On May 7, 1950, Agnes Smedley made headlines for the last time in the U.S. press, when a spate of stories sought to explain her death in England under seemingly mysterious circumstances. Congressman Harold Velde, a former F.B.I. agent and zealous member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused »the Communists« of murdering her. Smedley, he argued, was about to return to the United States under subpoena and publicly reveal to his committee her activities as an espionage agent on behalf of the international Communist movement. Spokesmen for the new Chinese government in Beijing made the reverse accusation: Washington was responsible for Agnes Smedley's tragic death. Friends blamed the Cold War atmosphere, and some raised the possibility of suicide.
Smedley's career as a journalist and champion of the downtrodden in China, India, and elsewhere was recalled at memorial meetings in New York City. Moving eulogies were given by Edgar Snow, Harold Ickes, General StilwelPs widow, and others. The obituaries in Time and Newsweek concentrated on General Willoughby's charge, made public in 1949, that Smedley was still »at large« as a Soviet spy. It was because of this charge that no member of Smedley's immediate family attended a memorial service or sent a message.
Shortly before her death, Smedley had predicted a war in Korea or Vietnam that would bring on a military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over Asia. When war broke out in Korea a month after her death, it provoked a wave of anti-Communist hysteria and a witch-hunt led by the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Smedley was mentioned frequently as the woman who conspired to weaken U.S. policy and bring the Communists to power in China. Alfred Kohlberg charged:
Miss Smedley played an important part, by her writings and speeches, in bringing about the downfall of our friends in China, and the triumph of our enemies. General Douglas MacArthur revealed that she had acted as a Soviet espionage agent in connection with the Sorge spyring.
As a friend and adviser of General Stilwell, Agnes Smedley influenced that general's attitude. In his recent testimony General Marshall stated that he had been influenced in turn by General Stilwell. Americans who are confused about the situation in the Far East need not feel apologetic. The revealed confusion of General Marshall and General Stilwell, which stems in part from Agnes Smedley, who was not confused, furnishes a complete excuse for the confusion both in the press and in the public mind.
Despite such allegations as Kohlberg's, the F.B.I. closed its investigation of Smedley on June 27, 1952. After acknowledging that there was no evidence of party membership, the report concluded: »No facts have been developed which would indicate that subject was engaged in espionage activity on behalf of a foreign government nor have any further facts been developed as to her alleged espionage activity in the Far East as alleged by the Dept. of Army in the Sorge Case.«
One of the last entries in Smedley's F.B.I. file — dated October 11, 1954 — was a military intelligence report of an interview with an American soldier who had been taken prisoner by the Chinese during the Korean War; the soldier, it said, had been made to read portions of Daughter of Earth in an attempt to »educate« him about the evils of the capitalist system. This conveyed perfectly the extreme right's image of Smedley: she was the disloyal American whose willingness to show the weaknesses of the American system made her a tool the Communists could use in undermining the United States.
The charge that Smedley was a simple tool of the Communists — or, as Freda Utley claimed, a naive fellow traveler— obscures the true nature of Smedley's political life and moral commitment, in all its disturbing complexity. Beginning with her days on the Socialist Call in 1919, Smedley understood political advocacy as the heart and soul of journalism. As a working journalist, she considered it a part of her job to interpret events from her own political point of view, regardless of ideological positions taken by those in power. Thus in the 1920s she spoke out against Comintern opposition to the creation of a united front in India led by the bourgeoisie; in the 1940s she supported the China Aid Council, which supplied medical aid to the Guomindang. Most significantly, in the mid-1930s, the Chinese Communist guerrillas she loved had rejected her application for party membership, precisely because of her individualism. Moreover, if she was ever used politically, she was well aware of it and accepted the possibility of being labeled an apologist. In December of 1936, when she made daily broadcasts from Xi'an to counter Guomindang propaganda about the kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek, she knew what to expect.
By the time Smedley came under attack by General MacArthur's staff, she knew quite well that she could save herself personally if she would publicly denounce the Soviet Union and the American Communist Party. But as much as she hated some of the policies of the Soviet Union and despised the arrogance of many American Communists, she could not bring herself to do this. To Smedley, the Cold War rhetoric of the late 1940s seemed a reworking of the old British anti-Bolshevik propaganda of the late 1920s, a smokescreen designed to mask the building of a new American empire. Smedley was not convinced in 1950 that colonialism had been dealt a mortal blow, and she was bitterly disappointed with the United States for abandoning the anticolonial principles of the American Revolution. In addition, having witnessed Attorney General Palmer's anti-Bolshevik raids of the late 1910s and early 1920s, Smedley knew that politically innocent people would suffer as targets of indiscriminate ideological attacks by the right.
Throughout her life, Smedley's motivations for pragmatically aligning herself with the Communists were complex and varied from issue to issue. Also, she frequently defied both official Soviet and Chinese Communist positions, as when she voiced her support of Tito in 1948 and 1949. Although she considered violence a last resort, to be applied only after democratic processes had broken down, she accepted the Communist premise that only the threat of violence would cause a redistribution of power, an end to imperialism, and the redressing of social wrongs.
Loyalty was the most troublesome ethical issue that Smedley faced throughout her life. Interestingly enough, from the very beginning of her career the groups for which she chose to fight were reluctant to embrace her as one of their own. Even after her death, the embrace has been hesitant. To all, she lacked the key qualification for membership, the willingness to express uncritical public loyalty to an image or cause. Time and again she was denounced as a heretic because she was unwilling to accept the classification of anyone as an enemy if she herself judged that person to have good motives and ethical principles. When she defended such people as Dr. Robert K. Lin, Bishop Roots, and Anna Louise Strong and when she refused to renounce her American, Indian, and Chinese friends, she paid a political price. Smedley's insistence on the paramount right to decide for herself made her a thorn in the side of all groups and organizations. Although she publicly championed the Chinese Communist cause, Smedley openly criticized individuals she did not like, including Mao Zedong and Mme. Sun Yat-sen. Although she advocated birth control and Indian nationalism, she refused to idealize either women or Indians as a group.
Psychoanalysis in the 1920s helped Smedley turn her rage into creative anger, but it could not completely heal the wounds inflicted on her by the poverty of her youth and the discrimination she experienced as a woman. In her personal relationships, Smedley consistently took risks by insisting that any friend or lover must accept her exactly as she was. Throughout her life, sponsors or patrons tried to co-opt Smedley as an Eliza Doolittle figure, the lower-class girl who could be molded and made respectable. But Smedley remained fiercely independent, and in each case it was unclear at the end who had influenced whom the most, patron or protege. After analysis, she decided never to let a personal relationship compromise her professionally or politically. Her feminism focused on causes such as birth control, which offered increased freedom and power to women.
Smedley's extreme militancy made her pursuit of feminist emancipation most difficult and contradictory for her. Her attempt to resolve her own sexual conflict by renouncing the interdependence of men and women came at the cost of some loneliness, but it was this position — combined with her blatant refusal to abandon sexual pleasure in her thirties and forties — that made her an embarrassing maverick, not only to the public at large but to most of the women with whom she worked.
Smedley was once described as living in a world »full of dragons which she is forever battling«. Impetuous, often tactless, and always restless, her behavior bordered on the melodramatic. When depressed or feeling insecure, she often collapsed physically. But just as often, and seemingly overnight, she would bounce back to meet a major physical or political challenge with a burst of energy. Then she was happiest: singing cowboy songs, reciting bawdy limericks, organizing dancing parties, and madly gardening.
From the first years of her involvement with the Indian nationalist movement, Smedley idealized the martyr to principle. In 1949, although hunted and isolated, and even deserted by most of her liberal friends, she felt a certain sense of satisfaction in seeing what others had called her expressions of paranoia vindicated by the attacks from the right. These attacks became part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing her belief that the struggle for liberation from poverty and ignorance was a war in the literal sense, one in which she herself had become a martyr to principle.
Smedley's faith in the Chinese Revolution as led by the Communists sprang from the democratic spirit she had seen in the guerrilla armies with which she lived in the 1930s. That this democratic promise has yet to be fulfilled in the 1980s would have deeply disappointed her, and one wonders how she would have reacted to events in China during the 1950s and 1960s. Like Smedley herself, many of her close Chinese friends — the independent intellectuals Lao She and Liu Liangmo, for example, and the dedicated Communists Chen Hansheng, Zhou Libo, and Ding Ling — were eventually accused of disloyalty and punished when they criticized government policies or decried the lack of democracy within the Communist Party. It was a hopeful sign in 1978 when the Communist Party of China publicly acknowledged that the policy of treating these intellectuals as enemies had been a tragic mistake.
To the end, Agnes Smedley was a self-appointed warrior, a freedom fighter for the poor and powerless. She was also a fanatic gardener, a mother-figure for homeless »little devils«, and a woman who organized rickshaw pullers in Hankou to transport wounded soldiers. While she threw herself into practical work, such as medical relief in China, she assaulted the consciences of the rich and privileged, whom she bullied, cajoled, entertained, and insulted with lower-class bawdiness, defiance, and passion.
Smedley's militant and creative use of personal rage evoke the same disturbing emotions as do the images of the poor we find in the etchings by her friend Kathe Kollwitz. Like Kollwitz and Emma Goldman, she did not romanticize the poor or the working class, and she never glorified their way of life. Indeed, most of her close friends were from the middle and upper classes. And it may have been precisely this, her success in sending a radical message across class boundaries, that most frightened such China lobbyists as Kohlberg and Judd. The events of the last years of her life led Smedley to believe that American capitalist interests were opposed to the interests of the poor—in China and India, but implicitly in America as well.
Throughout her life, in her writings and her public statements, Smed-ley's self-appointed task was to communicate the desperate, endless nightmare of poverty and ignorance. Her goal was the overthrow of these two dragons. Her life was a battle, without truce or compromise, to that end.