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The Medal for Merit was, during the period it was awarded, the highest civilian decoration of the United States. It was awarded by the President of the United States to civilians who "distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services" in the war effort "since the proclamation of an emergency by the President on September 8, 1939" Awards to civilians of foreign nations were eligible "only for the performance of exceptionally meritorious or courageous act or acts in furtherance of the war efforts of the United Nations."
The medal is made of gold-finished bronze and enamel and is worn on the left chest from a ribbon.
The Medal for Merit was created by Public Law 77-671 and its awarding codified by Executive Order 9286 - Medal for Merit on December 24, 1942, later amended and restated by Executive Order 9857A of May 27, 1947. Created during World War II, and awarded to "civilians of the nations prosecuting the war under the joint declaration of the United Nations and of other friendly foreign nations", the medal has not been awarded since 1952.
Civilians of foreign nations could receive the award for the performance of an exceptionally meritorious or courageous act or acts in furtherance of the war efforts of the Allies against the Axis Powers. The first person to receive this medal who was not an American citizen was Edgar Sengier, the director of the Belgian Union Minière du Haut Katanga during World War II. Sengier was awarded the Medal for Merit on April 9, 1946. The second foreign civilian to receive the medal was the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson in November 1946. Stephenson had the code name "Intrepid" during World War II. Some writers consider Stephenson to be one of the real life inspirations for the fictitious character "James Bond".
Another recipient was Sir Robert Watson-Watt, a British pioneer of radar, who created a chain of radar stations around the UK which enabled advance information to be available to the Royal Air Force of incoming German aircraft and was instrumental in the winning of the 1940 Battle of Britain. He was sent to the US in 1941 to advise on air defense, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. He was awarded the US Medal for Merit in 1946.
All proposed awards were considered by the Medal for Merit Board, consisting of three members appointed by the President, of whom one was appointed as the Chairman of the Board. This medal cannot be awarded for any action relating to the prosecution of World War II after the end of hostilities (as proclaimed by Proclamation No. 2714 of December 31, 1946), and no proposal for this award for such services could be submitted after June 30, 1947. The last medal of this type was awarded in 1952 after a long delay in processing.
^Code of General Regulations,
National Defense, Department of the Army, DoD
National Archives and Records Administration as a Special Edition of the Federal Register, Published by the Office of the Federal Register, Washington, July 1, 1085.
§578.15 Medal of Merit, pg 344-345