Supporting the War Effort
Amidst the turmoil of war, Berlin’s songs and Bing’s voice soothed Americans’ shared longings for the comforts of home and peace.
Like most Jewish Americans, Irving Berlin wanted the U.S. to enter World War II long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He endorsed President Roosevelt’s internationalism and produced patriotic songs like “Any Bonds Today?” (1941).
Once the U.S. entered the war, Berlin decided to revive Yip Yip Yaphank. He assembled a cast of enlisted men, wrote twenty new songs, and retitled it This Is the Army. After the Broadway premiere on July 4, 1942, the show ran for three months and toured the country for four more. A film adaptation followed in 1943, and then an eighteen-month tour in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and across the Pacific, with proceeds going to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
After seeing the show in London in February 1944, General Eisenhower himself had asked Berlin to extend the tour so that service members on the front lines could see it. They always greeted Berlin’s throwback performance of “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” with thunderous applause.
This is the Army was still on Broadway when Holiday Inn premiered at the Paramount on August 4, 1942. Audiences loved the movie, but reviewers barely mentioned “White Christmas.” Six weeks later, music stores could not keep it in stock. The record reached number one in October. Billboard proclaimed it “one of the most phenomenal hits in the history of the music business.”8
Crosby had performed the song on the Kraft Music Hall, but he also sang it for a broadcast aimed at the troops. “Something amazing is happening to this song,” Berlin soon realized. “The boys overseas are buying it.”9 By December, the song was on every radio, in every jukebox, and, as one newspaper noted, in “practically every home and heart in the country.”10 Armed Forces Radio could not play the song often enough, prompting Crosby to record a special V-Disc version for those on the front lines.
The song drove the success of Holiday Inn, giving both Crosby and Astaire their highest-grossing film up to that point. Berlin would receive the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Why did Americans embrace “White Christmas”? It was not a war song, yet nevertheless it tapped into feelings shared by those serving abroad and by those making sacrifices at home.
During the war years, millions of Americans spent Christmas separated from loved ones — service members overseas, those they left behind, and others who relocated to work in wartime production. “White Christmas” made them think about who — and what — they fought and sacrificed for. It evoked that “dream” of better times and better places. As one editorial concluded, it “provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and for memories to dream about.”11
This made it a song that all Americans could embrace, including those not fully treated like Americans. For many, the collaboration between a Jewish immigrant and an Irish-American Catholic itself reflected a spirit of “Judeo-Christian” unity that defied xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The song reached number one on the Harlem Hit Parade, affirming a universal appeal that — like the war effort as a whole — undermined the logic of racial segregation. Even Japanese Americans confined to a remote internment camp in Wyoming incorporated the song into their Christmas observances.
On December 11, 1941, Crosby opened the Kraft Music Hall with Berlin’s “Any Bonds Today?” Like Berlin, he would continue to support the war effort by promoting war bonds and bolstering morale.
Crosby traveled tirelessly during each of the war years, performing at military bases and hospitals and participating in golf tournaments — all to raise money for the Red Cross, the USO, and several war relief funds and to encourage the purchase of war bonds. He also recorded dozens of shows for broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Service.
In August 1944, Crosby traveled to Europe for a five-week tour with the USO. Partnering with Bob Hope and other friends, he performed multiple shows per day for thousands at a time. He always sang “White Christmas,” even though soldiers’ tears made it difficult.
As Life magazine explained in 1945, Crosby’s voice was “the voice of home.”12 Private letters revealed profound gratitude for his support. According to a poll of GIs, he was “the person who had done the most for the morale of overseas servicemen.”13
Crosby and Berlin had become American icons. The inclusive message and universal appeal of “White Christmas” ensured that their iconic song would have its own enduring place in American culture — and that it would help make the American Christmas tradition more inclusive.
The war itself also influenced the American Christmas tradition, bringing deprivations that de-emphasized the material aspects of the holiday. During the war years, service members celebrated Christmas in simple, makeshift ways. At home, train sets, dolls, and other toys made with metal and rubber were postponed — deferring a desire for indulgence that would explode after the war.
Wartime propaganda featuring a patriotic Santa Claus encouraged Americans to give war bonds as Christmas gifts. Perhaps such propaganda conveyed another message: Christmas was not just a Christian holiday, it was an American holiday. It was a time for Americans to support one another.
Continue to Section V. A New Era of Christmas Entertainment