The History of the Pledge: How It Changed from a Socialist Peace Pledge to a Patriotic Tool to Root Out Communists in the McCarthy Era

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After a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, saying the phrase “under God” violates the separation of church and state, we examine the history of the Pledge of Allegiance with Dr. John Baer, author of The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History, and Ellen Schrecker, author of several books on McCarthyism, including Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, and professor of history at Yeshiva University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we go now to the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, we are joined by the author of The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History, Dr. John Baer, speaking to us from Maryland.

Dr. Baer, welcome to Democracy Now! I think people might be very surprised—certainly all of the pundits and politicians and so-called journalists on television I saw last night—when you describe the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, going back to its beginnings at the turn of the century. When was it? 1892?

DR. JOHN BAER: It was published in The Youth’s Companion magazine, their September 8th, 1892, issue. So the—well, actually, the confusion is understandable. The magazine had a policy of anonymity, so it wasn’t signed. And, in fact, the owner of the firm who had hired the author, Francis Bellamy, he had a policy of anonymity for himself: instead of calling himself the Youth Companion Company, he called himself the Perry Mason Company.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us about who Francis Bellamy was.

DR. JOHN BAER: Well, Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister, and he believed strongly in the social gospel. And his new boss, Daniel Sharp Ford, also believed strongly in the social gospel. And you can read the Bible where Jesus is quoted as saying, “A rich man can no more get into heaven than a camel can get through the eye of a needle.” So Francis Bellamy used that as the basis of his argument that Jesus was a socialist. His boss, Mr. Ford, was not—did not come to that conclusion, but he believed in being very generous, so his money’s still alive and well and doing good in Boston financing the Ford Hall Forum at Northeastern University, which has been a leader in the public discussion, in public forums, and also the Baptist Social Union, doing social work at the Baptist—well, the Baptist Social Union is in the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in downtown Boston. So, they were strong for reform, and—but they had this policy of anonymity, so it was not until 1976, when Margaret Miller wrote her book on the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, that it was pretty much nailed down for good that Francis Bellamy had written the pledge. Today you still get some challenges. There was a student out in Kansas, Frank Bellamy, who claimed to have written the pledge in 1895 as a high school student, so he’s suspected of plagiarism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you say in your short history of the pledge that the—that Francis Bellamy, who was—I mean, I’m sorry, Edward Bellamy, who was an author of several socialist utopian novels, as well as Francis Bellamy in his sermons and lectures, both espoused the ideas that the middle class could create a planned economy with political, social and economic equality for all, and that the government would run a peacetime economy similar to our present military-industrial complex.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So I’m sure that those in Congress now who are right this minute reciting the pledge have very little idea of the ideas of the people who wrote it.

DR. JOHN BAER: Yeah, I doubt if many of them even know who Francis Bellamy is. So, that’s a fact. The ignorance on the topic is overwhelming. Now, Congress started reciting the pledge—I should say, the House of Representatives started reciting the pledge in 1988, and the Senate, I believe, in the year 2000. So the Senate’s only been reciting it a couple years. It was part of the political campaign of 1988, when the older George Bush was running against Dukakis, and Dukakis had vetoed a bill requiring teachers to recite the pledge, and he vetoed it. And so, President Ford said, no, he wouldn’t have vetoed this bill. He thinks teachers should be required to recite the pledge. Of course, ironically, he went to public school, and he and his teachers did not recite the pledge. Well, Dukakis and his mother, who was a public school teacher, they had been reciting the pledge for years. So you have lots of confusion out there, and as far as lack of knowledge on the history of pledge, it’s pretty overwhelming.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. John Baer, we have to break for 60 seconds, but when we come back, we want to talk about what the original pledge actually said, the fact that the words at issue here were not included in the pledge, he didn’t approve of the change, and also it wasn’t only “under God” that wasn’t in the pledge, but another phrase. We’d like you to tell us about that when you come back. And then we’re going to look at the McCarthy era, 1954, and why those words “under God” were put in. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “I Smell Smoke,” Kenny Neal, here on Democracy Now!, as we talk about the origins of the Pledge of Allegiance. Dr. John Baer, can you tell us the original pledge?

DR. JOHN BAER: The original pledge was a national school program, so it was a two-page program for the public schools to use for their Columbus Day celebration of 1892 in honor of Columbus discovering America, 1492. So it was published in that magazine, which had a circulation of half a million. So Bellamy wrote the whole program, and he built the celebration around a flag ceremony, and the flag ceremony was built around a verbal flag salute, which went as follows: “I” —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, excuse me.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And he wrote the program because he was at that time the chairman of a committee of state superintendents of education, right, in the NEA?

DR. JOHN BAER: Right. The Youth’s Companion was a leading magazine of its day, and it offered to help the National Education Association to set up this Columbus Day program, and they accepted it, so officially they made Francis Bellamy chairman of their Columbus Day celebration.

AMY GOODMAN: And the pledge was?

DR. JOHN BAER: And the pledge was: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

AMY GOODMAN: So, two differences there.

DR. JOHN BAER: Right. So, as far as we know, he never considered putting “under God” in the pledge. And the first change, which dropped “my flag” for “the flag of the United States of America,” he resented that, and he opposed it, but because of the policy of anonymity, nobody really listened to him, because—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s just clarify that.


AMY GOODMAN: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America” is the way it is said now, but he wrote, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic.” Why the difference?

DR. JOHN BAER: I’m not sure what’s going through his mind. But anyway, in 1893, he and other people at The Youth’s Companion joined with the Human Freedom League to use this pledge as an international peace pledge. So, in any case, it—since it didn’t have any country listed, it just did “the flag and to the republic for which it stands,” any republic in the world could recite his pledge. And they—his little group, the Human Freedom League, hoped that Switzerland, France and the United States, plus Latin republics, would have peace days during the year, in which you’d take your flag, put a white border around it, and you’d recite this pledge on a peace day—not a war day, but a peace day. So that’s what they hoped would happen, and, of course, it didn’t. But anyway—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And then, of course, we had the second change, with the mention of God in it. And we’d like to bring in now Ellen Schrecker, who is an assistant professor of history at Yeshiva University and the author of several books on McCarthyism. Could you tell us what happened in 1954 to cause Congress to want to add these words in?

ELLEN SCHRECKER: Well, people were really worried about communism during this period, and a Presbyterian minister in Washington, D.C., gave a sermon talking about his concerns about communism and mentioned the Pledge of Allegiance, which he said was just too generic. It was—anybody could recite that pledge; probably it could be recited even in Moscow. And he wanted something really American, something that was distinctively American, and, of course, religion, quote-unquote, is very American, so he suggested having the phrase “one nation under God,” and the “under God” actually came from the Gettysburg Address. He hadn’t made it up himself. And sitting in the congregation as he made this suggestion was President Eisenhower. And so, within a very short time, there were 17 proposed laws in Congress adding the language “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

And many people at that time were very—believed that communism was not just a political or economic theory, but also a massive atheism and that—they used to say—when they talked about communism, they would say “atheistic communism.” That was always the adjective of choice. And so, it was believed one of the advantages of this Pledge of Allegiance was simply that since communists were atheists and they couldn’t say the word “God,” this would sort of separate them out, and you would be able to identify them a lot more easily by forcing them to say the dreaded words or not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in essence, it became a loyalty test to the system of the United States and to the religious beliefs of those who were in power in the country at the time and are still in power.

ELLEN SCHRECKER: Right, it’s—and this was a period in the 1950s of a lot of loyalty tests and loyalty oaths. They were very common at the national level, at the state level, at the local level. Even private companies had loyalty tests. One of the reasons they were so common was, certainly for politicians, they were easy, and they didn’t cost anything. It was a very inexpensive way to show your patriotism. It was a symbol, and at times like this, there are always sort of symbolic actions, often involving the flag, often involving some kind of language like this.

AMY GOODMAN: I thought it was very interesting yesterday watching all of the politicians’ repeated—and their words were repeated by all of the journalists—saying, you know, “We’re not going to change what we say; we’ve been saying this for a hundred years.” Well, the fact is they weren’t saying it for a hundred years; they were only—this was added in 1954. But the unanimity—you had a lot of the politicians going out and saying the Pledge of Allegiance outside the Capitol yesterday. You had in the Senate a 99-to-zero vote to support the Pledge of Allegiance. Only Jesse Helms—no, don’t worry, folks, he didn’t abstain, but he was having an operation, I think. Professor Schrecker, on that issue of unanimity, during the McCarthy era, did you see anything like that then?

ELLEN SCHRECKER: Yes, whenever some kind of anti-communist legislation came up, any kind of anti-communist program, it was widespread. There was very little dissent within the mainstream. For example, the most egregious, the most powerful anti-communist law that was passed by Congress during the McCarthy period was the Internal Security Act, known as the [McCarran] Act, which was passed in 1950 right after the Korean War, in a period of crisis that felt very much like the post-9/11 period. And as this legislation, which had originally been designed by Richard Nixon, came up before the Senate, there were a number of liberals who were very concerned. They didn’t like it. It called for the registration of members of the Communist Party. You had to go down and register, the Communist Party had to register, and if you didn’t—and organizations that were connected to the Communist Party had to register; otherwise, you would be—you know, you could go to jail. So the Senate liberals, under people liker Herbert Lehman of New York and Hubert Humphrey, who was considered the most liberal senator in Washington, decided that the way—you couldn’t defeat a measure like this without your own measure. So they brought up their own measure, which came to be called the concentration camp measure, in which they said that in the case of an emergency, members of—subversives, i.e., communists, would have to be rounded up and put in detention camps within an hour of the declaration of emergency. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The reason for that?

ELLEN SCHRECKER: The reason for that was internal security. What else?

AMY GOODMAN: But was it to make it so ridiculous that people would vote against it?

ELLEN SCHRECKER: I think so; I’m not sure. They had the support. What’s interesting is, as they were drafting this legislation, which they wanted to make look even tougher than the original Nixon bill, which Humphrey called “the cream puff special” — he didn’t think it had enough teeth — they had the advice of the ACLU. I mean, this was the entire liberal establishment backing this concentration camp bill.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s why the National Lawyers Guild was founded, because of the ACLU’s position, right, on loyalty oaths and communism?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in Dr. John Baer again. The words “liberty and justice for all” — there was—you’ve indicated that there was some debate even in Bellamy’s mind when he was penning these words as to whether—to whether include the word “equality.” Could you talk to us about that?

DR. JOHN BAER: Right. He was writing it for the National Education Association of 1892 for their Department of School Superintendents, and of course most of them were segregationists, and they did not like the idea of equality for African Americans or even women. Women weren’t permitted to vote then. So that—he went on to be a very successful advertising man. I might mention, by the way, another twist on 1954—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in other words—in other words, what you’re saying is that even the socialist minister decided that it was the better part of valor to not have a battle over the word “equality” and just say—

DR. JOHN BAER: Exactly. He became a very successful advertising man in New York City in around 1900, 1920, so he knew what the Americans wanted, and they did not want the word “equality” in the pledge, and certainly the superintendents of education didn’t want the word in there, so he purposely kept it out. He hoped that somewhere along the way it would be added. But, by the way, on the 1954, the—many people claim credit for it, but in 1952 the Knights of Columbus were pushing—the first big organization that pushed to put it in the pledge. Now, in 1892—

AMY GOODMAN: Put “under God” in the pledge.

DR. JOHN BAER: Put “under God” in the pledge. In 1892, The Youth’s Companion is pushing public schools, so this is a secular holiday, and they’re pushing the separation of schools and state and church. So, I’ve never checked out the history of the parochial schools, but I suspect they did not start reciting the pledge until that was added, but I haven’t checked that one out. So, anyway, you have the conflict between parochial schools and public schools as part of the 1892 pledge, and the 1954 addition of “under God” took the religious overtone—put the religious overtone into the pledge, which Francis Bellamy, as a Baptist minister, apparently had no intention of putting in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Baer, you talk about how Francis Bellamy, the socialist minister, expresses the ideas of his first cousin Edward Bellamy, author of the American socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward


AMY GOODMAN: —which itself comes out of the climate of the 1870s and ’80s, culminating in the bloody Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago in 1886, which deeply disturbed Edward Bellamy, and the trial of the five Chicago anarchists—


AMY GOODMAN: —that involved the hanging, the famous hanging, of Haymarket. I don’t think people realize the socialist underpinnings of this pledge.

DR. JOHN BAER: Probably not. But, I mean, your nation is an entity, so as far as, quote, “socialism,” our economy has a large element of socialism. We have a national highway system. We have a national airport system. We have a national waterway system. We have a national home security system. So the role of government in our economy is very extensive, and that’s what Mr. Ford would have been happy with, what we already have.


DR. JOHN BAER: Francis Bellamy would have pushed it a little further, so you have national planning, which—

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t Francis Bellamy also pushed out of his church?

DR. JOHN BAER: Yeah, the—pushing his Christian socialism put pressure on—he was in a poor church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, so they had no funding unless the business community gave it to them. And so, the business community withdrew funding from his church in Roxbury. But as I said, Mr. Ford was a fellow Baptist, and he was happy to pick up his friend Francis Bellamy.


DR. JOHN BAER: They both saw it from a social gospel point of view. They weren’t looking at Marx. They were looking at the social gospel as shown in Matthew, Mark, Luke and St. James.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. John Baer, I want to thank you for being with us. Dr. Baer, an officer in the Navy in the Korean War with the National Security Agency, and author of a brief history of the Pledge of Allegiance called The Pledge of Allegiance: A Short History. And we also want to thank Ellen Schrecker, assistant professor of history at Yeshiva University, for joining us.

Juan, I look forward to seeing you tonight at 6:00 for the book party for your new book, Fallout. It will be at the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street in New York, for anyone who wants to come. Hope to see you all there.

Also, we have some job openings at Democracy Now!, producer positions. Send your résumé to job(at) That’s job(at)

Tomorrow, Skins, with Leonard Peltier’s daughter. We’ll be talking about the new movie.

Democracy Now! produced by Kris Abrams, Miranda Kennedy, Lizzy Ratner, Michael Yeh; Anthony Sloan, our engineer. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we go out with John Kenopa’s [phon.] “Alternative Pledge of the Allegiance.”

JOHN KENOPA: I pledge allegiance to the dollar of the United States of Amnesia and to the repression for which it stands, one nation, uninformed, irresponsible, with intolerance and disdain for all.

[singing] As Johnny goes marching off again to war, to war,
He ought to be told just what the hell he’s fighting for
'Cause it isn't for security
Or liberty or democracy.
Let me tell you who Johnny’s killing for.

He’s killing for DuPont and Shell and IBM
And Chevron in Somalia and Afghanistan
To make the world a better place
For investors to get higher rates
On their money, that’s what Johnny’s killing for.

Oil, oil, oil for the U.S.A.
The more we get, the more want is the American way
We need the oil to make that buck
If thousands die, that’s their tough luck
We’re number one, that’s what Johnny’s killing for.

The bad guys used to be those commie atheists
But now

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