Opinion | The Complicated DNA of ‘God Bless America’

American Jews on edge from the Pittsburgh temple murders and the sharp rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States might — or might not — want to recall an even more anxious time: the dark autumn of 1938. Then, as the Nazis began to overrun Europe and the maniacal voice of Adolf Hitler crackled over the radio, as Kristallnacht shook the world, powerful voices right here at home, of men like Father Coughlin, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, railed against American Jews — immigrants and the children of immigrants — pushing the country toward war, these men claimed, to rescue their co-religionists in Europe.

All America was on edge that fall: Orson Welles’s Halloween eve radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” triggered widespread panic among thousands fearing an actual alien invasion was taking place. Yet another broadcast, 10 nights later, had a very different effect.

On Nov. 10, 1938, one day after Kristallnacht and the eve of Armistice Day, the radio and recording star Kate Smith, the “Songbird of the South,” spoke the following words on her weekly CBS show: “And now it’s going to be my very great privilege to sing for you a song that’s never been sung before by anybody … It’s something more than a song — I feel it’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die. The author, Mr. Irving Berlin. The title, ‘God Bless America.’”

The reaction was swift and powerful: America loved “God Bless America.” The song quickly became omnipresent. Thousands of ordinary citizens sang it every day, in schools and churches and at all manner of public gatherings — even at least one meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. “When the song was played at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Memorial Day,” The New York Times reported, “the crowd rose and uncovered as if for the national anthem.”

A serious groundswell of support arose for “God Bless America” to replace the rangy, difficult-to-sing “Star Spangled Banner.” Irving Berlin would have none of it. “A national anthem is something that develops naturally through age, tradition, historic significance and general recognition,” he said. “We’ve got a good national anthem. You can’t have two.”

He had first written the song, in slightly different form, in the summer of 1918, as a United States Army sergeant at Camp Upton on Long Island, while preparing his Army musical “Yip Yip Yaphank.” Berlin had become a naturalized citizen just that February. Born in Siberia in 1888, he had arrived at Ellis Island in September 1893 with his parents and five brothers and sisters, none of them speaking any English, part of a large influx of European Jews from the 1880s through the mid-1920s. America had been very good to him, and his new tune’s lyrics and soaring melody expressed his overwhelming gratitude to his adopted “home sweet home.”

But Berlin changed his mind about putting the tune in the show: It felt “just a little sticky” to him. He relegated it to his song trunk for 20 years — then, in the tense fall of 1938, Kate Smith’s manager approached him, looking for a number for Smith to sing on Armistice Day. Berlin went to his trunk.

Yet almost as soon as “God Bless America” was introduced, some of Berlin’s fellow citizens began reviling him for his presumption, as an immigrant and a Jew, in having written it at all. Isolationist America-Firsters, defending “The Star-Spangled Banner,” shouted down efforts to sing “God Bless America” at public gatherings. Though Berlin donated all royalties from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts, many people accused him, in baldly anti-Semitic terms, of trying to profit from it. Jewish-conspiracy theories sprang up around the tune. The head of the pro-Nazi Protestant War Veterans of the United States wrote a letter to the director of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., accusing Berlin of paying “your organization $15,000 dollars to put over a (Jew) New National Anthem.”

It was a frightening time. A time when — right in Berlin’s hometown — Fritz Kuhn’s German-American Bund could draw a crowd of 20,000 homegrown Nazi sympathizers to a rally in Madison Square Garden. A rally where, in between “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Kuhn blamed “Jewish financiers” for getting America into World War I; where the Bund’s national public-relations counsel, G.W. Kunze, declaimed, “If Franklin Rosenfeld takes the place of George Washington, so in the cultural life Beethoven is replaced by Irving Berlin and the like.”

This was the fringe, but the fringe was scarily close to the main fabric of American life in those prewar years. It was a time when Jews, even wealthy and famous Jews like Irving Berlin, had to watch their step — and very soon, worry about the times to come.

And now our own frightening time. A time when a right-wing fringe, scarily close to the main fabric of American life and encouraged by our president, blames Jewish financiers for helping to bring immigrant hordes into the country. A time when some of that fringe’s sympathizers are taking matters into their own violent hands. A time when, at a rally held by President Trump in Illinois last month, a little girl in a red T-shirt sat on her father’s shoulders and listened to the president drum up fear about those immigrant hordes. The little girl’s T-shirt was emblazoned with three words: “God Bless America.”

James Kaplan’s biography of Irving Berlin, “New York Genius,” will be published next fall.

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