John Gittings

Agnes Smedley and the Manchester Guardian

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Born in Missouri in 1892, Agnes Smedley was a free-thinking socialist writer whose books on the Chinese revolution have become classics. She first went to China in 1928 as special correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung . She visited the communist areas and wrote China’s Red Army Marches (1934) and China Fights Back (1938). Unlike most Western journalists in China, she spent long periods in the field and behind enemy lines, enduring great hardships which damaged her health. After the outbreak of all-out war with Japan in 1937, she campaigned for medical aid to China, contributing to journals in the US and the foreign press in Shanghai.

From 1938 to 1940 she wrote a series of special articles for the Manchester Guardian , spending most of this time with Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces in central China. Her reports from the guerrilla areas provide vivid material which is unavailable from any other source: her experiences would also form an important section of her next book Battle Hymn of China (1943). Forced by ill-health to return to the US, she sought after Mao Zedong’s victory in 1949 to return to China, but died in England in 1950 while waiting for a visa. Her ashes were buried in Beijing.

The archives of the Manchester Guardian at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, contain a file of correspondence between Smedley and the then editor, W P Crozier which has not previously been examined by biographers. It provides interesting insight into Smedley’s character as a professional journalist rather than in the polemical role for which she is better known. It also illustrates some of the problems of long-distance communication and conflicting editorial priorities which were particularly acute in the war conditions under which she worked.


When Agnes Smedley approached the small town of Xuancheng, south of Wuhu in the Yangtze Valley, just a few miles from the invading Japanese army, she thought she knew what to expect. She had already witnessed too many similar scenes of devastation and misery. Xuancheng had been looted and half destroyed: those who remained slept in low hovels built out of broken beams, tins and rags. A few ragged people wandered “like ghosts among the ruins”, offering a few peanuts or boiled water for sale. Her bed for the night was a couple of planks balanced on wooden trestles.

What she had not expected though, as she walked through the ruins to an anti-Japanese rally in the town square in June 1939, was the slogan being daubed on a wall by two smiling Chinese soldiers. It read: “Long live the ‘Manchester Guardian’, voice of democracy”.

From 1938 to 1940 Smedley was a special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian (MG) in central China, travelling for months in the field with the Chinese armies or behind the lines with local guerrillas. Most of her royalties -- eight guineas per thousand words -- went towards buying medicine for wounded soldiers. In all, the MG published two dozen articles from Smedley: space became limited after the European war began and she was filing under immensely difficult conditions.

Yet her reports, filed far from the foreign enclave of Shanghai where most journalists were based, provide a rare picture of misery and heroism in what quickly became a backwater of the world war. Returning from the Wuhu area, she described the pitiful sight of thousands of refugees who had fled the Japanese with a handful of possessions -- some ragged bedding, a cooking pot or two, sometimes a dirty mosquito net, while the luckiest brought with them a precious water buffalo.

“As we moved closer to the Yangtze the number of refugees increased. In one large village we found some 1,000 of them living in three family temples and old abandoned buildings. In other villages three to five hundred. We met them wandering the roads, bamboo baskets over their arms in which they beg rice from door to door or from army encampments. We passed some moving hopefully to new villages, their heavy weaving looms carried on long bamboo poles over their shoulders, or others with all their miserable household furniture carried similarly. Men passed by with big baskets slung from the end of bamboo poles, and in each basket a ragged, diseased child seated on a pile of ragged bedding and clothing” [AS 15]

In contrast, Smedley praised the determination of the resistance forces who harassed the Japanese invaders, forcing them to remain in fortified locations from which they only sallied forth in strength. After leaving Xuancheng she crossed the Yangtze at night, passing between two enemy held towns only five miles apart.

“The nights belong to the Chinese, and the Japanese fear to venture out. Had the ancient walls around Chinese towns and cities been destroyed long ago -- as they are being reluctantly destroyed today -- the Japanese could not hold most of the points they hold today. When we crossed the Yangtze the only traitors were the moon and the dogs that yelped from enemy-occupied towns when they heard the distant thud of our soft-soled feet.” [AS 16].

This was war journalism at its best which read well on the pages of the Manchester Guardian. It was written with a mixture of compassion, anger and, not least, attention to detail . (Smedley regularly filed more than the required length: she had no objection to being cut, she wrote to the editor, W P Crozier, “but try not to eliminate the factual material” [letter of 12 Mar. 1939]). Later, Smedley would include a full account of her wanderings in central China in the book which, when her health had been broken by constant travel, she withdrew to her native America to write. Battle Hymn of China (1943) (BHC) is an acknowledged classic, and for myself, a Guardian reporter in China sixty years later, it was inspiring to find that she had published material of similar quality from the same period in my newspaper.

Reporting the war in China attracted a mixed bag of foreign journalists with widely differing skills and ambitions. Smedley herself was scathing about the “freebooters… (who) used the China war as a background for their own personal glory” [BHC 164]. The MG attracted contributors of a more serious calibre. While Smedley reported from central China, other correspondents contributed thoughtful features from the north and south. Unlike Smedley, who was given her byline, their stories were unsigned but they were mostly missionaries or university teachers.

Regular news in this period was filed by Randall Gould, another American and one of the most experienced journalists in Shanghai. Both had been preceded by another remarkable journalist, the Australian H J (Harold) Timperley who was the MG’s China correspondent from 1928 to 1938. Timperley wrote the first book on the Nanjing Massacre of December-January 1937-38, published within a few months. He left the MG to work for the Nationalist Government’s Ministry of Information and in recent years has become the prime target of Japanese revisionist historians seeking to discredit him in order to prove that the Massacre did not really happen.

Mention should also be made from an earlier period of the British journalist and children’s writer Arthur Ransome who reported for the MG from China in 1927 during the second Nationalist revolution. An article by him criticising the British “imperial” mentality caused a storm of protest among the expatriate community in Shanghai (“The Shanghai Mind”, reprinted in Ransome’s The China Puzzle, 1928).

Much less well known is the tragic story of Gareth Jones, a brilliant young freelance journalist who had already written for the MG during visits to the Soviet Union and the US. (His reports on the 1932-33 Ukraine famine were denounced at the time by Walter Duranty and other Moscow-based correspondents who wished to keep on the right side of the Soviet authorities.) Jones was killed in Inner Mongolia in 1935, after being captured by bandits, while pursuing research into Japan’s ambitions in China before he could file any more articles for the MG. It is possible that his murder was carried out on Japanese instructions ( see Margaret Siriol Colley, Gareth Jones: A Manchukuo Incident , 2001).

Later correspondents for the MG in China included Gunther Stein, who was one of a small group of journalists allowed by the Nationalist authorities to visit the communist base of Yan’an in 1944, where Stein interviewed Mao Zedong (The Challenge of Red China, 1945).



In Christmas 1937 Agnes Smedley was in Shanxi province, north China, with the Eighth Route Army, the former Red Army now collaborating with the Kuomintang in a precarious “united front”. She was desperately keen to join the Eighth Route at the front line against the Japanese, but General Zhu De (whose biography she later wrote) had vetoed it. Instead she went south to the city of Hankou on the Yangtze river, now the Nationalist capital after the fall just three weeks before of Nanjing further downstream.

Once in Hankou, Smedley found herself in serious economic difficulties. As she would recall later, “my revolutionary reputation closed all doors to employment”, and many people regarded her as a “paid Communist agent”. On the other hand, the Communists regarded her like all foreigners as able to earn “a luxurious living.” She lived free of charge as a house guest of the Episcopal Bishop of Hankou, and took a monthly loan from a loyal friend, a Chinese engineer [BHC 145].

In May Smedley received a letter from a friend, enclosing a cutting from the MG, dated three months earlier, of an article about the Eighth Route Army which she had written for a Shanghai newspaper [AS 1]. It had perhaps been sent on to Manchester by Timperley (although he had not included her in a list of suggested replacement correspondents which he sent in early 1938).The MG simply published the article with a note that it was “a letter … sent to Shanghai by Miss Agnes Smedley, an American writer.”

Smedley now saw her chance. Without raising the question of payment or copyright for the article, she wrote to the editor offering her services as a “special correspondent from central and northwestern China”.

“I do not believe you have anyone on this region, and I am sufficiently in touch with all circles of the government and the people to send you objective and authentic reports on the situation. … I believe -- you may consider this vanity -- that I am able to analyze the Chinese situation in a truer light than some other correspondents” [letter of 21 May 1938]

W P Crozier sent back a speedy and enthusiastic reply. Although the paper could not give her special correspondent status, “we could pretty certainly take one [mail article] a fortnight while things are as interesting and important as they are now.” Crozier listed a wide range of subjects in which they were interested, from the strategy and tactics of both sides to the organising of guerrilla warfare. “There are a thousand and one topics”, he concluded, “about which one would like to hear.” [letter of 31 May 1938]

Smedley had just joined the Chinese Red Cross Medical Corps as a publicity worker -- describing her title later as “a glorified name for beggar”. However the money she would receive from the MG allowed her “to work without payment… and even to make donations.” [BHC 155]. Responding eagerly to Crozier’s list, within the next month she had already sent four articles [AS 2-5]. The first two dealt with the Kuomintang strategy of “trading space for time” and the (mainly communist) tactics of guerrilla warfare. The next two looked critically at the plight of the Chinese wounded, particularly that of the military casualties who received such primitive attention behind the front line. It was “a terrible chapter,” she told Crozier, “that the English people must know.” These two articles were published on successive days by the MG under the title “The Wounded of China.“ The first was subtitled: “A sad story. Callousness and corruption. Terrible conditions.”: it was a powerful and characteristic mixture of Smedley’s passion both for humanity and for detail.

“The wounded lie on rush mats on the floor. Or on boards stretched across trestles in abandoned warehouses, school buildings, and temples. Many are dark, dank, dirty places with broken floors, with rats romping in the lofts or along the rafters above. Swarms of flies hover over the wounded and around the enamel, broken, uncovered cups of drinking water standing on the board bed just by the head of the wounded man. Most Army hospitals have no sheets, and the man’s cotton jacket is his pillow. Hospital rooms in which hundreds lie together are a network of string and wire stretched above the beds, on which hang the face-towels and clothing. It is sometimes difficult to see the wounded beneath the sea of hanging rags. Soap, tooth-brushes, and toothpaste are unknown luxuries. Sometimes the wounded lie dying or longing to die on damp floors, their covering a dirty black blanket.” [AS 4]

Smedley was not alone in championing the cause of China’s wounded soldiers: those on her side in Hankow included British ambassador Sir Archibald Clerk-Kerr and the US consul xx Josslyn. Yet according to her friend and fellow-journalist Freda Utley, who also campaigned on the issue, it was Smedley who had “started the controversy over the policy of the International Red Cross [in denying medical aid to the military]”. Smedley even sought to enlist the support of Crozier, far away in Manchester, in one of her first letters, ending it with an appeal for help for the Chinese military wounded who were “dying by the thousands at the front.“ She urged that money should be sent not to the Chinese Red Cross but to the Red Cross Medical Relief Organisation, recently formed by the energetic Scottish-trained Robert K S Lin [letter of 3 August 1938].

Utley gives a vivid pen portrait of Smedley’s sense of commitment in her China at War (1939): Smedley had “that burning sympathy for the misery and wrongs of mankind which some of the saints and some great revolutionaries have possessed. For her the wounded soldiers of China, the starving peasants and the over-worked coolies, were brothers in a real sense|” (pp. 146, 214). And it was Smedley who “got everyone interested in the terrible problem of the wounded soldiers, so that… help began to trickle in to the gallant band of doctors in Changsha [from where the medical services for the front were organised]” (p.147). Her two reports on the wounded were written after a visit to Changsha.

By this time no one expected Hankow to survive the Japanese onslaught for much longer. Smedley was incensed that money raised abroad and sent to China through the International Red Cross was being diverted to establish a “safety zone” in the former international zone of the city. Pro-Japanese factory owners, she insisted in her letter of 3 August to Crozier, planned to park their workers temporarily in the safety zone and “feed them at the expense of the British and American people” until the Japanese army’s bloodlust had cooled, and then return them to work in their factories. The workers, who were all female, would probably land up in Japanese brothels anyhow, even if they had to work in the factories by day and the brothels by night. “This does not bother the factory owners in the least, “ she informed Crozier, “because they have already evacuated their women [i.e. their own families] to Hongkong….” Smedley agonised over whether or not to write publicly of the factory-owners’ attitude: “Can one tell such dastardly things and yet not aid Japan?”, she asked Crozier. “I doubt it? One’s heart is sick with a thousand such things here.” Crozier does not appear to have replied to her unusually long letter: perhaps he did not fully understand the dilemma.

Two months later in October, in another article filed shortly before the fall of Hankow, she avoided making such a specific charge against the Hankow elite, no doubt concerned that it would “aid Japan”. However she still draw a powerful contrast between the patriotism of the ordinary people and the self-interest of the moneyed classes there:

“Doomed cities under wavering, mixed leadership are always scenes of mingled heroism, misery and debauchery. Hankow is this. Expensive hotels and restaurants are scenes of banquets in which sleek, cunning business men congratulate each other on rich war profits. Watching them, you can see the future puppet Government of the city. Their sons and daughters dance in the night clubs, neither knowing or caring about the fate of their country. Outside, on the streets streams of ragged refugees pour through the city, while the roads from the north, east and south are endless lines of wounded soldiers, the heavily wounded on stretchers or in trucks and ambulances, the lightly wounded painfully dragging themselves along, supported by a stick or the branch of a tree -- yet all hating the Japanese” [AS 7].

Smedley was one of a number of foreign correspondents who watched the Japanese advance towards Hankow and made trips to the front line further down the Yangtze, but she did not regard herself only as a journalist. She was a “publicity worker” for the Red Cross Medical Corps, writing reports to organisations throughout the world appealing for trucks and ambulances and medical supplies. The fees paid for her columns in the MG, she wrote later, “enabled me to work without payment for the Medical Corps and even to make donations.” [BHC, 155].

As the fall of Hankow approached, Smedley at first planned to stay behind to report it, if there was serious resistance, and then -- she informed Crozier -- “try to make my way out later on some [foreign] gunboat” [letter of 4 Aug. 1938], but she soon decided on an equally dangerous and more ambitious plan. She would travel via Nanchang to the Yangtze valley in southern Anhui where the Chinese armies had adopted guerrilla tactics to harass the Japanese as the invaders extended their control upstream. Though delayed by illness in Changsha -- she suffered “malaria…combined with nervous illness”, she told Crozier -- she intended to leave as soon as possible “and be gone a few months” [letter of 7 Oct.1938]. While the other foreign journalists in Hankow returned to Shanghai or Hong Kong, or joined the Nationalist government in Chongqing (Chungking), she alone plunged deeper into the fighting.

Like every freelance journalist, Smedley had to balance the importance of getting into print against attempting to secure better terms for what she wrote. Early on she had enquired whether there would be any objection to her articles also appearing in the New Republic. Crozier replied (4 Aug.1938) that “we should prefer you not to send to any other American paper since we have arrangement with the Baltimore Sun.” Smedley replied in turn that she had understood she was writing only for the MG: it seemed to her fair that she should retain the rights elsewhere. .

“When you consider that for the one article on the medical service alone, I went by air to Changsha and made a tour of hospital for ten days, you can well understand I wish to cover my expenses by selling the article in other countries….

Unfortunately, I am not a woman of means at all and most all my earnings go for medical aid to the wounded in China. Knowing the outlook of your publication, I know you can well understand and sympathize with my requests stated above…” [15 Aug. 1938].

Crozier replied that the five guineas which she received per thousand words was already more than the normal rate, but they would offer another three guineas -- for 1,200 words -- to cover publication in the Baltimore Sun. The alternative would be to publish in the MG only for the original sum of five guineas -- but if the US newspaper objected to being denied her stories, then the MG would have to “forego the article[s]”. Displaying the anxiety of all editors not to be committed to expense, he added that the MG had not expected her to incur “any special expenditure“ in writing for them. He ended with an attempt at reassurance: he “greatly appreciate[s] your articles, which are most valuable“ -- although presumably only at the offered fee [letter of 1 Sept. 1938]

When Smedley received this letter she was again in Changsha recovering from malaria. She was now much more concerned to apologise that her illness had prevented filing, and to outline her plans to travel to the front line, than to quibble over the terms. She concluded with one brief sentence: “The terms you made in your last letter to me I accept.” The money for Smedley was less important than getting the message out.

Soon after the terrible days in late October when Wuhan was captured while Canton in the south also fell, Smedley filed for the last time from Changsha, itself bombed daily and soon to be consumed in flames although it was not captured.. Writing, as requested by Crozier, about Japan’s plans for the future, Smedley did her best to see some hope in the desperate situation. Japan would seek to split the Chinese united front by offering peace through its puppet government, but 15 months of resistance and created great changes in “the life and psychology of the Chinese nation”. Japan’s very successes had created a nation of enemies: “millions of the common people who did not know the name of Japan a year ago are now nationally conscious and filled with hatred.”. While Japan had destroyed or taken over more than 90 per cent of modern China’s industrial base, China still remained a more or less self-sufficient agrarian country and was building new industries inland. In spite of all the pressures she believed the united front would hold: even the most reactionary elements in the Kuomintang were also violently anti-Japanese.

“There is no indication publicly that the Government will accept any peace proposals. All that we who remain with the Chinese people can see is a vast creative and organising capacity emerging. On the night Canton was surrendered and the night when Wuhan fell lights burned all night in thousands of homes and buildings in Changsha alone. In these homes men and women paced the floor, talking, planning. Great as their suffering was at the news that all expected and yet had not expected, they were back ar work the next morning, working with renewed activity. It would be difficult for even the blackest pessimist to say that the fall of Wuhan means the end of China’s resistance. It is perhaps the beginning” [AS 8].

In November 1938 Smedley embarked on her epic journey into the “guerrilla land” of the lower Yangtze, which she would extend after crossing the Yangtze into Hubei and Henan provinces, in the end spending not the “few months” she had planned but a year and half, finally withdrawing to the wartime capital of Chongqing in June 1941.Her account of these travels takes up half of Battle Hymn of China, and some of her best journalism appeared in the dozen articles published by the MG in this period.

The number of articles actually published was less than she sent although there is no record of the total. In October 1938 Crozier had replied to her letter from Changsha with courteous regrets for her illness. “If I had the opportunity I should be wanting to ask you scores of questions about the present conditions and prospects in China”, he told her, and he looked forward to receiving “such letters as you may be able to send.” [letter of 26 Oct. 1938]. But soon after she began her travels, Crozier’s office wrote again, warning that the MG was getting “slightly congested with articles on China”. Once every three weeks or even once a month would be fine! [letter of 13 Dec. 1938] A month later another letter written on the editor’s behalf, made the point more firmly. They greatly appreciated her articles, and understood “the immense difficulties under which you write”, but could only guarantee to publish one article a month. Any surplus articles would be passed on to the New Republic, Nation or Asia (all US magazines) [letter of 19 Jan. 1939].

Smedley’s concerns in the field were of a very different order. Now with the communist-led New Fourth Army at its headquarters in Yunling, southern Anhui, she would not yet have received the above discouraging messages when she sent a long letter to Crozier, cautiously datelined “Along the Yangtze” and marked “confidential”. She enclosed four “special articles on the work and fighting of one Chinese army “: this was the New Fourth which (in Battle Hymn of China) she would describe as “the most effective and intellectually enlightened military force in the enemy rear” [p.182]. The enclosed articles, she confessed to Crozier, were “too long as usual.” If it was the honorarium that bothered him, “please merely give me the regular honorarium agreed to and publish as much of the article as you wish.” If it was a question of space, he was welcome to cut, “but try not to eliminate the factual material” [letter of 6 Feb. 1939].

A week later she wrote again, alarmed by the discovery that the local postal service was still sending letters through Japanese lines to Shanghai instead of south to Hong Kong. She had received by the same route an incoming letter from the Lord Mayor’s Relief Fund for China “stamped with Japanese censorship stamp”! She would now resend copies of the previous articles, including the set of four, “via Indochina” [letter of 13 Feb. 1939].

The four articles which she sent no doubt contrasted the high consciousness of the New Fourth with the pitiful situation in adjacent units. One of these, she had told Crozier, was from Sichuan, an “old militarist army” which behaved disgracefully towards “the common people”. Another was a division formerly part of the Manchurian Army which appeared “to have no medical services, or only very bad.” She also described an “irregular” force who were so “irresponsible and dangerous” that they were hated by the local people who called them “the little Japanese army” [6 Feb. 1939].

Working under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, and often in poor health, Smedley continued to agonised over how to square journalistic honesty with the need to support the Chinese cause. A month later she wrote urgently to Crozier (from the “Eastern Front”) asking him to spike the series of four articles: she even managed to send a cable via Hong Kong to the MG to the same effect. She had been worried ever since sending them, she told Crozier, about their possible effect on “the state of public opinion abroad”, and a rare foreign journalist visiting the region had now warned her that it could be very harmful. (The visitor may have been Hans Shippe, a German communist who had vigorous arguments with Smedley about the united front tactics [Janice & Stephen MacKinnon, Agnes Smedley: The life and times of an American radical, 1988, pp. 216-17].

I have no love for the Japanese, now has any civilized human being. I do not wish anything I write to serve their purposes of propaganda or in any other respect. I fear my articles would have that effect. The first two in particular would have that effect. Since I wish to serve world democracy and the struggle to maintain democracy, I have cabled you today to withhold publication of my articles, awaiting my revision….

“Hereafter, before writing controversial articles for you, I shall carefully consult the opinion of a number of different people. I would ask you also to cut out or revise any aspect of my articles that is out of harmony with the main struggle of this age -- the struggle for continuation of the democratic system of life and thought. I have been in C|hina for so long, and am so isolated from foreign thought and needs, and work so intimately with armies and organizations, that I am unable to always judge the needs of peoples abroad. I beg you to take this into consideration and to give me assistance by carefully considering any articles I write. The policy of your paper is one that I have for years supported and there is no conflict within my mind when you edit my articles to conform with the policy of your paper -- which is the voice of liberal democracy” [letter of 12 Mar. 1939].

As often happens in such cases, the MG received her cable (“Please unprint my war tragedy article -- Smedley“) -- before the four articles had even arrived. (Unfortunately, the original copies do not survive in the MG archives), They published instead, as requested, a single revised article sent by her which while praising the New Fourth only made a glancing mention of other guerrilla forces in the area which “did not have such a high reputation“. Her description of the local landowners, their oppression of the local people and their collaboration with the Japanese was restrained.. She merely observed that “politically the region was also difficult” and that “the lot of the common people… was far from rosy” with high rates of indebtedness and unemployment [AS 14].

Soon afterwards the MG published another powerful piece from Smedley on the desperate refugee situation in the area south of Wuhu (already quoted from above, p.1):

“Of the total number [of more than 74,000 in the area surveyed by the local Red Cross] only 12 per cent were receiving relief. Of the rest, some had brought a few dollars with them, others chopped wood and sold it, transported rice to the rear, did odd jobs on farms, acted as servants -- in other words, laboured where they could. The rest beg for a living -- or die. On the floors of the temples we saw countless men, women, and children lying sick from malaria, dysentery, typhoid, colds, and pneumonia. Since the Japanese overran the district in December last two or more members of each family have died.

“The refugees are clad mostly in bundles of unspeakable rags. It is doubtful if even one is without scabies, from the initial stage to open gashes in neck, hands or legs; and we found many lying in bed with scabies infection. Many babies had all the symptoms of malnutrition, and diseased mothers, with diseased babies in their arms, fell on their knees before us, begging for help for themselves and some other sick member of their families near by. There is absolutely no medical relief at all for these refugees. Nor, apart from the New Fourth Army medical units, which move often, is there any modern medicine in the region, or anyone to administer the medicine” [AS 15].

At the end of August 1939, Smedley embarked on a ten-month long journey which would take her northwards through Hubei into southern Henan province, then back further west into Hubei, across the Han River till she reached the Yangtze at Yichang in June 1940. Her health deteriorated sharply in January-March 1940 which she spent with the New Fourth Army in the lake region west of Hankou on the Han River. She left Yichang shortly before it was captured by the Japanese, went upstream to Chongqing, and then head southwest to Guiyang, Guilin and ultimately Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong she realised that her health would not allow her to stay longer in China, and that she could be most useful publicising the Chinese cause in the US [MacKinnons, Ch. 14].

The Manchester Guardian, by this time preoccupied with the outbreak of the European War, carried no dispatches from her between May 31, 1939, and 15 March 1940, nor is there any correspondence with her for this period in the files. It is quite possible that she sent nothing between crossing the Yangtze in July 1939 and reaching Nanyang in Henan in November. Only then, she later recalled {BHC p. 276] had she reached a territory “where I felt that articles for the Manchester Guardian and reports to the Red Cross Medical corps had a chance of reaching their destination.” But the next articles to be published by the MG were sent later, in the last week of December by which time she had joined the New Fourth Army headquarters of the Communist commander Li Xiannian in the Dahong mountain range along the Anhui-Hubei border. Presumably much delayed in the post from China, four dispatches now appeared within two weeks starting in mid-March 1940. The first two described the crossing of the Yangtze and the journey into Henan, and the following two were datelined from North Hubei, quickly followed by a fifth dispatch dated a few days later form Central Hubei. The articles as a whole were not strictly narrative but used her travel experiences over the previous months to illustrate more general themes.

In the first of these four reports from north of the Yangtze, Smedley sought to evaluate the extent and limitations of the social changes which had been precipitated by the war in Anhui province.

“Many old officials, none too honest, and always inefficient and socially backward, have been replaced by younger men and a few women… But beyond this no basic social changes are being undertaken, and until these changes come the misery and suffering of the common people cannot be lightened.

Anhwei Province, for instance, is a region of great landlord estates, often of many thousands of acres. Many owners have fled to the port cities or to the rear, leaving agents to collect the usual rent, which is 50 per cent of the crop. A few work for the Japanese, and some sit on the fence, waiting to see which side will win. The peasants cultivate their land; their sons are conscripted to fight the Japanese; the older men and young boys are conscripted as carriers for the Army and for the wounded, and for destruction or repair of the roads. And they must bear the full burden of repairing the enormous damage done to their homes by the Japanese.

In other words, though without the rights of citizens, they must still shoulder the full burden of the war while the landlords with their sons and daughters sit in the far rear or in power cities waiting for victory, when they can return to their old feudal luxury. Few people except the peasants see anything wrong with this. But I have met many Army commanders who face this problem clearly and are sunk in depression because they have no power to change it” [AS 16]

After months of hard travelling at the grass roots, Smedley now seemed less constrained by the need to present a rosy picture for the war effort. Her second article, dated like the first on December 25, also sought to strike a balance -- in the words of the published headline -- between “Good and bad in unconquered China”, focusing this time on what she had seen in Henan. The Japanese did not “control their rear” at all: it had become ”a Chinese base and a Chinese front”. Chinese resistance and morale had become much stronger though it varied in degree. But many parts of the country remain unorganised, with “some conservative authorities still fearing for their own future power if the people are organised and educated about their own rights as citizens.” Henan did not share the commitment to reform of Anhui and officials were committed to “keeping things as they are”. She had never seen “more bitterness, more hunger, more sickness and disease than in that region [of eastern Henan]”, Smedley sadly observed [AS 17].

In the remaining three articles sent at the end of 1939, Smedley sought to strike a different sort of balance between the Japanese and Chinese war efforts. She did not minimise the Japanese “strong points” -- nor, she said, did the best Chinese commanders. Not only were the invaders’ forces much better equipped but their soldiers were far better educated and trained. Yet in the end the Chinese soldiers had “higher moral[e] than the Japanese, if inferior equipment; and they know that time is with them” [AS 18]. Smedley concluded this set of articles with an affirmation from her heart:

“My respect for the soldiers and officers at the front has almost no limit. Their lives are primitive and bitter, devoid of any comfort. We here are so near the fighting lines that we always hear machine-gun and rifle firing. We see troops moving up to the front -- grim, fearless, vigilant. Aeroplanes are over us daily and artillery shakes the earth. The wounded come in long lines -- inadequately cared for. But the fighting continues with no sign of wavering” [AS 20].

Once she was no longer filing from behind enemy lines, Smedley had less success in placing her work with the MG. Two articles which did appear in August and |October 1940 [AS 21, 22] had been filed from the Nationalist base areas -- the first probably from Chongqing and the second from Guizhou. By this time she was writing up her experiences of the past year for her new book, and may have offered fewer stories to Manchester (there are no letters from her for this period in the archives).

When she reached Hong Kong and correspondence resumes, it is clear that the message which she wished to convey -- warning of the danger posed by the peace faction in the Kuomintang and calling for stronger allied commitment to China -- had less appeal to Crozier than her frontline dispatches. An article sent at the end of October, with the title given by her of “Zero Hour in East Asia”, argued that China had failed to get adequate help from the powers and that faced with Japanese peace overtures “there is no reason why China should develop altruism at the present moment.” However, Smedley concluded, “…the acceptance of Japan’s peace proposals would be a disaster for China and for other Asiatic countries. It would alter the course of history for the worse. This is Asia’s Zero Hour” [article accompanying letter of 30 Oct. 40].

Still hoping at this stage to return to Chongqing, Smedley asked the MG to supply her with an authorisation letter as its Special Correspondent. Crozier replied with the letter as requested, and told her that the paper was glad to have “an occasional article” from the Nationalist capital -- perhaps once a month or six weeks-- but “not at regular intervals.” Her article on Asia’s zero hour was not published.

By January 1941, the situation had grown even more alarming, with the destruction by Nationalist troops of the communist-led New Fourth Army and the consequent collapse of the united front. Smedley’s biographers have described her frustration, as “the foreign journalist who knew the New Fourth Army best, stuck in Hong Kong at the hour of the army’s greatest trial.” Once again she tried to interest the MG, telling Crozier that it was “an absolute essential that the British public be well informed” [letter of 23 Jan. 1941]. She enclosed one article, written with a “deep feeling of responsibility”, and said that two more would be on the way “by next Clipper plane via America. Only protests and pressure from England and America “-- primarily America --” could “prevent the disintegration that threatens China’s continued resistance.”

By the time these new articles arrived in Manchester, the MG had published an article sent earlier by Smedley giving the background to the catastrophe in Anhui. In it Smedley set out the New Fourth Army’s objections to the order from Chongqing to move north of the Yangtze River and abandon the territory it had liberated from the Japanese. The problem was one of power politics, she said. Self-seeking politicians and militarists were exploiting “the anti-Communist cry” to undermine the united front and pave the way for peace with Japan. Already in northwest China 150,000 of the best government troops had been withdrawn from fighting the enemy in order to draw a cordon around the (communist-led ) Eighth Route Army [AS 23].

Crozier’s reply to Smedley was not encouraging and none of the articles she sent after the New Fourth Army incident were used. “It would be inadvisable for you to send us anything more at present as papers here, including our own, have been severely reduced in size and we have little space left unfortunately for special articles” [Crozier to Smedley, 19 March 41]. All of this was true, but it seems likely that Crozier was also reluctant to follow Smedley’s unequivocal support for the Communist version of events. A month later he sent another letter warning her not to send too much material, and added:

“With regard to the troubles between the Chungking Government and the Communists, we would desire, within the narrow limits of the available space, to give something of the case for both sides, but the questions involved are so complicated that we cannot pronounce for one side or another” [letter of 24 April 1941].

Crozier may have been influenced by the advice of Harold Timperley, the MG’s former correspondent who had been working in London since 1939 as a publicist for the Nationalist government. Perversely (but not surprisingly for anyone in the newspaper business) Crozier appeared to value Timperley’s opinions more after he stopped working for the paper than before. In December 1940 Crozier had written to Timperley (who was about to move to New York) saying it would be helpful to hear his opinions about the policies of the US administration. He would also like to hear from Timperley when the latter visited China subsequently. Crozier added that he had heard “some rather disquieting details recently in a letter about the difficulties between the Chunking [sic] people and the Communists” [letter of 13 Dec. 40]. It seems likely that the letter in question was the one sent by Smedley to Crozier on 30 October referred to above.

The tenor of Timperley’s view, which ran counter to that of Smedley, can be gauged from a letter he wrote later in 1941 to Crozier after spending two and a half months in Chungking. He said that he was unable to find “any evidence of a pro-peace or pro-Japanese group of any consequence in Chungking.” He also took a less alarmist view of the KMT-CCP trouble: “I am afraid that we must expect outbreaks from time to time. One can only hope that it will be possible to keep them localised” [letter of 26 July 1941].

Smedley’s view, expressed in the two articles she had sent at the end of January (as a two-parter under the title of “The gathering storm”) was of a very different order. Unlike Timperley’s, it perceived a class basis in the struggle between the Nationalist government and the communists which was linked intimately to the war effort. In the first part she expressed her fear that Chungking would compromise with Japan to allow the crushing of the Communists. The Kuomintang, she argued, was “the small ruling party of the possessing classes” within which power was “further concentrated in the hands of a very few men”. Many of these believed that they had “more in common with the Japanese than with their own countrymen, Communist or non-Communist demanding the introduction of democracy”.

Smedley developed this argument in part two of the essay, insisting that “the problem is not one of Communism…”

“It is basically a problem of the democratic development of the country, as against the present dictatorship. Democracy includes not only political democracy, but basic economic and political reforms, long overdue, -- such as reforms in the backward, semi-feudal land system. These democratic reforms, either political or social, however, would affect the lives of the small class of land-owners, some merchants, and politicians who have made private fortunes out of the war. Many of these are leaders of the Central Government and are known in China as the ‘peace clique’”.

In this second, more personal, part of her essay, Smedley went on to describe how she had watched “the gathering storm” at the wartime provincial capital of Lihuang in Anhui where, after the death of a liberal governor his place was taken by a “reactionary general”. The head of the Mass Mobilisation Committee was accused of being a communist, and many such officials deserted to the New Fourth Army. They were not communists but “there was no other way left open to them to serve their country”.

In another personal passage, Smedley recalled how in Henan province one of the highest officials there, “a man of democratic mind educated in America, asked me, a foreigner, to do something he dared not do.”

“He asked me to report to Chungking at the arrest of a secretary of the Kuomintang in a district. This secretary, an old man, had organised the peasants in this district, into an anti-Japanese Peasants Association. The authorities feared any people’s organization of any kind and allowed none to exist. So the district magistrate went to arrest the secretary as a ‘Communist’. His son, a lad twenty years of age, protested, and was shot dead on the spot. When I left Honan, the old man was a labourer in a prisoner’s camp near Loyang.”

More illustrations followed of Smedley’s central theme: how the YWCA had been closed down in Kweichow for “discussing democracy”; how students who won scholarships to college were forced to join the KMT. And she concluded that “…now, finally, the storm has broken. ‘Whither China’ is indeed a question of every man’s lips today.”

It would be several years before the MG or any other newspaper in Europe paid much attention to the question of “Whither China” and Smedley’s powerful argument would have needed skilful cutting to find a space anywhere in the hard-pressed paper. Smedley now moved to California, telling Crozier that she still hoped to return to China and continue filing for the MG. She also reacted -- more sharply than in any previous correspondence with Crozier -- to the apparent involvement of another journalist, James Bertram, in her affairs.

When warning Smedley in April 1941 not to send too much material, Crozier said he had received a letter from “a Mr Bertram” saying that she was writing “a series of articles” for the paper: this, Crozier quickly stressed, would “not be possible”. Writing from Hollywood in August, Smedley said she was “astounded” at the intervention of Bertram who knew nothing about her articles.

“He and I have had many conflicts because he follows the Communist Party line entirely, and works for an institution entirely along that line, and has done much propaganda against me, saying the Chinese Communists object to me because I travel about, yet they cannot control what I write!” [letter of 15 Aug .1941].

Crozier sent a diplomatic reply to Smedley, assuring her that Bertram had said nothing more about her. If Smedley returned to China in the winter the MG would “certainly hope to have letters form you as before [letter of 27 Aug. 1941]. By this time she had decided to remain in the US and finish the manuscript of Battle Hymn. She informed Crozier of this and asked him to turn any future reprint royalties over to “some organization where it can do most good. For the time being I am earning sufficient to maintain myself” [letter of 1 Nov. 41] Crozier sent a polite acknowledgement saying he would act as she had asked. He offered good wishes for the book and was sure that “what you are doing will be helpful to the good cause” [3 Jan. 1942].

Smedley’s last article for the MG had appeared in the paper on 26 April 1941 [AS 24]: it was not datelined but refers to an episode in the previous year when she was in North Hupeh -- perhaps in the spring before she returned to Chongqing. Nor is it clear whether it was written later from Hong Kong in retrospect, or had been sent months before and was on hand to fill a convenient space. In any case, it represents Smedley’s impassioned and humane journalism at its best.

Smedley describes an encounter at dusk with a column of soldiers moving up to the front. She was asked by the commander to “say something” to his troops. She sought to encourage them by talking about all those in the West who supported the Chinese cause and were their friends. Her words had some effect:

“Suddenly a soldier jumped to his feet and shouted:

“Long live Llod Mayo of London: |Long live Llosevelt!”

The entire company shouted after him.

“Long live the --” The slogan leader had forgotten the names of the organisations I had mentioned, so he hesitated and then added: “All the people in the world who are our friends!”

The commander smiled proudly, turned to me, and said: “We must now move up.”

“Salute!” he shouted, and all the men arose and saluted. They shouldered their packs and rifles and were ready. They began to march. With a heart heavy with misery I marched with them up into the ravine. On the crest of a rise the commander said: “Do not come farther!” I took his hand, shook my head, and together we walked in silence. The ravine grew dark, and again he halted and said: “Go back. Goodbye.”

I stepped to the side and the men marched past me, each one turning his face to me. They were like shadows as they passed, and I reached out and touched them. Then they were all gone, and I stood until their figures blended with the darkness. Somewhere in the hills a shell burst and machine-guns hammered. Misery overwhelmed me."



I would like to thank the following for their kind help: Dr James Peters, Archivist, John Rylands University Library of Manchester; Gavin McGuffie, Archivist, Guardian Newsroom; Professor Stephen MacKinnon, co-author with Janice MacKinnon of the invaluable biography of Agnes Smedley.

John Gittings is former China specialist for The Guardian (UK), currently Research Associate at the Centre of Chinese Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and an Associate of the Oxford Research Group.

April 2005