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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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.