Politics of the 1950s: Revising the Pledge of Allegiance

In the first scene of my 1950s coming-of-age romance novella Tomboy, Harriet Little is at school for her first day of fourth grade. It’s 1951, and they start out the day by saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge recited by school children back then differed from the one Americans use today. If you’re from the U.S., you might be able to spot the difference:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

I’ll talk about that difference soon, but first I want to note some other things about the way the Pledge was recited before 1954. By Harriet’s youth, it was common practice to start the days with the recitation of the Pledge in public schools all across the country. But the ways in which students saluted the flag varied. My dad began school prior to the US entry into World War II, and he loved to shock us kids by telling us how they used to salute the flag during the Pledge in his school. It looked something like this:

B& W photo of 1940s School students in saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bellamy salute, which looks similar to the Hitler salute.
School students in Connecticut saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bellamy salute, May 1942. Photo is a work of the US federal government in the public domain.

And also like this:

School students saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bellamy salute, 1941. Photo is in the public domain.

Which looks an awful lot like this:

Large group of school children (around 10 years old) giving the Hitler salute in Berlin, Germany, 1934
School children giving the Hitler salute in Berlin, Germany, 1934. Photo from the German Federal Archive and used through a Creative Commons 3.0 DE license.

As concerns about Nazism grew, the teachers in my dad’s school retaught the students how to say the pledge, this time with the right hands resting over their hearts, like this:

Photo of school children in San Francisco saying the Pledge of Allegiance in 1942. The children of Japanese ancestry were later moved to internment camps. Photo by Dorothea Lange and in the public domain.

That posture was enshrined into U.S. law by an act of Congress in December 1942. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of Pledge salute history if you’re interested.

After World War II, Nazism was replaced by communism as the largest perceived threat to American democracy. Communist partisans had gained control of the Russian government back in 1917, making it the first national government with a communist majority. Russia had a vast empire stretching east, west, and south, and most of those territories were officially incorporated in the Soviet Union in 1922.

Beginning around 1940, the Soviet Union expanded its influence in much of Eastern and Central Europe, either by invasion or political maneuvering. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania, parts of Finland, and the eastern part of Germany quickly came under Soviet control—changes that often violated treaties made with the U.S. government.

A key aspect of Soviet communism was the rejection of religion. The United States began to contrast itself with “godless communism” by emphasizing the role of religion in public life. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were many campaigns to add “under God” to the pledge, and several bills were introduced into the U.S. Congress to make that change. But it was in 1954, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower attended a church service where the pastor sermonized on the subject of adding “under God” to the pledge, that the idea finally took hold. Under a congressional Joint Resolution, the Pledge became:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

This change to the Pledge wasn’t an isolated incident. In 1956, Congress adopted “In God We Trust”—which had previously been used as an inscription on US coins at the Secretary of the Treasury’s discretion—as a new national motto to replace or be used in addition to the one that had been used for the previous 174 years: E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”). The legislation also required “In God We Trust” to appear on all US currency.

That wasn’t revolutionary as far as coins went; the Treasury had been stamping “In God We Trust” on all of them since 1938. But it was new for paper currency, which had never born the motto. The first American paper currency to read “In God We Trust” entered circulation in October 1957.

As for the Pledge of Allegiance, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 1943 that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and in the 1970s the courts clarified that kids could not be compelled to stand, either. Nonetheless, news stories and court cases frequently arise after public schools punish students or intimidate them for not participating in Pledge rituals, and parents have filed a number of unsuccessful lawsuits over the use of the words “under God” in a school activity.

If you found this post interesting, check out my other Tomboy history posts.

Two words were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. What were they? Click To Tweet

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