The Debunker: Does the Presidential Eagle Ever Turn Its Head?

by Ken Jennings

The collective American mind is stuffed with an incredible amount of fable and folklore about our forty-odd past presidents. For example: every schoolchild learns how John Quincy Adams used to deliver the State of Union address wearing only an oversized diaper and a velvet sash reading “BABY NEW YEAR 1823.” My fellow Americans, that’s just not true! And neither are the other four executive branch errors author and Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings will impeach this month. (We apologize in advance if you live in a swing state and are thoroughly sick of all things presidential at this point.)

Presidential Myth #1: The Eagle on the Presidential Seal Turns Its Head in Wartime.

One of the most iconic symbols of the American presidency is the Seal of the President, which features a bald eagle set against a blue background. In its left talon it holds a bundle of arrows, in its right, an olive branch. This seal appears on the presidential flag, on Air Force One, on the carpeting of the Oval Office, and—most important of all—in the West Wing credits.

The West Wing is also many people’s source for an enduring piece of misinformation about the seal: namely, that the design legally changes so that the eagle turns to the right (and toward his olive branch-holding talon) during peacetime, but faces left (toward the arrows) during wartime. I’ve heard this bit of trivia for decades, but it’s certainly been popularized in recent years from having been trotted out on TV shows like The West Wing and novels like Dan Brown’s Deception Point.

In fact, the eagle faces the olive branch permanently, and has since 1945, when President Truman authorized a new version of the seal. The seal has actually been redesigned half a dozen times since its mid-19th-century debut, but Truman’s new version was specifically intended to accomplish two things: first, to make the eagle face the staff of the flag, so it would face front when flags were carried on the march, and second, to emphasize peace by facing the olive branch. The fact that the eagle’s last head switch happened immediately after World War II probably cemented the war-vs.-peace myth in many people’s minds. But this was a onetime change only. Think about it: two seals would be a logistical nightmare in practice. Does the government have a huge supply of backup seals and stencils, ready to switch the eagle back and forth at a moment’s notice? If Congress declares war, does Air Force One go to a detailing shop? Does the president get rushed immediately to the Situation Room so staffers can switch out the Oval Office carpet?

Quick Quiz: How many arrows (or olive leaves—it’s the same number) are depicted in the eagle’s talons on the Presidential Seal?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.