I’d Do It Again

When an Associated Press correspondent broke an embargo to report news of the German surrender in World War II, he was pilloried for it. Three years later, he justified his decision in The Atlantic.

A black and white photo of the journalist Edward Kennedy
The Associated Press journalist Edward Kennedy (Sam Goldstein / AP).

Edward Kennedy published this essay in the August 1948 issue of The Atlantic. His daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, has granted permission for us to republish it here. What follows is Kennedy’s original account.


Surrender Scoop

When Edward Kennedy filed the first bulletin to reach American readers with news of the Germans’ final capitulation in May, 1945, he started a controversy that has remained at the boil ever since among newspapermen. Here for the first time is his complete reply to those who complained that he violated SHAEF’s release agreement and took an unfair advantage over his colleagues. Mr. Kennedy was Chief of the Paris Bureau of the Associated Press and is now Managing Editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


I’D DO IT AGAIN

1

EARLY in April, 1945, German resistance was crumbling fast on the Western Front. American troops crossed the Elbe. There was little blocking their way into Berlin, but they were pulled back. In the weeks that followed there was fraternization between the Americans held to one side of the Elbe and German soldiers on the other, who yelled, “Come on over, we’re not fighting you any more.” The halt permitted the Russians to edge into Berlin; that was its purpose.

To our people and troops, the Russians still were our gallant allies. But official relations between Washington and Moscow already were troubled by open Russian distrust and even hostility. In March, Stalin had baselessly accused Roosevelt of attempting to negotiate a virtual separate peace—a deal in which the Germans would fall back before the Western Allies in return for Anglo­-American support of easier peace terms.

Our policy, based on a conviction that the winning of World War II would be worthless if it led only to a new contest with Russia, and that almost any price was worth paying to avoid such a development, was one of appeasement and concession toward Moscow. Military commanders were warned to avoid even the appearance of taking advantage of the German preference for us over the Russians. It was against this jittery background that two German officers, Admiral Hans Georg von Friedeburg and Colonel Fritz Poleck, arrived at Field Marshal Montgomery's Headquarters on May 4, after all reports of fighting on the Western Front had ceased. Montgomery received them expecting only the surrender of more of the German forces facing his armies. But they said they had been sent by the government of Admiral Karl Doenitz, who had succeeded to power on Hitler’s death, to discuss the surrender of all that was left of the Third Reich. That was beyond Monty’s authority. He sent them on to Eisenhower at Forward Headquarters of the Supreme Command at Reims.

Friedeburg told Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, that he was not authorized to sign a surrender, but merely to get the terms on which a surrender might be signed and to learn how the Doenitz government would be expected to put it into effect. The Doenitz cabinet had fled Berlin for Flensburg, on the German-Danish frontier. British troops entered Flensburg and the regime became a captive one, but continued to function. The British Ministry of Information announced that the powerful radio station at Flensburg was being operated by the Germans, under Allied censorship.

Friedeburg was told that the new German government must authorize promptly an unconditional surrender to the Western Allies and Russia, or be held responsible for the continuance of the war. He sent this message to Doenitz. It was delivered to Flensburg by a courier from Second British Army Headquarters.

While awaiting the reply, Smith ruled that the surrender—the great news for which all the Allied world was waiting anxiously—would be held in Army secrecy, with war correspondents barred. It was to be reported only by designated Army personnel, who would supply their eyewitness accounts to the correspondents later. Brigadier General Frank A. Allen, head of the Supreme Command’s Public Relations Division, mapped the press coverage of the event on that basis.

Smith’s plan was upset when Charles C. Wertenbaker, head of the Paris staff of Time, bobbed up in Reims despite a rule against correspondents’ going there and got a glimpse of something that gave the show away—two German uniforms. On the argument that Wertenbaker alone should not have an on-the-scene story, Lieutenant Colonel Burrows Matthews, peacetime editor of the Buffalo Courier­-Express and a friend of the correspondents, persuaded Army Public Relations that correspondents be allowed to witness and report the surrender

Smith reluctantly agreed to accept a limited number. He didn't want too many.

General Allen exhumed from the archives of SHAEF Public Relations a document entitled “Operation Jackplane.” It had been drawn up while Supreme Headquarters was still in London, and had been intended to serve as a list of the first planeload of correspondents to be flown to Berlin on that city’s fall. He decided that this would be the list for the surrender.

On Sunday morning, May 6, one of Allen’s aides told me that the Associated Press staff, which I headed, was entitled to send one correspondent to report an event the nature of which could not be disclosed. I said I’d go myself.

Those selected were taken to a small airfield outside Paris, where we met General Allen. There were seventeen on the Jackplane list. The others were from the United Press, International News Service, Reuters, Exchange Telegraph, and the French and Russian news agencies; all the American, British, Canadian, and Australian radio networks; and two Army newspapers, Stars and Stripes and The Maple Leaf (Canadian). Allen felt that his list was an equitable one, for the correspondents on it represented, indirectly, practically every newspaper and radio station in the Allied world.

2

As the airplane winged northeastward, Allen told us that the trip concerned the impending surrender of the Germans. Then followed the “pledge on the plane,” so much cited in the controversy which followed. Allen and some of the correspondents later vested this with the solemnity of an initiation in one of the more mystically inclined fraternal orders. In reality it was a rambling talk by the general. 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.”

The pledge on the plane had no special significance. It merely reaffirmed the signed pledge, required of all war correspondents on being accredited, not to evade censorship. The imposition of release time on some of the news originating at Supreme Headquarters was an everyday practice of SHAEF Public Relations. The pledge on the plane was no less binding for this. I naturally and automatically registered my acceptance of the arrangement, as I had in hundreds of other cases. I gave my pledge in good faith, intending to honor it. I did honor it.

The airplane landed at Reims and we were taken to SHAEF Forward. A few moments later, Colonel General Gustav Jodl, the new chief of staff of the German Army, and his aide, Major Wilhelm Oxenius, arrived at the Headquarters. Jodl had been sent by Doenitz with full authority to surrender. SHAEF Forward occupied the red brick building of a technical school, a two-story quadrangle sprawling over a block and enclosing a large court. We correspondents were placed in a classroom on the ground floor while Allen and his aides went upstairs to learn what was happening.

We waited nine hours. Allen paid us several visits, making varying statements as plans were changed upstairs. 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 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.

Several correspondents complained that this would mean that correspondents left behind in Paris would report the news ahead of those especially selected for that purpose.

“But the correspondents in Paris will have only the bare announcement and you’ll have the full eyewitness account,” Allen said. “And you won’t be much behind them. We’ll get you back to Paris in short time.”

Meanwhile several groups of correspondents who had not been invited to the surrender arrived in Reims by jeep. Despite the secrecy imposed, they had learned what was going on and where it was happening—through leaks in Allen’s Public Relations staff. They were loud in their denunciations of the arbitrary selection which had left them out.

General Allen was deaf to their pleas. He ordered military police to bar them from the building. At sundown they were standing on the sidewalk in groups, talking angrily and peering forlornly through our classroom window.

Such notables among the “illegals” as Raymond Daniell of the New York Times and Helen Kirkpatrick of the Chicago Daily News protested that they represented newspapers which maintained complete foreign staffs. It was unthinkable, they said, that such newspapers be barred from reporting one of the great news stories of history. Allen defended his exclusion of individual newspapers on the ground that he had to draw the line somewhere for lack of space.

Then the outcasts discovered a flaw in his Jackplane plan in that one newspaper was represented.

Price Day of the Baltimore Sun had been pressed into service by the British news agency, Exchange Telegraph, which had been assigned one of the seventeen places. Allen met the situation by ruling that Day might write his story for Extel, but might not send the same account to his own paper. (This ruling was later rescinded and Day was permitted to file to the Sun, which in any case could have picked up his story from Extel in London.)

The embittered outsiders appealed to British Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan, as he arrived at the Headquarters. He said he’d intercede in their behalf. Morgan told Allen he thought something ought to be done about those correspondents outside. Allen misinterpreted this as a complaint and sent MPs out to chase them away under threat of arrest. That did not lessen their indignation.

3

AT 2:41 a.m., Monday, May 7, we Jackplane correspondents saw the signing of the unconditional surrender by the two crestfallen Nazi war lords. Our less fortunate confreres chafed on the sidewalks of Reims in the chill early morning air, although various Headquarters officers managed to slip WAC and Red Cross girl friends into the room to see the historic event. The surrender took place in the L-shaped war room, its walls covered with maps and casualty charts. The correspondents and other witnesses were roped off in one corner, but Army photographers buzzed around the table and mounted a stepladder placed next to it for “angle shots.”

The Allied signers—Bedell Smith for the Supreme Command, General François Sevez for France, General Ivan Susloparov for the Soviet Union, and Admiral Sir Harold Burrough, R.N., for a separate Naval disarmament order—were seated at the table. The Germans entered the room uncertainly and blinking in the glare of lights. Jodl was solemn, Friedeburg shaky. (Friedeburg committed suicide a few days later.)

The Allied signers arose and Smith beckoned the Germans to two vacant chairs on the opposite side of the table, remarking dryly, “There are four copies to be signed.”

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.

They were led to Eisenhower’s office. The Supreme Commander, flanked by his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder, asked them sternly if they understood the terms and if they would be carried out. They said yes. We were allowed to witness this scene through a doorway.

In a delayed-action burst of generosity, Allen permitted the outcast correspondents to enter the Headquarters after the surrender and to look at the room in which it had been signed, so that they might describe it in their stories.

We, the Lucky Seventeen, were led back to our classroom while Allen talked with high SHAEF officers to get a final decision on the time of the release of the news. While waiting, I wrote my dispatch. I handed it to a censor. He read it and stamped it.

At about 4 A.M., Allen appeared and said: “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.”

Exclamations of disgust went up from the correspondents. The bland admission that political censorship was being imposed—contrary to the demands of military security—set off bitter recriminations. General Allen’s seventeen trained seals became almost as unruly as those he had left off his list.

“I appreciate your point of view, gentlemen,” he said. “I personally think this story ought to be released without delay. I will try my best to get it released before the time set, but I don't know how effective I shall be. In any case, there is nothing for us to do now but return to Paris.”

I was exasperated by the situation, but confident that the news would be released during the morning. The absurdity of attempting to bottle up news of such magnitude was too apparent. I know from experience that one might as well try to censor the rising of the sun.

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., General Allen held a press conference at the Hôtel Scribe, Public Relations Headquarters. It was an angry meeting. The correspondents barred from the signing were still complaining. The incomprehensible decision to hold up the news for thirty-six hours strained tempers more. Allen said he was doing his best to get it released that day.

I learned from high SHAEF officers that the delay had been ordered from Washington, at the request of the Russians, who wanted to hold another and “more formal” ceremony in Berlin.

This sounded strange. The Reims surrender was unconditional, it fulfilled the proclaimed objective of the Allies, and Russia was a full partner to it. Any second ceremony would be meaningless, except for Soviet propaganda purposes.

I took a short walk. Everywhere were rumors of the end of the war and puzzlement that no announcement had come.

In the Scribe lobby, correspondents were standing about in bunches, muttering their displeasure and drawing up resolutions against SHAEF Public Relations. I could see little use in joining them, so I went to our AP office on the fourth floor and took stock of the reports coming one upon the other.

De Gaulle’s office said he was writing his V Day address. General Sevez, who signed for France, had sent his eyewitness account to the newspaper Figaro. Paris noon newspapers published dispatches from London saying that loud-speakers were being erected at 10 Downing Street and that Britain awaited only the formal announcement. Official word was sent to Allied soldiers at the front. The British War Ministry made known the details to its personnel, including civilian employees.

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. Count von Krosigk, foreign minister of the Doenitz government at Flensburg, announced the unconditional surrender in a broadcast beamed to the world and addressed to “German Men and Women.”

“After a heroic fight of almost six years of incomparable hardness, Germany has succumbed to the overwhelming power of her enemies,” he said.

The Krosigk broadcast was monitored by the British Ministry of Information and immediately distributed for publication. I heard it in a British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast on our office radio a few moments later. In succeeding minutes urgent telegrams arrived from the AP in New York and London relaying the Krosigk announcement.

I knew that Flensburg was occupied by Allied troops. I knew that the Doenitz government could not have broadcast its announcement without the consent of the Supreme Command. It was clear that SHAEF itself had broken through the gag. German Army communications were so disrupted that a public broadcast was the only means of making sure that isolated units knew the war was over and dropped their arms.

I tried to reach General Allen by telephone to tell him that the news of the surrender had been released, but was told that he was too busy to talk to me. Accompanied by Relman Morin of my staff, I went to the office of Lieutenant Colonel Richard H. Merrick, the chief American censor, and showed him the text of the Flensburg announcement.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “I have orders to follow.”

My pledge—in General Allen’s words—was not to break the news “until it has been released by the Supreme Headquarters.” I told Merrick that since Supreme Headquarters had released the news through the Germans, I felt under no further obligation to observe the gag. “I give you warning now that I am going to send the story,” I said.

“Do as you please,” he said. He could not conceive, of course, of a correspondent getting a dispatch through the iron curtain that the censorship thought it had thrown around the European Theater.

I went to my room and weighed the matter. I knew that sending the story would bring upon me the wrath of Public Relations and of the other correspondents. It was not a desire to make a “scoop” that pushed me inexorably to my decision—I had already scored plenty of those. It was a conviction that my duty was to report the news. If any personal feeling affected my judgment, it was the accumulated vexation over the dishonesties of censorship under which I had worked during five years of war. This topped them all, for here was admittedly political censorship in clear-cut violation of the cardinal point of American censorship—as enunciated from the White House down—that it would be limited to matters of genuine military security. I made up my mind. I have never regretted my decision.

4

I KNEW that I could reach our London office by military telephone. I had used this telephone many times, with the knowledge of Public Relations officers. I had talked over it to members of our staff in Front areas and to our London bureau on matters concerning our service. In accordance with my obligations, I had never used it to evade censorship. Anyone could call “Paris Military” from the Scribe and be connected with any telephone in London. Any enemy agent in Paris might have done this. The fact that SHAEF had left this loophole in its supposedly airtight security system is something for the military mind to explain.

I started writing a condensed version of my account of the surrender and instructed Mort Gudebrod of our staff to put in a call for London. I accepted full responsibility for his action, but SHAEF Public Relations later imposed a penalty on him as well as me.

I dictated the story until the telephone connection went bad. I got through all the essential details of the event at Reims—enough to make it clear that this was no rumor, but an authentic account by an eyewitness; that this was the real thing, the news for which the world was waiting.

“Well, now let’s see what happens,” I said to members of my staff. “I may not be around here much longer.”

They laughed nervously.

The storm broke quickly. General Allen suspended the operations of the Associated Press in the entire European Theater. Even our room telephones were cut off.

Correspondents dashed madly about the Scribe. Their chagrin and rage knew no bounds. Messages poured in from their home offices—why didn't they have the story?

General Allen, by this time an expert at rubbing salt into open wounds, ruled that the official release time of 3 P.M. the following day was still in effect. He decided that the other correspondents might quote from my story, since it was already out, but might not send their own dispatches.

The effect of such a ruling on the already shattered nerves of the correspondents may be imagined. While the crowds outside the Scribe were shouting themselves hoarse over the war's end, correspondents inside the hotel were losing their voices in denunciations of me, Allen, and the general situation.

My dispatch was published and broadcast the world over, and set off a gigantic celebration. Even SHAEF itself spread it through Europe in twenty languages over the Command’s broadcasting station.

As far as I could determine, no action was to be taken against me immediately, but I was not permitted to work. The most practical course seemed to be to go out and join in the celebration. I did.

Allen’s suspension of the Associated Press brought a bombardment of protests in the United States. SHAEF had penalized not only the AP, but every newspaper and radio station receiving AP news and their readers and listeners—at a time when they were vitally interested in news from the European Theater. The War Department, heeding public indignation, sent a strong recommendation to SHAEF to cool down. The ban on the AP was lifted, but the suspension of Gudebrod and myself as correspondents remained in effect.

At noon the following day—the “official” V-E Day, as distinguished from the real one—the embittered correspondents met in the briefing room at the Scribe. They demanded a reimposition of the suspension of the AP to bar that organization from sending the official release. Apparently they fancied the world still waiting breathlessly for the already stale news.

As hysteria mounted, it was touch and go as to whether Allen or I would be their main target. Wertenbaker offered a motion that “Public Relations of SHAEF and its director (General Allen) no longer have the confidence of correspondents.” It was quickly seconded but left hanging as a new keynote was sounded by Drew Middleton of the New York Times, who said: “You realize, gentlemen, that you have taken the worst beating of your lives. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”

In view of the enormity of the beating they had taken and the querulous demands of their home offices for explanations, there was only one way out of their embarrassment. That was to brand me as an unspeakable scoundrel who had broken the confidence which they had so nobly kept.

Several more moderate correspondents advised against a condemnation before SHAEF’s investigation of the incident was completed and the facts determined. They were shouted down. A petition was drafted excoriating me in language worthy of the frenzy of the assembly and demanding that the Associated Press be forbidden to report news for a punitive period. It was signed by fifty-four correspondents and sent to Eisenhower. He promptly rejected it.

Here was an episode in the long struggle for the freedom of the press never likely to be set on canvas: an elite battalion of knights of the press waging a fight to deny a part of the press the right to report news, with a five-star graduate of West Point as the champion of their prey.

The venom loosed at the meeting found its way into the dispatches of some of the correspondents. More of it got into their explanatory messages to their home offices. Most of them probably believed in their righteousness and my wickedness. They were in no mood to examine what justification there might have been for my action, or to realize that they could have done the same thing had they been alert to developments. They were smarting too terribly to think of anything but revenge—and a plausible explanation for their failure.

I was not much concerned over the action of the correspondents or an equally preposterous report of Allen accusing me of endangering lives and all but wrecking the peace. I was disaccredited as a correspondent on the basis of this report, which any investigation of the facts would have exploded.

Then came a statement from Robert McLean, president of the Associated Press, expressing regret for the distribution of the surrender news “in advance of authorization by Supreme Allied Head­quarters.” This repudiation was a more serious blow. It was also a disillusionment, for I had believed that the precise difference between the Associated Press and the Nazi press was that the former reported news and the latter “authorized news.” I left for America.

5

ON arrival I found a national debate still raging over the ethics of my action. Everyone had an opinion; nobody, it seemed, was neutral. Despite the accusations of Army Public Relations, the distorted dispatches of griped correspondents, and McLean’s repudiation, I found—as did the War Department in a survey—that sentiment was overwhelmingly on my side. In scores of newspaper editorials and thousands of letters awaiting me, the proportion was about 80 pro to 20 con.

The mass of Americans took the view that once the war in Europe was over they had a right to know it. They had perception enough to see through the accusations of correspondents beaten on a story, and sense enough to know that lives are not endangered by announcing the end of hostilities; they may be lost by withholding the announcement.

But there was fierce antagonism in certain quarters: in the Army’s Public Relations bureaucracy and among newspaper organizations whose correspondents were involved. Some of the latter, notably the New York Times, were powerful in the Associated Press directorate. These quarters had applied strong pressure on McLean; he had yielded and issued his statement, admittedly without knowing the full facts at the time.

I told Kent Cooper, the operating head of the AP, that in view of McLean’s statement I did not see how I could remain with the organization. He refused to accept my resignation or dismiss me. The membership of the AP was divided; the case was too hot to take a stand on. He suggested that I end the controversy by admitting a breach of confidence and asking forgiveness all around. I naturally refused that false and cowardly way out. He next passed on to me an attractive job offer elsewhere. I refused that convenient way out. I considered my connection with the AP ended, but the AP has never yet ventured a word on its disposition of the case.

I set about obtaining a fair hearing, confident that it could result only in my vindication. I knew that the Flensburg announcement could not have been made without the authorization of the Supreme Command, but obtaining proof was difficult, since it could be had only from the Army itself.

I called on the War Department for an explanation of how the Flensburg broadcast was made. Even when several members of Congress pressed for this information, the Army squirmed and dodged, delayed, and pretended not to know. It took a year, but at length I got what I wanted, a signed admission from Bedell Smith, chief of staff of the Supreme Command, that:—

“Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk did officially announce the unconditional surrender of Germany in a broadcast to the German people and to the world from Flensburg….This announcement was made pursuant to orders from Supreme Head­quarters that the German troops were to be informed by every possible means of the surrender and directed to cease resistance….”

SHAEF itself had not merely authorized the breaking of the news before the “official” release time. It had ordered it!

The rest was easy. Senator Sheridan Downey presented the facts and their proof to General Eisenhower. Eisenhower, after reviewing the case, restored my credentials as a war correspondent. It was, of course, a symbolic act since the war was long over, but it lifted any bar which might prevent me from operating with the Army in the future. He did not rescind the original order. Armies don’t do things that way. But the restoration and the announcement in the Senate of the facts which led to the action were all that I needed. The record was cleared at last.

Developments which followed showed the surrender staged by the Russians in its true light. It was Moscow’s first post-war move against the Western powers, a propaganda trick preliminary to the ideological offensive and territorial expansion which started immediately after the surrender was signed. The Russians’ purpose in asking the delay was to give them time to organize their mock ceremony in the ruins of the German capital. That the Berlin surrender might appear to be the real one, they asked that announcement of the event at Reims be suppressed until some hours after the Berlin performance. This was refused, but Truman and Churchill—the latter reluctantly and only on pressure from Washington—agreed to hold up the news, which belonged to the Allied peoples, until the time of the Berlin meeting. It was a political concession which might have cost Allied lives had not SHAEF violated it. It was one of those decisions of President Truman which are hard to understand, an appeasement of the Yalta-Potsdam period.

No word of the real surrender in Reims has ever appeared in the Soviet-controlled press. Behind the iron curtain most people believe that the Red Army obtained the surrender of the Germans, with but slight aid from the armies of the West. This misinformation might well affect the degree of willingness with which they might march in a future war.

The situation which led to my breaking through the barrier was an attempt to falsify history which will always be abhorrent to any true reporter, but it is long past and certainly not an issue in today’s troubled world. The Russian action was quite in line with the Soviet conception of the press for propaganda, and nothing to get excited about; the fault was ours for falling for it.

The controversy in newspaper circles over the V-E Day story probably will never end, though with the passage of time sentiment has been increasingly in my favor. Many of the correspondents who signed the petition are still my friend; when we meet, the subject never seems to come up. I have always appreciated their good reason for chagrin at the Lime; if I had been in their place I would have been as sore. I can’t believe that I would have joined in such a denunciation without determining the facts, but then I have no way of knowing: I was never that angry.