Concerning: Rescindment of Medals of (dis)Honor
Date: June 24, 1996
Dear Mr. Dill,
Thank you for your recent letters, together with signatures and comments from other citizens via the Internet, proposing that Congress rescind seventeen Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. Army personnel for actions at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December 29, 1890, and at Drexel Mission on the following day.
I appreciate why you view with dismay the award of the nation's highest decoration for valor to soldiers of the United States Army for their individual efforts in an action that resulted in the death or wounding of as many as 370 Indian men, women and children. I also appreciate the concern that these awards can be viewed as diminishing the value of Medals of Honor awarded for conduct in other conflicts.
The policies and decisions of the United States Government that led to the Army's being at Wounded Knee in 1890 doubtless can be characterized as unjust, unwise, or worse. Nevertheless, a retrospective judgement that the Government's policies and actions were dishonorable does not warrant rescinding the medals awarded to individual soldiers for bravery in a brief, fierce fight in which 25 soldiers were killed and 45 others wounded. Neither today's standards for awarding the medal nor policies of the United States with regard to Indian tribes are what they were in 1890.
The criteria by which the Medal of Honor is awarded have changed greatly since the original, ambiguous, nineteenth century authorization for the medal that gave commanders a wide latitude in choosing men to receive it. Soldiers could even nominate themselves for the award, and did. Between 1891 and 1897, over 500 medals were awarded for actions in the Civil War, more than three decades earlier. These awards led to the formation of the Medal of Honor Legion, and organization of recipients concerned that wholesale bestowal of the award was weakening the medal's prestige.
In part due to the efforts of the Medal of Honor Legion, President Wilson in 1916 signed a law that clarified the procedures and standards of proof for awarding the Medal of Honor. To receive the medal, one must demonstrate distinguished gallantry or intrepity, at the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty. The 1916 law also provided for a board of retired generals to review each of the 2,625 Army medals awarded for conduct during campaigns against Indian tribes between 1861 and 198, including Wounded Knee. As a result of this review, 911 medals were rescinded, all because the recipients were judged not to have distinguished themselves in combat and at the risk of their lives.
In 1990, in an unprecedented action the 101st Congress passed Senate COncurrent Resolution 153, which apologized to the Sioux people for the Wounded Knee massacre and expressed support for the establishment of a "suitable and appropriate memorial to those who were tragically slain at Wounded Knee." Since then, descendents of the Wounded Knee victims and survivors, the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribal governments, the State of South Dakota, Members of Congress and the U.S. Department of the Interior have considered a number of proposals, including a National Tribal Park, as an appropriate memorial.
While a consensus on a Wounded Knee memorial proposal remains elusive, efforts to achieve such a consensus are continuing. I support these efforts in the belief that establishing a well-conceived memorial to the victims of Wounded Knee is much preferable to attempting to strip long-dead soldiers of a medal which they might not merit under today's standards.
John McCain - Chairman
My Response to Senator McCain
Rescind the Medals of dis-Honor
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