Executive Order 11085: The Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama Presents The Presidential Medal Of Freedom Awards
President Obama Presents The Presidential Medal Of Freedom Awards. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Bestowed only by the President of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest award of the United States that can be given to civilians and is comparable in status to the Congressional Gold Medal, which can be bestowed only by an act of the U.S. Congress.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes U.S. citizens or non-citizens who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” While a civilian award, it can also be awarded to military personnel.

Originally created as the Medal of Freedom in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman to honor civilians who made outstanding contributions to the World War II effort, it was renamed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Under an executive order issued by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, nominees for the award are submitted to the president by the Presidential Rank Award Distinguished Review Board. In addition, the president can confer the award on persons not nominated by the board.

Some Past Award Winners

Examples of past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include:

  • Colin Powell: former U.S. Secretary of State and retired four-star general in the U.S. Army
  • Ellsworth Bunker: American businessman and diplomat (also received the Congressional Gold Medal)
  • John F, Kennedy: former president
  • Pope John XXIII
  • Lyndon Johnson: former president
  • Paul “Bear” Bryant: Hall of Fame college football coach
  • Thurgood Marshall: former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Cesar Chavez: American labor leader and civil rights activist
  • Roberto Clemente: Hall of Fame Puerto Rican professional baseball player
  • Willie Mays: Hall of Fame professional baseball player
  • Jack Kemp: Former member of Congress and professional football player
  • James Chaney: American civil rights worker murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Andrew Goodman: American civil rights worker murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Michael Schwerner: American social worker murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Rosa Parks: American civil rights activist dubbed “the first lady of civil rights” by Congress
  • Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Robert De Niro: Hollywood stars

Since the award was created in 1945, fewer than 600 people have been given the Medal of Freedom or Presidential Medal of Freedom, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who received the honor from President Barack Obama on January 12, 2017.

In 2017, President Obama said of the award, “The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation's highest civilian honor -- it's a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better.”

The complete text of President Kennedy’s executive order establishing the Presidential Medal of Freedom reads as follows: 

Executive Order 11085

THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM

By virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, it is hereby ordered as follows:

SECTION 1. Prior orders. The numbered sections of Executive Order No. 9586 of July 6, 1945, as amended by Executive Order No. 10336 of April 3, 1952, are hereby amended to read as follows:

"SECTION 1. Medal established. The Medal of Freedom is hereby re-established as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with accompanying ribbons and appurtenances. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, hereinafter referred to as the Medal, shall be in two degrees.

"SEC. 2. Award of the Medal. (a) The Medal may be awarded by the President as provided in this order to 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.

"(b) The President may select for award of the Medal any person nominated by the Board referred to in Section 3(a) of this Order, any person otherwise recommended to the President for award of the Medal, or any person selected by the President upon his own initiative.

"(c) The principal announcement of awards of the Medal shall normally be made annually, on or about July 4 of each year; but such awards may be made at other times, as the President may deem appropriate.

"(d) Subject to the provisions of this Order, the Medal may be awarded posthumously.

"SEC. 3. Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board. (a) The Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board, established by Executive Order No. 10717 of June 27, 1957, hereinafter referred to as the Board, is hereby expanded, for the purpose of carrying out the objectives of this Order, to include five additional members appointed by the President from outside the Executive Branch of the Government. The terms of service of the members of the Board appointed under this paragraph shall be five years, except that the first five members so appointed shall have terms of service expiring on the 31st day of July 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968, respectively. Any person appointed to fill a vacancy occurring prior to the expiration of the term for which his predecessor was appointed shall serve for the remainder of such term.

"(b) A chairman of the Board shall be designated by the President from time to time from among the membership of the Board appointed from the Executive Branch.

"(c) For purposes of recommending to the President persons to receive the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service, and to carry out the other purposes of Executive Order No. 10717, only the members of the Board from the Executive Branch will sit. The names of persons so recommended will be submitted to the President without reference to the other members of the Board.

SEC 4. Functions of the Board. (a) Any individual or group may make recommendations to the Board with respect to the award of the Medal, and the Board shall consider such recommendations.

"(b) With due regard for the provisions of Section 2 of this Order, the Board shall screen such recommendations and, on the basis of such recommendations or upon its own motion, shall from time to time submit to the President nominations of individuals for award of the Medal, in appropriate degrees.

"SEC. 5. Expenses. Necessary administrative expenses of the Board incurred in connection with the recommendation of persons to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including expenses of travel of members of the Board appointed under Section 3 (a) of this Order, during the fiscal year 1963, may be paid from the appropriation provided under the heading 'Special Projects' in the Executive Office Appropriation Act, 1963, 76 Stat. 315, and during subsequent fiscal years, to the extent permitted by law, from any corresponding or like appropriation made available for such fiscal years. Such payments shall be without regard to the provisions of section 3681 of the Revised Statutes and section 9 of the Act of March 4, 1909, 35 Stat. 1027 (31 U.S.C. 672 and 673). Members of the Board appointed under Section 3(a) of this Order shall serve without compensation.

"SEC. 6. Design of the Medal. The Army Institute of Heraldry shall prepare for the approval of the President a design of the Medal in each of its degrees."

SEC. 2. Other existing orders. (a) Section 4 of Executive Order No. 10717, establishing the terms of service of the members of the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board, is hereby amended to read "The members of the Board shall serve at the pleasure of the President", and the other sections of that Order are amended conformably to this Order.

(b) Except as otherwise specifically provided in this Order, existing arrangements for conferring medals and honors shall continue in effect.

JOHN F. KENNEDY

THE WHITE HOUSE,
February 22, 1963.