This was the United States' national salute until being replaced by the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942.
The photograph seen above wasn’t taken at an American school that supported the Nazis, though you’d certainly be forgiven for mistaking it as such. The truth might be even more surprising, as the now infamous, fascistic hail was once how Americans saluted the flag while pledging allegiance.
According to ThoughtCo, the eponymous gesture was named after Francis J Bellamy, who wrote the original Pledge of Allegiance. Though it may seem like alternate history — something that couldn’t possibly have been true — the Bellamy Salute was quite standard until 1942.
That, in turn, may appear even stranger — children across the United States were giving the same salute as Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germans as late as three years into World War 2. Only when Congress passed an amendment to the U.S. Flag Code on Dec. 22, 1942 did this end for good.
How did the Bellamy Salute come to be a nationwide gesture of loyalty to the country, particularly at a time when the firmly raised arm directly connoted the tenets of Naziism? Let’s take a look.
Francis J. Bellamy And The Pledge Of Allegiance
Born on May 18, 1855 in Mount Morris, New York, Francis Julius Bellamy would later become an essential part of the post-Civil War efforts to reunite the two ideologically disparate sides of the country.
When Youth’s Companion magazine owner Daniel Sharp Ford endeavored to unify people and mend the nation’s rift, Ford settled on a two-pronged campaign. In 1892, he began his project to put an American flag in every classroom in the country.
The second goal was to create a mantra that every American could easily recite and agree on. Ford thought the Civil War was still a fairly raw trauma in the memories of millions, and that getting everyone to recite the same phrase could serve well to bring some balance back into the fold.
As one of Ford’s staff writers, Bellamy was tasked to come up with a phrase that would honor the flag and all the American sacrifices that it represented. The resulting Pledge of Allegiance was published in Ford’s magazine, and found fervent support and adoption rather rapidly.
Oddly enough, it was the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the continent that marked the pledge’s first organized use. On Oct. 12, 1892, an estimated 12 million U.S. school children recited Bellamy’s mantra.
Though the phrase quickly became popular, Ford and Bellamy felt that something was missing. Namely, a physical gesture that could serve as non-military salute.
The Bellamy Salute
Ford and Bellamy printed instructions for the salute in Youth’s Companion, and did so under the latter’s name. It was known as the Bellamy Salute ever since.
The instructions themselves were rather basic. The magazine described extending one’s right arm straight ahead, slightly upward, with the fingers directed at the flag (if present). Though generations have passed and most Americans are entirely unaware of this, the Bellamy Salute was, indeed, the standard salute for decades.
Of course, that all changed in the mid-20th century when Nazi Germany came to power and utilized virtually the same exact gesture as a token of loyalty to Hitler’s Reich, or Mussolini’s Italy. What had been a pledge to the American flag and its symbolism was now the equivalent of roaring “Heil Hitler!”
According to Richard J. Ellis, the odd resemblance was noted years before the U.S. even entered the war. In his book, To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, he said that “the similarities in the salute had begun to attract comment as early as the mid-1930s.”
He added that “the embarrassing resemblance between the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute and the salute that accompanied the Pledge of Allegiance” began to trouble Americans in an additional, more insidious way. Fascists in Europe could simply use footage of Americans saluting and claim part of the U.S. population was in agreement with their movement.
Congress Steps In — Changes To The Pledge
On Dec. 22, 1942 Congress officially amended the U.S. Flag Code to alter the standards of behavior during the Pledge of Allegiance. The mandate said the pledge should “be rendered by standing with the right hand over the heart,” as is still commonly done to this day.
In addition to the shifting the Bellamy Salute to a hand over the heart, the Pledge of Allegiance itself was amended, as well. “I pledge allegiance to my flag” became “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”
The reasoning here was rooted in concerns that immigrants, even those who had been recently naturalized as U.S. citizens, would be pledging allegiance to their flag — that of their country of origin — rather than siding with the flag of their newfound countrymen.
It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s alteration in 1954, however, that marked the most notable and arguably controversial change to the pledge.
It was his administration that added “under God” after “one nation” — which some warrantably argue blurs the line between the supposedly firm separation of church and state.
Nonetheless, for Eisenhower, the logic was clear.
“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 resources in peace and war.”
Nearly half a century later, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco actually declared the entire pledge unconstitutional. It was Eisenhower’s addition five decades earlier than caught their eye, as “under God” violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of keeping church and state separate.
However, Judge Alfred Goodwin of that same court issued a stay the very next day, which prevented that ruling from being enforced. Thus, to this day, American children still pledge allegiance to one nation, and no other, under God.
Fortunately, they’re not doing the Hitler salute as they do so.
After learning about the Bellamy Salute, read about five things Americans are free to do that earn jail time overseas. Next, learn about the couple that went missing in 1942 that was eventually found in a melting Swiss ice glacier.