A new book, God Bless America: The Surprising History of an Iconic Song, details the history of Irving Berlin’s legendary hit song and delineates how the original lyrics that Berlin wrote in 1938 were anti-interventionist but were changed due to an amazing coincidence.
The song was premiered by Kate Smith on Nov. 10, 1938, but the very night before was Kristallnacht, the Nazis’ attacks on Jewish communities throughout Germany and its annexed territories. Berlin, who was Jewish, noted the fact and the American public’s reaction to the Nazis’ actions. Before Kristallnacht, 62 percent of Americans were neutral toward Germany; after Kristallnacht, 61 percent wanted to boycott Germany.
By the time the sheet music was published in February of 1939, the lyrics had been changed to excise the non-interventionist phrase.
Berlin said in September 1938, as the Munich Pact took hold allowing the Nazis to invade Czechoslovakia, “I’d like to write a great peace song, … a great marching song that would make people march toward peace.” When Smith premiered the song, she said, “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.”
The original introductory verse used the stanza:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free
Let us be grateful that we’re far from there
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer
But by February 1939, “Let us be grateful that we’re far from there” was replaced by “Let us be grateful for a land that’s fair.” Mary Ellin Barrett, Berlin’s daughter, noted that by the time 1940 rolled around, “isolationists in our interventionist family became the enemy, or at best, if close friends, the misguided ones.”