The Magazine

An American Abroad

Agnes Smedley and the world of communism.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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The Lives of Agnes Smedley

by Ruth Price

Oxford University Press, 498 pp., $35

AGNES SMEDLEY IS NOT MUCH remembered today. During the late 1940s she was the bête noire of the China Lobby for her labors on behalf of Chinese communism, but her name did not pop up in the decrypted Venona cables, so she has not been among those branded as spies in the past decade. Her fictionalized autobiography, Daughter of Earth, published in the mid-1920s, did enjoy a brief vogue in the early days of the Women's Studies movement, but apart from a single biography published in 1987, she has slipped into obscurity.

But now Ruth Price's The Lives of Agnes Smedley--a biography based on astonishingly thorough research in newly available Chinese, Russian, British, and American archives--demonstrates just how wide a swath Smedley cut through the radical movements of several continents and how deeply she was enmeshed in Soviet espionage activities.

Price succeeds in bringing to life an irritable, self-contradictory radical who managed to annoy and infuriate almost everyone with whom she worked. A product of a gritty working-class family, she retained for her entire life a steely contempt for middle-class radicals. A militant feminist, she endured years of abuse from her lover. An unrepentant individualist, she tried unsuccessfully to join several Communist parties. An eager recruit for the Soviet intelligence services, she blithely ignored their orders.

Still, despite her doctrinal differences with Communists, she hated their enemies even more to the end of her life. Born into a poverty-stricken Missouri family in 1892, Agnes Smedley first became involved in radical politics in California prior to World War I, supporting the Indian independence movement by aiding a revolutionary Sikh political party.

After a move to New York, she became an activist in Margaret Sanger's birth-control movement. Later, she was indicted by the federal government for violating the Espionage Act in 1918 because of her anticolonial activities. She lived in Germany in the 1920s, served as a journalist in China in the 1930s while aiding the Sorge spy ring, and lived in Yenan with the Chinese Communists and traveled with their troops. In the late 1940s the United States Army accused her of being a spy. She died in 1950 while under investigation by several branches of the American government.

Price, "a self-identified leftist," began her project convinced that Smedley was an independent rebel but confesses that her research proved "unsettling." Not only did Smedley work as a Soviet agent, she also consciously worked with German agents during World War I while helping Indian revolutionaries. A "master of deception," she used friends and colleagues to "shield her clandestine activities," lying to them with few compunctions. But Price nonetheless sees her as someone who "acted from a truly generous heart," was fiercely committed to the downtrodden, capable of enormous self-sacrifice, independent, and completely irreverent.

Smedley altered elements of her childhood in Daughter of Earth to make herself appear even more "proletarian" than she was. The autobiography, for instance, turned her father into a coal-miner active in the strikes that ravaged the Trinidad, Colorado, mines in the early 1900s, when he actually worked as a vigilante for the coal companies.

Still, Smedley did endure a lot. Her mother beat her, her father was a drunk, and her aunt a prostitute. Converted to socialism by her first husband, Agnes soon left him for full-time involvement with the Hindustan Ghadr party, whose California branch raised funds and recruits for a violent rebellion in India. Smedley worked as a courier, laundering money provided by the German government to buy arms. After moving to New York in 1917, she had a sexual encounter with M.N. Roy, a charismatic Indian revolutionary and early Communist activist.

Smedley moved to Europe after the government eventually dismissed her indictment for espionage and began a decade-long relationship with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, a fierce rival of Roy's for the leadership of the radical, anti-Gandhi wing of the Indian independence movement. She first visited Moscow with him in 1921 to attend a Comintern congress, befriended Emma Goldman and, instinctively sympathetic to anarchists and syndicalists, kept her distance from the more disciplined Communists. Settling in Berlin, she and Chattopadhyaya established a center for Indian exiles and radicals that competed with Roy's explicitly Communist group. By the mid-1920s, they were secretly receiving money from Willi Muenzenberg, the Comintern's ace propagandist and leading exponent of building ties to non-Communists.

DESPITE HER FICTIONALIZED PORTRAYAL of her ties to Chattopadhyaya, a high-caste Brahmin, as a feminist love story in Daughter of Earth, their relationship was deeply troubled. He refused to marry her, his family scorned her, and he abused her physically and psychologically. After painfully extricating herself from his clutches (Chattopadhyaya eventually disappeared into the Gulag), Smedley moved to China at the behest of the Comintern, which needed someone with an American passport to work there. Beginning in 1928 she operated a courier service, distributed propaganda, and served as a clandestine communications link with Moscow. Her public independence from the Comintern made her an ideal agent in a country where Chiang Kai-shek had only recently shattered his alliance with the Chinese Communist party, brutally attacking and slaughtering thousands of party members.

In late 1929 Smedley was the only Western journalist in China receiving information from the Chinese Communist party. That winter, Victor Sorge, a German-born agent of Soviet military intelligence, contacted her for assistance in setting up his espionage network. She worked with him for three years, becoming not only his "chief recruiting agent" but also his lover. While posing as a journalist with fierce attachments to the Chinese Communists, she manipulated other Westerners, including the young John King Fairbank, whom she used as a letter drop.

Smedley briefly returned to the United States in 1934 and worked with Communist party leader Earl Browder to set up a new, English-language, ostensibly independent newspaper in China. Shortly after her return to China, however, she defied Comintern orders, meeting directly with Chinese Communist activists. Concluding that she was too much a lone wolf and too undisciplined, Browder demanded that she come back to America. She tartly refused, reminding him that she was not a party member.

The American Communists soon dispatched two functionaries to oversee her work; they quickly discovered that Smedley had spent money earmarked for the newspaper on other projects (and lost more on currency speculation in a desperate effort to recoup the principal) and that she was more interested in attacking Chiang Kai-shek than the Japanese, despite the Comintern's new Popular Front policy. The Comintern sent an order that its agents should avoid her because she was "so temperamental and unstable."

AS IF THEY NEEDED additional evidence, Smedley supplied it in 1936. By happenstance she was in Sian when Chang Hsueh-liang, a Manchurian warlord known as "the Young Marshall," arrested Chiang and demanded that he agree to a coalition with the Communists to fight against Japan. The Soviet Union called for Chiang's release, but, in a radio broadcast, Agnes denounced Moscow. While disciplined Communists shuddered at her indiscretions, Smedley continued to propagandize on behalf of revolutionary forces and causes.

Just days after the American party formally denounced her for her indiscretions in Xi'an, Smedley arrived in Yenan, the Chinese Communists' stronghold, to be told by the Chinese Communists that she would not be allowed to write a book on their Long March. Undismayed, she settled in a cave, befriended party leaders such as Chu Teh, organized evening square dances and fox trots, and became Mao Zedong's confidante. The party leader stopped by every night on his way to work to discuss, among other topics, sexual liberation.

While Agnes thoroughly enjoyed herself, the wives of party leaders grew increasingly testy, convinced that she was corrupting their husbands. When Mao's wife caught him romancing a Chinese actress living next to Smedley, she began pounding him with a flashlight; Agnes decked her. In the aftermath of the scandal, Mao asked the Politburo to allow him to divorce, and Smedley was ordered to leave Yenan, having been turned down for membership in the Chinese Communist party on the grounds that she was too individualistic.

Smedley traveled with the Chinese Red Army for several years before returning to the United States in May 1941. Although her opposition to the Nazi-Soviet Pact exacerbated her conflicts with the American Communists, by 1944 she was back in the party's good graces as the wartime coalition between Chiang and the Communists began to fray.

When news of the Japanese destruction of the Sorge ring slowly made its way into the Western press, American security forces began to show a renewed interest in her past. General Charles Willoughby, General MacArthur's intelligence chief, wrote a classified report on the Sorge ring that linked her to its activities. Leaks about the report at first led the Pentagon to apologize to her. But when the report was made public in February 1949 as the Chinese Communists moved closer to victory and the United States became increasingly fixated on the issue of Soviet espionage in light of the revelations of Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, Smedley faced increasing pressure.

The truth--that she had worked with a Soviet espionage ring but that it was directed against Japan and Kuomintang forces and that she had been dropped from the work because she was unreliable--was not an attractive option. After some difficulty she obtained a passport and left for Britain; she died during surgery for ulcers in May 1950, leaving a denunciation of the "fascist" American government. Her ashes were interred in Communist China, and in her will she left much of her estate to Chu Teh.

Price's conclusion that Smedley fought "many of the right battles; for herself, for us, and for history" may be disputed. But her account of how a poorly educated woman from a dysfunctional Midwestern family became a figure in the public and clandestine drama of twentieth century radical politics is a fascinating story.

Harvey Klehr is Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University. His latest book is In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage.