The Magazine

An American Abroad

Agnes Smedley and the world of communism.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By HARVEY KLEHR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.