As we commemorate Memorial Day, the drama behind the headlines announcing Germany’s surrender in World War II.
There’s quite a story behind the story of the end of the fighting in World War II in Europe. As we observe another Memorial Day, it is worth remembering the events of that busy May of 1945, when the Allies achieved victory in Europe.
While much fighting remained to be done in the Pacific, by early May, the military leaders of the Allied forces could see that Germany’s defeat was at hand. So, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) command selected 17 correspondents from the world’s press and flew them to Reims, France, to witness the German surrender on behalf of the rest of the press corps and the people of the world.
There were very few Americans in the group. The ones who were there represented the big wire services and syndicates. In fact, not a single reporter representing a US newspaper was present.
According to the Allied military commanders, the news was to be embargoed, and the reporters were coerced into accepting a deal. In exchange for access to the event, they had to agree to hold the news until the Army said they could release it.
On the flight from Paris to Reims, the SHAEF press officer declared: “I pledge each one of you on his honor as a correspondent and as an assimilated officer of the United States Army not to communicate [the news] until it is released on the order of the Public Relations Director of SHAEF.”
It remains unclear what constitutes an “agreement” under such conditions – what were the correspondents supposed to do ? Get up and walk out of an airplane? – but they proceeded to witness the ceremony.
The surrender by the German high command came in the early hours of May 7. Ordinarily, you might expect that the surrender would touch off immediate celebrations.
Not so fast.
The press officer announced that orders had come “from a high political level” to impose a news blackout until 8 pm the next day, when the news would be announced simultaneously in Paris, London, Moscow and Washington. (Turned out, Stalin was insisting on the delay so he could make a show in Berlin.)
In other words, all the correspondents who had been eyewitnesses would lose their scoops. Instead, some desk-bound rewrite man or editor would get all the glory. The reporters protested to the SHAEF press officer, but to no avail. The political leaders had decided.
Among the press corps, one of the most upset was Edward Kennedy – not the late Democratic senator from Massachusetts but a man by the same name who was the chief correspondent in Europe for the Associated Press (AP). Bear in mind, Kennedy was in a special position. He had been burned earlier in the war when he cooperated with military brass. In 1943, Kennedy had agreed to suppress a story about Gen. George Patton and had been scooped by someone else. (I describe the incident in my book Covering America.)
Kennedy also knew that his account of the German surrender could probably reach more people on the planet more swiftly than any other news agency or government, since the AP supplied news stories to thousands of newspapers, radio stations and other customers worldwide. He knew, too, that the AP – then and now – thrives on being first and that AP correspondents had gone to great lengths to be first to deliver the news.
Besides, he figured, no embargo on such a momentous story could hold for that long. (Nor, perhaps, should it.)
He was still fuming when the correspondents were marched back onto the military plane. They were flown from Reims to Paris. Still, the world knew nothing of the surrender. Still, soldiers in Europe kept shooting at each other.
When the press contingent landed, Boyd Lewis of United Press got into the first jeep from the airport to the Hotel Scribe in Paris, which had been serving as the outpost for most of the press corps. When Lewis got to the press center, he tried to tie up all the available telegraph outlets. Next in line was James Kilgallen of the International News Service, who had beaten Kennedy to the hotel by throwing his portable typewriter at Kennedy’s legs, slowing him down.
Kennedy was beside himself. Then he heard that SHAEF had ordered German radio to announce the surrender. Kennedy went to the censors and announced that he was breaking the embargo. Using a telephone, he called the AP bureau in London and dictated the following lead:
REIMS, France, May 7_Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Western Allies and the Soviet Union at 2:41 am French time today.
The surrender took place at a little red schoolhouse that is the headquarters of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower…..
Within minutes, the news was flashed to the world, and wild celebrations began, marking V-E Day.
At SHAEF, the top brass were furious and suspended AP filing facilities throughout Europe.
The rest of the press corps was furious, too. More than 50 correspondents signed a protest to SHAEF Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, calling Kennedy’s action “the most disgraceful, deliberate and unethical double cross in the history of journalism.”
AP’s president apologized to the nation. AP executives told Kennedy he could keep his job if he admitted he had done wrong. He wouldn’t, and he was fired. (Three years ago, the AP formally apologized to Kennedy, who died in a car crash in 1963.)
What might seem amazing today – aside from the lack of cell phones and other forms of instant global communication that we now take for granted – is how unanimously the correspondents fell in line with the military.
Today, I daresay, US reporters would be at least split about the ethics of holding off on reporting something they knew to be both true and life-saving.
Two weeks later, writing in The New Yorker on May 19, AJ Liebling, the great World War II reporter and press critic, took up the issue of Kennedy’s firing in his column “The Wayward Press. Liebling’s take:
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 pants, grab yourself by the back of the collar, and throw yourself out on the sidewalk. This is an axiom that I hope will be taught to future students of journalism as Liebling’s Law.
Liebling’s media criticism continued:
I do not think that Kennedy imperiled the lives of any Allied soldiers by sending the story, as some of his critics have charged. He probably saved a few, because by withholding the announcement of an armistice you prolong the shooting, and, conversely, by announcing it promptly you make the shooting stop. Moreover, the Germans had broadcast the news of the armistice several hours before Kennedy’s story appeared on the streets of New York… The thing that has caused the most hard feeling is that Kennedy broke a “combination,” which means that he sent out a story after all the correspondents on the assignment had agreed not to. But the old-fashioned “combination” was an agreement freely reached among reporters and not a pledge imposed upon the whole group by somebody outside it.
In my journalism classes at Boston University, I teach “Liebling’s Law” as a cautionary tale about what can happen when news organizations get too cozy with governments and forget to put their audiences first. Seventy years later, it’s a lesson worth remembering.