Sixty-nine years ago this month, world leaders tried to delay the reporting of one of the biggest stories of the 20th century. They might have been successful, too, if not for one rogue journalist.
On May 7, 1945, Edward Kennedy, Paris bureau chief for the Associated Press, went around American censors to report the news that Germany had surrendered in World War II. Naturally, his decision frustrated the military officials who were trying to control the timing of the story, but Kennedy's decision infuriated his fellow journalists, too.
Looking back, the way the news spread—very, very slowly—seems impossibly old-fashioned by today's real-time news standards, and yet the debate Kennedy started is fundamental in journalism: What, exactly, does the public have a right to know? And who gets to decide?
For Kennedy, there was never a question that what he decided to do was right, and he wrote as much in an essay, titled "I'd Do It Again," for this magazine in August 1948. What follows is the story of Kennedy's decision to tell the world about Germany's surrender, drawn largely from that 1948 account.
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Kennedy was one of 17 reporters handpicked by the U.S. Army to attend the German signing of its surrender in Reims, a city known for champagne about 90 miles northeast of Paris. Along with Kennedy representing the AP, other reporters were from the United Press, International News Service, Reuters, Exchange Telegraph, French and Russian news agencies, American, British, Canadian, and Australian radio networks, and two Army newspapers. On Sunday, May 6, 1945, these "lucky 17" were taken to a small airfield outside of Paris. It wasn't until they were in the air that Frank Allen, the spokesman for the Supreme Command, told reporters they were flying to Reims to cover "the impending surrender of the Germans." But reporters' access would be contingent on their promise to cooperate with American censors, he said.
Journalists later referred to this as the "pledge of the plane," a moment that would be the center of the controversy to come. Kennedy says it amounted to "a rambling talk by the general." Here's how he described Allen's warning in this magazine years later:
He first warned of the possibility that the negotiations might fall through and of the disastrous effects that premature word might have in such event. He cautioned us to disclose the purpose of our voyage to no one — not even to other war correspondents — before the surrender was signed. He added that a time would be set for the release of the news, but that he did not know when it would be. He thereupon exacted of each of us a pledge 'not to communicate the results of this conference or the fact of its existence until it has been released by the Supreme Headquarters.'
This level of secrecy wasn't new to the correspondents of the time. As Kennedy put it, the pledge "merely reaffirmed the signed pledge, required of all war correspondents on being accredited, not to evade censorship." Supreme Headquarters—better know as SHAEF—was always imposing embargoes on wartime news. And Kennedy says he "naturally and automatically registered my acceptance of the arrangements, as I had in hundreds of other cases. I gave my pledge in good faith, intending to honor it. I did honor it."
He honored it for about 24 hours, anyway.
In Reims, the lucky 17 were relegated to a classroom at SHAEF, which was housed in a technical school, for nine hours while the German Army's chief of staff, Alfred Gustav Jodl, and translator Wilhelm Oxenius met with Allied officials. But as the moment of surrender drew near, U.S. officials still hadn't decided when to lift the embargo. And for the reporters waiting in the classroom, the information from spokesman Allen kept changing. Kennedy explains:
At one point he said that our sending of the news would be held up until the surrender was announced by the heads of the Allied governments. After further discussions with the members of Eisenhower's staff, he told us that the importance of announcing the surrender immediately after the signing was so urgent that he expected the news to be released at Paris before we could return there.
This strategy irked the correspondents gathered in Reims. They were the ones who had made the trip, but their colleagues in Paris would get to break the news instead. At the same time, a group of correspondents not invited to Reims—including Raymond Daniell of The New York Times and Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News—had found out what was going on and showed up outside the SHAEF building, complaining that the military had arbitrarily picked the 17 correspondents inside. Allen told military police to keep them from entering the building, but they wouldn't leave the property. Daniell, Kirkpatrick, and others fumed outside.
Finally, the moment of surrender came at 2:41 a.m. on Monday, May 7. Kennedy and his colleagues shuffled into an L-shaped war room to watch "two crestfallen Nazi war lords" offer their country's official and unconditional surrender. "After the signatures of all were affixed—the documents and pens were passed from one another around the table—Jodl made a brief plea for such generosity as the Allies might be able to show to the German people and the two walked slowly out of the room." The correspondents were sent back to the classroom to await further instruction. Kennedy used the time to write his dispatch, which was stamped by a censor. The report couldn't be distributed because military officials still hadn't decided on the timing for the release of the news.
Around 4 a.m., Allen returned with an unwelcome update: "Gentlemen, I had anticipated that the news would be released at once, but it appears that this is not to be the case. General Eisenhower is desirous of having the news announced immediately for its possible effect in saving lives, but his hands are tied at a high political level and we can do nothing about it. The release has been set for 3 p.m., Tuesday, Paris time."
In other words, the U.S. military was ordering reporters to hold the news for more than 36 hours after the time of the actual surrender.
The correspondents were disgusted. They were all well accustomed to working within the constraints of censorship during wartime, but this decision seemed different. Allen had already said that releasing the news right away was urgent because it could save American lives. But this gag order went against the routine demands of military security—today we call it "national security." Allen said he understood the reporters' anger: "I appreciate your point of view, gentlemen... I personally think this story ought to be released without delay."
Kennedy says he was "exasperated" but still confident that the news would be released sooner. "The absurdity of attempting to bottle up news of such magnitude was too apparent. I knew from experience that one might as well try to censor the rising of the sun." So Kennedy and his colleagues returned to Paris keeping a secret that much of the world was desperate to hear.
We flew back to Paris in the pale gold sunshine of an early May morning. I have never seen the city so beautiful as it was from the air that day; crowned by the white gleaming dome of Sacré Coeur. Already the traffic of workers to their jobs had begun; the streets were full of little black dots. They would not work this day through. What news we had for them, and for workers everywhere! News that would make them throw down their tools and celebrate the peace after years of hardship and worry.
At 10 a.m.—more than seven hours after the surrender—Allen called a press conference in Paris. Reporters were angry. Allen promised he was doing what he could to move the story forward that day. Meanwhile, other officials at SHAEF told Kennedy that the delay was a favor to Russian leaders "who wanted to hold another and 'more formal' ceremony in Berlin." But this explanation seemed suspicious to Kennedy, who says he realized that Allied reporters were being told to hold one of the biggest news stories of the century so that Russia could better orchestrate its own spin on the surrender. By then, the news was slowly leaking out. Midday papers in Paris published accounts of loudspeakers being erected at 10 Downing Street, where the British awaited a formal announcement.
I took a short walk. Everywhere were rumors of the end of the war and puzzlement that no announcement had come... I was convinced that if the formal release did not soon come, the news would inevitably break through the barrier some other way. At 2:03 p.m., Paris time, the break came.
It was then that Lutz von Krosigk, a cabinet member in the Third Reich, announced Germany's unconditional surrender in a radio broadcast from Flensburg, where the Nazi government was headquartered. "After a heroic fight of almost six years of incomparable hardness, Germany has succumbed to the overwhelming power of her enemies," von Krosigk said. The broadcast, monitored by the British Ministry of Information, was "immediately distributed for publication." Kennedy heard it in a BBC report from his office radio in Paris. Minutes later, he began receiving urgent telegrams—relaying the news of the Krosigk broadcast—from the AP's New York office.