Why President Truman Blocked Attempts to Award Him the MoH

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The Medal of Honor is the United States’ highest and most prestigious award, which is usually awarded to its recipient by the serving president at the time. When Harry S. Truman, the nation’s 33rd president, presented the award, he would often make a comment about how he would prefer the honor of being awarded the medal to being president. Despite his clear admiration for the medal and its heroic recipients, he actually thwarted attempts to give him one.

Harry S. Truman

American President Harry S. Truman seated in White House library, with 'The Buck Stops Here' on placard in foreground, circa 1950.
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Truman is a controversial figure: he helped rebuild a war-torn Europe, establish the North Atlantic Peace Treaty (NATO), and made early progress in the civil rights movement. However, he is also disliked for his proposed policies, and most notably for his use of the only two nuclear weapons dropped in anger, for the first and last time in history.

This decision opened a debate that still rages on to this day. Some argue that the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were inhumane, unjustified, and a show of force to the Soviet Union. Others argue that the bombs saved more lives than they took, as they were a major factor in Japan’s surrender, making the invasion of the Japanese mainland unnecessary.

Regardless, Truman was presented with some of the most difficult decisions ever faced by a U.S. president.

In his early life, he served as an artillery officer in WWI, which familiarized him with military standards.

He dragged the U.S. into the Korean War just five years after the world’s largest and most devastating conflict had ended, which caused his popularity to drop significantly. He was eventually replaced as president by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Truman had almost no chance of beating the heroic WWII commander, so he opted not to run against him for the presidency.

During a ceremony on the White House lawn, American politician US President Harry S Truman (1884 - 1972) presents the Medal of Honor to US Army Corporal Clarence B Craft (1921 - 2002).
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In more recent years, Truman’s presidency has been seen in a more positive light, and many now regard him as of the nation’s greatest presidents.

As he oversaw the closing months of WWII and most of the Korean War, Truman was no stranger to the Medal of Honor. But when the House of Representatives attempted to award him the medal in 1971, he would not accept it.

Truman turns down the Medal of Honor

President Truman Decorating Service Men With The Medal Of Honor In Washington On January 1946
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In response to the attempt, the 87-year-old former president said: “I don’t consider that I have done anything which should be the reason for any award, Congressional or otherwise.”

Although he turned down the medal, he was greatly appreciative of the thought, something that he saw as an honor on its own. Truman wrote a letter to Representative in Congress, William J. Randall, to be read out during a session of Congress.

In the letter, he detailed his reasons as to why he would not accept the medal. He believed that as the medal was awarded for bravery in combat, changing the requirements for him would detract from the significance of the award.

“This does not mean I do not appreciate what you and others have done, because I do appreciate the kind things that have been said and the proposal to have the award offered to me,” Truman said in the letter. “Therefore, I close by saying thanks, but I will not accept a Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Truman passed away in 1988, just a year after his humble rejection of the medal.

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After his death, President Nixon said in a statement: “Harry S. Truman will be remembered as one of the most courageous Presidents in our history, who led the Nation and the world through a critical period with exceptional vision and determination.”

“Embroiled in controversy during his Presidency, his stature in the eyes of history has risen steadily ever since. He did what had to be done, when it had to be done.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE