Media Reminders of the False Armistice, 1918-1945

The experience of the False Armistice in the United States by vast numbers of people produced a multitude of recollections of it and references to it in a wide variety of American writings for many years afterwards.  And reminders of it in the popular media appeared periodically right up to the end of the Second World War.  In stark contrast, in other countries affected by it, the False Armistice seems to have been quickly forgotten – at least by journalists and other writers.  

The following are examples of items from (predominantly) American newspapers, magazines, and commercial radio that stirred the American public’s folk memory of their 7 November 1918 False Armistice.  Most of the items, not surprisingly, were timed to coincide with annual 11 November Armistice Day commemorations, and span the years from 1918 to 1945 – that is, from one False German Armistice to another.

Examples:  

  • In November 1919, most newspapers concentrated on telling readers about arrangements being made in their localities for the first anniversary of the Armistice and then about its observance on the day itself.  Two of the few that mentioned the False Armistice were the New Britain Daily Herald (Connecticut) and the Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska), which both used the occasion to praise the Associated Press for its handling the previous year of the false peace news released by United Press.  The Associated Press, the New Britain Daily Herald declared, “prefers to be certain of an event before it carries it over its wires, even though it is a little late because of this.  It was for this reason that [they] issued general denials to the rumors”.  The Daily Bee reminded its readers of how, a year ago, the “Associated Press, the most reliable news agency in the world” was warning the country that the “Armistice had not yet been signed” while its rival local paper, the Omaha Daily News, which it nicknamed the “Omaha Ouija Board”, was spreading the “false alarm” on “war-tired” Omahans with its “made-to-order extra” declaring “Armistice with Huns Signed”. 18
  • Arthur Hornblow’s November 1921 ‘Amazing Armistice’ article in the Century Magazine, which was reviewed by newspapers at the time and reprinted (in condensed form) by the Readers Digest magazine in November 1936.  It was the first substantial eyewitness account of events in Brest on 7 November 1918 to be published, preceding Howard’s by fifteen years.  It not only contained a great deal of contextual information, but also offered an intriguing explanation of what had caused the False Armistice: a conspiracy theory involving German spies in Paris as the originators of the false peace news. 1
  • The November 1924 and ’25 accounts that former US army major Fred Cook wrote for the  (Washington, DC,) Evening Star newspaper about being with Roy Howard at US Navy Headquarters in Brest when Admiral Wilson released the false armistice news he had received from Paris.  The following year, the Pathfinder weekly magazine (also Washington, DC,), commenting on the celebration of “another Armistice day”, prompted readers to “remember, a few days prior to Nov. 11, 1918, when we celebrated what was thought to be the end of the World war”, and presented them with what it called the ‘Real “False Armistice” Story’.  Most of this, however, appears to have been taken from Cook’s November 1925 account (without attribution). 7
  • The article ‘Fake News and the Public’ (a subject as topical then as it is today) which the Associated Press ‘Eastern Division Superintendent’, Edward McKernon, wrote for Harper’s Magazine in October 1925.  His article examined a number of so-called ‘fake’ news stories, among which he included the False Armistice.  Ignoring Arthur Hornblow’s spy theory, McKernon blamed stock market “riggers” for the 7 November peace news, asserting that they “started [it] deliberately as a market-rigging plot”.  He brought Roy Howard and United Press into it  – not as the riggers’ accomplices but as unwitting facilitators of their scheme to profit from the likely effects of a peace announcement on particular stock market prices.  Howard’s overall “bad reporting” of the false news, as McKernon branded it, had “played into the [market riggers’] hands”.  For by releasing the news as a “fact known to [his] agency”, by giving it a “Paris date though it was actually filed at Brest”, and by transmitting it so that it “escaped censorship altogether”, McKernon argued that Howard not only mislead the public and newspaper editors to assume the news had been cleared by the censors, but, crucially, thereby ensured that the riggers’ fake news would be widely published. 2  Roy Howard read the article and, referring presumably to the part dealing with the False Armistice, dismissed it as being “malicious” – “a perversion and a distortion of the facts through a telling of half truths and the elimination of relevant facts … prepared and published by an executive of the A.P.” 3  
  • Five articles about the German Armistice, written by General Henri Mordacq, who was head of the French Government’s Military Cabinet in November 1918, which appeared from 11 to 15 November 1928 in the same Evening Star newspaper that Fred Cook wrote for.  In his fourth article, the General  included details about the False Armistice and unsuccessful attempts that were made to discover the source of its misinformation in Paris.  The articles preceded the 1929 publication of Mordacq’s memoirs, which contained most, but not all, of what he had disclosed in his fourth article about 7 November 1918 . 17
  • Also from November 1928, two articles which the Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury published under the heading ‘World War Officials Give Story of How False Report Started’.  One of them concerned a rare press interview Admiral H. B. Wilson agreed to give; but what the Admiral had to say was (intentionally) uncontroversial, adding little to what was already publicly known about False Armistice events in Brest.  The other described how the false armistice news that reached Washington, DC, during the morning of 7 November 1918 – that is, not Roy Howard’s afternoon news – was successfully contained there. 8 
  • The NBC’s (National Broadcasting Company’s) November 1930 ”World Adventure radio talk” about “How [the] United Press Head Saw Telegram to End Hostilities”Its presenter Floyd Gibbons, “over a nation-wide network”, claimed that the story “had never been made public, authentically and in its entirety, before”, and focussed mainly on what his “old friend, Roy Howard” did in Brest on 7 November 1918.  Gibbons’ script contained many points Howard would undoubtedly have included had he written it himself.  It related that, on hearing the war was over from “the officer in charge” of the “American Intelligence Bureau in Brest”, Howard immediately sought “official confirmation of the report before sending it” – “because he was a good correspondent”; told how Admiral Wilson (who allegedly listened in to the broadcast) showed Howard the peace news from Captain Jackson in Paris; claimed that he sent an officer to the “cable office with Howard to speed up his message”, that he later sent a messenger to tell Howard the Jackson news was “premature”, and that the Navy Department in Washington, DC, delayed the release of Howard’s “cable of correction” until the following day, by which time it was too late to stop the false news spreading.  But for some reason, the programme got the factual details of Howard’s armistice cablegram message to New York City glaringly wrong.  In his “characteristic rapid-fire manner”, Gibbons read out: “Armistice signed at 9 a.m. Hostilities cease at 11. Americans took Sedan this morning.  It was dated that morning, Nov. 7”. (Errors in italics).  If Howard was listening, he must have been bewildered by the blunder. 4        
  • In March 1931, a piece by the (left-wing) Producers News (Plentywood, Montana) about Roy Howard’s five-million-dollar purchase of the New York World publications for the Scripps-Howard organization that forestalled a workers’ buyout.  The item sneeringly recalled what many still regarded as Howard’s notorious rôle in the False Armistice, in a characterisation of him as the “dapper little newspaper millionaire who … made the greatest newspaper mistake in the history of journalism … [and who is] now [telling] World employees who wanted two days in which to buy the paper ‘There is not the slightest possibility of success under employee management’.” 10
  • The State Department’s summer 1933 publication of, among other wartime documents, the dispatches Special Representative House and Ambassador Sharp sent to Secretary of State Lansing about 7 November 1918 events in Paris.  In a review of the documents, the Editor & Publisher concluded that the House and Sharp reports had officially absolved Howard and United Press “from blame in famous premature bulletin of Nov. 7, 1918” but incriminated Admiral Wilson because he (reportedly) sent an aide with Howard to make sure the bulletin cleared the censors and reached the United States.  The Madera Tribune carried a similar review on its front page under the heading ‘Mystery of Early Armistice Reports Is Finally Cleared’. 5  
  • Three years later, in 1936, Howard’s own version of the False Armistice story appeared in the form of the ‘Premature Armistice’ chapter of Webb Miller’s book, and received particular attention in the book’s many press reviews.  This was followed in November – perhaps not coincidentally – by a (shorter) reprint in Readers Digest of Arthur Hornblow’s ‘Amazing Armistice’ article.  Although written by participants in some of the same 7 November 1918 events in Brest, the two accounts differ significantly in what they claim actually happened there, with Howard’s appearing to be less reliable as a historical record. 6     
  • On the twentieth anniversary of both Armistices, in November 1938, an item by the Imperial Valley Press (El Centro, California), about the loan to the public library there of a private collection of 7 November 1918 newspapers reporting the widespread celebration of Howard’s false peace news from France.  And the CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) programme from New York City carrying an interview with Moses Cook, who was present at US Navy Headquarters in Paris when the false armistice news arrived there.  Cook was able to throw some new light on the Jackson Armistice Telegram that forwarded the news to Admiral Wilson in Brest. 9
  • In March 1942, a few weeks after the United States entered the war against Germany and Japan, the (Washington, DC,) Evening Star’s, report of the death of Jackson Elliott – the Associated Press news department head in 1918.  The Star lauded him as the “A. P. Editor [who] Spiked False Armistice” and “endeared himself to every Associated Press member for his calm refusal to accept as fact the … rumors of November 7, 1918”, explaining that, despite a “deluge of telegrams, telephone calls and near hysteria” urging him “to follow the United Press and bulletin the Armistice rumor”, Jackson demurred.  Instead, he “meticulously checked Washington, London and Paris officials and news sources” until “hours later, the State Department in an official announcement confirmed his shrewd judgment”. 11
  • And on 20 June 1944, the Miami Daily News interview with the same Moses Cook (above) who had taken part in the November 1938 CBS armistice anniversary broadcast.  Cook was with the US Navy Reserve in Miami by this time and recalled again what he witnessed at the US Navy Headquarters in Paris when the Jackson Armistice Telegram was sent to Admiral Wilson in Brest.  Cook’s opportunistic retelling of his story followed an incident in London on 3 June (over two weeks previously) when a teletype operator unwittingly transmitted a message announcing that Allied forces had landed in France – three days before the Normandy landings actually took place.  The incident was used by the Miami paper as a rather tenuous link for Cook’s memoir, printed under the column headings: “Girl Operator’s Premature Invasion Message Recalls Error Of 26 Years Ago”/ “Inside Story Of False Armistice Flash In 1918 Told By Navy Man Here”. (For a short time, the teletype operator’s name, Joan Ellis – a young British woman working in the London office of the Associated Press – became synonymous with the “False Invasion Report”, as many American and British newspapers dubbed her (inconsequential) mistake.) 16    

The following year, with the end of the war in Europe in sight, the 1918 False Armistice story was revived when, on two separate occasions in April 1945, American newspapers reported false news that an armistice with the Germans had been signed.  It seemed to many that History was repeating itself.

False armistice news, April 1945

The first occasion was on 15 April, when the false news spread not in Europe itself but in the Pacific theatre of the war against Japan.  Surprisingly redolent of comments made about the 7 November 1918 armistice news, the following explanation appeared in the Wilmington Morning Star of North Carolina:

“OKINAWA, April 15 (AP).  The men aboard American warships in the western Pacific and even carrier plane pilots far out over the ocean celebrated a false European Armistice report today.  It took several hours for the bubble to burst.

A rumor that snowballed out of control caused the premature celebration.

The excitement was traced back to a garbled news message regarding reduced German resistance.  Warships, catching phrases of the garbled report, sent queries crackling back and forth.  Radio units ashore misinterpreted the queries and repeated them as facts.  A battleship picked up one of the shore reports and radioed it happily to ships in general.” 12

The second occasion arose at the end of the month, on Saturday 28 April.  The Sunday Star News, sister paper of the above Wilmington Morning Star, explained what had happened.  In a front-page column headed ‘Another False Armistice’, it stated:

“Last night something of the same sort [as the November 1918 False Armistice] happened.  Early in the evening rumors spread that Himmler or the High Command, or some member of it, had offered to surrender Germany unconditionally to the Allies …. 

From San Francisco, where the Security Conference is in session, came word that some high official in the United States delegation had declared the rumors authentic, and straightway many newspapers … issued surrender extras. 

They were no more than on the streets than President Truman, at the White House press room, declared the reports unfounded. 

That made it another false armistice.”

On this occasion, however, the news was confined to the United States, where it spread “from San Francisco to New York, the Gulf cities to New England”, sparking large-scale celebrations.  And, as in November 1918, these continued in spite of official denials, which “most people wouldn’t believe …. They were certain it was true or would be very shortly.” 13 

TIME magazine’s account of what had happened contained more detail.  It named Associated Press and Senator Tom Connally (Texas, Democrat), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as those being held responsible for what it termed ‘False Armistice II’:

“… on the morning of April 28, a day which took its place in history alongside Nov. 7, 1918 as a day of false hopes” [rumours started spreading of Germany’s unconditional surrender].  “Then, at 7:55 p.m., … the Associated Press sent a bulletin from San Francisco: ‘Germany has surrendered … [says] (sic) a high American official.’  Radio newscasters pounced on the flash and boosted it across the land.  The story, by A.P.’s reliable Jack Bell, went on to say that the surrender was actually to have been announced earlier, but was unavoidably delayed.”  An hour and a half later, President Truman told reporters that the armistice news had “no foundation.”

“Editors and broadcasters who had gone off halfcocked, blamed it all on the A.P. ….  The A.P. blamed it all on the ‘high American official’ – Senator Tom Connolly ….  The red-faced A.P. treasured one technical defense: it had not sent the Connally story out as a flash (as such news deserved, if the A.P. were unreservedly vouching for it) but only as a bulletin.  And the bulletin carried a hedge, ‘announcement is expected momentarily’, which did not justify the unqualified headlines [declaring Germany’s surrender].”    

The “technical defense” was ignored.  Instead, it was the irony of AP’s acute embarrassment now, in 1945, compared with its sanctimonious criticisms of United Press in 1918, that was emphasized: “How sweet is revenge, and at last after nearly 27 long years the United Press and Roy Howard are tasting it.” 14  

(Roy Howard was sixty-two years old in April 1945 and still working for his Scripps-Howard Newspapers group.  It is not known here whether he recorded his thoughts and feelings about the above events or about what happened a few days later to further damage AP’s standing.)

Associated Press and the leaked armistice news, May 1945

Right at the end of the war in Europe, Associated Press suffered a far greater blow to its reputation and prestige in the form of an “indefensible breach of faith” committed by Edward Kennedy, their chief war correspondent in France.  On Monday 7 May, in open defiance of the Allied military authorities, Kennedy released the (true) news that the German armed forces had unconditionally surrendered at Rheims (in France) – a day before the Allies wanted it to be announced.  

The weekly British Economist magazine reported that Kennedy was one of sixteen correspondents entrusted with information about the German surrender on the understanding, from General Eisenhower, that “the utmost secrecy was essential” until the timing of the press release had been agreed with the Russians.  Kennedy, however, “using unauthorised channels, … got the story out to the United States, from where it was relayed to Paris.”  Associated Press then released it as “one of the greatest news beats in newspaper history”.

The outcry was immediate.  The fifteen other correspondents “condemned the violation as ‘one of the most disgraceful, deliberate and unethical double-crosses in the history of journalism’”; and the military authorities disaccredited Kennedy and ordered him to return to the United States.  Unrepentant, Kennedy justified his action on the grounds that “the holding up of the surrender story was ‘purely political censorship’” which he refused to submit to. 

Alluding to the AP-UP newspaper rows in November 1918, the Economist concluded its report with what it called “one of the more amusing aspects of the matter”: namely, “that the United Press, AP’s chief American rival, now enjoys a complete revenge for the discomfiture it suffered over Mr Roy Howard’s famous ‘false Armistice’ of 1918.  Indeed, the revenge is double, for the AP has slipped twice.  It reported a false armistice … when it broadcast Senator Connally’s indiscretion and gave the Himmler story to the world.  And now it has improperly reported the true armistice.” 15

(Associated Press rebuked, dismissed, and disowned Kennedy, who died in 1963.  However, in May 2012, the then head of AP, Tom Curley, apologised for the way AP had treated him in 1945, sixty-seven years earlier.)

The 1918 False Armistice continued to be written and spoken about in the United States well after 1945.  And, predictably, the centenary in November 2018 of the ending of the Great War saw a proliferation of features – in the traditional media and in blogs on internet webpages – marking its anniversary as well as that of the real 11 November Armistice.  A few of the features and blogs even came from countries outside the United States.   

ENDNOTES

Unless stated otherwise, the newspapers cited below are accessible online through the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers portal.

1. ‘The Amazing Armistice: Inside Story of the Premature Peace Report’. Published originally in The Century Magazine, November 1921, pp90-99.  Available online.  Discussed in ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’, on this website.

2. Edward McKernon, ‘Fake News and the Public’.  Article in Harper’s Magazine, October 1925, pp528-536. Available through the Internet Archive.  Discussed in ‘False Armistice Conspiracy Theories’, on this website.  

3. In Letter to Fred Cook, 28 November 1925, p3.  The Roy Howard Papers (1892-1964). MSA 1, The Media School Archive, Indiana University Libraries, Bloomington, Indiana.  Available online. Discussed in ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’, on this website.

4. As reported in the Pittsburgh Press, November 17, 1930, p2, under, ‘Gibbons Bares Origin Of First Armistice Wire’.  Accessible via: Pennsylvania Online Historical Newspapers – Google Sites.

5. Editor & Publisher, The Fourth Estate for July 1, 1933.  Accessible through the Internet Archive portal.  And Madera Tribune, June 28, 1933. Volume LXII, Number 50, accessible online from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

The documents are in: U.S. Department of State: Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1918. Supplement 1, The World War (1918)Part 1: The Continuation and Conclusion of the War – Participation of the United States. (Published 1933.) Available online.  Discussed in ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’, on this website.

6. ‘Premature Armistice – Roy W. Howard Speaking’, presented as Chapter IV in Webb Miller’s, I Found No Peace. The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. (“written before September 1936”.)  Howard’s and Hornblow’s accounts are compared and discussed in ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’, on this website.

7. Fred Cook’s articles: ‘Real “False Armistice” Story Is Now Told By Eyewitness’ in the Evening Star, (Washington, DC,) Wednesday, November 11, 1925, p4; and ‘False Armistice Day Report Vividly Recalled’ in the Evening Star, Tuesday, November 11, 1924, p5. 

The Pathfinder, November 13, 1926, ‘Guide to Contents’ and p37.  Available from the Internet Archive.

Contextual information is available in ‘Roy W. Howard in Brest, Part One’ on this website.

8. The Madera Daily Tribune and Madera Mercury, November 7, 1928, pp 3-4. Accessible online from the California Digital Newspaper Collection.  See ‘Admiral H. B. Wilson and Roy Howard’s Armistice Cablegram’ on this website, under ‘7 November 1928, the Admiral’s newspaper interview’.

9. Imperial Valley Press, El Centro, Calif., Friday, November 11, 1938, p2.  Under ‘”False Armistice” Recalled In Newspaper Headlines. True Armistice Reviewed’. 

On Moses Cook’s recollections, see ‘Arthur Hornblow’s Information about the Jackson Armistice telegram’ on this website.

10. TheProducers News, Friday, March 27, 1931, p4, under ‘Slow Workers Lose World’.

11. The Evening Star, Washington, D. C., Wednesday, March 11, 1942, p12, under ‘Jackson Elliott Dies; A. P. Editor Spiked False Armistice’.  For AP’s version of its handling of the 1918 false armistice news see, Oliver Gramling, AP. The Story of News, ‘False Armistice’, pp277-283. (1940) Reprinted 2013 by Forgotten Books, London.

12. The Wilmington Morning Star, Monday, April 16, 1945, p5, under ‘False Armistice Noted By Navy Men In Pacific’.  Accessible through the Chronicling America portal.

13. The Sunday Star News, Sunday April 29, 1945, front page.  And, The Wilmington Morning Star, Monday, April 30, 1945, p4, under ‘False Armistice Again’.

14.  TIME, Monday, May. 07, 1945, under a) ‘The Press: False Armistice II’ and b) ‘U.S. At War: False Alarm’.  In Contents, digitalized version, available online.

15. The Economist, May 19, 1945, under ‘Storm Over AP’, pp658-659.  Available through the Internet Archive.  US newspaper reports and comments on Edward Kennedy’s actions may be found by searching through the Chronicling America portal.

16. The Miami Daily News, June 20, 1944.  Available online, but not through the Chronicling America portal.  See ‘Arthur Hornblow’s Information about the Jackson Armistice telegram’ on this website.

17. The Evening Star, Wednesday, November 14, 1928, p22 under ‘The World War Armistice: Day-by-Day Negotiations Ten Years Ago’.  Available through the Library of Congress, Chronicling America Historic American Newspapers portal.  Also, see the item on General Mordacq under ‘Addendum: Few False Armistice recollections by officials’ in the article about the False Armistice in France on this website.

18. The New Britain Daily Herald, Friday November 7, 1919, p6.  And The Bee: Omaha, Saturday, November 8, 1919, p7.