The Ballad Of October 16th is still relevant and controversial

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History and I’m astonished by how much I didn’t know about that era of American history. One example: a Gallup Poll from early 1939 revealed that 84-85% of American protestants and Catholics “opposed offering sanctuary to European refugees. So did more than one-quarter of American Jews.” This was after the well-reportedNight of Broken Glass” in November of 1938 when Hitler’s goons ransacked Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues through Germany and Austria, killing dozens of Jews and imprisoning thousands more.

I knew that Americans had become isolationist in the wake of World War I, but I had assumed that the so-called Greatest Generation had risen to the occasion when faced with the atrocities of the Nazis. Not so much. It’s shocking to see photos of young American protesters marching with “Make peace with Hitler” signs. FDR reinstated conscription and on October 16, 1940, American men had to register for the draft, and most Americans were not happy about it. Before I watched this episode I had assumed it was just lefty radicals like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who opposed the war. Their band the Almanac Singers recorded one of my favorite protest songs, “Ballad Of October 16th.”

Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damn near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’til everybody’s dead.”

They recorded this song in the spring of 1941 and released it in May in an album of 78s called Songs For John Doe. An article called “The Poison in Our System” was published in The Atlantic Monthly that June wherein Carl Joachim Friedrich wrote, “These recordings are distributed under the innocuous appeal: ‘Sing out for Peace.’ Yet they are strictly subversive and illegal. […] Probably some of these songs fall under the criminal provisions of the Selective Service Act, and to that extent it is a matter for the Attorney-General.” Freedom!

My favorite part of the Almanac Singers story is that shortly after their album was released, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, and the very first words Woody Guthrie said to Pete Seeger were “I guess we won’t be singing any more peace songs, will we?” They literally changed their tune. Gotta love those commies! And of course after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December everybody in America gave up on non-interventionism. So it goes.

But it still seems unbelievable that hardly anybody at the time gave a crap about Hitler’s well-documented atrocities against the Jews.

Video: The Roosevelts: 1939 and the lead up to World War II

Lyrics of “The Ballad of October 16th” by Millard Lampell

It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright
They passed the conscription bill
And the people they did say for many miles away
‘Twas the President and his boys on Capitol Hill.

Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damned near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’til everybody’s dead.”

When my poor old mother died I was sitting by her side
A-promising to war I’d never go.
But now I’m wearing khaki jeans and eating army beans
And I’m told that J. P. Morgan loves me so.

I have wandered o’er this land, a roaming working man
No clothes to wear and not much food to eat.
But now the government foots the bill
Gives me clothes and feeds me swill
Gets me shot and puts me underground six feet.


Why nothing can be wrong if it makes our country strong
We got to get tough to save democracy.
And though it may mean war
We must defend Singapore
This don’t hurt you half as much as it hurts me.


2 thoughts on “The Ballad Of October 16th is still relevant and controversial”

  1. Not to be too dramatic but it’s things like this that make historical study so important. We all have this idea that the USA bound together to beat back evil in the face of Hitler’s crimes, but it was of course more complicated than that. Those complications allow us to better understand the times. When people say they long for the “good old days,” they likely mean the better version of what we remember.

  2. Care must be taken before glibly dismissing Woody Guthrie (a fellow traveler) and Pete Seeger (a sometime member of US communist party organisations) as “commies”.

    Nicholas Baker’s very interesting book “Human Smoke” gives the era (and English and American antisemitism) a well-documented airing. Morton Sobell, an “atomic spy” tried and convicted at the same time as Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and the author of the memoir “Doing Time”, also provides insight into the period. These stories make it easier to understand , and why many people saw the USSR favourably. The truth about its corrupt governance is brilliantly dramatised in the 1975 Frank Hardy novel “But the Dead are Many” , about the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, but that side of history was not common knowledge on the left at the time.

    We see the same sorts of chicanery policy backflips and questionable alliances today, in the middle-east and elsewhere. For example, today’s leftists are pointing out evidence that the Ukraine government is supported by fascist militias, and their evidence merits dispassionate scrutiny.

    Which side are we on? That’s one tricky question. Meanwhile, it’s win-win for arms manufacturers here, there and everywhere. At least until the combat zones encroach onto their industrial parks. After WWII, “… GM collected some $33 million in “war reparations” because the Allies had bombed its German facilities.”

    For more details of GM’s involvement in WWII, see also

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