NPR Reminds Us: 'Some' Think That 'God Bless America' Is a Truly Awful Scoop of 'Syrupy Nationalism'

On Monday night's All Things Considered, NPR interviewed Sheryl Kaskowitz,  the author of a new book on the "iconic" song "God Bless America."

While NPR has no trouble excluding conservative views from their programs, the taxpayer-funded radio playground always enjoys highlighting the unpatriotic view, namely, that Woody Guthrie thought it was "a whitewash of everything wrong in America" and that some people (NPR listeners, surely) felt it was a "tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith."

The song's story sounds interesting. Anchor Robert Siegel declared the song“has not only endured, it has become a statement of patriotism, of home-front support for troops at war. In the Vietnam era, it was an anthem of counter-protest. And while it has brought a lump to the throat of many an American, it has also annoyed many who hear it as a tune of syrupy nationalism and trivialized faith.” The song was originally composed in 1918, then reworked for Kate Smith in 1938:

ROBERT SIEGEL: In the original lyric, the singer beseeches God to stand beside her and guide her to the right with a light from above, not through the night with a light from above. That had changed by 1938.

SHERYL KASKOWITZ: Yes, that's right. In 1938, that sense of something being guided to the right had an association with fascism.

NPR also explored how the song used to sound more isolationist than it does now, that it went "From Peace to Patriotism," as NPR's online headline announced:

KASKOWITZ: [A]t the time, Irving Berlin had said he was looking for a peace song. Kate Smith, when she was talking about the song on her daytime radio show, she said that she would be thinking about the veterans and hoping with all her heart that there would never be another war. And against that backdrop, the song really had this meaning as the tensions in Europe were escalating. In fact, in Irving Berlin's verse, his original verse had a line that was specifically an anti-interventionist line.

SMITH: (Singing) 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 far from there as we raise our voices in a solemn prayer. God bless America...

SIEGEL: That's thank God we're not in Europe where the Nazis have taken over, and are making all kinds of menacing noises and going for Czechoslovakia.

KASKOWITZ: And what was really interesting about the timing of the song's premiere was that the day before was Kristallnacht, the Nazi's attacks on Jewish communities in Europe. So, very quickly that peace song idea of "God Bless America," went away, really. And Irving Berlin changed the verse when he published the sheet music in March of 1939.

SIEGEL: Irving Berlin was the Russian-Jewish immigrant kid who was writing a love song to his adoptive country. He also wrote the famous Christmas song "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade."I didn't realize that the song had actually drawn criticism. I knew it had drawn criticism from the likes of Woody Guthrie, who thought it was a whitewash of everything wrong in America. I didn't realize that from the right there had been anti-Semitic complaints about "God Bless America." But you described that there were.

KASKOWITZ: Yes, there was a backlash against it because Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant. And it was boycotted by the Ku Klux Klan and by some domestic Nazi groups.

NPR's a little slow, since the book came out on July 4. One reviewer talked about how he was "tortured" with the song in his childhood and talked about music's power to "unite and coerce." But it's amazing that when it comes to patriotic songs, liberals find them a "whitewash" or "coercive."  They wouldn't say that about "We Shall Overcome," and they wouldn't say that about their hero Woody Guthrie and "This Land Is Your Land."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis