News Analysis

No, the ‘presidential salute’ isn’t a thing — and neither is the ‘vice presidential salute’

That's not a thing.
James Clark Avatar
President Joe Biden returns a salute as he and Vice President Kamala Harris disembark Air Force One after a brief meeting aboard the aircraft parked at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga. March 19, 2021. The president and vice president were greeted by Col. Craig McPike, 94th Airlift Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Vicki Robertson, 94th AW command chief. (U.S. Air Force photo/Andrew Park)

The hotly debated issue of the “presidential salute” is once again making the rounds online, except this time it has broadened in scope to include the “vice presidential salute.”

Early Monday evening a video began making the rounds on social media showing Vice President Kamala Harris walking right past a line of saluting airmen as she made her way to the ramp of Air Force Two on March 19 at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia. As the vice president strolled by, she rendered no return salute to her honor guard, who were left standing ramrod straight on the flight line in the night air.

It’s hard to know exactly why Harris didn’t offer a salute in return: Maybe she was busy mulling things over in her mind, like how the presidential administration she’s a part of will handle the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic; how best to help the millions of Americans struggling financially due to the economic fallout brought on by said pandemic; how to ease divisions in a country whose capital still has a contingent of National Guardsmen deployed there following the Jan. 6 riot; or perhaps she thought to herself ‘hey, I’m not in the military. I’m a civilian and this isn’t my place.’

Whatever reason Harris had for not returning the salute, there’s one indisputable fact: She didn’t have to anyway. And had the video shown President Joe Biden, or former President Donald Trump, or Vice President Mike Pence, they wouldn’t have been required to either, for that matter.

Why? Because the presidential salute is not a real thing, and neither is the vice presidential salute.

But that hasn’t kept people from losing their minds, from former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, to conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk, to Fox News anchor Sean Hannity.

And this isn’t the first time this topic has generated a digital uproar. Back in September 2014, then-President Barack Obama faced criticism for rendering what was, quite frankly, a very lazy latte salute. (In an earlier customs-and-courtesies-controversy, in March 2013 Obama passed right by a Marine without returning a salute. And though he quickly disembarked Marine One to shake the Marine’s hand, it inspired an unfounded rumor that the President of the United States was ordered off the helicopter by the pilot because he snubbed a Marine.)

However, as Brian Jones previously wrote for Task & Purpose, there is no regulation that requires presidents to salute the troops. In fact, for most of the country’s history, “presidential salutes” weren’t a thing, not even among those military leaders-turned-presidents, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, or Teddy Roosevelt.

Instead, it was just something President Ronald Reagan decided to start doing one day. It’s true. After taking office in 1981, Reagan started saluting service members he encountered during the course of his presidential duties and the tradition hasn’t stopped since. Here’s how Reagan explained it while speaking with military personnel and their families back in 1986:

I can’t resist telling you a little story that I’ve just told the Marine guard at the embassy. The story has to do with saluting. I was a second lieutenant of horse cavalry back in the World War II days. As I told the admiral, I wound up flying a desk for the Army Air Force. And so, I know all the rules about not saluting in civilian clothes and so forth, and when you should or shouldn’t. But then when I got this job and I would be approaching Air Force One or Marine One and those Marines would come to a salute and I — knowing that I am in civilian clothes — I would nod and say hello and think they could drop their hand, and they wouldn’t. They just stood there. So, one night over at the commandant’s quarters, Marine commandant’s quarters in Washington, and I was getting a couple of highballs, and I didn’t know what to do with them. So, I said to the commandant — I said, “Look, I know all the rules about saluting in civilian clothes and all, but if I am the commander in chief, there ought to be a regulation that would permit me to return a salute.” And I heard some words of wisdom. He said, “I think if you did, no one would say anything.”

So, if you see me on television and I’m saluting, you know that I’ve got authority for it now and I do it happily.

Nonetheless, the trend prompted concern from one of his military aides, John Kline, a Marine officer who went on to become a Republican congressman for Minnesota. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow wrote in her 2011 book Drift, Kline was worried that the new tradition blurred the lines between civilian leadership and the military:

Soldiers were supposed to salute their president; the president was not supposed to salute the soldiers. No modern president, not even old General Eisenhower, had saluted military personnel. It might even be, well, sort of, improper. Reagan seemed disappointed at this news. Kline suggested he talk to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps and get his advice, and the commandant’s advice ran something like this: You’re the goddamn president. You can salute whoever you goddamn well please. So Ronald Reagan continued saluting his soldiers, and he encouraged his own vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, to do the same. And every president since has followed.

In terms of actual military orders and regulations, the only guidance involving the President of the United States and the word “salute” applies to service members being required to salute the president, not the other way around. For example, U.S. Army regulation stipulates that “the President of the United States, as the commander in chief, will be saluted by Army personnel in uniform.” The regulation goes on to note that “civilian personnel, to include civilian guards, are not required to render the hand salute to military personnel or other civilian personnel.”

The top spokesman for the Pentagon, John Kirby, provided some additional context on the regulation, noting that while each branch of the military has its own rules for customs and courtesies “there is no overarching instruction or regulation that requires the president or vice president to return hand salutes from members of the Armed Forces.”

“There is no specific requirement for personnel to salute the Vice President, though the Vice President does receive honors, including cannon firing, ruffles and flourishes, and specific music, when visiting military installations or participating in formal functions,” Kirby said. “Finally, the rendering of the hand salute by military personnel is a time-honored tradition and one of the first military lessons installed in new recruits. From their first days in the military, new recruits are taught to salute when they meet more senior leaders — a common phrase among drill instructors is ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’  Our troops demonstrate their respect for the nation’s senior leaders in many ways; [rendering] a hand salute is one of them.”

And so there you have it, there is no requirement that the President or Vice President of the United States return a salute.

Nonetheless, given enough time and repetition, anything can become tradition, and traditions, especially those involving the military, quickly become sacred in America. So, although Vice President Harris did not salute those airmen standing at attention on the flight line, it was still expected because past presidents, and vice presidents, have done it before.

But should it be? Really, how badly do we, as service members, veterans, and Americans in general, want to see a politician render what is likely to be a rather distracted and hasty salute to U.S. troops, or to military leaders of a totalitarian state, either with a cup of coffee in hand, or clutching a Scottish Terrier?

Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush have all rendered awkward, or ill-advised, salutes.

It seems like a better use of everyone’s time, attention, and energy if the top leaders of the United States just dispensed with superficial pomp and circumstance altogether and focused on the more meaningful aspects of their job as it pertains to civilian oversight of the military: Things like ending America’s Forever Wars; pressuring members of Congress to update the use of force authorization that has allowed the Global War on Terror to expand under each new presidential administration over the last two decades; showing sound judgment and, when necessary, restraint when it comes to exercising military force; and ensuring that acts of valor are properly recognized, by awarding deserving heroes the Medal of Honor, like Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe; to name a just a few.

Feature image: President Joe Biden returns a salute as he and Vice President Kamala Harris disembark Air Force One after a brief meeting aboard the aircraft parked at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga. March 19, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo/Andrew Park)

Update: This article has been updated with a more detailed response from Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs John Kirby on whether the President and Vice President of the United States are required to return a salute from U.S. military personnel.