V-J Day 'Kiss' photo stays on display as VA head reverses department memo that would've banned it

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs secretary has reversed a department memo that aimed to ban VA displays of the iconic “V-J Day in Times Square” photograph of a Navy sailor kissing a woman he did not know on the streets of New York at the end of World War II.

Secretary Denis McDonough acted hours after a copy of a memo from a VA assistant undersecretary requesting the photo’s removal from all VA health facilities was shared on social media. The memo had said the photo “depicts a non-consensual act” and is inconsistent with the department's sexual harassment policy.

McDonough on Tuesday tweeted out a copy of the image, which appeared in Life magazine, adding, “Let me be clear: This image is not banned from VA facilities — and we will keep it in VA facilities.”

Two people familiar with the memo confirmed that it was authentic and said McDonough had never approved it and rescinded it once informed that it had been sent out. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

“The VA is not going to be banning this photo," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “I can definitely say that the memo was not sanctioned, and so it's not something that we were even aware of.”

Copies of the memo racked up millions of views on social media, quickly becoming a political lightning rod.

The photo was taken on Aug. 14, 1945, known as V-J Day, the day Japan surrendered to the United States, as people spilled into the New York City streets from restaurants, bars and movie theaters, celebrating the news. George Mendonsa spotted Greta Friedman, spun her around and planted a kiss. The two had never met.

The photo, by Alfred Eisenstaedt, is called “V-J Day in Times Square” but is known to most people simply as “The Kiss.”

Friedman told the Library of Congress in 2005 that "it wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of thank God the war is over kind of thing.” She added in an oral history of the photo: “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.”

Friedman died in 2016 at age 92. Mendonsa died in 2019 at age 95.