How Officials Tried to Censor One of the Biggest Stories in the World

When Germany surrendered in World War II, military leaders told reporters to keep it a secret. 

1945 edition of Australia's The Sun newspaper  (Reuters)

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.

* * *

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.

That was it.

Kennedy tried to reach Allen to let him know the embargo had been broken, but he couldn't get through. So he and a colleague went to the chief American censor and showed him the text of the Krosigk announcement. The censor was unmoved. It didn't matter if the news had broken; Kennedy's pledge—the pledge on the plane by the lucky 17 handpicked to travel to Reims—was that the correspondents would not break the news until the Supreme Headquarters gave the green light.

But the story was clearly out, and Kennedy felt "no further obligation" to observe the gag. He told the chief censor as much. "I give you warning now that I am going to send the story," Kennedy said. The censor shrugged him off, skeptical that any correspondent could get through the "iron curtain of censorship" around the European Theater even if he tried.

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.

So Kennedy began to write, knowing that the ability to call AP's London office was a loophole in the otherwise tight censorship barrier that surrounded Paris. When he reached London, Kennedy dictated the news until his telephone connection crackled out. "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."

Kennedy's story made the front page of The New York Times the next day.

New York Times screenshot

As much of the world celebrated, military and media leaders rebuked Kennedy. Supreme Command spokesman Allen immediately suspended the AP's operations in the entire European Theater. "Even our room telephones were cut off," Kennedy said. The other war correspondents were furious at Kennedy. Editors back home wanted to know why their reporters didn't have the story. To make matters worse, Allen forbid the other reporters from writing their own accounts. They were permitted to quote from Kennedy's version, but told not to send original dispatches. At the prompting of the War Department, the ban on the AP was lifted, but Kennedy's suspension remained in place. Meanwhile, war correspondents in Europe lobbied for the AP suspension to stay in place—specifically, they wanted to ban the AP from sending word of the "official" announcement of V-E Day.

It's a stance that seems ridiculous on two counts—first, that reporters and editors would advocate for the censorship of fellow journalists, and, second, that correspondents believed the world to be "still waiting breathlessly for the already stale news" of Germany's surrender. But the backlash against Kennedy continued in the weeks and months that followed. Here's how A.J. Liebling put it in the May 19, 1945 issue of the New Yorker: "The great row over Edward Kennedy's Associated Press story of the signing of the German surrender at Reims served to point up the truth that if you are smart enough you can kick yourself in the seat of the pants, grab yourself by the back of the collar, and throw yourself out on the sidewalk." (Liebling also pointed out that the explosive response to Kennedy's story had "done no harm, except possibly to Kennedy—one of my favorite reporters, I might add.")

A petition was drafted, Kennedy said, "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." (Eisenhower rejected it.) Eventually, the Associated Press issued a statement "expressing regret for the distribution of the surrender news 'in advance of authorization by Supreme Allied Headquarters.'"

Kennedy's retort: "I had believed that the precise difference between the Associated Press and the Nazi press was that the former reported the news and the latter 'authorized news.'"

* * *

Antagonism against Kennedy long persisted in media circles—including from Army PR officials and outlets like The New York Times. Kennedy's own organization had spoken out against him. Eventually, AP fired him.

Kennedy refused to apologize for what he had done, so he did what came naturally: He kept reporting. He wanted to prove that the U.S. had approved the way the news came out in Germany—that the BBC broadcast he heard before breaking the embargo was actually planned by the Supreme Headquarters.

I knew that the Flensburg announcement could not have been made without the authorization of the Supreme Command... 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 Krosgik 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 surrender and directed to cease resistance.

In other words, U.S. government leaders hadn't just said it was okay for Krosgik to announce the surrender, it ordered him to. Once the complete story was out, Eisenhower restored Kennedy's war correspondent credentials—a symbolic act now that the war was long over. Ultimately, it became clear that the U.S. plan to delay the news of Germany's surrender was actually a concession to Russia, which wanted the story to be told as a victory for the Soviets. "No word of the real surrender in Reims has ever appeared in Soviet-controlled press," Kennedy wrote in 1948. "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."

In 2012, the AP apologized for firing Kennedy decades earlier, saying it handled the decision in the "worst possible way." For years, journalists have been campaigning for a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Kennedy.

* * *

Retold today, Kennedy's story seems at first unbelievable.

We are by now accustomed to a news cycle that more closely approximates actual events, so the idea that military leaders could stop the spread of news as big as the surrender of Germany in World War II seems beyond improbable.

And yet the other part of Kennedy's story—the extent to which he was ostracized for what he did—is not so difficult to imagine. Consider the similar debates that play out in media circles today. People are still arguing about whether Meet The Press host David Gregory's treatment of Glenn Greenwald in an interview last year was journalistically abhorrent or just a guy doing his job.

These days, we're accustomed to being able to watch the flow of information as it congeals from the ground up—field reports appear as tweets, bits of data pulse through the filigrees of open networks, self-published eyewitness accounts are vetted by professionals and eventually pieced together in professional journalistic accounts. In many cases, a veil has been lifted that enables us to watch news narratives as they're crafted in real time.

But newsmaking isn't the open process it sometimes appears to be. Major news organizations are constantly navigating the intersection of public rights and government interests. Behind-the-scenes negotiations play out in major newsrooms all the time. The New York Times waited many months at the government's request before reporting about the existence of a U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia last year. The Washington Post decided not to reprint the name of a CIA agent—outed by the White House accidentally over the weekend—because the Obama administration said it could endanger the agent. News organizations often clash over whether off-record briefings with top government officials are appropriate.

What, exactly, does the public have a right to know? And who gets to decide?

We can't ask Kennedy for his thoughts about today's ethics firestorms in journalism. He died in 1963.

It seems unlikely that a story of that magnitude could play out today the way it did in 1945. Today, the story probably would have broken on Twitter. In some ways, what's more remarkable about revisiting Kennedy's story in 2014 is the outrage he elicited in his own industry. It's the same kind of anger we see in journalists today who fixate on questions of who really gets to call himself a journalist, or those who dismiss entire organizations they find threatening or confusing. It's astonishing, if banal, to consider how different news distribution is today compared with Kennedy's time. But the idea that a rush of journalists would defend the government—instead of the reporter who refused to play by its rules—remains uncannily familiar.