When Berlin wrote the original song in the summer of 1918, he was a World War I recruit in the United States Army’s 152nd Depot Brigade at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. The song was thought initially to be part of the military music revue “Yip Yip Yaphank,” but Berlin felt the song was too solemn for a comedy and put it aside for twenty years. In the fall of 1938, as fascism and war threatened Europe, Irving Berlin decided to write a peace song. He recalled the unpublished version of the song that he had set aside in 1918 and revised it to become “God Bless America.” During the three days in which Berlin revised “God Bless America,” the singer Kate Smith asked him for a patriotic song to perform on her CBS radio program, to be broadcast from the New York World’s Fair on November 10 to honor Armistice Day. Berlin generously signed over his royalty money from the song to charity, and the revenues went to the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts of America.
As his daughter Mary Ellin Barrett said, “I came to understand that it wasn’t ‘God Bless America, land that we love.’ It was ‘God bless America, land that I love.’ It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his thank-you to the country that had taken him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”
Today, “God Bless America” is considered by many to be a second American national anthem.
VIDEOS IRVING BERLIN AND OF THE FIRST RECORDINGS OF THE SONG IN 1938