The Washington Post

Mitt Romney’s misfire on the national anthem

“We are the only people on the earth that put our hand over our heart during the playing of the national anthem. It was FDR who asked us to do that, in honor of the blood that was being shed by our sons and daughters in far-off places.”

— Mitt Romney, Feb. 2, 2012

This is a strange one.

Kudos to Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed for first spotting this claim, though it turns out that the former Massachusetts governor also said this at least once before, during a stump speech in Iowa in December. (Update: a colleague reports this line has been a regular staple of Romney’s stump speech.)

The first part of this statement is simply wrong. As Kaczynski noted, Romney ran the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics and surely should have noticed the many athletes with their hands on their hearts during the playing of their national anthems.

We randomly searched YouTube for the playing of the national anthem for various countries and quickly found several examples, such as Japan and Brazil, that disprove Romney’s claim of American exceptionalism. (Mara Liasson of NPR sent us the Russia clip.)


But what about the rest of Romney’s claim — did President Franklin D. Roosevelt institute this? The history on this salute is interesting, and actually has more to do with the Pledge of Allegiance than the national anthem.

The Facts

A spokesman for Romney did not respond to a query, but the candidate may be bringing this up to remind voters of a flap that occurred during the 2008 campaign, when then-candidate Barack Obama did not put his hand over his heart during the playing of the national anthem.

Obama later said that he had been taught as a child that the hand goes over the heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, but that it was optional during the national anthem.

Actually, the U.S. Flag Code says that, for civilians, the hand should go over the heart during both the pledge and the anthem. But the language is precatory (“should”), not mandatory (“shall”). In other words, Obama may have violated a patriotic custom enacted by Congress, but no legal sanctions are authorized for failing to put one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem.

The flag code was codified into law during Roosevelt’s presidency but he appears to have had little to do with it. Certainly, the hand-over-heart salute was not done “in honor of the blood that was being shed by our sons and daughters in far of places,” as Romney put it.

The problem was the salute that had been traditionally associated with the pledge had begun to look very much like the Nazi salute — and the United States was then at war with Germany.

Francis Bellamy, who wrote the pledge in 1892, had included instructions for the salute while reciting the pledge. For decades, children were taught to salute the flag with their arms straight out, with the palm up. (Click here for images.)

Years later, German Nazis and Italian fascists adopted salutes that looked similar to the Bellamy salute. Increasingly, some school districts, especially in New York, became uncomfortable with using the Bellamy salute, according to Richard J. Ellis, a professor at Willamette University, in his 2005 book, “To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Some school districts dropped the Bellamy salute, but it did not become an issue until Congress in June of 1942 passed a law mandating the Bellamy salute for use with the pledge. Suddenly, school districts found themselves not in compliance with the law and backlash developed.

(There was also a counter backlash, led by the Daughters of the American Revolution, which decried changing an American tradition in response to the “propaganda [of] alien foes.”)

Ultimately, Congress amended the law just six months later, in December of 1942, and adopted what was known as the “hand-over-heart” salute, supposedly attributed to President Abraham Lincoln.

Ellis credits the inclusion of the “Lincoln salute” to the lobbying work of Gridley Adams, then head of the United States Flag Foundation. Adams was especially upset that the original version of the law said the U.S. flag always needed to be on a staff or hung flat against a wall — which had hurt flag sales. (Adams had promoted a flag that could be hung on a hook.) Ellis suggests Adams “seriously misled” Congress about whether the Lincoln salute had even been discussed at a 1924 flag conference that helped determine much of the flag code.

Roosevelt’s role, if any, appears to have been minimal, notwithstanding a Wikipedia entry that, without citing a source, says he was responsible for the shift. (Roosevelt, after all, also had signed the first piece of legislation, which mandated the Bellamy salute with the pledge.)

Ellis, in an e-mail, said he was unaware of “any such declaration by him [FDR] or anybody in his administration” to call for Americans to put their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem. He noted that one historian wrote that the Star-Spangled Banner, which made its first appearance at a sporting event during the 1918 World Series, became ubiquitous during World War II in movie theaters and sporting events — especially because team owners did not want anyone to question the patriotism of the athletes who had not joined the military.

The Pinocchio Test

Romney managed to get just about everything wrong in this story, in what appears to be a misguided attempt to both promote American exceptionalism and ding President Obama.

Four Pinocchios

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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.


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