According to standard military protocol, it is not appropriate for the President of the United States to return salutes from uniformed military personnel because, although the President holds the title of Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. armed forces, he is not himself a member of the military, nor does he wear a uniform. The tradition of U.S. presidents' returning salutes is a fairly recent one which began with the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981:
In so doing, he wandered directly into the middle of a thorny debate: Should U.S. presidents return military salutes or not?
Longstanding tradition requires members of the military to salute the president. The practice of
Reagan's decision raised eyebrows at the time. Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, did not return military salutes while president. Nor had other presidents.
John Kline, then Reagan’s military aide and now a Minnesota congressman, advised him that it went against military protocol for presidents to return salutes.
Kline said in a 2004 op-ed piece in The Hill that Reagan ultimately took up the issue with Gen. Robert Barrow, then commandant of the Marine Corps.
Barrow told Reagan that as commander in chief of the armed forces, he was entitled to offer a salute — or any sign of respect he wished — to anyone he wished, Kline wrote, adding he was glad for the change.
Every president since Reagan has followed that practice, even those with no military experience.
The debate over saluting has persisted, with some arguing against it for protocol reasons, others saying it represents an increasing militarization of the civilian presidency.
"The gesture is of course quite wrong: Such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform," author and historian John Lukacs wrote in The New York Times in 2003. "It represents an exaggeration of the president's military role."
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