Veterans Day and “God Bless America”

by Anita on November 11, 2011

Posted by Anita Folsom

The end of fighting in World War I came on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918:  11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.  No official peace treaty was signed for seven more months, but the cessation of hostilities on November 11th gave the world a wonderful respite from the slaughter of WWI. As the years passed, most states established celebrations of Armistice Day, and U.S. presidents issued annual proclamations remembering the nation’s soldiers who had died.

On May 13, 1938, congressional legislation made the 11th of November a legal federal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.”  Congress emphasized the cause of peace in its legislation, which reflected the strength of the peace movement in the United States in 1938.  As the year unfolded, however, peace appeared unlikely in many parts of the world.   As Burt and I describe in FDR Goes to War, Japan had invaded China in 1937 and continued its devastation there in 1938, refusing to withdraw; Hitler and the Nazis were growing stronger in Europe and threatening war.  Some Americans wondered if the United States was strong enough to meet the challenges of another world war.

In response to the ominous world situation, composer Irving Berlin pulled out a song he had originally composed in 1918, “God Bless America.”  Berlin revised the words a bit to make it more of a peace song, with an introduction more like an invocation:

“While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free / Let us all be grateful for a land so fair, / As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.”

Irving Berlin chose Kate Smith, a popular vocalist of the 1930s, to be the first to sing his renewed creation on the radio during the week of Armistice Day, 1938.  “God Bless America” became her signature piece for the rest of her life, and her version of the song was even used by NASA on the final wake-up call to the space shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011.

Despite the popularity of Berlin’s song and the strength of the peace movement in many countries, World War II became the costliest conflict in history, both in blood and treasure.  When World War II required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in America’s history, veterans’ organizations suggested a change in Armistice Day. American forces also fought aggression in Korea from 1950 to 1953.  Finally, the 83rd Congress amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans.” President Dwight Eisenhower signed the legislation on June 1, 1954, and November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

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