The Medals of Freedom vs. America’s Freedom

by

For almost 50 years, politicians have used Medals of Freedom to reward their henchmen who started wars or subverted freedom.  Prior to the 1960s, the U.S. government avoided the temptation to distribute nonmilitary awards by the bucket. However, in 1963, President John F. Kennedy greatly  broadened a Medals of Freedom program begun by Harry Truman. Though the medal routinely went to politicians and government officials, giving it to artists, writers, movie stars, and others boosts its cachet.

Presidents involved in failed wars tend to distribute far more Medals of Freedom to generals and their political appointees. The precise ratio of presidential medals to military quagmires varies from administration to administration.

Lyndon Johnson distributed a hogshead of Medals of Freedom to his Vietnam War architects and enablers, including Ellsworth Bunker, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, Clark Clifford, Averell Harriman, Cyrus Vance, Walt Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy. When he gave the award to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, he declared, “You have understood that while freedom depends on strength, strength itself depends on the determination of free people.” In reality, Johnson treasured McNamara for his ability to publicly persuasively deny that the Vietnam War was failing. McNamara’s lies helped vastly expand an unnecessary conflict and cost more than a million American and Vietnamese lives.

Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War and expanded and intensified U.S. bombing of Indochina. Nixon gave the award to John Paul Vann (posthumously, for his civilian government work in Vietnam), Secretary of State William Rogers, and Pentagon chief Melvin Laird.

Gerald Ford gave the Medal of Freedom to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld — two persons who have done the most to blacken the honor of the United States in foreign affairs. To prove his bipartisan bona fides, Ford also gave the award to Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

When Jimmy Carter gave the award posthumously to Lyndon Johnson, he declared, “Lyndon B. Johnson cared deeply about our country, its citizens, and the condition of their lives. He knew well how to translate concern into action, and action into a national agenda…. We are a greater society because President Johnson lived among us and worked for us.”

Carter whitewashed Johnson’s horrendous record on civil liberties and omitted any mention of the scores of thousands of young Americans who died pointlessly in Vietnam. After his reelection campaign had crashed and burned, Carter tossed out a bucket of awards to his cabinet members including Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Democratic National Committee chairman Bob Strauss.

Ronald Reagan gave Medals of Freedom to Sen. Jacob Javits, Sen. Howard Baker, Sen. Barry Goldwater, Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldridge, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Secretary of State George Schultz.

George H.W. Bush blanketed Medals of Freedom on top officials involved with the Gulf War, including Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, James Baker, Richard Cheney, and Brent Scowcroft. Though the results of the war were a debacle for the Middle East and the Iraqi people, at least the medal award ceremony looked victorious.

Bill Clinton gave the award to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell; the mastermind of the Kosovo war debacle, Wesley Clark; and Sens. Robert Dole and Lloyd Bentsen — neither of whom had ever broke into a sweat over the government’s violations of Americans’ liberty. He also gave the honorific to Ford, who had been renowned as J. Edgar Hoover’s most reliable tool when Ford served in Congress. To keep up the storyline that all presidents are by definition champions of freedom, Clinton also gave the award to Jimmy Carter.

George W. Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his Iraq viceroy, Paul Bremer; his “slam dunk” CIA chief, George Tenet; Gen. Tommy Franks; Gen. Richard Myers; Gen. Peter Pace; and foreign lackeys such as Australian former prime minister John Howard and British former prime minister Tony Blair. Bush gave a medal to his ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, whom he called “America’s Lawrence of Arabia.” For good measure Bush also gave the award to Rep. Tom Lantos, one of the most vituperative warmongers in modern American history.

Barack Obama distributed Medals of Freedom to Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. Dick Lugar, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Sen. John Glenn, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (the famous apologist for the Iraqi sanctions, regardless of how many hundreds of thousands of children perished). Obama also gave the medal to George H.W. Bush — a man who got elected president in 1988 while deriding his Democratic opponent as a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

It is not surprising that Obama also gave the Medal of Freedom to Clinton. But Clinton had done more than any president of the latter 20th century to place the federal government above all laws — above the Constitution — and beyond any effective restraint. Clinton ignored federal and Supreme Court decisions limiting his power and constantly exploited and expanded the dictatorial potential of the U.S. presidency. But that was not mentioned at the award ceremony. Instead, Obama declared, “I’m grateful, Bill, for the advice and counsel you offered me on and off the golf course, and most importantly for your lifesaving work around the world, which represents the very best in America.”

Presidents routinely give the awards to those who vindicated or sanctified their own policies. For instance, George W. Bush gave Medals of Freedom to Irving Kristol, Paul Johnson, Norman Podhoretz, William Safire, and Nathan Sharansky. The majority of intellectuals and political writers who receive Medals of Freedom have been defenders of Leviathan — i.e., defenders of the rights of politicians over the rest of humanity.

Medals of Freedom encourage Americans to view their personal freedom as the result of government intervention — if not as a bequest from the commander in chief. Ironically, the person who poses the greatest potential threat to freedom has sole discretion to designate the best friends of freedom.

But the news coverage of the award ceremonies almost never mentions that the Supreme Leader’s arbitrary power was what the Founding Fathers fought a war to severely restrict. It is difficult to look at the names of some of the Medal of Freedom winners without being reminded of the famous passage from Friedrich Hayek’s chapter in The Road to Serfdom “Why the Worst Get on Top”:

Since it is the supreme leader who alone determines the ends, his instruments must have no moral convictions of their own. They must, above all, be unreservedly committed to the person of the leader; but next to this the most important thing is that they should be completely unprincipled and literally capable of everything.

They must have no ideals of their own which they want to realize; no ideas about right or wrong which might interfere with the intentions of the leader. There is thus in the positions of power little to attract those who hold moral beliefs of the kind which in the past have guided the European peoples, little which could compensate for the distastefulness of many of the particular tasks…. The only tastes which are satisfied are the taste for power as such and the pleasure of being obeyed and of being part of a well-functioning and immensely powerful machine to which everything else must give way.

A long series of American presidents could not have done so much to trample our rights and liberties and to wreak havoc around the world if they had not found so many persons willing to carry out any order received and to conspire with the president to delude the American people.

It is a sign of the political illiteracy of our time that Medals of Freedom distributed by presidents who act like czars are not a source of pervasive ridicule. On the other hand, the same media talking heads who hail Medal of Freedom awards also assure listeners that Americans are governing themselves because they could choose whether Obama or Mitt Romney would trample the Constitution.

It will be a sign of the nation’s political awakening when people become instinctively wary of any government tool who collects Medals of Freedom. In the same way that presidents cannot be trusted to define freedom, they cannot be trusted to designate who are the true champions of freedom.

James Bovard, a policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation, is the author of author of Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books.  More info at www.jimbovard.com; on Twitter @jimbovard

James Bovard, a policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation, is the author of Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. More info at www.jimbovard.com; on Twitter @jimbovard

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal
Bill Yousman
The Fire This Time: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me”
Scott Parkin
Katrina Plus Ten: Climate Justice in Action
Michael Welton
The Conversable World: Finding a Compass in Post-9/11 Times
Brian Cloughley
Don’t be Black in America
Kent Paterson
In Search of the Great New Mexico Chile Pepper in a Post-NAFTA Era
Binoy Kampmark
Live Death on Air: The Killings at WDBJ
Gui Rochat
The Guise of American Democracy
Emma Scully
Vultures Over Puerto Rico: the Financial Implications of Dependency
Chuck Churchill
Is “White Skin Privilege” the Key to Understanding Racism?
Kathleen Wallace
The Id(iots) Emerge
Andrew Stewart
Zionist Hip-Hop: a Critical Look at Matisyahu
Gregg Shotwell
The Fate of the UAW: Study, Aim, Fire