John F. Kennedy photo

Remarks at a Reception Honoring Medal of Honor Recipients

May 02, 1963

Ladies and gentlemen:

I want to express my great pleasure at welcoming our most distinguished American citizens to the White House.

The Medal of Honor represents the strong feeling, admiration for your service to your country. This in many ways represents a return visit to you, for while the Medal of Honor was established 100 years ago during our most bloody war by President Abraham Lincoln, at the turn of the century President Theodore Roosevelt determined that it should, when possible and appropriate, be given by the President of the United States here at the White House. So, many of you have been here before and have been decorated by President Wilson, President Roosevelt, and President Truman.

We are delighted to have you here again, and in coming here today, you honor us.

There are 290 Medal of Honor men living and 240 are with us this afternoon which is the largest number, I believe, that have ever been gathered together. And I think it is most appropriate that you come on this occasion when we honor all of the military who serve our country here and around the world.

Not many Medals of Honor have been won, if any, in this country in this century. There are thousands of Americans who lie buried all around the globe who have been fighting for the independence of other countries and, in a larger sense, for the independence of their own, so we are very glad to have you here. In honoring you, we honor all those who bear arms in the service of their country. And we are particularly glad that so many of your wives came, because we honor them also.

One of the most difficult tasks and responsibilities of any President of the United States is the letters which are sent to the next-of-kin, and in the last year I have sent a number particularly for those who have lost their lives in South Viet-Nam.

I received a letter some months ago from the sister of a man who had been killed in South Viet-Nam who wondered whether her brother's sacrifice had been worthwhile for a country far away which many Americans had not heard of, in a war about which they were poorly informed. I wrote to her, as my predecessors have written to other sisters and wives, that in the service that he rendered for the defense of that far-off country, he was defending the United States and its freedom.

Perhaps most heartening of all the things which happen in the White House are the letters that come back. I received a letter several months ago from the wife of a captain who had been killed who had this to say: "My husband," she said, "put his love of his country above love of life. He was ready and willing to lay down his life for his country. I am very proud of my husband and want some day for his 2-year-old son and 10-day-old daughter to know what a fine man he was. Your letter," she concluded, "will help me show them when they are big enough to understand."

So, gentlemen, we are delighted to have you here today, and we are very proud of you and, most of all, we are proud of what you represent which is the strong courage of Americans and their determination to defend their country. While all Americans can't win the Medal of Honor, and while all of them can't fight in far-off places, I hope that all are big enough and strong enough and courageous enough to support them.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke in the Flower Garden at the White House in a ceremony which preceded the annual military reception held on the South Lawn.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks at a Reception Honoring Medal of Honor Recipients Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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