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  • Associated Press file, 1944

    Of his decision to defy an embargo and break the news of Germany’s World War II surrender, Edward Kennedy said: “My deliberations hinged mainly on the moral aspects of the question.”

  • Eric Brazil is a retired San Francisco Chronicle reporter and a former Los Angeles bureau chief for USA Today.

Viewpoints: He defied political censors in WWII – let's honor him

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 9:39 am

On May 7, 1945, Edward Kennedy, chief of the Associated Press bureau in Paris, filed what was then the most important news story of the 20th century, Germany's World War II surrender. It was an exclusive report, headlining the front page of every Western newspaper and dominating radio broadcasts. In bringing it to the public, Kennedy had defied and defeated political censorship. For his courageous reporting in defense of the public's right to know he was castigated by the military and ejected from Europe, vilified by his reportorial competitors who had been beaten out of the scoop of their lives, and fired by AP.

Sixty-seven years after Kennedy was drummed out of the journalistic establishment, his reputation besmirched and his career relegated to small town journalism, a reasoned, objective examination of the facts that motivated Kennedy's risky but principled decision to "publish and be damned" makes clear that it was the right one. And a broad spectrum group of American journalists, believing that the time has come for him to be honored for his effort, is petitioning the Pulitzer committee to award him a special posthumous prize for his reporting of the surrender.

What activated the unprecedented grass-roots movement among journalists that has become the Ed Kennedy Project was the publication this year of "Ed Kennedy's War: V-E Day, Censorship & the Associated Press," his memoir of his career as a frontline war correspondent, by Louisiana State University Press. It was discovered by his daughter Julia Kennedy Cochran. Her father had been unable to find a publisher for it during his lifetime.

The book's introduction was co-written by outgoing AP President and CEO Tom Curley. Its conclusion: "In every way Kennedy was right."

In interviews, Curley apologized. "It was a terrible day for AP. It was handled in the worst possible way … Once the war is over you can't hold back information like that. The world needed to know."

Kennedy was among 17 print and radio reporters representing major news services of the Allies and the Soviet Union selected to witness the signing of surrender terms by Germany's representatives at Gen. Dwight D.Eisenhower's headquarters in Rheims, France. All agreed to abide by an embargo placed on releasing the news for 36 hours after the signing.

Kennedy had worked under military censorship for six years and knew the rules as well as any reporter. But as he later wrote, when it came to a story as big as the German surrender "I knew from experience that one might as well try to censor the rising of the sun.''

Not long after returning to Paris, Kennedy learned that news of the surrender was being broadcast in German to Germany from the town of Flensburg on the German-Danish border.

"I knew that Flensburg had been occupied by Allied troops. I knew that the (German) government could not have broadcast its announcement from Flensburg without the consent of SHAEF (the Allied military command)."

So he confronted the U.S. censor and announced that because the embargo had been broken, the story was now fair game. "The fact that the Germans had been permitted to announce the surrender was additional evidence that no military security was involved … The silence imposed on us was therefore in violation of the cardinal point of American censorship … that censorship would be limited to matters of military security and that there would be no political censorship."

In fact, the embargo had been imposed jointly by President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to enable then-Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin to conduct a separate ceremony on May 9 in Berlin.

In announcing the embargo, Allied Supreme Commander Eisenhower was only carrying out orders.

Here is how Kennedy framed the context for what turned out to be the most important decision of his life: "My deliberations hinged mainly on the moral aspects of the question: Which course did my duty as a reporter dictate – subservience to a political censorship which was contrary to the principle of a free press and in violation of the word of the government and the Army – or action which I believed right and which I knew would bring plenty of trouble on my head?"

Two hours after the Flensburg broadcast, Kennedy picked up a military telephone and dictated the surrender story to AP's London bureau, which put it on the wire immediately, and the world learned that the war in Europe was over.

Frank McCulloch, retired executive editor of McClatchy Newspapers and former Time-Life bureau chief for Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, said, "I am familiar with the workings of military censorship. I could, like Ed Kennedy, accept censorship to preserve lives and critical materiel, but there is no place for political censorship in wartime. The embargo was strictly a political decision. How could anyone in government, military headquarters, or any newsroom in America justify giving the news of the surrender to Germans and not to Americans?"

McCulloch is among the supporters of the Ed Kennedy Project, along with former Sacramento Bee Editor Rick Rodriguez, retired Gannett Inc. President John Curley and four Pulitzer Prize winners, including Warren Lerude of the Reno Evening Gazette and poet Gary Snyder.

Pulitzer prizes have been awarded posthumously to a handful of literary and musical figures, such as James Agee, Sylvia Plath, Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin, but none for journalism. The journalists who have joined together to press for a posthumous Pulitzer for Kennedy believe that his decision to put the public's right to know ahead of his career even in an atmosphere of wartime hysteria was so unique and historically important that he has earned the posthumous honor. The award would reaffirm bedrock American journalistic principles and correct history.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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