It Shall Be Sustained

Annika posted two Edna St. Vincent Millay poems from the World War II era–which inspired me to look up a Stephen Vincent Benet poem from the same period. I think it’s something we could all benefit from reading right about now.

This poem, Listen to the People, was read over nationwide radio on July 7, 1941–five months before Pearl Harbor. The full text was also printed in Life magazine. Here it is…


This is Independence Day,
Fourth of July, the day we mean to keep,
Whatever happens and whatever falls
Out of a sky grown strange;
This is firecracker day for sunburnt kids,
The day of the parade,
Slambanging down the street.
Listen to the parade!
There’s J. K. Burney’s float,
Red-white-and-blue crepe-paper on the wheels,
The Fire Department and the local Grange,
There are the pretty girls with their hair curled
Who represent the Thirteen Colonies,
The Spirit of East Greenwich, Betsy Ross,
Democracy, or just some pretty girls.
There are the veterans and the Legion Post
(Their feet are going to hurt when they get home),
The band, the flag, the band, the usual crowd,
Gppd-humored, watching, hot,
Silent a second as the flag goes by,
Kidding the local cop and eating popsicles,
Jack Brown and Rosie Shapiro and Dan Shay,
Paul Bunchick and the Greek who runs the Greek’s,
The black-eyed children out of Sicily,
The girls who giggle and the boys who push,
All of them there and all of them a nation.
And, afterwards,
There’ll be ice-cream and fireworks and a speech
By somebody the Honorable Who,
The lovers will pair off in the kind dark
And Tessie Jones, our honor-graduate,
Will read the declaration.
That’s how it is. It’s always been that way.
That’s our Fourth of July, through war and peace,
That’s our fourth of July.

And a lean farmer on a stony farm
Came home from mowing, buttoned up his shirt
And walked ten miles to town.
Musket in hand.
He didn’t know the sky was falling down
And, it may be, he didn’t know so much.
But people oughtn’t to be pushed around
By kings or any such.
A workman in the city dropped his tools.
An ordinary, small-town kind of man
Found himself standing in the April sun,
One of a ragged line
Against the skilled professionals of war,
The matchless infantry who could not fail,
Not for the profit, not to conquer worlds,
Not for the pomp or the heroic tale
But first, and principally, since he was sore.
They could do things in quite a lot of places.
They shouldn’t do them here, in Lexington.

He looked around and saw his neighbors’ faces…

An Angry Voice:

Disperse, ye villains! Why don’t you disperse?

A Calm Voice:

Stand your ground, men. don’t fire unless fired upon. but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!

Narrator, Resuming:

Well, that was that. And later, when he died
Of fever or a bullet in the guts,
Bad generalship, starvation, dirty wounds
Or any one of all the thousand things
That kill a man in wars,
He didn’t die handsome but he did die free
And maybe that meant something. It could be.
Oh, it’s not pretty! Say it all you like!
It isn’t a bit pretty. Not one bit.
But that is how the liberty was won.
That paid for the firecrackers and the band.

A Young Voice Radical:

Well, what do you mean, you dope?
Don’t you know this is an imperialist, capitalist country, don’t you?
Don’t you know it’s all done with mirrors and the bosses get the gravy, don’t you?
Suppose some old guy with chin whiskers did get his pants shot off at a place called Lexington?
What does it mean to me?

An Older Voice, Conservative:

My dear fellow, I myself am a son of a son of a son of the American Revolution,
But I can only view the present situation with the gravest alarm,
Because we are rapidly drifting into a dictatorship
And it isn’t my kind of dictatorship, what’s more.
The Constitution is dead and labor doesn’t know its place,
And then there’s all that gold buried at Fort Knox
And the taxes — oh, oh, oh!
Why, what’s the use of a defense-contract if you can’t make money out of your country?
Things are bad — things are very bad.
Already my Aunt Emmeline has had to shoot her third footman.
(He broke his leg passing cocktails and it was really a kindness.)
And, if you let the working-classes buy coal, they’ll only fill bath-tubs with it,
Don’t you realize the gravity of the situation, don’t you?
Won’t you hide your head in a bucket and telegraph your cngressman, opposing everything possible, including peace and war?

A Totalitarian Voice, Persuasive:

My worthy American listeners,
I am giving you one more chance.
Don’t you know that we are completely invincible, don’t you?
Won’t you just admit that we are the wave of the future, won’t you?
You are a very nice, mongrel, disgusting people —

But, naturally, you need new leadership.
We can supply it. We’ve sent the same brand to fourteen nations.
It comes in the shape of a bomb and it beats as it sweeps as it cleans
For those of you who like Benito Mussolini, we can supply him
(He’s three doors down to the left, at the desk marked second Vice President).
Now be sensible — give up this corrupt and stupid nonsense of democracy.
And you can have the crumbs from our table and a trusty’s job in our world-jail.

Radical Voice:

Forget everything but the class-struggle. Forget democracy.

Conservative Voice:

Hate and distrust your own government. Whisper, hate and never look forward.
Look back wistfully to the good old, grand old days — the days when the
Boys said “The public be damned!” and got away with it. Democracy’s a nasty word, invented by the Reds.

Totalitarian Voice:

Just a little collaboration and you too can be part of the New Order.
You too can have fine new concentraion camps and shoes made out of wood pulp. You too can be as peaceful as Poland, as happy and gay as France. Just a little collaboration. We have so many things to give you.
We can give you your own Hess, your own Himmler, your own Goering — all home grown and wrapped in Cellophane. We;ve done it elsewhere. If you’ll help, we can do it here.

Radical Voice:

Democracy’s a fake —


Democracy’s a mistake —


Democracy is finished, We are the future.

(Music Up and Ominous)

(much more–the complete poem is here)

6 thoughts on “It Shall Be Sustained”

  1. Today, Radical Voice is blogging on Daily Kos, and Conservative Voice is over at But where is today’s Benet? Is there any voice of liberalism like this? Maybe Armed Liberal.

    I wish there were more.

  2. Benet was obviously concerned about the divisions in American society that could impede our resistance to totalitarianism, but also confident that these divisions could be overcome–as they largely were, five months later.

    Why weren’t divisions overcome on 9/11 as the were on 12/7?…indeed, they seem to have gotten much worse. I think one explanation lies in the role of the media, which is generally much more adversarial now than it was then. This is probably also true of the professoriate, who in any case were less inflential then than they are now.

  3. Many thanks for posting this. I am somewhat of a WWII buff, but never read this before. It does show that the problems we have now are not new, and they are not insurmountable.

    I am not sure that 12/07 united the US as much as we now think. I was born shortly after the War ended and was old enough then to remember that my parents and most everyone else where I lived despised FDR, discussed Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories,etc. But everyone was very pleased about their part in the war effort.

    That may be the big problem: President Bush is not asking us to sacrifice much to defeat the jihadis. We don’t have any personal hand in winning the war and so haven’t bought into it.

  4. Other folks had the same idea for this fifth anniversary.

    You can listen to it! It’s not the original from before the war but a second performance of Benet’s “Listen to the People” on NBC’s Cavalcade of America by Ethel Barrymore and others.

    It aired in 1943 in the middle of the war and is at

    You have to subscribe through iTunes or another podcast client and then download the archived podcast for 2006-9-10.

    It is worth your effort. Great stuff! Thank you Jerry Haendiges.

  5. You can listen to a performance of this work from 1943.

    Go to Old Time Radio podcastslink name.

    You’ll have to subscribe to the podcast through iTunes or another podcast client as there is no direct link to the 2006-9-10 podcast with Ethel Barrymore.

    Worth the effort.

    — Steve Barton

Comments are closed.