One of the regrettable and inevitable things about aging is that the older we get, the more things which were familiar to us from our youth fade and are lost to generations which come after. I was reminded of that recently when I came across a 1938 film clip of Kate Smith introducing “God Bless America.” Those not alive at the time have absolutely no idea of what a frightening and uncertain time it was. We teetered on the brink of a cataclysm unequalled in human history, and while we realized it was coming, we had no idea of what would happen, how or when it would end—or that it would claim 48,231,700 lives worldwide, including 400,000 Americans.
The First World War had ended only twenty years earlier. Anti-war sentiment was strong in the United States, but when war broke out in Europe in 1938 with the invasion of Poland, we found ourselves being inexorably drawn into the conflict. We began to gear up for war first by supplying Britain the things it needed to ward off a Nazi invasion.
We were almost desperate for some sort of comfort, of reassurance that things would be all right. And then Irving Berlin revised a song he had written in 1918 to be part of a musical called "Yip Yip Yaphank," but was cut from the show. He offered it to popular singer Kate Smith, who introduced it on her radio show. It was called “God Bless America,” and it had far more to do with patriotism than it did religion. (If you haven’t already seen it, there is a film clip of her introducing the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEJo7x9y3D4)
It became an instant hit and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor…which shocked the nation in a way that would have no equivalent on the American public until 9-11…became something of an unofficial national anthem.
I remember listening to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on December 8. I remember my Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck’s concern for their three sons, all draft age, and all of whom subsequently went off to war. My dad did not have to go because he was nearing 30, was married, and worked in a war factory.
WWII galvanized the entire nation in a way, again, almost impossible to imagine in today’s world of political pettiness, mean-spiritedness, bickering, and division. It was a far simpler world, where good and bad, right and wrong seemed much easier to tell apart. We were all in it together.
I remember war bonds and ration books for food and gasoline, scrap metal drives and even drives to collect used cooking oil and grease. I remember Victory Gardens which everyone was encouraged to grow to supplement food shortages. Sugar and candy bars were almost unheard of, everything going to supply the troops.
I remember the small, gold edged banners which were placed in the windows of people who had family in service. In the center of each banner was a star…blue for those serving and gold for those killed in action.
I remember blackouts and air-raid drills, though I lived in the middle of the country, far beyond the reach of enemy bombers. But it was the not knowing that kept everyone extra, undoubtedly overly, alert.
America was a male, white, Christian nation. Blacks and other minorities were all but invisible, existing on the far outer perimeters of the white world. For the most part, all the white majority knew about blacks were the stereotypes seen—usually as comedy relief—in the occasional movie. The hugely popular Amos and Andy radio show, supposedly about Negroes, featured white actors playing the black parts. The only black actors I can recall on radio were Hattie McDaniel (the first black woman ever to win an academy award, for Gone With the Wind), who played Beulah, Fibber McGee and Mollie’s maid, and Jack Benny’s sidekick/servant Rochester. In the movies, blacks were largely used as comic relief, epitomized by Stepin Fetchit—whose very name exuded racism. There were a few anomalies where blacks were given token credit for their talent, such as Bojangles Robinson, who danced with Shirley Temple in a number of movies, and singer Lena Horne.
If blacks were seldom seen as anything but stereotypes, gays were even less visible and never, ever shown as anything but objects of derision.
But that was then, and now is now, and time has a way of blunting the sharp edges of the past. It is not our divisions we remember, but the power of patriotism and unity embodied in one woman and one song: Kate Smith’s unforgettable voice singing “God Bless America.”
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).