A Peace Song Beating The War Drums

Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” underwent major changes in meaning; it was “originally written as a peace song for Armistice Day in 1938, but by 1940 [it] had become an anthem for intervention”:

[J]ust 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.

(Video: Kate Smith introduces “God Bless America”)