What Is the Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest American civilian recognition issued by the President of the United States. Recipients of this award have given exceptional and highly commendable service to or for their country. To date, more than 20,000 individuals have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Medal of Freedom History
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was created by President Harry S. Truman on July 6, 1945, during his first year as president. President Truman called this award the Medal of Freedom. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy re-established the award as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom must pass through an extensive evaluation and approval from the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy. The president usually handles the distribution of this award. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy or other officers may be designated to step in and hand out the award if the president is unable to give it out.

According to the original order written by President Truman, "No more than one Medal of Freedom shall be awarded to any one person, but for a subsequent act or service justifying such an award a suitable device may be awarded to be worn with the medal. The Medal of Freedom may be awarded posthumously."

The Award Medals
The medal was created in the colors of blue, white, gold and silver, the same colors used on the Presidential Seal. To signify the determination of the United States of America to preserve freedom and democracy, the medal depicts a white star in the center, placed over a red oak wreath, on which five golden eagles stand with wings spread. The white star depicts our symbol of freedom and democracy. The eagles are an emblem of strength and of America's struggle for freedom. The white, five-pointed star has 13 tiny golden stars in its center. The stars are emblazed over a blue background to represent the American flag. Finally, a silver eagle is affixed to the ribbon above the white star.

Who Has Received this Prestigious Award?
The list of recipients includes some past presidents and some first ladies, political figures and economists, baseball players and entertainers, judges and editors, biologists, anthropologists, religious leaders, the first men who landed on the moon, cooks, comics and actors and musicians, as well as radio and talk-show hosts. While not all of the names may be familiar, many, such as Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa; Rosa Parks, the African-American who refused to take a back seat because of the color of her skin, and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, are household names.

Other well-known recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award include the following:

  • D.A. Henderson, leader in eradicating smallpox
  • Paul Harvey, radio host
  • Johnny Carson, television talk show host
  • John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America
  • Margaret Mead, anthropologist
  • Gregory Peck, actor
  • Thurgood Marshall, the first black US Supreme Court justice
  • Hank Aaron, baseball player who hit 755 home runs over his career
  • Muhammad Ali, three-time World Heavyweight Boxing Champion
  • Walter Cronkite, a journalist hailed as America's most trusted newscaster
  • Carol Burnett, actress
  • Duke Ellington, jazz musician
  • Alan Greenspan, economist and Federal Reserve Chairman from 1987 to 2006
  • Helen Keller, an activist for the deaf and blind 
  • Pope John Paul II, who led the Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005
  • Charlton Heston, actor
  • Bob Hope, comedian
  • Fred Rogers, television personality known as Mister Rogers
  • Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart 
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