Did AP correspondent Edward Kennedy do the right thing in reporting Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945 in violation of censorship?

Sixty-seven years after the fact, the Associated Press has apologized for firing its World War II correspondent Edward Kennedy over his reporting Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945, in violation of a pledge made by him and 16 other reporters to keep a lid on the news for another day. The reason for the pledge was that the Allied authorities wanted to give the Russians a chance to hold their own surrender ceremony in Berlin prior to the announcement of Germany’s surrender to the U.S. and Britain.

It’s a fascinating tale, raising questions of journalistic ethics that are well worth pondering. As I see it, there are are two distinct issues here: First, was the AP ethically required to keep the lid on the monumental news, notwithstanding the fact that the reporters had only pledged to remain silent for a few hours but the military authorities then unilaterally extended the period to 36 hours, while they also allowed the Germans to announce the surrender? Second, was Kennedy wrong in going rogue and telephoning the news to the AP’s London office without telling them about the pledge to secrecy? AP’s current president, Tom Curley, says that Kennedy “did everything just right.” Based on the facts as presented in the article, I do not agree. By passing the story on to his editors but keeping them in the dark about the secrecy pledge, Kennedy fooled his employer, the AP, into taking a step that they would most likely not have taken had they known all the facts. As punishment for the AP’s breaking the secrecy pledge, the military authorities excluded the AP from the European theater. Indeed, the other news organizations were so angry at the AP for publishing the news a day ahead of them that when the military moved to lift the ban on the AP, some months later, they insisted that it be maintained.

Now Kennedy may have reasonably believed that the news of the surrender was too important to suppress and that there was no good reason to keep suppressing it for another day. But surely he also knew that by keeping his editors in the dark about the secrecy pledge he had committed a firing offense. Arguably he did the right thing. But he also clearly deserved to be fired. For the AP now to apologize for firing him and to say that he “did everything just right” is a reflection of the current liberal culture which makes heroes of people who transgress authority. An ethically mature man, the Aristotelian spoudaios, may on occasion feel obligated to disobey authority for the sake of the larger good. But he also knows that he must accept the consequences for doing so. By apologizing for their dismissal of Kennedy, the AP has destroyed that spiritual tension in which a true sense of ethics is kept alive.

* * *

To clarify the issue, here are the three possible views of Kennedy’s behavior that I have touched on in the above discussion. Kennedy’s act of reporting Germany’s surrender to his London editors without telling them about the secrecy pledge was

(a) the right thing to do in the larger sense of publishing this monumental news to the world, but still dishonest and harmful to his employer, and therefore he should have been fired.

(b) the right thing to do in every sense. Not only should he be praised for getting the story out, but the AP should not have fired him, even though he misled the organization and caused it serious harm and embarrassment.

(c) the wrong thing to do. It was dishonest of Kennedy to fool his employer into publishing a story which, had he told them the entire background, they would not have published.

My view, based on the available facts, is (c).

- end of initial entry -

May 9

Pentheus writes:

You like to hear about coincidences and synchronicities.

I had never heard of this reporter, Edward Kennedy, or this incident before I read this VFR post just now. Here is the coincidence:

My mother is dying, and we are going through her old scrapbooks and archives to find photos and documents for scanning and display at her memorial services.

Earlier today, we ran across an interesting item not related to her life: the front section of the Newark (N.J.) Ledger dated October 19, 1931, front page article announcing the death of Thomas Edison. The reporter’s name is Edward Kennedy. The name drew my notice because of the famous late Senator. After I saw your post (several hours later) I went back to confirm the name on the old Edison article.

The Wikipedia article on the journalist Edward Kennedy does not say anything about his career before the 1945 incident discussed in your post, so I cannot determine for sure that it is the same person; but it seems not unlikely that someone writing lead articles for a major New Jersey paper might well have gone on to bigger things during the war.

So, by sheer happenstance I see this reporter’s name for the first time today in this old New Jersey newspaper from 1931; and then later the same day here is this VFR post about (or so it seems) the same reporter, who apparently became famous for this VE Day incident later in his career.

Jim G. writes:

I did not even need to read your column. Skimming, I picked up “Did … Edward Kennedy do the right thing … ?” and instinctively knew the answer had to be “no.”

But excellent analysis. Your explanation of “spiritual tension” captures it perfectly.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 07, 2012 10:18 AM | Send

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