Nationalism in United States Music Education during World War II

By Goble, J. Scott | Journal of Historical Research in Music Education, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Nationalism in United States Music Education during World War II


Goble, J. Scott, Journal of Historical Research in Music Education


In the early decades of the twentieth century, music educators in the United States were not concerned with promoting musical nationalism through their teaching, in contrast with many of their European contemporaries. Rather, they wished to "cultivate the taste" and expand the international perspectives of their students. They sought to immerse them in the musical works of European master composers on the basis of their belief that exposure to and involvement in music, a morally elevated art, would have liberating and elevating effects. Influential music educator James Mursell (and others) wrote rhapsodically and at length about the value of music in education, asserting that music, in its essence, expresses and embodies emotion, and that students could find personal happiness through the self-fulfillment that stems from musical involvement. (1) Simultaneously, many music educators sought to broaden their students' international perspectives by introducing them to the "music of many lands and peoples," and the profession's leaders held that an important aim of their work was to enable children "to know, to love, and to appreciate music in as many forms as possible." (2)

However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, which began World War II in Europe, the focus on music as an art and orientations toward musical internationalism began to lose their centrality in public school music education in the United States. Music educators' fears caused them to regard their teaching in a very different way. Realizing that they could play an important role in the growing crisis, they largely set aside their artistic goals, refocusing their instruction and selecting music for the purposes of contributing to the nation's solidarity and bolstering the morale of the nation's populace. This change in their orientation did not stem from a highly debated philosophical or theoretical shift within the profession, but rather emerged gradually as citizens became increasingly distraught over the war in Europe and fearful that they might be engaged in it. (3)

Responding to the War in Europe

Throughout the late 1930s, the American public was largely pacifist and disinclined to give attention to the expansionist efforts of the growing totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. Some citizens believed the causes of the Great Depression could be traced back to the nation's involvement in World War I, and they felt that staying clear of all foreign problems was the way to future security. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said nothing at all about foreign relations in his second inaugural address in 1937. But when France fell to the German and Italian armies on May 10, 1940, and only Great Britain stood between Nazi Germany and the United States, the strong pacifism and comfortable isolationism of the American public began to be shaken.

When the President addressed a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on May 16, 1940, his frustration with the isolationist stance of the citizenry and the Congress became evident as he spoke of the growing European threat. He said: "Let us measure our strength and our defense without self-delusion. The clear fact is that the American people must recast their thinking about national protection." (4) Roosevelt's impassioned speech finally convinced the reluctant Congress to appropriate $2.5 billion for military equipment and installations. On September 6th, he took the additional step of signing into law the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, creating the country's first peacetime military draft. At the same time, the United States government began efforts to raise citizens' awareness of the importance of national unity and to foster concern about the nation's common welfare via broadcasts and publications; phrases such as "sustain morale," "mobilize pride and faith," "enliven hope and devotion," "strengthen loyalty," and "develop a sense of belonging" began to be used in print and on the radio by the Office of National Defense and other agencies, as they sought to raise public awareness of the threat of war. …

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