A Brief History
On January 16, 2001, President Bill Clinton, in one of his final remaining acts as President of the United States, posthumously awarded former President Theodore Roosevelt the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor in the United States. Roosevelt was given the award for leading a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Roosevelt thus became the only US president to have earned a Medal of Honor, although given the century plus between the action and the award, one must wonder if the award was given for political and publicity reasons. Although supposedly awarded for actions in combat under the most dire conditions (“gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty“) requiring the most valorous of action, sometimes the Medal of Honor has been awarded for apparently political reasons.
Created during the American Civil War, the only medal for valor prior to the Medal of Honor (originally called the Medal of Valor) had been a Certificate of Merit issued during the Mexican-American War and the Badge of Military Merit issued late in the American Revolutionary War. Thus, the Medal of Honor prior to the adoption of many other levels of military medals was not the extreme mark of gallantry that it is today, the medal that eclipses all others. (During World War I in 1918 the US military went about creating a hierarchy of medals awarded for various levels of combat valor or non-combat performance.) By the time World War II was upon us the US military had a pretty comprehensive assortment of medals and ribbons. Prior to World War II the Medal of Honor (1942) could be awarded for non-combat actions, but since is awarded only for valor in combat.
One disturbing action taken by the government regarding the Medal of Honor was the revoking of the Medal of Honor awarded to 911 recipients of the Medal in 1917 for actions failing to meet the current criteria. Among those recipients was Mary Edwards Walker, a surgeon that performed battlefield surgery on Union wounded during the Civil War. Edwards was captured by the Confederates and returned in a prisoner exchange, going back to work as an Army surgeon. Her medal was reinstated in 1977, along with several others, including the one awarded to Buffalo Bill Cody. Prior to 1942 Medals of Honor were also issued for peacetime heroism, such as saving lives while risking one’s own life in the act. Unfortunately, at times it seems this highest of honors was bestowed as a form of national boasting about accomplishments or feel good actions, apologies, etc., but not actual extreme heroism.
The Medal of Honor issued to the long deceased Teddy Roosevelt is almost surely an act of “feel good” patriotism, although of course TR was one of the great patriots of American History. Charles Lindbergh was awarded a Medal of Honor for his solo crossing of the Atlantic in an airplane, undeniably a dangerous feat but certainly not a combat related action. Lindbergh was not even in the military. General Douglas MacArthur was given a Medal of Honor after his disastrous “defense” of the Philippine Islands in early World War II, a pathetic political propaganda attempt to make him out to be a hero, when in fact he failed miserably in his duties and was derisively known as “Dugout Doug” for hiding in his bunker instead of actually leading the battle. Of course, innumerable people that should have been awarded a Medal of Honor (perhaps Lewis B. Puller, USMC, winner of an unprecedented 5 Navy Crosses) did not get the highest honor because of being the wrong race (African American heroism was often ignored or downplayed) or not having a powerful advocate in Washington. Others received the medal for lesser deeds, often because of having a particularly well-connected commander or political patron.
Floyd Bennet and Richard Byrd received Medals of Honor for the feat of flying over the North Pole in an airplane, believed at the time to be an historical first, but later discredited. Another recipient, Adolphus Greeley (1834-1935) had been a polar explorer and had served 47 years in the US Army, getting his medal for “life of splendid public service.”
After World War II, former Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was awarded a special Medal of Honor by the US Congress in recognition of the contribution he had made to US air power strategy and tactics. Mitchell had commanded US air forces in World War I, and after the war demonstrated the value of air power by sinking German battleships confiscated after the war, an incredible display at the time. Unfortunately, he was not tactful and “politically correct,” and was court martialed in 1925 for insubordination, convicted, reduced to Colonel, and effectively removed from the service. He had died in 1936 at the age of 56, worn out from frustration at being ignored. (Note: At the court martial of Billy Mitchell, Douglas MacArthur served as a jury member and reportedly voted “not guilty.” Those speaking on behalf of Mitchell at his trial included air power luminaries such as future generals Hap Arnold, Ira Eaker, Robert Olds and Carl Spaatz, WWI ace and Medal of Honor winner Eddie Rickenbacker, and Congressman and future mayor of New York Fiorello La Guardia.)
Since the end of the Vietnam War, only 20 US service members have been awarded a Medal of Honor, 9 of those awarded posthumously. None of those medals were awarded for political or propaganda purposes. We stand in awe of the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those awarded the Medal of Honor. Semper fi.
Question for students (and subscribers): Has anyone in your family ever been awarded a Medal of Honor? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Broadwater, Robert P. Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients: A Complete Illustrated Record. McFarland & Co., 2007
Mikaelian, Allen and Mike Wallace. Medal of Honor: Profiles of America’s Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present. Hyperion Books, 2003.