God Bless America” has become a second national anthem. I think the funerals in New York City after 9/11 played a major role in establishing this. Why not? It has a better tune than the “Star-Spangled Banner” and it mentions God, de rigeur in these days when the separation of church and state is seen as a Stalinist intrusion into Our Christian Constitution. At almost every baseball game played in the United States, “God Bless America” has become a post 9/11 addition to the seventh-inning stretch, just before “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Often, as in home games for the Rochester Red Wings this season, it is played as images of soldiers in uniforms are displayed on the scoreboard, a battle hymn for an enlarged republic. There’s only problem with this, the “Star Spangled Banner” is basically a war song; “God Bless America” is basically an anti-war song.
I recently heard a recording of the verse of “God Bless America” the introductory part of the song that is usually omitted, and got me thinking about this. This is not really new information, but let me share it anyway. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” in 1918. Its original words, for a military review, were quite martial
God Bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her
And guide her
To the right with a light from above
Make her victorious on land and foam
God Bless America, my home sweet home.
For various reason, Berlin did not use the song in 1918, though he revived it in 1938. He changed the words to the familiar version we know, and as he wrote in 1954, “In 1938 I didn’t want it to be war song, I wanted it to be a song of peace.” This is clear from the usually omitted verse, which he wrote in the late 1930s:
While the storm clouds gather
Far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance
To a land that’s free;
Let us be grateful
For a land so fair
As we raise our voices
In a solemn prayer
In Europe they settle their differences with armies; we don’t need to do that in the United States. Our freedoms are not based on military might. America is not an idea or based on an imperial design; America is a land with very specific borders, ending right at the foamy oceans and extending no further. “God Bless America” is an isolationist hymn.
I hope one thing that can come out our awful adventure in Iraq is a renewed sense of the price of American military action overseas. Isolationism was never about ignoring the world, it was about not invading the world. Isolationism is sometimes thought of as a species of Midwest xenophobia with an anti-Semitic tinge. That was certainly part of it, but there much else as well. Probably no city in the United States was as much a center of pacifist and anti-war sentiments as New York, and the deep conviction to stay out of another war was widely shared across all ethnic, racial, and political lines.
There were of course eventually good reasons for the US to get involved in World War II. (However, the best reason, to save the Jews of Europe, had nothing to do with the US decision to go to war against Germany.) In any event, we have never returned to the status quo ante bellum. Since Dec 7, 1941, we have always been an overseas military power, and it is difficult to get back to the cultural milieu in which “God Bless America” could have introduced as a song of peace, and not a song calling for support and victory for US forces overseas. At the very least, the next time you hear “God Bless America” performed, pay special attention to the verse.