Although Smedley was uneasy about their attitude toward her, it was to Ernest and Thorberg's parents in New York that she first went. »Mom« Brundin provided her with a hat and insisted that she wear gloves while interviewing for a job. The formula worked, and Smedley soon found work as a secretary. For a few months after arriving in New York, Agnes shared Thorberg Brundin's apartment in Greenwich Village, and it was basically among Thorberg's group of progressive friends that she first moved socially and politically. Thorberg herself had become a high school teacher and had joined the Socialist Party. Her local party organization had many intellectuals in it, and in their presence Smedley felt awkward, naive, and condescended to. Moreover, it galled her to hear them say that »life« and experience were more important than formal education. In Daughter of Earth she wrote: »They idealize the working class, and I feared they might not understand the things that grow in poverty and ignorance« (p. 242).
Thorberg's friends were the generation that first gave the Greenwich Village area a sense of community and an identity as a center for bohe-mian radicals. The Villagers of the prewar and war years were members of an intellectual community—mainly middle-class—dedicated to seeking new ways to implement social change in the larger society. Their intellectual quests, like those of many Americans prior to our entry into World War I, had a strong international thrust. For Smedley, their most impressive effort was the women's movement.
Whether the issue was suffrage, birth control, or opposing war and working for peace, women such as Jane Addams and Margaret Sanger always spoke in terms of an international sisterhood. They assumed that women, who struggled with the universal human problems of birth and death and raising a family, stood ethically above the politics of nationalism. This stance was consistent with Smedley's own position on suffrage (forged in the Normal School debate in Tempe in 1912) and also suited her distrust of male-dominated organizations. With the winning of the vote for women in New York state in 1917, the attention of suffragists was turning to other areas. Women novelists were advocating »equal opportunities« for sexual fulfillment. Women activists were becoming involved in the birth-control movement led by Margaret Sanger. And for several years before Smedley's arrival in New York, the New Feminist Alliance had been petitioning educational institutions, especially professional schools, to accept women students. The founder of the alliance, whom Smedley soon met through Thorberg, was the charismatic and flamboyant Henrietta Rodman, who wore sandals and loose-flowing gowns and, according to contemporaries, »invented Greenwich Village«. Like the many other intellectuals in the village who were voraciously reading anthropology and studying the new theories of Freud, Rodman believed that sexual roles were not universally the same, but varied according to culture. In short, she and her friends were evolutionary socialists who hoped to create a new society through legislation and education.
By the early spring of 1917, public concern about U.S. involvement in the war in Europe had become intense. Since the elections of 1916 a minority coalition of pacifists, Socialists, and intellectuals had been arguing vigorously that the United States should stay out of the war or should act only as a peace negotiator. Socialists, especially, thought that U.S. monopoly capitalism both supported the war and was leading the nation into it. But like others who joined them in the antiwar cause, they considered themselves patriotic Americans who were trying to persuade their fellow citizens by means of education and demonstration. By April, 1917, however, the majority of U.S. voters had become strongly pro-British. And after President Wilson signed the formal declaration of war, massive political witch-hunting soon destroyed the political potential of the Socialist Party. The practice of placing American civilians under domestic military surveillance was initiated, and with it the pursuit of Smedley by intelligence agents which would last for the rest of her life.
The Socialist group to which Thorberg belonged was actively antiwar and participated in a coalition called the People's Council for Peace and Democracy. In the summer of 1917 Smedley went with this group to antiwar rallies and began to speak to workers outside factories. As a speaker, she was shy and ineffectual. She recalled in Daughter of Earth: »Working men stood outside a factory to hear us, and in one such gathering someone pushed me forward and told me to speak to them... I have often heard or read in novels how a man or woman suddenly faced with great responsibility rises to the occasion; how eloquently and magnificently they speak or act until the audience breaks into wild applause. It seems that their rise to fame begins from that moment. But I was not a character in a novel, and I stood on the fender of the automobile, looking with astonishment into the up-turned faces of working men. I realized how very ignorant, how very confused, I was. Uttering a few empty sentences, I stepped down« (p. 250). But she felt strongly about the issue. It seemed to her that the war was most vehemently supported by the middle and upper classes, and she could not forget that it would be mostly poor young men, like her brothers, who, for want of a steady job, would fight the war and die in it. She wrote later in Daughter of Earth: »[Myrtle] wrote that she was doing war work. I opposed it, but she said one must do something for one's country. Whose country, I asked her—the country that would let her starve as it had our mother, become a prostitute as it had [Tillie], or be killed like a rat as was [John]« (p. 252).
Not long after she arrived in New York, she had received a letter from her brother John, now twenty-one years old and a day laborer in Oklahoma, in which he said only that he was in jail for stealing a horse. Smedley felt ashamed of his behavior and could not tell her new middle-class friends: »they would say my brother would have been justified had he stolen bread, when hungry, but he shouldn't have stolen a horse. Even I, who loved him dearly, felt this« (p. 242). But Smedley also felt partly to blame for not helping him more. She sent him an angry letter but enclosed money and said that he should have patience until she finished helping finance his sister Myrtle's schooling, for then she could help her brothers. The reply came in the form of a telegram from her youngest brother, Sam: John was dead. She learned a few weeks later that he had been killed on April 2, 1917, when the sewage ditch he was digging had fallen in on him and broken his neck. He had been buried beside his mother, and the company he worked for paid their father fifty dollars in compensation. Sam bitterly condemned Agnes for her letter to John, saying it was easy for her to criticize when she had a good job and would be entering a university again; he said he was tired of going hungry when he couldn't find work, and threatened to join the army if she didn't quickly send him enough money to enroll in a trade school. Overwhelmed by guilt, Smedley debated whether to give up her dream of a university education and take another job to help Sam. But Sam removed the dilemma by joining the army. Smedley felt caught. Because she was surrounded by a minority within the middle-class who, in their opposition to the war, romanticized the working class, she felt isolated. She knew that the men of her own family would support their country if they perceived a foreign threat. But she was more cynical about Myrtle's motivations; she believed her sister was responding in an acceptable middle-class way in order to make good her own escape into that class.
Because her main goals were to gain financial independence and success as a writer—which would require learning to translate her emotional reactions against racism and economic imperialism into convincing intellectual arguments — Smedley still felt she needed the background and polish of a university education. She began attending night classes at New York University, but in the classroom her inadequate background and relative inarticulateness only embarrassed her. She was also troubled by her feelings about sex. According to those who knew her during this period, she was a pretty, dynamic, sensual woman, and many men, intrigued by her frank curiosity and naivete, saw her as part »noble savage« and part child of the working class. She started having affairs, but she was over her head emotionally. Still viewing the sexual act as animalistic, she felt guilty, vulnerable, and wary of the men around her.
It was in a mood of frustration and emotional isolation, therefore, that Smedley attended a lecture by the Indian leader Lajpat Rai at Columbia University on March 10, 1917. Rai finished his speech as follows: »You Americans—can you be at peace in your minds when your system, your leisure that created culture, rests upon the enslaved bodies of others? Is this law of the jungle the law of life to you? If so, you are machines without a soul, without a purpose. I have spoken to you of the freedom for which we Indians are working; can it be that you, like England, believe in freedom only for yourselves? Your war is for democracy, you say. I doubt it — your principles do not extend to Asia, although Asia is three-fourths of the human race« (p. 264). Deeply moved by this challenge, Smedley approached Rai after the lecture and asked if she might meet with him. When she called on him the next Sunday, they had a long talk, at the end of which she was won over to the idea of studying to become a teacher in India. Rai told her: »We need teachers in India—teachers who come as friends, not conquerors«. As Smedley reflected in Daughter of Earth:
Then a man came into my life. A lover—no. But it was not my fault that he was not. For 1 was a turmoil of vague yearnings and of confusion. He was a teacher and a wise man. A dark man with white in his hair, a man from India, ugly and severe. There was a scar down one side of his face and one eye was blind. He stood for a brief hour upon the threshold of my life, and I think he always had a touch of scorn for me. Why he concerned himself with me at all is still inexplicable. Perhaps he was lonely in exile, or perhaps my need for affection, for someone to love, for someone to take the place of a father, was strong, and when I found a person who seemed to promise this, I did not lightly release my grip. For I was as primitive as a weed.
The impact of this meeting was enormous. Within weeks Smedley quit her job. She moved out of Thorberg's apartment and took a small room near Rai's residence. She began working as a secretary for Rai in the morning, attending classes at New York University in the afternoon, and then returning to Rai's in the evening to be tutored by him or others on Indian history and culture. Rai drove Smedley hard in her studies, and she responded with total commitment. In Daughter of Earth she wrote:
He worked with me although I was raw and ignorant of many things. I was not an interesting person to associate with and yet he worked with me and taught me, filling my life with meaning. He introduced me to the movement for the freedom of his people and showed me that it was not only an historic movement of itself, but it was a part of an international struggle for emancipation—that it was one of the chief pillars in this struggle. It was not a distant movement. Because I loved him as 1 might have loved my father, I learned more than I could have learned from any other source.
Through him I touched for the first time a movement of unwavering principle and beauty—the struggle of a continent to be free.
When Smedley first met Rai, she was feeling alienated from and socially inferior to Thorberg Brundin and her friends. But she was also defiantly determined to prove her worth. Meeting Lajpat Rai gave Smedley the chance to grow intellectually by studying Indian history, politics, and culture with a major intellectual of the time, in a non-threatening environment. Of more importance, working with Rai offered her a way to assuage the guilt she felt for putting her own needs for emotional and intellectual survival above those of other members of her family. Choosing a large, principled cause allowed her to look forward with hope, not backward in despair, and gave her a new sense of energy and purpose.
Since Lajpat Rai was Smedley's window to a new future, an understanding of who he was and the background of the overseas Indian nationalist movement up to 1917 is crucial to an understanding of Smedley's role in that movement.
Lajpat Rai, known as the Lion of the Punjab, had a broad political base in India. An experienced worker in religious and educational reforms and famine relief, he understood the enormous burden of poverty and illiteracy that would be bequeathed to an independent India after generations of British colonial rule. From this and his assessment of the world situation, he had already concluded that if India were given complete independence immediately, it might well be swallowed up by another imperialist power. He therefore advocated Indian self-rule within the British Commonwealth system, so that India could at least control its own internal affairs, especially its fiscal policy and armed forces.
In 1913, Rai had been sent to England by the Twenty-ninth Karachi session of the Indian Congress Party to present their position to the British Parliament. Toward the end of 1914, he came to the United States with a letter of introduction from a British Fabian, Sidney Webb, to Professor E. R. A. Seligman of Columbia University. He had planned only a brief fact-finding visit, but wartime restrictions on travel imposed by the British authorities in both Britain and India forced him to remain in exile in the United States for almost five years. From his initial introduction to Seligman, Rai created a group within the liberal intelligentsia who became more familiar with and sympathetic toward the nationalist cause. Much of the credit for attracting Americans to the cause of Indian nationalism during this period belongs to Rai. He built his network on missionary and mainstream support for the Anti-Imperialist League, formed in the 1890s, which in turn had grown out of the deeply American-rooted anticolonial opposition to the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines.* (* No to beconfused with the later League Against Imperialism, which was founded in Europa in 1928 and with which Smadley was involved (see Chapter 8.) Most of the initial spokesmen for the organization had earlier been active in the abolitionist movement. By the 1910s they had been joined by laissez-faire conservatives such as Andrew Carnegie, who feared that American democracy would be threatened by the enlarged military and administrative forces that would be needed to control a colony. Their arguments stressed the principle of government by consent.
With the exception of a five-month trip to Japan, Rai spent most of 1915 in California, where he concentrated on publishing articles in liberal magazines to introduce his cause to American academics, of whom Professor Arthur Pope of the University of California, Berkeley, became the most helpful to him.
In 1916 Rai made New York the base for his activities. Through his membership in the liberal Civic Club, he won the support of Irish Americans and their impassioned champion Francis Hackett, who broadened his dislike of British imperialism to become active in the Indian cause. Through Hackett, Rai met Oswald Garrison Villard, the publisher of The Nation and the New York Evening Post. A former member of the Anti-Imperialist League, Villard became an ardent supporter of the nationalist cause and opened The Nation to its spokesmen. The founder of the New Feminist Alliance, Henrietta Rodman, whom Smedley knew through Thorberg, also met Rai at the Civic Club. She soon took charge of the Civic Club's study sessions on India, and she remained an ardent advocate of the Indian nationalist cause until her death in the early 1920s.
In 1917 Rai helped to found the India Home Rule League of America. Supported by a majority of Indian nationalists in India, the Home Rule League urged all-out support for the British war effort but emphasized their expectation that self-government for India should soon be forthcoming. This position was undercut, however, by the activities of the much smaller Ghadar Party, which, encouraged by Germany, repudiated nonviolent agitation and sought to gain independence by revolution. Thus, despite the substantial wartime aid given to Britain, the Indian nationalist cause in America remained tainted by charges of conspiracy with Germany. Rai had met with members of the Ghadar Party in California in 1915, but he had refused to ally himself openly with them, because of their German connections and their willingness to use violence.
The majority of Ghadar Party members were hardworking Sikh farmers and laborers in California who felt provoked to their revolutionary position by the racism they had encountered as emigres trying to become citizens in the United States and Canada around the turn of the century. After constant harassment they had turned to the British government to protect their rights, but they received no help. When World War I broke out in July of 1914, the Ghadars saw the war as an opportunity to foment rebellion, and began sending Indians and arms back to India to lead it. At the same time, the British clampdown on all dissidence in India during World War I drove an increasing number of young Indian nationalists abroad, creating a numerically small but worldwide network connecting India to Japan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey, Persia, Mexico, Germany, and the United States. But the techniques and propaganda of these overseas nationalists were so blatant, and the planning of what to do when they arrived back in India so naively left undone, that the British had little trouble in violently putting down an attempted uprising in the Punjab in February 1915. Until then, the Ghadars in California appear to have been financially independent, supported by donations from the overseas Indian community. But after the failure of the February effort, they began accepting financial aid and technical advice from the German government through a Berlin-based committee of Indian nationalists. Rai, however, had strenuously objected to this later policy of accepting aid from the Germans.
The leadership of the Ghadars was mostly in the hands of young and politically inexperienced students and intellectuals like Ram Chandra, whom Smedley had heard speak in Fresno, California, in 1916. With repeated failures in India and growing financial aid from Germany, factionalism was inevitable. Differences grew particularly sharp between the predominantly Sikh rank and file in California and the smaller group of mainly Bengali intellectuals centered in New York, who were in direct contact with the Germans and the Indians in Berlin.
As the United States moved toward a declaration of war on Germany, emotional ties to Britain were increasingly stressed, contravening the Indian nationalist cause. By the time of Rai's talk at Columbia in March, 1917, the U.S. government was cooperating with the British in attempts to suppress the nationalist movement and arrest its radical spokesmen as participants in a German plot. In fact, for weeks before Rai's lecture the British had been using informers to try to ensnare one Indian student who was thought to have received aid from the Germans for his conspiratorial activities. New York City policemen attended the lecture. At its conclusion, a plainclothesman singled out a young Bengali, M. N. Roy, his bride, Evelyn Trent, and Herambalal Gupta and pushed them into a waiting car. After several hours of investigation Trent and Roy still refused to say anything, but Gupta was more cooperative. All three were then released and put under surveillance. The next day, the New York Evening World splashed »spy plot« headlines across its front page. Gupta had supposedly told police that a German had given him money to purchase arms in the United States and ship them back to India. »The easy carelessness of American tolerance has given way to a sternness befitting the time and danger«, said the New York Times. It condemned the Indians and praised the New York police.
British propaganda continued to portray Germans, radicals, and anarchists as the real masterminds behind the Indian nationalist movement, and by blurring the distinction between revolutionary and nationalist, it tried to discredit the nationalist movement as a whole. The British were also quick to publicize any information that connected Russian radical revolutionaries with the nationalists. On January 9, 1917, en route to New York, Leon Trotsky had reportedly said: »If we [Bolsheviks] were really logical we would declare war on England now for the sake of India, Egypt, and Ireland«. Soon after his arrival in New York, Trotsky met in the Bronx Public Library with one of the Indian nationalists who were dealing with Berlin. On March 6, four days before the Rai lecture at Columbia, this same Indian's home was searched at the instigation of a British agent. The Indian was taken to New York police headquarters, where he admitted his ties with Germany. A grand jury indicted him on charges of conspiracy on March 9. Trotsky left New York at the end of March, but his boat was intercepted by the British around Nova Scotia; Trotsky was arrested and held for one month in a British prisoner-of-war camp.
Publicity given to these arrests helped turn American opinion against the Indian nationalists. The public did not seem surprised, therefore, when on the morning of April 16, before President Wilson had signed the House resolution declaring war on Germany, the Justice Department ordered the arrest of Ghadar Party newspaper editor Ram Chandra and sixteen other Indians involved in the »German-Hindu conspiracy«. Not until the afternoon of April 16 were seventy Germans arrested as dangerous to the security of the United States. The Indian nationalist movement was further discredited in the eyes of the public when a connection was drawn in the press between the leader of the Ghadar Party and two American anarchists, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, arrested under the Espionage Act. Then on July 7, 1917, a San Francisco grand jury returned indictments for conspiracy against 105 men in the Annie Larsen gun-running case, and on July 12 it indicted 19 more. This was the same case that the Justice Department had refused to pursue earlier that spring, for lack of evidence. Now it was claimed that the Hindu-German conspiracy had begun three years earlier, when Indians and Germans met to prepare a military expedition. The Justice Department's arrest of Hindus in New York and Chicago—whom it considered agents of a worldwide Indo-German conspiracy against the United States' new wartime ally — was part of the growing political repression of the war period.
Working for Rai, Smedley met a number of the more radical nationalists who came to him, as a senior statesman, for advice and support. Rai pleaded for a moderate response to the growing repression. Two Bengalis, Sarindranath Ghose and M. N. Roy, along with Roy's wife, Evelyn Trent, fled to Mexico in May to avoid possible arrest. Before their departure, they introduced Smedley to the more radical ideas advocated by the Ghadar Party in California«.** (** Both Ghose and Roy were fresh from a bomb-throwing, Robin Hood-like nationalist movement in Bengal. They were revolutionary only in the sense that they advocated the violent overthrow of the British government in India. At this point, neither had much knowledge of Marxism. Ghose had joined the Bengal independence movement when he was a teenaged physics student and had been forced underground in 1915. Late in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, he was sent to the United States to improve contact between the Ghadar Party and the Bengal movement. Ghose went first to Callfornia, where he became a member of the Ghadar Party, and then, in mid-February of 1917, to New York, where he moved in with Roy and Trent. Roy was in touch with the Berlin Committee of nationalists who were cooperating with the Germans, and he had himself just arrived in New York via East Asia and Callfornia. (Samaren Roy, "M. N. Roy in America," Radical Humanist 47, no. 1 [March 1983]: 23-30; John P. Halthcox, Communism and Nationalism in India [Princeton, N.J., 1971], chapters 1 and 2.)
From Roy and Ghose, Smedley learned about the activities of Bengalis like Taraknath Das, a U.S. citizen who in the spring of 1917 was in Japan to expedite the smuggling of guns and men into India. From Roy, Ghose, and others Smedley heard an exaggerated picture of the »revolutionary« potential of overthrowing the British in India. Moreover, most of the Ghadar rank and file whom Smedley had met earlier in California were Sikh farmers and working people with whom she could easily identify. As a countervailing force there was only her mentor, Lajpat Rai, who cautioned her repeatedly about the romanticism of the Ghadar movement. But increasingly, because Smedley had never been to India, she became persuaded by the Ghadar argument that Rai was representing only the viewpoint of the upper class and landowners of India.
By the fall of 1917, buoyed by news of the Russian Revolution in October, Smedley began to reject Rai's advice and embrace the more radical Ghadar movement and such leaders as Taraknath Das and Ghose. In November she began serving as a kind of New York agent in an elaborate plot engineered by Ghose and Das in San Francisco to win recognition for the overseas independence movement.
In Mexico in mid-1917 Sarindranath Ghose had conceived the idea of establishing an internationally based Indian National Party. It was to act in a more radical and independent way than the Indian National Congress ever could in colonial India; it would represent Indian interests abroad; and ultimately it would become a government in exile. In those days Ghose was associating with Communists like Michael Borodin and was reading Marx for the first time; he found the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 exhilarating. By November, he was back in the United States, living secretly in San Francisco and working on the establishment of the Indian National Party. Das, too, had returned to San Francisco in November to stand trial on charges relating to the Indo-German conspiracy cases pending since the arrests of the previous spring and culminating in the San Francisco »Hindu conspiracy« trial of 1918. When Das was released on bail, he shared an apartment with Ghose.
From November, 1917, to March, 1918, Smedley worked with Das and Ghose in a naive bid to win recognition for the Indian National Party. Special stationery marked »Diplomatic Correspondence« and a set of official-looking seals were purchased. The plan was to issue documents that fabricated the existence of such a party at the branch level both within and outside India, explained its purpose, and asked for recognition by foreign governments. These documents were written by Ghose and Das in San Francisco on stationery reading »Tagore Castle, Calcutta«, then sent from New York to President Woodrow Wilson and diplomatic representatives of various countries in Washington, D.C. Cover letters were written and signed in New York by Pulin Behari Bose, special representative of the Indian National Party in the United States. Bose was, in fact, an assumed name; it was Agnes Smedley who wrote and signed the cover letters and sent the material to Washington. The mailing of letters and documents began in early December of 1917, with the majority sent the next month. Often embassies refused to accept the packets and returned them to Smedley's Waverly Place address in New York. (On occasion Smedley would sign such correspondence as »M. A. Rogers, Secretary to P. B. Bose« — a foreshadowing of Marie Rogers, the heroine of Smedley's Daughter of Earth.) At about this time, Das and Ghose sent a strongly worded appeal to Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in Moscow, seeking support for Indian independence and for Indian nationalists under arrest in the United States and elsewhere, but this they sent directly from San Francisco and not through Smedley in New York.
Ghose in particular wanted to go to Russia and make direct contacts, and Smedley offered to help through her connections with Robert Minor and other new pro-Bolshevik friends in New York. Indeed, Ghose was probably on his way to Moscow when he left San Francisco for New York early in March of 1918.
By mid-April of 1918, Smedley had survived two traumatic events: one, of a very personal nature, would undermine her emotionally and its future disclosure would be used to discredit the political positions she represented; the other, of a public nature, would propel her career to a new stage of prominence and give her credibility on the left.
Smedley had carried her unresolved attitudes toward sex into her work with the Indian community of male nationalists. Besides having found a father figure in Lajpat Rai, Smedley felt that she had a »family« among men who agreed with her that sex was an evil to be controlled or suppressed for the higher ideals of the cause. Within the Hindu tradition, single women are looked upon as evil temptresses. A woman does not have a positive image or high status until she is married and has children. Single men or women who indulged in sex were considered morally weak and rendered powerless as leaders. After Smedley became involved with the Indian nationalists, it appears that she stopped having affairs. Although the Indian community provided a safe haven from the promiscuous atmosphere of Greenwich Village, total denial of her sexuality did not make Smedley any less vulnerable. Sometime in mid-February her defenses broke down.
The man's name was Herambalal Gupta. He was a veteran Bengali nationalist in his late thirties who had been released on bail after his arrest on the night of Rai's lecture almost a year earlier. After reading the ambiguous accounts in the press, some Indians had expressed the fear that he had given the police the names of other Indians with German connections, and he was thought to be bitter about his loss of position within the movement after his arrest. He came late one night to Smedley's apartment on Waverly Place, seeking information on the whereabouts of Ghose and to say good-bye before leaving town. As Smedley reconstructed it in Daughter of Earth:
I sat staring back and up at him hearing my jeering voice reply: »I am not interested in anything about you!«
But something had weakened within me even as I jeered, and I was confused.
His voice was close to my ear and it was saying, »Are you quite certain you are not interested?« His hands closed softly, firmly, on my shoulders, and then slid gently down along my arm and caught my hands in a warm, trembling grip
»Why do you lie to me?« he whispered. »Why?... tell me the truth... Was [Ghose] here?«
I jerked. »No ... let me go!«
Arising, he drew me firmly to my feet, holding me still in a vise - like grip from the back...
»Let me go!... Do you hear?« I jerked in blind fear, for I liked him and a yearning in my blood, long suppressed in shame, had begun to struggle with my mind. It grasped at the words that followed:
»Dear... you love me, don't you?«... The lips were very hot.
When I felt the trembling a blind panic seized me and something closed in upon my throat. Quickly he whirled me into his arms and his big shoulders crushed me. »Don't!« My voice was choking. »Don't... you see...«. My mind could no longer think. ... I struggled, gasping for breath, about my waist a cold, fearful trembling, so cold it froze me. The room became a whirring, blurred image, then clear, then whirring. Terror... the shadow of dark outspread wings of a bird, swooping ... he was carrying me in his arms... his lips were hot as fire... and his body had hurled itself upon me.
As he was about to leave her apartment, Gupta asked Smedley not to tell anyone. »It would ruin me in my work... you know how our men regard such things as this. Do you hear?« After he had gone, Smedley found fifty dollars on the table. Overwhelmed by guilt and shame and realizing that her own work was also compromised, she once again attempted suicide, this time by blowing out the flame on the gas jet. Her landlady smelled the gas and entered to find Smedley unconscious on her bed. She awoke in a hospital bed.
In spite of her secret worries that her work in the movement might be compromised if the incident with Gupta became known, a public event occurred in mid-March that deepened Smedley's commitment to the Indian nationalist cause and strengthened her position with the movement's leaders. Ironically, it would also begin the process of making her private life a matter of public record.
By March of 1918, Smedley was living quietly in her apartment on Waverly Place, trying to recover psychologically from Gupta's attack, doing mailings for the Indian National Party, and waiting for Ghose's arrival from San Francisco. She did not know that immigration authorities and representatives of the Justice Department had been monitoring Ghose's and Das's mail in San Francisco and intercepting their correspondence with her and others. On the morning of March 15, 1918, military intelligence officers and representatives of the Justice Department ransacked Smedley's apartment and brought her uptown for questioning. A stakeout at her apartment netted Ghose two days later, fresh from San Francisco.
For two weeks Smedley was alternately interrogated and held in solitary confinement. Her moral indignation was fueled by the tone of police interrogations, and she recorded her feelings later in Daughter of Earth:
An inner door at last opened and I was led down an inner hall and into a long room.
I gave my name, parentage, nationality. No, I was not of German birth, nor were my parents. Very, very certain. My father was of Indian descent, my mother an old American also. Indians from India? No, American Indians.
Other men entered, bearing everything from my room—my books, my clothing, even my soiled laundry. I watched them, speechless. They made a little pile of the books—in horror I saw the black notebook among them.
The notebook contained a sheet of paper with the names and addresses of Indian nationalists. Seeing it, Smedley quickly tried to shift the focus of attention to herself by demanding to see a lawyer. Her examiner claimed that this wasn't necessary because she wasn't formally under arrest. Since she was just being questioned, they said, she had no right to demand anything. They then tried to intimidate her by attacking her character.
»Miss [Smedley]: do you smoke?«
»Do you curse?—here is a letter in which you use the word 'damn' rather freely«. He was reading through my private letters. They had been stealing my mail!
»To what church do you belong? Oh—you are not a Christian? Then do you believe in God? No! What do you mean, young woman! What is your religion?—are you a yogi?«
I glanced about the room—at the well-fed men, at the Englishman in the corner, at the thin-lipped examiner, and then at the black notebook on the table. I sat down again.
»That's it, just take your time and talk«, one of them said.
I looked up. »Leave me in peace. I will have nothing to do with you«.
»Young woman—this is wartime and it is dangerous to play with the United States!« >The United States!< Well, I'm as much a part of the United States as you are—and more than that sausage in the corner with his English accent!«
»It will not go easier with you if you are fresh! I know you think you are being a grand person, protecting these yellow dogs you have been running around with«.
»Asiatics—you know what I mean!«
»Here is a letter you wrote to [Ghose] a few days ago telling him how to escape from the country! You knew he was a fugitive from justice! Your duty as a citizen was to notify the police. Where is the man?«
I watched the Englishman in the corner—my duty as a citizen indeed!
»I don't know what you are talking about«, I replied.
»You are lying! We have no intention to fool about with a German spy!«
»Who are you calling a German spy, you! You dirty English spies, you!«
The men arose to their feet, and the examiner, red as if I had struck him, shouted: »We will arrest [Lajpat Rai] at once!«
When Smedley acknowledged that she knew Rai, they asked if he had given her money for her »services«. They then threatened to tell the press some interesting facts about her personal life unless she cooperated. When she refused, they told her that hers was a »silly attempt to pose as a martyr« and then booked her as a federal prisoner and put her into solitary confinement. She wrote: »I lay trembling on the cold bars of the bed and closed my eyes... perhaps my body would warm the steel. The night wore on. How shivering cold it was — would the dawn never come? What would tomorrow bring? Suppose they found the notebook—and the men were jailed and their comrades would think I had betrayed them! A black notebook took form in my mind until it seemed my head itself was a black notebook« (p. 305).
Smedley's arrest was reported in the New York Times on Tuesday, March 19, 1918: »Important evidence bearing on a plot to cause uprisings in India against British rule has come into the possession of the Government as the result of the arrest yesterday of Miss Agnes Smedley, an American girl, also known as Agnes Brundin«. Ghose was described as the »directing genius« of the plot. The article went on to emphasize the international contacts of Smedley and Ghose, especially to Leon Trotsky, and ended: »When Commissioner Shields suggested to Miss Smedley that she might aid her country by helping to expose the conspiracy, she repudiated the suggestion«.
Learning of the arrest, Ernest Brundin in California dropped his studies, his job, and the courtship of his future bride Elinor and left immediately for New York to see what he could do to help Smedley. Firm in the face of physical abuse, threats, and promises of leniency in exchange for information, Smedley and Ghose were taken before Judge A. N. Hand on April 1, 1918, and indicted under the Espionage Act for attempting to stir up rebellion against British rule in India, thereby abetting the German enemy, and for representing themselves as diplomats; Smedley was also charged with violating a local ordinance against disseminating birth control information. Both were put into Manhattan's Tombs Prison; bail was set at $10,000 for Smedley and $20,000 for Ghose.
Because of the birth control charge, Margaret Sanger rallied to Smedley's defense, along with other New York liberals and Socialists. The attempt to raise the required $10,000 bail was led by Sanger and a leading New York Unitarian clergyman, J. H. Holmes, known as the »patron saint« of Protestant pacifists and a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. The Socialist Party newspaper, the Call, ran a story after the indictments asking for contributions to a newly formed defense fund. One of the country's most prominent constitutional lawyers, Gilbert Roe, took the case for »whatever the defendants could afford to pay«. Roe, a law partner of Senator La Follette and a friend of many prominent liberals such as Senator George Norris, had a reputation for defending the poor, liberals, and organized labor.
On May 16 Congress passed the Sedition Act, which provided heavy penalties for those who hindered the war effort by making false statements, obstructing enlistment, or criticizing the production of war materials, the American form of government, the Constitution, or the flag. Enforcement was aimed against Socialists and pacifists.
One June 11, a second indictment against Smedley for violating the Espionage Act was filed in San Francisco. Ghose, Das, Bhagwan Singh, William and Marian Wotherspoon — a liberal lawyer and his wife — and Bluma Zalaznek, a young Russian woman, were included in the charges. By this time the newspapers were characterizing Zalaznek as the »reputed leader of the Bolshevik Party in San Francisco«, but Smedley had never met or corresponded with either Zalaznek or the Wotherspoons.
By the summer of 1918, bail was raised and Smedley was released into the custody of her counsel, Gilbert Roe. Margaret Sanger threw a party to celebrate her release and raise bail money for Ghose.
The indictments against the Indian nationalists and Smedley should be viewed in the context of the war effort and the growing concern, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, about the »red menace«. Another example of the government's escalating paranoia was the June 30 arrest of Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs on charges of interfering with military recruitment and his subsequent September 14 sentence of ten years' imprisonment.
At first, both the American and British governments thought the influence of the Revolution of 1917 was a madness that would pass. But Lenin's peace treaty with Germany, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, just a few weeks before Smedley's arrest, gave cause for grave concern. In it, Bolshevik Russia renounced two hundred years of history and acknowledged the »independence« of Poland, the Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Germany was at the height of its military success. Through puppets placed at the heads of new states, Germany now dominated eastern Europe. The naval blockade of food supplies was somewhat offset by shipments of foodstuffs from the Ukraine. It was no longer a two-front war, as much of the German army was shifted from the east for a massive blow to France, in an attempt to end the war.
Thus with the signing of the treaty Russia became the object of Allied hostility. Russian Czarist reactionaries, liberals, and various anti-Leninist Socialists including the Mensheviks scattered in all directions and began to organize resistance, receiving substantial aid from the Western Allies. In August the Allies, including the United States, launched a military expedition at Vladivostok against the Bolshevik menace. In war-weary Russia, the civil war increased in intensity and violence in reaction to the extreme scarcity of food.
In the spring months following Smedley's arrest, the Germans opened a final offensive, hoping to end the war before American participation, only a year old, could turn the balance. But by July the Germans were overextended. About 250,000 American troops were landing in France every month. In September, the Allied offensive opened and proved to be more than the Germans could withstand.
Unrest in India also continued. On March 21, the India Office in London announced that an uprising in the Baluchistans had been put down by air strikes which »on two occasions recently bombed tribal concentrations with effect«. This first concentrated bombing of civilians from the air appears to have aroused no indignation from the general public in Allied countries. It was in this atmosphere that, in August of 1918, the U.S. government summed up its case against the San Francisco »Hindu conspirators«, labeling them tools of German agents and appealing to the jury to »hold the line for democracy«.
The San Francisco Hindu conspiracy trial was sad but colorful, with testimony by undercover agents and informers taken out of six British prisons around the world. One informant went mad in his cell; one Indian, after killing Ram Chandra during the trial itself, was in turn shot dead by a marshal. The jury found all the defendants, with the exception of an American millionaire shipbuilder from Long Beach, guilty of conspiring to launch a military expedition.
The growing arrests and publicity given to Indians, anarchists, and spies helped to create the climate in which a bill passed by Congress on October 16 provided for the deportation of alien anarchists. On October 14, 1918, Smedley appeared in court; an unsuccessful attempt was made to extradite her to San Francisco. Legal wrangling continued throughout October as Roe fought to keep Smedley and Ghose in New York and out of prison and to have their arrests declared illegal. On the last day of October, Smedley was again in court, and this time she was sent back to jail.
The jail experience further alienated Smedley from establishment views, and her cellmates, despite differences in background, sharpened her political thinking and sense of commitment. The two fellow prisoners who made the greatest impression on her were Mollie Steimer and Kitty Marion. In addition to joking about rats, bed bugs, and cockroaches, she wrote to Margaret Sanger: »Kitty, Mollie Steimer, and I have wonderful meetings when we can dodge in some corner of the cell. Kitty is turning the place into a birth control branch. And she has held a meeting. And her friends are writing out demanding that their parents and friends vote Socialism!«
Steimer was a young follower of Emma Goldman serving a fifteen-year sentence for circulating leaflets in opposition to U.S. intervention in the Russian civil war. She was twenty-one years old and had come to New York from her native Ukraine five years earlier. Pasted in red on the walls of her cell was the slogan »Long Live the Social Revolution« and newspaper photographs of Karl Liebknecht, Eugene Debs, and John Reed. Steimer was totally dedicated to the cause of worker and class struggle. Every afternoon after the cell doors clanged shut, she would stand grasping the steel bars and speak in simple English. Smedley wrote:
The three tiers would become silent and only an occasional question would interrupt her talk... Mollie championed the cause of the prisoners—the one with venereal disease, the mother with diseased babies, the prostitute, the feeble-minded, the burglar, the murderer. To her they were but products of a diseased social system. She did not complain that even the most vicious of them were sentenced to no more than 5 or 7 years, while she herself was facing 15 years in prison. She asked that the girl with venereal disease be taken to a hospital; the prison physician accused her of believing in free love and in Bolshevism. She asked that the vermin be cleaned from the cells of one of the girls; the matron ordered her to attend to her own affairs—that it was not her cell. »Lock me in«, she replied to the matron; »I have nothing to lose but my chains«.
Kitty Marion was already a legend in Margaret Sanger's birth control movement. A veteran of Mrs. Pankhurst's suffragette wars in London, she was in the Tombs on a thirty-day sentence for giving a pamphlet on birth control to an agent of the notorious Association for Suppression of Vice. Kitty also knew how to turn a prison into a school for political education. In dealing with prison authorities and her cellmates, she rarely lost her focus on the birth control issue or her sense of humor. In Smedley's words, »Kitty came clattering down the stone corridors every morning with her scrub pail in her hand. >Three cheers for birth control,< she greeted the prisoners and matrons. And >three cheers for birth control,< the prisoners answered back«.
While in prison, Ghose and Smedley met Roger Baldwin, who later founded the American Civil Liberties Union. Baldwin spent three weeks in the Tombs at the beginning of a long jail term for his public support of conscientious objectors. Smedley could only wave to Baldwin through the window of the women's section, but Baldwin and Ghose had long talks about what could be done to arouse American support for Indian independence. Baldwin was an anticolonialist who supported Irish independence. According to him, the Irish at this time were making it very clear that they regarded continuing British rule of India as the biggest obstacle to the freedom of all colonial peoples, including themselves. Prison terms only reinforced the anticolonial views of all three: Ghose, Baldwin, and Smedley.
On November 19 the fighting ended in Europe, but Smedley and Ghose remained in the Tombs. In the month that followed, Lajpat Rai and other moderate Indian nationalists managed to generate support among some American liberals to petition President Wilson for consideration of Indian independence at Versailles. Official Washington, however, had decided not to challenge the British Empire. Although the Labor Department was not confident it could use the new aliens bill to deport Indian nationalists, nevertheless, in December of 1918, immigration authorities appeared at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to interview Indians convicted during the war, with the intention of deporting them to India.
Early in December, Smedley was released on bail provided by Henrietta Rodman, and Ghose was also let out on bail, which in the end was reduced to $6,000. The judge had ruled that neither of them could be extradited to San Francisco. Their attorney, Gilbert Roe, had argued that now, with the war over, to pursue the indictments would be interpreted as indicating America's intention to do away with its long-established right of political asylum. But although extradition attempts were dropped, the original indictments were not.
Building in the background was the Red scare arising out of the government's fear of the impact of the Russian Revolution on the American left. British intelligence was doing its part by continuing to emphasize to the American government the connections among American liberals, radical leftists, and Indian nationalists. Thus even moderate nationalists in New York, such as Lajpat Rai and his Home Rule League, became suspect.