Edgar Snow - A Biography


REVIEW by Willard Manus

"There are few better ways to track the erratic swings in American attitudes toward China than to review the career of Edgar Snow. John Maxwell Hamilton has written a better-than-fiction tale of the adventures of a remarkable American and a portrait of Asia in transition from the colonial period," said Seymour Topping in a New York Times review of EDGAR SNOW--A BIOGRAPHY when it was first published in 1988.

Now Hamilton's bio has been updated and published in a new edition by Louisiana State University Press ($19.95 ppbk). The book should restore the lustre to Snow's name, which was badly tarnished during the McCarthy period when he was denounced as a leftist and accused of having helped "lose" China to the Communist bloc. Now that the historical pendulum has swung the other way--China is our main trading partner--Snow has been justly rehabilitated in recent years, especially by Hamilton in his well documented and deftly written biography.

Snow was one of America's most famous journalists in the 30s and 40s. Born in Missouri, he was uniquely American in his love of independence for both himself and others. He wrote on many subjects but found his calling--and passage to the top of his profession--when he went to China in the summer of 1928. At that time, China was an Asian basket case, a vast country suffering from poverty, oppression and corruption. There was no central government, just competing warlords, whose existence and strength depended on the imperialist powers that had moved into China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A city like Shanghai, Snow found, was on the verge of upheaval. The people lived in hovels, raw sewage ran in the streets, disease was rampant and deadly. The Japanese, British and Europeans ignored these conditions, living as they did in affluent compounds much like our gated communities. For the most part, the U.S. treated China with indifference, seeing it only as a market for goods and a supplier of cheap labor for our mines and railroads.

Eventually Snow, who had learned to speak and read Chinese, discovered the Chinese Communists. In 1936, they held just small parts of the country, having been defeated by the nationalist armies of Chiang Kai-shek in previous battles. The ongoing civil war, he realized, was a potentially major story and he made every effort to get permission to visit the Red enclaves. Finally, he was able to achieve that goal, becoming the first Western journalist to meet and spend time with Mao-Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.

"Snow realized that the Chinese Communists were not Missouri democrats," Hamilton writes. "The CCP was authoritarian and wanted control of the entire country." At the same time, the Communist's program "forced a crude democratic dynamic on all of China," which was why Snow favored and even romanticized them, with great force, in RED STAR OVER CHINA. Throughout the book, though, he stressed that the Communists were revolutionaries who were laying the foundations for "a true Socialist society" that had place for neither imperialists nor Russian bolsheviks.

The latter reference displeased the American Communist Party, which attacked Snow for being "counter-revolutionary." Just about everyone else, though, recognized Red Star for the important and ground-breaking book it was. "Red Star will probably be the greatest book of reporting by an American foreign correspondent in this century," says Hamilton. "It remains an enduring historical record, a primary source on the early Chinese Communist movement, the lives of Mao, Chou, and other leaders; and the Long March." The book made Snow famous and (temporarily) wealthy, but this did not protect him from the red-baiters of the 1950s, who attacked him for his leftist sympathies and principles. Snow was smeared viciously, called a traitor and an apologist, resulting in twenty years of difficulty and near-poverty, capped by an attack of cancer.

Snow had the last laugh, though, when Richard Nixon, on the verge of his historic 1972 visit to China, wrote to him thusly: "I want you to know my thoughts are with you as are my prayers for your recovery. I know how confining a hospital must be for a man of your energy and enthusiasm, and I can only hope that it will strengthen you to know that your distinguished career is so widely respected and appreciated. My best to you always."

Snow died two days before Nixon's plane left Andrews Air Force base for Peking.