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US Congressional Gold Medal Program Has Long History

  • Deborah Tate

Burma’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, will receive the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Wednesday. Members of Congress have bestowed the honor on hundreds of individuals over the course of American history.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the latest recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian award.

Congress bestows the honor on an individual for a distinguished contribution or a lifetime of service.

Donald Ritchie is Historian of the U.S. Senate.

"The Congressional Gold Medal is awarded by Congress, and it is a way to signify some great achievement," he said. "It can be to an American citizen, it can be to a non-citizen - someone whom Americans admire."

First presented to General George Washington in 1776, the Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to individuals from all walks of life.

They include - aeronautical pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, actor John Wayne, and composer Aaron Copland, whose "Fanfare for the Common Man" has become one of the most recognizable pieces in American classical music.

Other recipients include U.S Presidents Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, singer Frank Sinatra, painter Andrew Wyeth, athletes Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, poet Robert Frost, Generals George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur, composer George Gershwin and film producer and animator Walt Disney.

Recipients who are non-U.S. citizens include two British prime ministers - Winston Churchill and Tony Blair, former South African President Nelson Mandela, the late Pope John Paul II, Holocaust survivor and political activist Elie Wiesel and Mother Teresa.

Congressional legislation is required to make each medal. Once the legislation is passed, Congress commissions the U.S. Mint to design and create the medal, although it was not always that way.

"The first medals, back in the 18th century, were struck in Paris rather than in the United States because Americans hadn't really developed those skills at the time," said Ritchie. "It requires a very skilled artisan to create almost a work of art, a medal struck for a particular person."

Each medal is unique - depicting the individual or the event honored.

Although the Congressional Gold Medal is usually awarded at a ceremony in the Rotunda of the Capitol, that is not always the case.

In 1981, Canadian Ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor received the medal at a White House ceremony for his efforts to secure the safe return of American hostages being held in Tehran.

"That was a slightly unusual circumstance," said Ritchie. "That was a situation where diplomats had been taken hostage in Iran, and the Canadian Embassy had actually hid some Americans who could have been held prisoner, and so they jeopardized their own positions. Once the hostages were released and this became known, the president wanted to pay tribute [to the ambassador]."

Congress awards the medal when it believes it is appropriate, rather than on any set schedule.
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