In A Nutshell
It was called the Bellamy Salute, after the Socialist Baptist minister who wrote the Pledge of Allegiance. Originally, there was no right and wrong way to salute the American flag while reciting the declaration of loyalty every schoolchild knows by heart. When Congress met after World War I to standardize the salute that would be performed before the flag, they settled on one in which the pledge would be started by the person with their hand on their heart, and halfway through they would extend their arm, palm up, in a gesture of respect. Until, that is, Hitler decided to use almost the exact same thing.
The Whole Bushel
Take a look at some old photos from the 1920s and 1930s like the one above. You’ll see typical schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But you’ll also probably need to look twice, because to us, they’re making a gesture that can’t possibly be right. Can it?
It is, only they’re doing something called the Bellamy Salute. Named after the man who penned the Pledge of Allegiance, the gesture is eerily reminiscent of one that would be made infamous in an entirely different context during the 1940s when the Third Reich swept through Europe. And in fact, that’s why we just stick with putting our hand over our heart today.
Every school-age child in America knows the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s recited every morning when students stand and place their right hands over their hearts in a solemn gesture of respect.
It wasn’t always like that, though. The pledge has undergone several transformations, keeping the same basic idea but changing the wording. (Oddly, the words that today are so controversial—“under God”—didn’t appear in the pledge until they were added in 1954.) And so has the salute.
The pledge was written in 1892 and first appeared in the September 8th issue of a magazine called Youth’s Companion. It was a huge success. Along with the words, most people stood and saluted the flag as well, some with a military salute, some with their hand on their heart, some with a version in between. On the heels of World War I, it was decided that the salute needed to be standardized. So they went with a version they called the Bellamy Salute. It should look a little familiar.
Along with the text of the pledge, Youth’s Companion also published instructions on how the flag was supposed to be saluted, and it was this that was made standard practice. Following cues from a teacher or other authority figure, everyone was to stand and turn toward the flag. The start of the pledge was recited with hand over heart. At the mention of the flag, though, the right arm was extended straight out, hand in the air, palm upwards.
Indeed. The only difference between the Bellamy Salute and that one that countless Third Reich soldiers would give Hitler is that their hands would be palm down.
(There were different pledge guidelines for adults, who were merely instructed to stand at the reciting of the pledge. Military personnel were always encouraged to give the standard military salute.)
Not surprisingly, the similarities between the salutes made many Americans uncomfortable by the time World War II was in full force. So much so that FDR changed the salute to skip the whole “extended arm salute” part and Americans just kept their hand on their heart from then on. That wasn’t without a fight, though. The Daughters of the American Revolution and the United States Flag Association both petitioned the government to keep the original, extended arm salute, even as the war progressed. It wasn’t actually changed until December 1942, although protests over the similarities between the American and German salutes began as early as 1935.