NEW YORK — In World War II’s final moments in Europe, Associated Press correspondent Edward Kennedy gave his news agency perhaps the biggest scoop in its history. He reported, a full day ahead of the competition, that the Germans had surrendered unconditionally at a former schoolhouse in Reims, France.
For this, he was publicly rebuked by the AP, and then quietly fired.
The problem: Kennedy had defied military censors to get the story out. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman had agreed to suppress news of the capitulation for a day, in order to allow Russian dictator Josef Stalin to stage a second surrender ceremony in Berlin. Kennedy was also accused of breaking a pledge that he and 16 other journalists had made to keep the surrender a secret for a time, as a condition of being allowed to witness it firsthand.
Sixty-seven years later, the AP’s top executive is apologizing for the way the company treated Kennedy.
“It was a terrible day for the AP. It was handled in the worst possible way,” said president and CEO Tom Curley.
Kennedy, he said, “did everything just right.” Curley rejected the notion that the AP had a duty to obey the order to hold the story once it was clear the embargo was for political reasons, rather than to protect the troops.
“Once the war is over, you can’t hold back information like that. The world needed to know,” he said in an interview.
Curley, who is retiring this year, has also co-written an introduction to Kennedy’s newly published memoir, “Ed Kennedy’s War: V-E Day, Censorship & The Associated Press.”
Kennedy, who died in a traffic accident in 1963, had long sought such public vindication from his old employer. His daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, of Bend, Ore., said she was “overjoyed” by the apology.
“I think it would have meant a lot to him,” she said.
The German surrender happened at 2:41 a.m. French time on May 7, 1945.
Kennedy was one of 17 reporters taken to witness the ceremony. He and the others were hastily assembled by military commanders, then pledged to secrecy by a U.S. general while the group flew over France. As a condition of being allowed to see the surrender in person, the correspondents were barred from reporting what they had witnessed until authorized by Allied headquarters.
Initially, the journalists were told the news would be held up for only a few hours. But after the surrender was complete, the embargo was extended for 36 hours — until 3 p.m. the following day.
Kennedy was astounded.
“The absurdity of attempting to bottle up news of such magnitude was too apparent,” he would later write.
Nevertheless, he initially stayed quiet. Then, at 2:03 p.m., the surrender was announced by German officials via a radio broadcast from Flensburg, a city already in Allied hands. That meant, Kennedy knew, that the transmission had been authorized by the same military censors gagging the press.
Furious, Kennedy went to see the chief American censor and told him there was no way he could continue to hold the story. Word was out. The military had broken its side of the pact by allowing the Germans to announce the surrender. And there were no military secrets at stake.
The censor waved him off. Kennedy thought about it for 15 minutes, and then acted.
He used a military phone, not subject to monitoring by censors, to dispatch his account to the AP’s London bureau. The line cut out before he had finished dictating. Notably, he didn’t brief his own editors about the embargo or his decision to dodge the censors. The AP put a bulletin on the wire within minutes of his call.
The story carrying Kennedy’s byline moved at 3:37 p.m. French time, or 9:37 a.m. in New York.
“Well, now let’s see what happens,” Kennedy told his staff in Paris, according to his memoir. “I may not be around here much longer.”
To some of Kennedy’s competitors, the scoop was a betrayal on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Compounding their anger, military censors continued to refuse to allow any other news organization to send their own stories, meaning the AP would continue to have an exclusive for a day.
“I am browned off, fed up, burnt up and put out,” wrote Drew Middleton, a New York Times correspondent. He called the suppression of the story “the most colossal ‘snafu’ in the history of the war.” His newspaper followed with an editorial chastising the AP for initially boasting of a historic “news beat.”
“If it was a ‘beat,’” the paper wrote, “it was one only because Mr. Kennedy’s sixteen colleagues chose to stand by their commitments.”
Retribution was swift. The military briefly suspended the AP’s ability to dispatch any news from the European theater. When that ban was lifted, more than 50 of Kennedy’s fellow war correspondents signed a protest letter asking that it be reinstated. The military expelled Kennedy from France.
Condemnation also came from the AP’s president at the time, Robert McLean.
“The Associated Press profoundly regrets the distribution on Monday of the report of the total surrender in Europe which investigation now clearly discloses was distributed in advance of authorization by Supreme Allied Headquarters,” he said in a public statement on May 10.
The AP’s general manager, Kent Cooper, said Kennedy should have conferred with his editors about the decision to publish. Later, he addressed a letter to the reporter saying that he had violated a “cardinal principle” of journalism by breaking a pledge to keep the surrender confidential.
“No employee of the Associated Press has the right to disregard what is defined by the source as a pledge of confidence, when he knows that those who meant to impose it still hold it to be in force,” he said in the letter, now part of the AP’s corporate archives.
Other journalists defended Kennedy. In an essay in The New Yorker, published May 19, 1945, under the subhead “The AP Surrender,” A.J. Liebling absolved Kennedy of breaking the “pledge” he had supposedly made aboard the aircraft flying to Reims.
“Whether a promise extorted as this one was, in an airplane several thousand feet up, has any moral force is a question for the theologians,” Liebling wrote. “I suppose that Kennedy should have refused to promise anything and thus made sure of missing an event that no newspaperman in the world would want to miss, but I can’t imagine any correspondent’s doing it.”
Wes Gallagher, the AP reporter who succeeded Kennedy in Europe and became the general manager in 1962, strongly supported his colleague and believed he had done the right thing.
Upon replacing Kennedy in Paris, Gallagher told the supreme commander of Allied forces, future president Dwight D. Eisenhower, that “If I’d been Kennedy, I’d have done the same thing — except that I’d have telephoned you first,” according to an account by the late AP correspondent John Hightower.
After being fired by the AP, Kennedy took a job as managing editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press in California, and then went on to become publisher of the Monterey Peninsula Herald. He died at age 58 after being struck by an automobile.
Kennedy’s family had held on to the manuscript for decades before his daughter, Cochran, began looking for a publisher.
She said that even though she was only 16 when her father died, she got the impression he still took great joy in his career, despite the episode.
“Some people said after the war, ‘Oh, Ed Kennedy is a broken man. He’s out there editing some little newspaper in California.’ I think people had this idea that he was feeling sorry for himself. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t the kind of person who sat around and felt sorry.”
Curley said he had become interested in Kennedy’s story shortly after becoming AP’s president, while helping with work on the company history “Breaking News: How The Associated Press Has Covered War, Peace, and Everything Else,” which described the firing. Kennedy’s daughter approached him around the same time, asking for access to AP records. The publication of Kennedy’s memoir prompted the AP’s apology, Curley said.
He called Kennedy’s dismissal “a great, great tragedy” and hailed him and the desk editors who put the surrender story on the wire for upholding the highest principles of journalism.
“They did the right thing,” Curley said. “They stood up to power.”