Give Ed Kennedy the Posthumous Pulitzer He Deserves

Next week a man may get honored for a story that destroyed his career, but elated a nation: the story of German surrender in World War II.

A copy of The New York Times published May 8, 1945, bearing Kennedy's scoop (AP/Rick Bowmer)

On May 7, 1945, Associated Press Paris bureau chief Ed Kennedy set off one of the biggest journalism controversies of the 20th century. Nazi Germany had surrendered unconditionally to the Allies early that morning in a schoolhouse in Reims. Unbelievable as it may seem today, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower imposed a news blackout on the surrender, under orders from President Truman. Big official secrets were more keep-able then--but not always. Kennedy had access to an unauthorized phone line. Gambling his career, he used that line to break the surrender story. His exclusive, eyewitness account of the ceremony got huge news play and led to mass rejoicing in Paris, London, New York, and elsewhere.

For the gaunt, intense Kennedy, it became the scoop from Hell. Allied headquarters stripped away his press credentials, denounced him personally for defying the rules, and banished him to New York, where the AP fired him. Meanwhile, 54 rival reporters who had abided by the news embargo signed a statement branding Kennedy a double-crosser. The label lingered. In 1960, Walter Cronkite of CBS, a former United Press war correspondent, refused to stand when Kennedy offered his hand, according to a journalist who witnessed the encounter.

Kennedy tried for years to repair his damaged reputation, publishing a lengthy self-defense in the Atlantic ("I'd Do It Again," August 1948.) Among other points, Kennedy argued that Ike had not ordered the blackout for legitimate reasons of military security. He had done so for political reasons that did not justify censorship. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin wanted to stage a second surrender ceremony in Berlin - to sell the illusion that the Nazis had surrendered first to the Soviets. He did not want his propaganda ceremony overshadowed by news of the authentic surrender in Reims. Eisenhower's news blackout was intended to appease an increasingly truculent and distrustful ally. Documents in the National Archives bear this out. But the Atlantic article did not put Kennedy's career back on track. This former star of international journalism spent the rest of his life in small-town-newspaper exile, brooding and embittered. He died in Monterey, CA in 1963 after stepping from a bar into the path of an oncoming sedan.

Now scroll ahead 50 years to the present day: Ed Kennedy has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, honoring him in death for the decision that undid him in life. Dozens of journalists have joined the cause, petitioning the Pulitzer board on Kennedy's behalf. Kennedy's rehabilitation began last year with publication of memoirs that had sat for years in a box in his daughter's attic. After being invited to write the forward to Ed Kennedy's War, Associated Press CEO Tom Curley was moved to issue a public apology for Kennedy's firing. Publicity from that apology inspired the Pulitzer drive, and the board is set to announce this year's winners on April 15.

The Pulitzer board has bestowed posthumous awards in the past, all in music, so Kennedy appears eligible by precedent. Does he deserve this recognition? To answer that, one must first address a threshold question: Was breaking the news embargo ethically justifiable? War Department officials, and the journalists that Kennedy "scooped," said emphatically that it was not, and some recent commentators agree. Their case falls apart under scrutiny:

  • Kennedy broke his word when he broke embargo. Actually, it was Eisenhower's command that broke the embargo. As Ike's Chief of Staff, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith acknowledged after the war, the Allies ordered German radio to broadcast news of the surrender repeatedly to ensure that German forces stood down. The Germans complied, and Kennedy filed his story only after learning of the German broadcasts. He told the senior censor that these broadcasts had nullified the embargo, and he was no longer pledged to honor it.
  • Kennedy failed to inform his bosses that his dispatch broke the embargo. This is true, but he faced a Hobson's choice. Kennedy had dictated his story to the AP London bureau by phone. The London bureau then had to relay the story to New York headquarters for editing, using a trans-Atlantic cable minded by a military censor. Kennedy thus had two options. He could dictate the story without a warning to editors that it was unauthorized, and get it into print. Or he could include a note telling editors that he was breaking the embargo, ensuring that the censor could stop the dispatch. Kennedy made a difficult choice, but not a deceitful one.
  • Kennedy betrayed his fellow correspondents by failing to inform them of his intentions in advance. Come on. Wire reporters are paid to be first. If he had stopped to confer with his nearly 60 rivals, not only would he have lost the scoop, but also might inadvertently have alerted the authorities, making it impossible for anyone to file the story.

The most important point, though, is that more than a scoop was at stake with this story. Human lives were in the balance as well. On average, about 60 Americans were dying per day as the war in Europe wound down, and countless others, according to histories of the conflict. So Kennedy's report that the war was over might well have saved some lives, while bringing relief to millions of families of service members. Kennedy's story also revealed the diplomatic subtext described above. To give Stalin time to set up his propaganda surrender ceremony, President Truman had risked an increased death toll by keeping the war on officially for another day or two. Stalin's "Berlin surrender" version took root in the Soviet Union, where Victory Day is celebrated on May 9. Thanks in part to Ed Kennedy, however, VE Day in the West commemorates the real surrender in Reims.

The Ed Kennedy controversy became a huge story in the United States following Germany's surrender. Editorial writers and members of the public came to his defense, incensed that their own government would bottle up the best news of the war. In the face of this bad publicity, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall ordered Eisenhower to go after Kennedy, according to documents in the National Archives. Ike's public relations chief held a press conference castigating the reporter for violating security. Meanwhile, government and other pressure led Associated Press President Robert McLean to apologize publicly for Kennedy's conduct before all the facts were in. Kennedy's AP career was over.

The Pulitzer board has awarded special citations recognizing a journalists' body of work, not merely an article or series. The case for a Kennedy Pulitzer is stronger if one takes into account his entire career as a war correspondent, starting with the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and continuing through desperate battles in North Africa and Crete, the beachhead at Anzio, Italy, and the allied invasion of Southern France. Through it all, he butted heads continually with Army censors and PR officers who sought to keep journalists under tight control. In September 1944, Kennedy took a jeep and broke away from headquarters, driving from southern France toward Paris, eluding retreating German units, mapping areas that had fallen under control of the Resistance, and documenting a Nazi massacre of men, women, and children. He arrived in Paris only to have his credentials suspended for traveling without permission. Eric Sevareid, who covered the war for CBS, described Kennedy in his 1953 memoir as "one of the most rigidly honest, most unflaggingly objective journalists, who never ceased in his efforts to free the news . . . He did more to hold the military to the letter of the censorship rules . . . than any other journalist I know."

Dealing with Army PR was a Kafkaesque experience then, as it can be today. Eisenhower said in his farewell press conference for war correspondents in Europe that there had been no serious censorship of their copy. In that same press conference, he reminded them to clear any statement they wanted to quote with a PR officer. He also said he regarded journalists accredited to his command as "auxiliary staff officers" whose job was to support the war effort through "objective" reporting. In reality, of course, one can't be both a quasi-soldier and an independent reporter. Ed Kennedy chose to be the latter, and it very nearly destroyed him. Even 50 years after his death, awarding a prize to Kennedy might convey a useful message following the recent decade of war: We need more Ed Kennedys and fewer "auxiliary staff officers" in the press.

Photo of Ed Kennedy via AP