Seeing Red: The FBI and Edgar Snow

Article excerpt

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's study of the politics of Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China, was marked by inaccuracies and by incomplete analysis. The bureau's reports on him, when compared to his writings, demonstrate that the government created a misleading portrait of the prominent journalist. The bureau's use of his alleged memberships in liberal groups to claim guilt by association likewise showed an FBI pattern of errors and incomplete evidence. Even some of the basic biographical information that the bureau collected on him was incorrect. The irresponsible research on Snow was used to discredit the journalist in the New York Times and resulted in the U.S. government banning his work from government-- sponsored libraries abroad and in congressional loyalty hearings during the 1950s. The resulting scandals effectively ended his journalistic career in the U.S, even though he was never found to be disloyal to his native country.

After Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists took control of mainland China in 1949, the question "who lost China?" echoed across the United States. Politicians, including U.S. Senators Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) and Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), in many cases fortified with "confidential" Federal Bureau of Investigation files provided by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, attacked leading members of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and Hollywood writers, directors, and actors for their alleged roles in advancing the Communist cause. Journalists also were targeted by the FBI and by anti-Communist legislators, but government investigations of reporters-most notably Edgar Snow, Theodore White, John Steinbeck, and LF. Stone-have received far less attention from scholars than the bureau's treatment of more well-known government and civil rights figures such as Alger Hiss, Owen Lattimore, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr.1

One influential foreign correspondent subject to intensive study by Hoover's agents was Snow, the author of Red Star Over China, a landmark 1938 work that introduced Mao and the Chinese Communist movement to the outside world2 Mao, who in 1936 was rebuilding his army in China's remote northwest interior, allowed the young American journalist to stay in the rebels' camp for months. Snow repeatedly interviewed Mao and other top Communists and produced a best-selling work, a project that was and still is recognized as one of the twentieth century's leading journalistic coups.3 His book, together with his magazine articles on China, led to considerable attention on the part of Hoover and his agents, who for decades viewed the Kansas City-born writer as at least a Communist supporter.4

During the 1940s and 1950s, a time when many American politicians and intelligence experts were convinced that the Communist victory in China was at least materially aided by disloyal American diplomats and writers, the FBI investigated Snow in an effort to determine whether he was a Communist. In a file totaling 555 pages, 484 pages of which have been declassified, the bureau's agents reported on and discussed Snow's writings, his speeches, and his association memberships.5 The declassified pages permit an examination of the FBI's investigation. The bureau's multi-year inquiry involved an investigation where agents' suspicions regarding Snow were leaked to others in the government, including members on the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. The bureau's information eventually found its way into many hands in and out of government and led to additional scrutiny of Snow from the U.S. State Department, lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and reporters covering Washington for the New York Times and other media outlets. The bureau's anything-- but-private suspicions regarding Snow severely undermined his ability to find outlets for his work and his ideas during (and after) the McCarthy era.

Although he was a prominent journalist who spent much of his reporting career in Asia, the Kansas City-born Snow in some ways was an odd target for such intensive bureau scrutiny. …