The Last Act - 1948-1950

By the time Agnes Smedley was leaving Yaddo under a cloud, the civil war in China had taken a dramatic turn. The Communist counter-offensive launched in late 1947 had proved more successful than anyone anticipated. Chiang Kai-shek's armies, badly overextended and poorly led, were quickly driven from Manchuria, and large numbers of Guomindang troops and their equipment were captured. The old guerrilla capital of Yan'an in the northwest was recaptured. By April of 1948 the Communist armies were in control of the countryside north of the Yellow River, and major cities like Beijing and Tianjin were at their mercy. And it was reported that they were preparing a major campaign in Shandong, China's most populous coastal province, which straddles the mouth of the Yellow River.
This news from China cheered Smedley and relieved some of her anxiety about the break with Elizabeth Ames and the problem of finding food and shelter. In her speeches she spoke out more strongly than ever against the hopelessness and immorality of continued U.S. aid to Chiang Kai-shek. At the same time, however, her political enemies began to attack her more vigorously and to lobby for more U.S. aid to Chiang Kai-shek. Thus Alfred Kohlberg, after a visit to Tokyo in which he stayed at General Willoughby's home, devoted an entire editorial in his magazine Plain Talk to Willoughby's still secret report that included the charges that Smedley was a Soviet spy, »at large« since 1930, who had engaged in »traitorous« conduct.[1]
Under pressure from Kohlberg and others, such as the editors of Counter-Attack, to support their allegations, the F.B.I. was anxious to make a breakthrough in the Smedley case. Privately, Hoover was concerned about the lack of concrete evidence. In April of 1948, after receiving from the army copies of Willoughby's detailed sixty-four-page report about the Sorge spy ring and Agnes Smedley's role, he seemed unconvinced and commented in a memo to a bureau chief: »It is readily apparent that the author of the report was involved with motives to the detriment of facts regarding the operations of the Sorge group«.[2] Moreover, Hoover saw little evidence as yet of a connection between the Sorge group in the Far East and Soviet espionage in the United States. In anticipation of future requests for more information about Smedley, the F.B.I. felt under pressure to find the necessary evidence. Hoover chastised his Albany bureau for having been half-hearted about the Smedley case and ordered them to continue their investigation of Smedley even though she had moved from their jurisdiction. The New York bureau was now given major responsibility for the case and was urged to step up the investigation of Smedley so as to produce every shred of evidence about her alleged Soviet spy connection.[3]
When Smedley fled Yaddo in March of 1948, she went first to Thorberg Brundin's farm at New Paltz and then, about two weeks later, to New York City, where she moved in with Mildred Price, a friend and China medical relief worker. As if to demonstrate that she could not be intimidated politically, she spoke publicly and wrote letters in adamant opposition to the proposed Mundt-Nixon bill in Congress, which would require the registration of alleged Communist-front organizations. Her China speeches became more strident. For example, at a »Get out of China« rally on April 4, 1948, in New York's garment district, she denounced U.S. imperialism in China and bluntly criticized General Marshall and President Truman. Sharing the podium with her were the singer Paul Robeson and the former warlord Feng Yuxiang, an old political opponent of Chiang Kai-shek's who had come to the United States to sell himself to Washington as a viable alternative to Chiang.*
(* Paul Robeson (1898 -1976), a Phi Beta Kappa at Rutgers, the first Black Ail-American football player, and a graduate of Columbia University Law School, was considered to be one of the most accomplished Black artists of his generation. Although he never joined the Communist Party, Robeson was well known as a fellow traveler. Like others who had suffered discrimination in the United States, Robeson found the alternative ideology as preached by the Soviet Union, championing the poor and minorities, to be attractive. Just as Smedley's defense of the Chinese Communist Party stiffened when she came under attack, Robeson's views on Russia were only reinforced by the personal attacks on him after the start of the Cold War. See Paul Robeson, Here I Stand (New York, 1958).)
By supporting Feng, Smedley and the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy hoped to encourage the formation of some kind of new coalition government with the Communists that could end the civil war. But Feng was rebuffed in Washington and afterward stormed off to seek aid from Moscow. (He died in a ship fire while crossing the Black Sea.)[4]
By June Smedley had worked out a new living arrangement. Since her arrival in New York in 1942, she had kept in touch with her old friend Josephine Bennett and Bennett's husband, Ricard Brooks.*
(*Jo Bennett, an heiress to a railroad fortune, had been Margaret Sanger's secretary when she met Smedley in 1919. She found in Smedley a common devotion to women's rights, the birth control movement, and Margaret Sanger, and the two became close friends. She had nursed Smedley back to health in Berlin after an appendicitis operation in 1927, and Smedley had visited her in Paris before leaving for China in 1928. In the early 1930s, she married Ricard Brooks, an independently wealthy mural and portrait painter, and Smedley had visited the couple in Paris in 1934. In 1948, Jo Bennett Brooks was still active in birth control work {New York Times, obituary of Ricard Brooks, June 23, 1954; interview with David and Mary Loth).)
The Brookses, who knew Agnes well, foibles and all, now invited her to live with them at Sneeden's Landing, a village nestled in the woods near Palisades on the western bank of the Hudson River, about an hour by train from Manhattan. By mid-June Smedley had settled in at Sneeden's Landing and, with the F.B.I. watching, was giving speeches in nearby towns opposing the Nixon-Mundt bill and supporting Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign on the Progressive Party ticket.[5] On September 13, in a letter to Aino Taylor, she described her new life on the banks of the Hudson and her return to large-scale gardening:

I moved to the half-built country home of the Brooks family—old friends of mine—where I have a very small room and a private bath. The couple have also moved in and by winter the house will be in good condition. For weeks I abandoned my book—mental shock over conflict at Yaddo and, after coming here, the hammering of carpenters and the noise of workmen generally. So I put in a big garden—big enough for the three of us and for about a dozen families who are friends. I put in tomatoes (about 3 doz. plants) two dozen eggplants, 1 dozen peppers, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, turnips, beans every 2 weeks, New Zealand spinach, mustard spinach, 2 kinds of squash (6 huge hills of them)...
To give you an idea of the garden; yesterday a large camp of veterans near here... held a big picnic to auction off things to raise money for the Wallace [for president] campaign. I sent boxes of fresh vegetables direct from the garden—they sold for $35. I supply some of the veterans with green vegetables regularly, supply two families near us, and send boxes to New York to a friend whenever I have a chance. My garden has been a sensation in this region, most of the others having partly failed. I had corn in the summer — until a raccoon got in and ate dozens of ears each night....
We have a house about 300 ft. from the Hudson — we sit on the verandah and look at the river below. There are great forests along the Hudson down to the city, you know, so it's very beautiful. This community is a kind of artists' community—largely people who commute to New York: theater people, musicians, composers, writers, a few professors and other professional people who live here but work in New York. But I see little of them... My health has never been better — it is excellent since I left Yaddo. My ulcer has disappeared.

The autumn of 1948 was a relatively quiet and productive one for Smedley. She revised a draft of her Zhu De biography, and at the end of the year she sent it off to Knopf and then to Edgar Snow for a reading.[6] By this time, however, she had lost favor with the literary establishment of New York. Her booking agent for speaking engagements had dropped her. She rarely appeared on college campuses. Editors, and not only those at the New Republic and the Nation, were keeping their distance. Smedley was finding that she could now place articles only in the limited-circulation journals of the Socialist left, such as Far East Spotlight (published by the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy), China Digest (Hong Kong), and the National Guardian (New York). China lobbyists such as Judd and Powell would no longer debate her on the radio; her last radio broadcast had been in May of 1948, sponsored by the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy.[7]
When Smedley spoke on China publicly outside New York City, she was often heckled. In June of 1948, for example, there was much furor about her scheduled appearance before a veterans' group near Palisades. Armed with the accusations in Kohlberg's Plain Talk that Smedley was a traitor, a handful of local residents protested for a week before her talk. Smedley spoke anyway, without disruption, but the atmosphere was tense and reportedly she dropped the usual question-answer session. The press was hostile. The New York Mirror described her as »indifferent« to the local community around Palisades and ridiculed her »as a stocky woman whose varied hair dyes have become a topic of interest around Palisades«.[8]
Anti-Communist sentiments had been fanned in August of 1948 by rumors leaked to the press about the testimony of Elizabeth Bentley, the »Red Spy Queen,« to a New York grand jury (though no indictments were handed down). By December the wave of espionage stories and accusations of Communist infiltration within the U.S. government itself had reached a crest in the deadlocked confrontation between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss. Although Chambers had been an F.B.I. informer since 1942, it was not until after December 2, 1948, when the House Un-American Activities Committee visited his farm to be shown the famous »pumpkin papers« that he changed his accusation against Hiss to include the charge of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. In the same month the committee also questioned Chambers about the Far East and Agnes Smedley, and it was at this time that he changed his story. In his 1945 F.B.I. interview, he had reported having a casual meeting with Smedley at bis request, in an Automat in New York in 1936; he had added, »everyone knows that she is a Communist«. Now, in December of 1948, he said the meeting had occurred in 1935, was not casual, and was not at his request: John Loomis Sherman, a member of the American Communist Party who was about to go to the Far East on a special mission and needed to see Smedley on official business, had asked Chambers to make contact with her.*
(*F.B.I, summaries of Chambers interviews are in 100-68282—139 and 103, p. 14; 61 — 6580—127, p. 241. Chambers was wrong, of course, in both versions: Smedley was in Shanghai in 1935 and 1936. It was at about this time that Chambers also told the F.B.I, that a letter from Smedley had been hand-carried to the New York office of the New Masses in 1932 by a young foreign service officer, O. Edmund Clubb. In 1951 Clubb was grilled at length about this incident by the House Committee and ultimately was forced to retire from the foreign service: O. E. Clubb, The Witness and 1 (New York, 1974). Chambers later changed his story about Smedley yet again (see note 37); for his final version, see Whittaker Chambers, Witness (New York, 1952), p. 399)
On December 31, the nationally syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote that Smedley was a key Soviet spy who had worked in Japan as a member of a Soviet spy ring from about 1934 to 1941.[9] Also about this time, leading China lobbyists like Kohlberg, Utley, and Judd, realizing that Chiang Kai-shek's position was virtually hopeless, began to adopt a new slogan: who lost China? Their answer, of course, was not Chiang Kai-shek. The war, they said, had been lost in the United States, in no small part because sympathizers and outright Communists like Agnes Smedley had succeeded in softening public opinion and weakening support—especially in the State Department — for the massive aid package that Chiang needed to remain in power.[10]
The year 1949 started quietly enough for Smedley. On January 21, she spoke in Palisades before the local Wallace for President Club with Liu Liangmo, the Christian Y.M.C.A. worker with whom she had worked so closely on medical aid in Changsha in 1938. It was a happy occasion, and she and Liu were very warm about the prospects for China's future. But January, it turned out, was the lull before the storm. On January 31, Time magazine falsely named Smedley as a contributor to the Daily Worker, the official organ of the American Communist Party.[11] On February 1, the army and the C.I.A. requested copies of all F.B.I. reports on Smedley. On February 8, a U.P.I, reporter informed the F.B.I. that the army was about to release a 33,000-word report on a Soviet spy ring in which Agnes Smedley was one of the key figures.[12] On February 10, at a press conference in Washington, Colonel George Eyster released the report. Eyster's report, based on Willoughby's report from General MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo, described a wartime spy ring working for the Soviets in Japan; by supplying vital intelligence, it said, this ring helped the Russian armies turn back and defeat the Germans (absurd, since Sorge was arrested in 1941). The leaders of the ring were identified as Dr. Richard Sorge, a Russian posing as a Nazi press attache in Tokyo, and a Japanese newspaperman and China expert, Ozaki Hotsumi, who was a friend of Prince Konoye's. Both were arrested by the Japanese in 1941, along with a number of others, and were executed in 1944. But the origins of the spy ring were traced back to Shanghai in 1929.
The gravest accusations against a living person were lodged against Agnes Smedley. She had indeed introduced Ozaki to Sorge in Shanghai in 1930, when all three were there as newspaper correspondents. Although there was no evidence of her involvement after 1934, the report flatly declared that Smedley was »still at large« as »a spy and agent of the Soviet government«. Moreover, she was described as »one of the early perpetrators, if not the originator, of the hoax that the Chinese Communists were not Communists at all, but only local agrarian revolutionaries innocent of any Soviet connections«. This view, the report alleged, had been so effectively popularized by Smedley that »today high American government officials find it difficult to believe any other interpretation of China's Communists«.[13]
With her attorney, O. John Rogge, at her side, Smedley held a press conference in New York on the same day. (Rogge, a former assistant attorney general under President Roosevelt, was probably the best-known civil liberties lawyer in the country at this time.) She vehemently denied the allegations, saying that she had never been either a Soviet spy or an agent for any country. She also accused General MacArthur of sinister political motivations and said that his attack on her was linked to the fall of Chiang Kai-shek's regime in China.[14] That evening, on a Mutual Broadcasting System radio program, Smedley threw down a challenge: »General MacArthur proposed no action against me. He knows I am not guilty of the charges brought against me. He makes his charges while hiding behind the protection of a law which says that he, as a top Army official, cannot be sued for falsehood. I therefore call him a coward and a cad. I now say to him: waive your immunity, and I will sue you for libel«.[15]
By the next day, February 11, the army spokesmen in Washington were having second thoughts. They made a flurry of requests to the F.B.I. for more information. Eyster was reluctant to release the full report to newsmen, saying that it »contained opinions as well as facts«.[16] By February 16, he was telling the New York Times that the »report contained several opinions that are now embarrassing the Army here« and that he »believed that Miss Smedley should not have been mentioned by name until the appropriate authorities had investigated her«. As much as possible, army officials in Washington were trying to place responsibility for the whole affair on MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo.[17] Finally, on February 18, the army apologized publicly and retracted its charges against Smedley. The Times reported:

The Army acknowledged publicly tonight that it had made a »faux pas« in releasing a »philosophical« report of Communist spying in Japan and China, and said it had no proof to back charges that Miss Smedley, U.S. author, had been a member of the alleged spy ring. [Colonel Eyster] stated firmly that it was not the Army's policy to issue statements making accusations against persons such as Miss Smedley »when the proof is not in our hands«. He emphasized he was not saying there was no proof concerning Miss Smedley, but merely that »it was not in our hands at the time the report was issued«. Colonel Eyster said it was not the policy of the U.S. government to »tar and feather people without proof«.[18]

The reaction at Tokyo headquarters was indignation. The report had been written and sent to Washington in 1947 by MacArthur's chief of intelligence, General Charles A. Willoughby. Why was it being released now? But it was Smedley's threatened libel suit and the army's retraction a week later that really outraged Willoughby. On February 21, he held a press conference in Tokyo to announce that he would drop his military immunity so that Smedley could sue him. Smedley never took up his challenge, chiefly because of the expense involved and because she had already won an apology and retraction from the army. In any case, the secretary of the army, Kenneth C. Royall, refused to let Willoughby waive his immunity and tried to dismiss the whole affair on »Meet the Press« on February 25 as an »inadvertence«.[19]
Undaunted, General Willoughby took the next year off to gather evidence in support of his charges. His efforts produced a special report to the House Un-American Activities Committee and a highly inflammatory book, Shanghai Conspiracy (1951). Neither one succeeded in proving that Smedley was a Communist Party member or agent or that her connection with Sorge and Ozaki extended beyond 1932. Nevertheless, Willoughby and his report were a cause celebre with the China Lobby and have remained one to the present day with conservative groups like the John Birch Society.[20]
Like J. Edgar Hoover, army headquarters in Washington had been under increasing pressure from such China lobbyists as Alfred Kohlberg to release Willoughby's report. These lobbyists were distressed that army leaks to friendly reporters such as Walter Simmons, Drew Pearson, Joseph Alsop, and others had not received much attention. And Kohlberg, who was a close friend of Willoughby's, was particularly impatient with the army for sitting on the report. Disastrously, as it turned out, Colonel Meade buckled under the pressure and released the report without the approval of his boss, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall. On the same day the report was made public (February 10), Kohlberg held a press conference. He applauded the army's action and challenged »the Army and the F.B.I. to follow the lead of General MacArthur and make a full disclosure of the results of their investigations of Soviet spy rings«. He added: »The two writers mentioned in the MacArthur report are now living in this city and... there should be some further account of their activities in this country«.[21]
Not surprisingly, given Tokyo's reaction and Secretary Royall's embarrassment over the affair, the chief of intelligence for the army, Colonel Meade, and apparently also the information officer, Colonel Eyster, were removed, as the men responsible for releasing the report. Their transfers quieted a call on February 19 by two congressmen for an investigation into the army's motives and its handling of the entire affair.[22]
Press reaction to the release of the February 10 report and the army's subsequent retraction varied enormously. In lead articles for the March and April issues of Plain Talk, Kohlberg spoke for the right and the China Lobby: »The whitewashing of Agnes Smedley must not be permitted to victimize a great and esteemed soldier and to stain the honor of the U.S. Army«. Henry Luce's Time and Life, the New York Mirror, the Chicago Tribune, and Scripps-Howard papers like the World Telegram all expressed the opinion that it was about time Communists like Agnes Smedley were exposed. On the left, the Daily Worker charged that the attack on Smedley was a response to the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and implied that MacArthur had ulterior political motives. In the middle were liberal editors and columnists like Marquis Childs and Harold Ickes writing for the Nation, the New York Times, the Washington Star, and the New York Post. They were shocked by the absence of concrete evidence to back up the charges and feared that despite the army's retraction, more witch-hunts lay ahead.[23]
The publicity given to the spy charges had serious repercussions in some unlikely places. Within a little more than a week after the February 18 retraction of the report, F.B.I. agents visited Yaddo and interviewed two of the four residents at the time, Edward Maisel and Elizabeth Hardwick, as well as the executive director, Elizabeth Ames. The main focus of the questioning was Agnes Smedley. Until Smedley had left Yaddo a year earlier, the F.B.I. had kept track of her for four years through Ames's secretary, who regularly »dropped off information at a certain place in Saratoga for forwarding to the F.B.I«.[24] An open visit at this time, a year after Smedley's departure, could be seen as an ominous expression of concern about Smedley's long residence. And if the intention of the visit was also to intimidate, it certainly succeeded.
Startled by the F.B.I.'s sudden interest in an alleged Communist past at Yaddo, the four guests in residence—Hardwick, Maisel, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Lowell—began to entertain suspicions about Elizabeth Ames. Of the four, only Maisel had ever met Smedley. Nevertheless, within days of the F.B.I. visit, the four of them, led by the poet Robert Lowell, got in touch with local board members and expressed their concern about the »sinister« atmosphere at Yaddo. They noted that the »F.B.I. seemed to have no confidence in either the words or motives of the executive director of Yaddo, Mrs. Ames... but thought she had protected Mrs. Smedley [sic] to the point of misrepresentation«.[25] On February 26, 1949, a formal meeting of the board was convened at Yaddo to discuss the matter. The long-winded case against Mrs. Ames as delivered by Robert Lowell is summarized here by his biographer, Ian Hamilton:

The transcript of the meeting makes fairly ugly reading. Lowell's introductory statement demands that Mrs. Ames be »fired« and that this action be »absolute, final and prompt«. The »exact« charges were that »It is our impression that Mrs. Ames is somehow deeply and mysteriously involved in Mrs. Smedley's political activities,« and that Mrs. Ames' personality is such that »she is totally unfitted for the position of executive director«. Lowell goes on from this to employ »a very relevant figure of speech«. Yaddo, he says, is a »body« and Mrs. Ames »a diseased organ, chronically poisoning the whole system, sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes almost imperceptibly, sometimes, as now, fatally...« Lowell then cross-examines the other guests, extracting from each of them a series of supposedly damaging »impressions«. Hardwick for example, testifies: »1 personally reel that at times there is a discrepancy between Mrs. Ames' surface behavior and her true feelings, not toward me, but toward most matters. I only know the surface ... I cannot read her heart«. There is mention of other Communist writers who have been entertained at Yaddo, of a »proletarian novelist« called Leonard Ehrlich, who was a long time friend of Mrs. Ames and a frequent visitor at Yaddo, of Agnes Smedley's proselytizing among the students at nearby Skidmore College, of mysterious Japanese and East German visitors, of suspicious jokes about »Molotov cocktail parties,« of Mrs. Ames' unpatriotic caution in her dealings with the F.B.I. and so on. All in all the »evidence« is a patchwork of devoured hearsay and rather desperate speculation: not one of the witnesses challenged Mrs. Ames' »surface« friendliness and efficiency.[26]

At the end of the meeting, Elizabeth Ames defended herself. She explained that she »felt indebted to [Smedley] after Marjorie [Ames's sister] died, as she had helped so much with the nursing and everything«. This, she said, was why she had permitted Smedley to stay on so long. She did not apologize for Smedley's presence at Yaddo or back away from her earlier characterization (to Lowell) of Smedley as »an old-fashioned Jeffersonian Democrat«. She was shocked and hurt by these attacks from guests with whom just ten days ago she had been on such amicable terms.[27]
Malcolm Cowley was present as a Yaddo board member, and he defended Smedley and Mrs. Ames. Nobody, he said, denied that Smedley was at times sympathetic to Communist causes, but he belittled the idea that she was either a Communist or a former espionage agent. The account in Smedley's F.B.I. file quoted Cowley as telling board members: »As early as 1940, [when] she had just left China... Smedley wrote me an eight-page letter from Los Angeles about her troubles, which were considerable. The [American] Communists were all turning on her. They were seeing to it that she did not get speaking engagements. She was hard up. After that, she came East and was working as a farmhand and wrote again that she had heard about Yaddo and I told her to write to Mrs. Ames«.[28]
The meeting ended with an agreement to discuss the matter again and make a final decision at the board's next meeting in New York City at the end of March. The resulting scene at Yaddo is best described by Cowley in a letter to a friend:

In the end nothing was done, nothing could be done, but everything was deferred to this new meeting in New York (in about two weeks or less) at which some sort of decision must be taken. The guests departed, vowing to blacken the name of Yaddo in all literary circles and call a mass meeting of protest. The directors departed. I stayed one day because I had to do a big review and would be too tired to finish it if I waited till I got back to Connecticut, but then I left too, feeling as if I had been at a meeting of the Russian Writers' Union during a big purge. Elizabeth [Ames] went to a nursing home. Her secretary resigned. Yaddo was left like a stricken battlefield.[29]

Over the next three weeks, Lowell wrote circular letters to Yaddo alumni urging the dismissal of Mrs. Ames. A counter-petition in her defense was prepared by Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, John Cheever, and others. It was signed by a resounding fifty-one alumni, including many of Smedley's old Yaddo friends such as Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers.[30] McCullers left Georgia immediately and came to New York to help defend Mrs. Ames. By the time the board met on March 26, its decision was a foregone conclusion: Mrs. Ames was reconfirmed as executive director. Robert Lowell, who probably never understood Mrs. Ames's role in the founding of Yaddo, took the overwhelming vote for her as a personal defeat.*
(* Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York, 1982), p. 152. Ironically, in February Lowell had been leading a campaign in defense of Ezra Pound; arguing that art stood above politics, he defended Pound's right to receive the Bollingen Prize for Poetry. Pound, of course, was a highly controversial choice because of his overt support of fascism during the war. The left opposition to Lowell argued that the prize should be withheld from Pound on moral and political grounds—precisely the grounds of Lowell's attack on Elizabeth Ames's qualifications to run an artists' colony. See Hamilton, chapter 10.)
Thus for a month in March of 1949, Agnes Smedley became the talk of the town in New York literary circles. Unfortunately, much of this talk simply strengthened the impression that she was a dangerous radical, and quite possibly a Communist and a spy. As a result, she emerged from the affair an even greater pariah in the eyes of the New York literary establishment than she had been at the time of her expulsion from Yaddo a year earlier.
The army's release of the Tokyo spy report also jolted the F.B.I., which was suddenly put under pressure to provide more evidence of Smedley's Communist connections. Alfred Kohlberg, for example, called for the F.B.I. to make public what it knew about Smedley, and there was talk of a grand jury investigation into the Smedley case, in which the F.B.I. would have to play a major role.[31]
In the summary reports it had been sending to such other government agencies as the C.I.A. and Army Intelligence, the F.B.I. had consistently indicated that Smedley was a Communist »according to reliable sources«.[32] The problem was that it had only one »reliable« ex-Communist source who claimed to be sure that Smedley was a party member: that was Whittaker Chambers, and he had no evidence at all. Its interviews with such ex-Communists as Wittfogel and Gumperz, as well as Smedley's speeches and writings, tended to prove only that Smedley had been a Communist sympathizer or an »anarchist-syndicalist« in the 1920s—not a Comintern agent or Communist Party member. Moreover, the Sorge spy charges were as yet unsubstantiated. Hoover complained about the inattention the case had received and ordered an interagency review of the Smedley files.[33] In particular, he again criticized the Albany office for having »mishandled« the case.
In its response, the Albany office took a firm stand. It admitted an »inexcusable delay« in submitting reports, but added: »there was apparently nothing in the way of any pertinent activity by the subject in the Albany division to report«. In answer to Director Hoover's question about why no action had been taken after the initial Sorge report was received in late 1947, the Albany bureau explained:

It is to be noted that this [1947] summary discloses no pertinent data on subject's activities in the Far East beyond 1934. In fact, the last sentence of this summary states that Sorge informed one of his agents, Ozaki, that it was dangerous to have any further contact with subject... Upon receipt of this summary the Albany office determined that subject still remained at the estate [Yaddo] and was doing nothing inconsistent with her occupation as a writer. She seldom left her residence and according to the informant [Mrs. Ames's secretary], she made no trips of any consequence... Furthermore [up to 1949] investigation by the Albany and New York offices had failed to disclose current espionage activity on her part.[34]

The New York office, though more obliging in its answer to Hoover, was also troubled by the lack of evidence: »At no time has it been possible to definitely ascertain that Smedley has acted or is acting as an agent for the Soviets. The investigation revealed that she has maintained pro-Communist sympathies and associates with persons and organizations of like character. It is believed that a continuance of this investigation will undoubtedly compile additional information of the type already obtained«.[35] To produce a breakthrough, New York recommended interviewing Smedley herself, by means of a grand jury subpoena if necessary. The interview should explore at length her »associations in Europe, particularly in Russia, the personalities with whom she was in contact in the Orient while working with the Chinese Communist armies, and the extent of her relations with Dr. Sorge«. But after agreeing that Smedley's influence and associations in the United States deserved a major investigation, the New York office said that »great caution should be exercised to prevent any embarrassment to the Bureau in covering leads«.[36] After the embarrassing publicity the army had just received, this warning was not lost on J. Edgar Hoover, who promptly rejected the idea of interviewing Smedley directly by means of a grand jury subpoena.
In March, after the F.B.I. learned — much to their chagrin, from a newspaper article two months after the fact—that Whittaker Chambers, in testimony given to House Un-American Activities Committee members in December, had implicated Smedley in possible espionage, they reinterviewed him. Chambers contradicted his 1945 F.B.I. account, as we have seen, but the F.B.I. report of the interview made no note of the discrepancy. As for Smedley being a Communist, it is unclear what Chambers had told the House Committee in December, but by March his language was more cautious than it had been in 1945: »I had no information that [Smedley] was a CP member, but gained the impression that she was at least a CP sympathizer«.[37] As the year progressed, the F.B.I. interviewed several people who had known Smedley in China in the 1930s, including Tillman Durdin, Freda Utley, Harold Isaacs, and Frank Dorn. Smedley's first husband, Ernest Brundin, and his sister, Thorberg, were investigated, and Smedley's tax returns were examined. Smedley's mail and her movements around Sneeden's Landing were watched more closely.[38]
Of the journalists Smedley had known in China, most now avoided her. There were a few exceptions and Smedley welcomed a letter of support from one in March of 1949. T. H. White, writing from Italy, said:

And even if I wrote you a long letter I couldn't begin to tell you how angry I feel at the s.o.b.'s who so casually smear a person of your record. Willoughby, whom I used to know, is an effeminate, evil old bastard. The last time I saw him (Manila, 1945) he was bawling the hell out of a Negro soldier in the middle of the street, saying: »You Nigger son-of-a-bitch what do you mean getting in my way!« He was saying it in that guttural foreign accent of his which always reminds me of the fact that his father was a Prussian general in Kaiser Wilhelm's army. For that jerk to set himself up as a steward of your loyalty is grotesque. ... All of us all over the world who love you are standing by.... Somehow you and I and a number of others seem to have lived through a period when the spirit and the will counted; and are now caught up in the hands of mechanical men who measure faith by the yard and loyalty by lead counters«.[39]

With F.B.I. surveillance both tightening and surfacing, Smedley was feeling like a hunted woman, much as she had in Shanghai when she was under the eyes of the French, British, and Chinese secret police. As before, her public reaction was one of defiance. In a short article for Far East Spotlight entitled »Tokyo Martyrs,« she praised the contributions of Ozaki and Sorge as anti-Fascists. She also continued to send clothes and money to Ozaki's daughter in Tokyo.
In an inspired move, Smedley recruited the support of Harold Ickes, who had been Roosevelt's noisy and controversial secretary of the interior for over a decade. Although now in his mid-seventies, Ickes was still rambunctiously active as a syndicated columnist and sponsor of liberal causes in his daily column in the New York Post. He and Smedley had been in correspondence since late 1947 about the situation in China. In February and March, Smedley deliberately fed him derogatory material about Willoughby, hoping he would use it as ammunition in an attack on the China lobby, General MacArthur, and the Truman administration. Ickes embraced Smedley's cause with a vengeance. In two columns in mid-March, he called General Willoughby a racist and near-Fascist (among other things), with the desired effect: he put the China lobby and Willoughby temporarily on the defensive and kept them spluttering for years afterward.[40]
At O. John Rogge's suggestion, and perhaps to tweak the nose of the New York literary establishment, Smedley put in a symbolic appearance at a three-day Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace at the Waldorf Hotel at the end of March. The conference, organized by intellectuals who had backed Henry Wallace's Progressive Party campaign in 1948, was an effort to keep the Wallace movement alive and also to combat the growing Cold War mentality in the nation. The plan was to invite major Russian and Eastern European intellectuals to discuss contemporary culture with their American counterparts. Rogge, one of the conference's key organizers, wanted Smedley to appear at the meetings as a symbol of political repression in the United States.
The State Department denied visas to most of the Eastern Europeans who had been invited, but such major Soviet figures as the writer A. A. Fadayev and the composer Dmitry Shostakovich came. There were over a hundred participants on the American side, ranging politically from right to left, from Robert Lowell to Norman Mailer to Clifford Odets. Outside, demonstrators marched to protest the allegedly pro-Soviet point of view of the organizers and audience; inside, some writers, including Dwight MacDonald, Sidney Hook, and Robert Lowell, raised hostile questions whenever possible. The debates were heated and the polemical fallout in literary and political journals lasted for years.[41]
In general, in the continuing controversy the organizers lost more than they gained. In at least one case, there were tragic consequences. The literary critic F. O. Matthiessen, partly in response to the personal attacks against his politics, committed suicide the next year. Nor did Agnes Smedley emerge unscathed. Although she said little at the conference (China was not discussed), her photo appeared in the New York Times, and when she did speak she spoke in defense of the Soviet Union, asking rhetorically: »If 25 million Russians had not died in the war, would we be sitting here today?«[42] Thus in many of the articles written about the conference (and in historical works written years later), Smedley was tarred with the same brush as Matthiessen: she was called a staunchly unrepentant, Stalinist fellow traveler.[43]
Smedley recognized that she was irrevocably labeled in the public eye as a pro-Soviet fellow traveler and suspected Communist spy. The sad truth was that in 1949 Smedley's strongest tie to an Eastern bloc country was not to Russia, but to Yugoslavia. Since the middle of 1948, Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito had broken defiantly with the Warsaw Pact and Moscow's leadership. Smedley's sympathies with the Communist-led Yugoslav guerrilla movement dated back to her friendship and admiration for Dr. Borcic in Hankou in 1938. In public addresses in the 1940s she often drew parallels between the Yugoslav and Chinese Communist movements (a comparison that finally won scholarly acceptance in the 1960s). In 1949 Smedley was a regular visitor at the Yugoslav information bureau in New York and became especially close to one of its directors, Marjia Vilfan. Vilfan later wrote that there was no question in her mind that Smedley sympathized with the Yugoslavs in their fight against Soviet hegemony.[44]
Smedley still spoke at rallies, like the one in New York in June that was sponsored by the Committee for a Democratic Far Eastern Policy. The theme was »Hail New China—Ally for Peace,« and appearing with her were the folksinger Pete Seeger, Henry Wallace, and Liu Liangmo, her old Y.M.C.A. friend from Changsha.[45] But in general, she was afraid that such appearances would do her sponsors more harm than good.*
(*In October of 1949 Smedley wrote to Zhu De: »I was still known to the public as a suspected spy. I therefore refused to speak to many radical organizations, and appeared only before those that had some ability to protect themselves. I refused to speak to Communist audiences because the Communists have enough problems without being charged with entertaining a suspected spy«.)
By appearing at this particular rally, Smedley was trying to demonstrate neutrality about a major split that had developed within the committee. The issue was Anna Louise Strong. After her sudden expulsion from the Soviet Union and her return to New York in January of 1949, Strong had angered the American Communist Party by criticizing the Soviet Union in a series of articles for the New York Herald Tribune. As a result, committee leaders—Elsie Cholmeley, Maud Russell, and others—refused even to speak to Strong, and in reaction a number of Smedley's friends, notably Edgar Snow, resigned from the committee and boycotted its activities. Smedley, like Snow, was sympathetic to Strong. The two women had stayed in touch throughout the spring of 1949 and shared the same lawyer, O. John Rogge. On the other hand, Smedley remained on good terms with individual committee members and made a point of continuing to appear at their functions.[46]
Despite her public posture of defiance, Smedley was deeply depressed. As during earlier crises, her physical health reflected her state of mind. In mid-February of 1949, she wrote to a friend that she could not sleep at night without drugs, that she was having heart trouble, and that she felt exhausted all the time, as if she had suddenly grown ten years older. As on earlier occasions, she said the political atmosphere around her was a suffocating one of retrenchment and witch-hunts. She apologized for being so tired and depressed at the time of the Red Army's great triumph in China, and once again thought about escaping: »My friend, why didn't I go to China and become a Chinese citizen months ago? I could have worked in peace there. But this country is no place for anyone who loves liberty. A general can simply say 'A.S. is a spy and an agent of the Soviet govt.' because she defends China«.[47]
But this crisis was different from earlier ones. In the past, Smedley had always been able to rely on a network of friends for material and spiritual help. In 1949, the remaining members of her network—the Brookses, Edgar Snow, Mildred Price, and Jack Belden—were almost daily becoming more vulnerable to political harassment because of their association with her. In the past, she had always had a sense of personal mission, a feeling that she was needed by others to do important work. After the Waldorf conference she felt useless and counterproductive. Her Communist friends were about to come to power in Beijing; Chiang Kai-shek was gone. What could she contribute now to the making of a new China? Perhaps she would only get in the way. Finally, her independence was being threatened by her inability to lecture or publish. And the prospect of becoming totally dependent upon friends, whether in the United States or in China, was unacceptable to her.
Ayako Ishigaki and her husband Eitaro, in New York City, were part of Smedley's network of supporters during the spring and summer of 1949. Eitaro had known Smedley since her Greenwich Village days after World War I and had renewed their friendship at Yaddo. Ayako later remembered that by June of 1949, Smedley's troubles were multiplying. At Sneeden's Landing, her hosts the Brookses were being harassed by local residents and boycotted by their relatives. A faction within the local American Legion spread the rumor that Smedley was signaling Russian ships going up and down the Hudson. F.B.I. surveillance also tightened. For weeks, two agents parked in front of the Brookses' home. To avoid being seen coming or going, Smedley sometimes hid in the trunk of their car. Not wanting to cause her friends more trouble of this sort, Smedley decided to leave and find a place to live in Manhattan.48
Before leaving for New York, however, Smedley found a moment of mirth in Sneeden's Landing, at the wedding of Edgar Snow to Lois Wheeler, a young actress. (Snow had been separated from his first wife, Nym Wales, since 1944 and had recently—over her protests—obtained a divorce. In the late 1970s, Wales still partially blamed Smedley, her old adversary, for the divorce.) Smedley took great delight in helping with the wedding plans. In fact, according to Lois, Smedley organized the entire affair, hiring the musicians and arranging the outside reception on the Brookses' patio. She infuriated the neighbors by filling the foyer with flowers »borrowed« from their gardens. For Smedley, it was great fun and an emotional release. But more basically, it was an expression of her friendship for Snow, who by this time was the most supportive and influential of her remaining friends from her China days.[49]
In July, Smedley moved in temporarily with Mildred Price in Manhattan. After a few weeks of futile apartment hunting, she took a room in a small residential hotel, the Carteret. It gave her privacy but cost more than she could afford, and to save money she often shared the costs of meals with Ayako and Eitaro.[50] At about this time she received another blow: her editors at Knopf wanted substantial revisions of her Zhu De manuscript. They were critical of her long quotes from Zhu De himself and her intensely sympathetic view of the Chinese Communist movement; and they asked her to write about the relationship between the Chinese Communists and Moscow, a subject she had not touched. Smedley became angry and began to suspect that Knopf's objections were the result of the worsening Cold War atmosphere and MacArthur's charges against her. She asked Edgar Snow for his opinion, but he said he agreed with many of Knopf's comments; the manuscript did need major revisions and shortening. In the end, Smedley decided to break with Knopf, revise her manuscript, and rely on Snow to help her edit it and find a new publisher.[51]
By August, Smedley's savings had run out. She had recently paid over $1,500 in legal fees, and had sent $ 500 to her brother in San Diego. Breaking with Knopf made her financial future seem even more precarious. The only solution she could see was to leave the country as soon as possible. She planned to live first in Europe, where it was cheaper, and finish her book and from there to arrange passage to China.[52]
Smedley had begun to apply for a passport in July, but she was rejected several times, with no reason being given. Friends such as Roger Baldwin tried to help, but to no avail. Finally Rogge, her attorney, was told by the passport division that she was not being given a passport because she was a Communist and the War Department had accused her of being a spy. In October, as a last resort, Smedley enlisted the help of Harold Ickes in applying pressure on the passport division head, Ruth Shipley. At last Shipley relented and Smedley was issued a passport that (according to letters from Smedley to Ickes) would expire in October of 1950 and be good only in England, Italy, and France. Although she was unaware of the reasons, these restrictions were tailored to meet the needs of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Its members planned to question Smedley in 1950 and perhaps bring her before a grand jury.[53]
In October of 1949, while Smedley was still waiting for her passport, Jawaharlal Nehru visited the United States for the first time, as prime minister of an independent India. It was an emotional and highly publicized trip, important not only symbolically but substantively, because Nehru was also seeking aid. Many people wanted to see Nehru, among them Agnes Smedley. The two had corresponded erratically since first meeting in Berlin in 1928, and in the 1940s Smedley had been comparing Nehru publicly with Jefferson as one of the great statesmen and democrats of our time. Twice after his arrival she tried to reach him by mail through the Indian embassy but received no answer. Then at a press conference in Washington, a friend of Smedley's asked Nehru why he had not answered her letters. Seemingly stunned, Nehru sent word to Smedley that she should call him that evening. Smedley called and could not get through to Nehru. She talked to a man she concluded must be an F.B.I. agent posing as Nehru's secretary, since she knew that his real secretary was a woman. Eventually, by another means, she did succeed in having an hour privately with Nehru at his suite in the Waldorf in New York. He asked her about the new government in China, its leadership, its land reform policies, and so on. Smedley urged him to go to Beijing and see for himself. Nehru reassured her that his government would be recognizing the new Chinese government soon. Smedley also spoke about racial prejudice in the United States and her own situation. Nehru was politely sympathetic, but after their meeting Smedley confided to a Chinese friend that his condescension and »bourgeois behavior« had offended and disappointed her. Nehru did not renew a previous invitation to come to India.[54]
The interview with Nehru probably opened up old wounds for Smedley. Although she believed that she was being kept from Nehru by the F.B.I., it seems more likely that the Indian officials around Nehru were trying to keep him from seeing her. Some of them would have remembered her shrill public debates with Lajpat Rai and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya in 1927. And by 1949 she was too controversial for Indian leaders to embrace publicly. If Smedley guessed at any of this, it would have increased her sense of isolation.
Late in September, before she met Nehru, Smedley had received $2,000 in cash from an emissary of the new government in Beijing. The emissary was her oldest and closest Chinese friend, Professor Chen Hansheng, who with his wife, Susie Gu, had been in the United States since late 1945. The money was for the express purpose of returning to China.[55] During the week leading up to October 1, the day of the official establishment of the People's Republic of China, Smedley seemed happy and relaxed. She wrote a short article for the National Guardian in praise of the Communist triumph, and she brought a cake and candles to the Ishigakis' apartment for a celebration. When her passport finally came through at the end of October, she acted quickly. She left most of her papers and possessions with her friend Toni Willison, who lived in upstate New York near Yaddo, for later shipment to China. She urged Ayako not to see her off at dockside because of the omnipresence of the F.B.I. Ayako remembered her during those last days as a haggard, exhausted figure wearing an empty smile as she said goodbye.[56]
And indeed, Smedley was worried. Politically, she wondered if China needed her now, and she feared she might be useless. And as she had told Freda Utley in 1939, in her remarkable letter about the magic of Hankou, in China she had always felt herself an outsider, never understanding intuitively the rhythms, nuances, and moods of the society around her. Thus it was a sad figure whom Josephine Bennett Brooks, Chen Hansheng and his wife, and the Snows saw off at a New York pier on November 15, 1949. Smedley boarded an American liner bound for Le Havre, France; from there she would cross the channel and enter England, where friends awaited her.
Ship life buoyed her spirits. To begin with, no one on board seemed to know who she was. She was traveling tourist class and was especially active at cocktail hour, old-fashioned in hand. She mixed with the crew as much as with her fellow passengers. To her delight, a controversy developed over labor politics. The Red-baiting head of the National Maritime Union was on board, traveling first-class to London for a meeting. He and the crew got word in mid-passage that a riot and coup against him in New York had just been carried out by the left wing of his union. A meeting of union members was held, with all the crew participating and Smedley cheering on the sidelines. At issue were the racial and political biases of the union. Later Smedley met with a number of the Black crew members in her cabin, where they talked about Red-baiting in the union and her acquaintance with Paul Robeson. All in all, it was an exhilarating trip. When it was over, she used her connections with the crew to make off with satchels of surplus food for her friends in London.[53]
Upon disembarking at Le Havre, Smedley's high spirits were reinforced by her success with British customs officials, whom she cajoled into letting her bring in the extra food and provisions as gifts. England in 1949, of course, was still suffering major food shortages and rationing caused by the war.
Smedley was greeted in London by Hilda Selwyn-Clarke and Margaret Watson Sloss, old friends from Hong Kong. Hilda and her husband had sat out the war in a Japanese concentration camp, from which they emerged malnourished and white-haired. Hilda's husband was still in the colonial service as acting governor of the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa. Hilda and her teenaged daughter, Mary, remained in a large flat in Wimbledon, where a room and private bath awaited Smedley.[58]
The plan was that Smedley would stay with Hilda, complete the revisions on her book, and arrange to go to China as soon as diplomatic relations between London and Beijing were reestablished. Hilda was working a full eight-hour day as a Labour Party activist. Her daughter, Mary, was away at boarding school. Thus Smedley would be left alone to work on her book.
The first three days at Wimbledon were spent catching up and swapping stories. Smedley was initially impressed by the Labour government's achievements: the National Health Service, pensions for ordinary workers, and social welfare programs. She worried, however, about what she called »contaminations« from the United States. There were signs of growing Red-baiting by some British Labour leaders, and she saw this as symptomatic of trouble ahead. In foreign affairs she was concerned about vestiges of British imperialism in Asia and Africa. With Hilda Selwyn-Clarke especially, she argued about the British determination to retain Hong Kong.[59]
In general, during December and the holiday season with Hilda and her daughter Mary, Smedley was in good spirits, working on her book, baking apple pies, and feeling relatively hopeful about her personal future. At least that was the tone of the warm, chatty, circular letters she addressed at the time to »Dear family«: Mildred Price, the Snows, Jo Brooks, and the Ishigakis. She also sent genial thank-you letters to Aino Taylor in California, who had been sending her packages of food, clothes, typing paper, and coffee. In these first letters from England, her pessimism and sarcasm seemed confined to discussions of the situation in America, which she characterized as one of growing fascism at home and imperialism abroad.
Through January and February of 1950, Smedley lived a secluded life at Wimbledon. She seldom went out and did almost no public speaking. Her social life was confined to joining Hilda and her Hong Kong friends at the Wimbledon flat, attending an occasional meeting of the Britain-China Friendship Association, or visiting with new friends she had made after speaking at a Chinese Student Union meeting. One of these new friends was Hu Ji'an, a Chinese Communist Party member who was working for a degree in international law. In 1978 Hu recalled that Smedley invited him and his friends to her flat for Chinese meals and wide-ranging discussions. He remembered being shocked at her describing the government of the Soviet Union as harshly autocratic and saying that she had no intention of returning to China through Moscow. She was also sharply critical of the British intention to retain Hong Kong.[60]
She had been keeping in direct touch with China by writing regularly to Anna Wang, sending parcels of books, film, and records to her through Zhou Enlai's trusted associate Gong Peng in Hong Kong. In London she made good use of the Chinese students as couriers. In April, for example, when Hu Ji'an came to say goodbye, she loaded him down with books and records for Gong Peng, Dr. George Hatem, and friends in Beijing.[61]
In early March of 1950, in a burst of energy Smedley wrote her last two articles. In both, she castigated the accelerated bombing of cities on the mainland China coast, being carried out by U.S. planes based at Chiang Kai-shek's refuge in Taiwan. Increasing tension in Korea and the bombing of the China coast, she argued, were being orchestrated by the United States—as represented in Tokyo by General MacArthur—in order to draw the Soviet Union into a major confrontation. This clash, she argued, would probably start in Korea or Indochina, and once it had started the »rattlesnake« Chiang Kai-shek would strike from Taiwan. Urging all »progressives« to rally around China, as they had once rallied to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s, she wrote:

A dreadful war plot is being hatched in the Far East, and it includes not only Formosa and Japan, but Indo-China. Yet the secret forces behind this plot are not yet known to the people of the world, certainly not to the peoples of Japan, America, Britain, and the peoples of some of the countries of Europe. To expose and protest, and finally to appeal to the people of America in particular, is the role of every peaceable man of the Western world. But it must be done soon, otherwise the plot will reach its fulfillment in a new world war, beginning in the Far East.[62]

Polemics of this sort now disturbed Hilda Selwyn-Clarke every morning at breakfast, as Smedley read the American news in the morning's Herald Tribune. And they seemed to be growing more vituperative, lasting longer, and consuming more of Smedley's energy—especially after she read that Senator McCarthy had made Owen Lattimore his number-one target in his crusade against the State Department.*
(*In Senate subcommittee hearings in February, McCarthy accused Lattimore of being the Soviet Union's top secret agent in the United States. Lattimore was a professor at Johns Hopkins University and in 1941-42 had been an adviser to Chiang Kai-shek's government as well as to Washington. In testimony he was combative and apparently bested McCarthy in the hearings and in the press (see his Ordeal by Slander [New York, 1950]). A year later, however, probably because of the Korean War, it was a different story: the Mc-Carran subcommittee was able to discredit Lattimore in the public eye and have him indicted for perjury (December 16, 1952). Although he was never convicted, his career and reputation were in tatters and he left the country)
Nonetheless, Smedley still saw her main task as finishing the biography of Zhu De, and she would usually spend the rest of the day working quietly on revisions. She was also reading: Margaret Mead's Male and Female; novels by a new British friend, James Aldridge; Morton Thompson's The Cry and the Covenant; and translations of Chinese poetry by Arthur Waley.
In a letter to Edgar Snow, her sympathy for the downtrodden seemed heightened by her own comfortable but socially isolated circumstances:
»Day before yesterday I saw the Italian movie >Bicycle Thief<. I went alone and stood in a queue for two solid hours to buy a ticket. It was worth it. That little child sits enthroned in my heart. God of gods, but the human animal is savage! On every hand, everywhere, the human being can look on the most appalling injustice, the most blatant poverty due to the ownership of the earth by a few, without rising in their wrath. I can never understand that, and it fills me with despair«.[63] Within the confines of her Wimbledon flat, Smedley's identification with the poor was played out in a relationship with Hilda Selwyn-Clarke's charwoman. In a March 17 letter to Elvira, the mother of her California friend Aino Taylor, she wrote:

I wish you could see this woman as she is generally, and see what her reaction was to the suit [a gift from Aino Taylor]. She is the mother of three children and her husband, a truck driver, has been in the hospital for weeks with a fractured spine. She is perhaps 42 but looks ten or more years older. She wears threadbare cotton dresses up to her scrawny knees, with an old apron over [the dress]. When she came this week I made coffee and she and I sat down together and drank it, with toast and butter. She was very uncomfortable sitting down with a »lady,« until I told her I wasn't a lady but that my mother had been a charwoman and a washerwoman.
I asked her about her child, her family, etc. Her mother, she said, had washed clothing and »charred« for a living. »We often lived on nothing but bread and drippings... for often we could not afford anything else. When I grew old enough I also began to char, and I still do... Now why are you so good to me? This costume and the other things cost very, very much money. I could never save enough money to buy the costume and blouse. The children need so many things«.
I asked about eggs, which are soon to go off the rations. Well, she said, eggs are piled up because workers cannot afford to buy more than one egg for each child per week. It seems hard to understand, yet it is so. I had heard of that before but could hardly believe it.

In mid-March, Smedley's health took a dramatic turn for the worse. The stomach ulcer that had plagued her throughout her adult life began hemorrhaging painfully. Hilda finally persuaded her to see a local physician. He said she might need an operation, but for the time being he prescribed a strict diet of mild, soft foods and no smoking. According to Hilda, Smedley's mood was one of deep depression. Her outbursts at the breakfast table over the Herald Tribune became longer, almost hysterical, and a dangerous waste of energy. The arguments over Hong Kong were becoming sharply personal, and a distance was growing between the two women.[64]
By April, Smedley knew she was seriously ill but feared that an operation would delay her departure for China or even leave her an invalid. She was also feeling terribly alone, dependent, and unhappy in Hilda's flat. When Hilda's daughter Mary returned for Easter vacation, Agnes started nasty arguments about the additional noise in the house. On April 10, she sent a short and alarming note to Mildred Price in New York: »I've not written because I've been sick for three weeks and am still sick. I had an internal hemorrhage—this duodenal ulcer. The doctor urges me to have an operation, but I hesitate because one-fifth of my stomach would have to be cut away. I'm depressed about everything. Can't work, can't walk about, live on milk, and am sick of life«.
On April 16, 1950, matters came to a head. Hilda returned from delivering her daughter back to boarding school to find Smedley gone. When Smedley returned that evening, they had a long and difficult talk. Smedley said that she was desperately unhappy and wanted to find a room by herself—that she needed to live like a monk. In the end, Hilda talked her into going to visit their mutual friend from Hong Kong, Margaret Sloss, in Oxford for a rest, after which she could return to live with Hilda under quieter and more restful conditions.[65]
Smedley took the train to Oxford the next day. She arrived sick, went straight to bed, and was soon taken to the University Hospital, where experts x-rayed and examined her. Their diagnosis was that two-thirds of her stomach would have to be removed—a major operation, but normally not life-threatening. By the end of April, as she was resting and waiting in the hospital for the operation, she wrote Hilda a series of notes, most of them medical and grim in tone. One of them ended: »I live in one hope—that I can go to China. But I doubt now that a Chinese embassy will ever arrive here. Nor do I see why it should. My time is running out« (April 29). In a letter to Jo Bennett Brooks on May 2, she tried joking about the prospects of death: »Margaret Sloss will notify you if I should go to join my ancestors—God forbid, for I've no interest in them. I'll hope to join the Chinese who [have died] for the revolution instead. How very interesting that would be! No research on my book— just talk with them! And what stories they could tell me! What a great loss I can't go to meet them—and do a few books on our talks!«[66] On the same day she wrote to Harold Ickes: »I expect to pass thru the operation, yet I have little interest. American Fascism, and what in reality is my exile, has caused this serious situation. I see no hope in sight for myself or for the U.S.A. I will be here for three weeks, then must recuperate someplace. I have longed for China but my passport confines me to England, France, and Italy. It expires in October. I prefer death to returning to the U.S.A. So I enter the operation in a very dark frame of mind. In case I do not recover, I bid you an affectionate farewell and send you my enduring thanks for all you have done to help in the past years«.
As a precaution, Smedley also wrote a few letters of a more formal nature, spelling out what should be done with her royalties and her possessions in case of her death. The most important of these, dated April 28, she left with Margaret Sloss:[67]

My Dear Margaret,
I don't expect to die under the operation before me, but in case I do, I'd like to inform you of a few things and ask you to do me a favor or two.
My last will is with my lawyer John Rogge. ... I own no property. All I possess is with me: $1,900 in Government Bonds (in my purse) and a book of Thomas Cook's Travel Checks, also in my purse. I wish you to take the Cook's Travel Checks, and meet all expenses concerned with me, down to the very last. ... I do not recall the exact terms of my will, but I think I left $1,000 of my Government Bonds to my little niece, Mary Smedley. All income from my books, everywhere, all go to General Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of the People's Liberation Army of China, to do with as he wishes.... Which means the building of a strong and free China.
By the terms of the will, also, I have asked specifically that my body be cremated and my ashes sent to General Zhu De to be buried in China. Could you see to that? If the new embassy comes, they could be delivered to it to ship. I wish the simplest possible funeral, and the cheapest that can be had in these islands. I do not believe in wasting money on such things.
I am not a Christian and therefore wish no kind of religious rites over my body—absolutely none. I have had but one loyalty, one faith, and that was to the liberation of the poor and oppressed, and within that framework, to the Chinese revolution as it has now materialized. If the Chinese embassy arrives, I would be thankful if but one song were sung over my body: the Chinese national anthem, »Chee Lai« [Rise up]. As my heart and spirit have found no rest in any land on earth except China, I wish my ashes to live with the Chinese Revolutionary dead.
I thank you, Margaret, and I thank Hilda, for your friendship. We may differ in many ways, but you have nevertheless remained my friend.

Smedley's surgery was performed on the afternoon of May 5. By evening it was over, she was coming out of anesthesia, and Hilda wired friends in New York that she was all right. But the next day, May 6,1950, Agnes Smedley died, with Margaret Sloss at her side. According to the death certificate, the cause of death was pneumonia, acute circulatory failure, and the effects of the partial gastrectomy the day before.
Within a month, the war that Smedley had predicted broke out in Korea, delaying the reestablishment of a Chinese diplomatic mission in London. Eventually her ashes were taken to China by a British »people's delegation«, and on May 6, 1951, after a long memorial meeting in Beijing, they were placed in the Cemetery for Revolutionaries in the western suburb of Babaoshan. The Chinese characters inscribed on her gravestone are in Zhu De's hand: »In memory of Agnes Smedley, American Revolutionary Writer and Friend of the Chinese People«.