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The Presidential Medal of Freedom Began as a World War II Honor

February 6, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

President Harry Truman established the medal, which was then expanded to honor Americans for a wide range of service and achievements.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the United States. Originally, Harry S. Truman established the “Medal of Freedom” to honor people who’d demonstrated notable service during World War II. In 1963, John F. Kennedy reintroduced it as the “Presidential Medal of Freedom,” which a commander-in-chief could bestow for many types of service and achievements. Since then, U.S. presidents have given to a wide range of over 500 people.

Truman established the Medal of Freedom on July 6, 1945, about two months after the Nazis surrendered and one month before the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. Instead of a presidential honor, it was something that the secretaries of State, War or Navy could award anyone who had performed “a meritorious act or service” that aided the U.S. or one of its allies in war.

First American to Receive the Medal of Freedom Was an Immigrant

Anna Rosenberg confers with then-chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Preparedness Committee, Lyndon B. Johnson. Rosenberg was the first U.S. citizen to receive the Medal of Freedom, which later became the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Rosenberg, an immigrant from Hungary, received the medal in 1945 for her service overseas.

The first American citizen to receive the award was a female immigrant. Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1902, Anna Rosenberg immigrated to the Bronx borough of New York City with her family in 1912 and became an American citizen in 1919. She was a regional manager and regional director of the Social Security Board during its early years, and became the regional director of the War Manpower Commission in 1942. During the last year of World War II, she was a special envoy to Europe for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Truman.

It was future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower who recommended Rosenberg for the Medal of Freedom based on her service overseas. She received it from Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson on October 29, 1945.

Award Expanded Under JFK

Truman expanded the list of who could award the Medal of Freedom and why in 1952, but in February 1963, JFK reintroduced it as an honor specifically from the president. He also broadened the reasons that civilians could receive the award. …read more