[On July 6th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom went into effect. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of the Medals recipients, leading up to a weekend post on the most recent, most controversial honoree yet.]
The thirty initial recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom were chosen by President Kennedy in July 1963, although they formally received their medals in December from Lyndon Johnson (after Kennedy’s assassination). It was a diverse and intriguing group, but did establish several key categories for future Medal honorees, within the official (Cold War-influenced) framing of “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
1) Cold War Diplomats: In keeping with that Cold War national security emphasis, the majority of the 1963 recipients who earned their Medal “with distinction” came from the worlds of diplomacy and foreign policy. That included two of the so-called “Wise Men,” Robert Lovett and John McCloy; UN ambassador Ralph Bunche; ambassador and future Vietnam War hawk Ellsworth Bunker; and “The Father of Europe,” Jean Monnet. The Cold War helped solidify the idea of U.S. foreign policy as “fighting for freedom” around the world, and such honorees likewise connected the new Medal of Freedom to that vision of America’s global role.
2) Cultural Pioneers: That’s not the only possible meaning of “freedom,” however, and the initial Medal recipients also reflected a more domestic definition, one likely influenced by the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Kennedy chose such figures from a number of distinct cultural arenas (along with Bunche, himself a prominent Civil Rights leader): African American classical and opera singer Marian Anderson; Spanish cellist and composer Pablo Casals; and Navajo community and public health leader Annie Dodge Wauneka, among others. Such an emphasis might seem obvious in hindsight, but in 1963 was anything but, and helped ensure that the Medal would be as multi-cultural as America.
3) Inspiring Innovators: Kennedy’s initial choices also made clear that intellectual and scientific innovation would likewise be rewarded with this new honor, as illustrated by such diverse figures as “Father of Modern Vaccines” John Franklin Enders; lawyer and groundbreaking Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; architectural pioneer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; and physicist Alan Tower Waterman, the first director of the National Science Foundation (NSF). All of those figures were at times controversial within their fields (Frankfurter most of all), an important statement that the Medal would not simply go to safe, consensus choices.
4) Artists of Americana: But yes, some of Kennedy’s initial choices were indeed such consensus favorites, and in particular I would highlight a few beloved artists whose works embody shared narratives of American ideals: essayist and children’s author E.B. White; playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder; and painter Andrew Wyeth. I don’t mean in any way to downplay the talent nor the significance of these cultural figures, each of whom deserved such an honor to be sure. But they also indicated that the Medal would help reiterate and extend our shared ideas about what “American” means, and where we find it.
Next Medal post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other honorees you’d highlight?
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