In 1918, Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin was serving the U.S. Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York when he started composing a Ziegfeld Follies-style revue for the soldiers. For its finale, he penned a little diddy called “God Bless America.”

Berlin didn’t end up using tune, and didn’t think of it much again until about two decades later. With World War II looming, the songwriter wanted to pen an anthem rallying for harmony. “I’d like to write a great peace song,” he said, “but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace.”

He dug up his discarded musical number from the WWI revue, and Kate Smith ultimately debuted the revised version on her radio show on Armistice Day in 1938. She reportedly 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 new song had a few modifications. Among other things, to avoid any confusion regarding politics, Berlin changed the phrase “to the right” to “through the light” by the time the sheet music was published. The song was a fast sensation. It was featured a few years later in 1943’s This is the Army (appropriately starring Ronald Reagan), which is where the above clip comes from.

Smith and Berlin would later squabble over proprietorship, foreshadowing a bit of the kind of contention the song would continue to engender for many years to come. It’s seen a complicated history, and the phrase itself occupies a strange place in the American zeitgeist. And while those in the political landscape argue over its meaning and ownership, it’s technically the property of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of New York City. Berlin established the God Bless America Fund in 1940, and its royalties go directly to the young adult organizations. An estimated $10 million in profits have gone to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the decades since.

Image credit: YouTube

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