Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The peculiar history of the Pledge of Allegiance

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 9:06 AM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Southington, Connecticut school children pledge their allegiance to the flag, in May 1942.
Southington, Connecticut school children pledge their allegiance to the flag, in May 1942.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After the Pledge of Allegiance was written, a stiff-armed salute was developed to accompany it
  • Bob Greene writes that its meaning got clouded when Fascist movements used similar salute
  • After outbreak of World War II, Congress passed legislation to replace the salute
  • Greene: 71 years ago, the practice of placing your hand over the heart was adopted

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Seventy one years ago -- December 22, 1942 -- Congress got the United States out of what had turned into an unexpectedly embarrassing situation.

It concerned the Pledge of Allegiance -- specifically, something called the Bellamy Salute.

Most people today have likely never heard of it, but the Bellamy Salute was once a constant part of the country's life.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Until 1892, there was no such thing as a Pledge of Allegiance.

Daniel Sharp Ford, the owner of a magazine called Youth's Companion, was on a crusade to put American flags in every school in the country. He sensed that the U.S. needed a boost of patriotism. Keep in mind: Not even 30 years before, the Civil War had still been raging. National unity was a fragile concept.

As part of the campaign, Sharp gave an assignment to a member of his staff: Francis J. Bellamy, who was an author, a minister and an advocate of the tenets of Christian socialism. Sharp asked Bellamy to compose a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Bellamy wrote it, and it was published in the magazine.

It didn't take long for the Pledge to become wildly popular, even omnipresent. At schools, at campgrounds, at public gatherings, in Congress, people routinely faced the flag and pledged their allegiance to it.

Because, inherently, there is something physically awkward about people simply standing in place, their arms hanging limply by their sides, staring at a flag and reciting a pledge, it was decided that devising a salute would be appropriate.

Instructions for carrying out the salute were printed in the pages of Youth's Companion. The gesture came to be called the Bellamy Salute, in honor of the Pledge's author.

The Bellamy Salute consisted of each person -- man, woman or child -- extending his or her right arm straight forward, angling slightly upward, fingers pointing directly ahead.

With their right arms aiming stiffly toward the flag, they recited: "I pledge allegiance..."

For a while, the salute wasn't especially controversial.

But, as World War II was forming in Europe, and Italians and Germans began saluting Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler with extended-armed "Heil Hitler!"-style gestures...

Well, perhaps you can see the problem.

In the United States there was a growing feeling of discomfort that, when people within the nation's own borders pledged their right-arms-extended allegiance to the flag, they might be construed as inadvertently showing solidarity with the fascist regimes across the ocean. Richard J. Ellis, in his book "To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance," wrote that "the similarities in the salute had begun to attract comment as early as the mid-1930s."

Newsreels and still photos were regularly depicting rallies in Europe's dictatorships, with thousands of people showing their fealty by extending straight-armed salutes. In the United States, the general unease about it -- "the embarrassing resemblance between the 'Heil Hitler' salute and the salute that accompanied the Pledge of Allegiance," in Richard Ellis's words -- was combined with the fear that scenes of Americans offering the Bellamy Salute could be used for propaganda purposes.

Third graders from a local school lead the Pledge of Allegiance during a walkthrough before the start of of the Democratic National Convention September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Third graders from a local school lead the Pledge of Allegiance during a walkthrough before the start of of the Democratic National Convention September 4, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

It wouldn't be terribly difficult to crop the American flag out of photos of U.S. citizens reciting the Pledge of Allegiance; without the flag in the shots, the photos could be mischaracterized as proof that Americans were expressing support for the ideologies of Hitler and Mussolini.

Thus, on December 22, 1942, Congress, just before its Christmas break, took care of it. On that day, the amended Flag Code was passed, Section 7 of which decreed that the Pledge of Allegiance should "be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart."

And with that, it became official: Those millions of extended right arms were brought down. The stiff-armed salute was for other people, in countries far away.

It was purely symbolic, of course, but symbols are powerful. Over the years, there have been various disputes about the Pledge of Allegiance, the most basic of which is the question of whether citizens should even be expected to publicly pledge their allegiance to their country. The United States was founded on ideals of freedom, and freedom includes not being forced, or cajoled by peer pressure, into publicly declaring any belief.

The exact wording of the Pledge has changed several times since Francis Bellamy wrote it; each change was reflective of contemporaneous concerns about the meaning. For example: "I pledge allegiance to the flag" was originally "I pledge allegiance to my flag." The "my" was dropped out of worries that recent arrivals from other nations might be seen as pledging their loyalty to the flag of the country of their birth.

The most significant change in the wording came in 1954, when -- with the enthusiastic support of President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- the phrase "under God" was added just after "one nation." Eisenhower declared: "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war."

The wording of the Pledge of Allegiance may or may not be changed again in centuries to come, but it's a pretty safe bet that the Bellamy Salute is never coming back. Once ubiquitous and unquestioned, it has become a faded and mostly forgotten bit of U.S. history.

All because, 71 Decembers ago, a solution to a quandary -- a quandary no one could have anticipated when the Pledge was written -- was formalized:

Lower those stiff arms.

Bend those elbows.

Direct those palms inward.

And take them to heart.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT