American journalist and author Edgar Snow, best known for his 1937 bestseller Red Star over China about Mao Tse-tung and other Chinese Communist leaders hiding from the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 17th, 1905.
Snow graduated from the University of Missouri in 1926 and in 1927/28 attended Columbia University’s School of Journalism, while working for the Kansas City Star. During his short stint at the New York Sun in 1928, he visited Central America.
He arrived in Shanghai in July 1928 and got his first job with The China Weekly Review, later reporting for various leading American and English newspapers and periodicals about the Sino-Soviet Conflict in Manchuria in 1929, the mutiny against the French colonial masters in Vietnam in 1930 and the uprisings against the British Empire in Burma in 1930/32.
In 1932 he married Helen Foster (1907-1997), a Mormon civil servant from Salt Lake City sent to Asia by the American Silver Mining Commission. A big admirer of Snow, Foster had literary ambitions herself and eventually found her vocation as a foreign correspondent.
The newly-weds soon moved to Peking, where Snow taught part-time at Christian Yenching University from 1933 to 1936 and acquired modest fluency in Mandarin. After having traveled around China on assignment for the Ministry of Railways for a few years, in 1934 he published his first book, Far Eastern Front, followed in 1936 by a compiled volume of modern Chinese short stories, Living China.
With the help of leftist student leaders he had met while a lecturer, Snow got to the area in Shensi Province controlled by Mao’s guerrillas at the time. Thanks to interpreter Huang Hua, who would later serve as China’s first Ambassador to the United Nations, he was able to conduct long interviews with their strongman, including Chow En-Lai and Mao himself.
In his standard introduction to the Communist revolutionary movement resulting from that experience, Red Star over China, Snow correctly predicted that it would ultimately win the Chinese Civil War and come to power in China.
He admired the discipline and idealism of the insurgents, which definitely were better motivated than the average Nationalist soldier fighting them. According to him, Mao’s radical ideas enjoyed widespread support in the countryside. Considering the unbelievable plight of poor peasants in the 1930s, that was probably also true.
After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War on July 7th 1937, Edgar Snow, Helen Foster and New Zealand Communist Rewi Alley (1897–1987) started to promote the idea of cooperatives to help people affected by the conflict and to contribute to the Chinese war effort.
That in August 1938 led to the establishment of the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Association (CICA) with financial support from the central government and approval by Mao’s revolutionaries. The new institutions ran training and vocational centers, clinics, printing and publishing houses and literacy classes, also producing a broad variety of goods for both civilian and military needs. They were disbanded after Mao came to power in 1949.
Snow’s second major book, Battle for Asia of 1941, written after visiting territories seized by Japan, proved prophetic as well: it predicted many of Nippon’s imminent military victories and foresaw the challenge to the whole colonial system that would result from looming World War II.
Shortly afterwards he returned to his native country and separated from his first wife, whom he would divorce in 1949 to marry American actress Lois Wheeler (1920-2018), who accompanied her husband on his final visit to China in autumn of 1970.
In 1942, the Saturday Evening Post in Indianapolis appointed him a war correspondent covering Europe, India, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. His three short books People on Our Side (1944), The Pattern of Soviet Power (1945) and Stalin Must Have Peace (1947) are about those nations united in the fight against Germany and Japan as well as Russia’s role in that war.
During the McCarthy Era in the 1950s, he was interrogated by the FBI about the extent of his involvement in Communist activities on American soil. Ending up blacklisted, he earned his livelihood on free-lance sales to foreign journals and by publishing two more books: Random Notes on Red China in 1957, containing previously unused material and the early autobiographical Journey to the Beginning in 1958, narrating events prior to 1949.
Unhappy about the “one-sided, conservative, and anti-communist mood” in the United States during the Cold War, Snow moved with Lois Wheeler and their two children to Switzerland in 1959 to teach at the International School in Geneva at a time when China had isolated itself completely.
In 1960 Snow became the first American correspondent to reenter China since the People’s Republic was established on October 1st, 1949. Subsequently, The Other Side of the River-Red China Today in 1961, gave a very one-sided impression of the new society that totally ignored the disastrous effects of Mao’s policies on the population.
His next visit to China in 1965 resulted in more favorable articles and the propagandistic documentary «One Fourth of Humanity,» full of posed scenes with happy citizens from a brave new world which Snow seemed to really believe in.
During Snow’s final trip to China in 1970, the Chinese leadership showed their deep admiration by inviting him to stand atop the Tiananmen Gate in Peking with Chairman Mao at the celebration of China’s National Day. From Chow he heard that the door was open for US President Richard Nixon and made that invitation known in Life magazine.
On February 15th, 1972, shortly before Nixon’s stay in Mao’s realm from February 21st to 28th, which allowed the American public to view images of China for the first time in over two decades, Snow died of pancreatic cancer in his self-imposed exile in the Swiss municipality of Eysins. An official Chinese medical team was sent to Snows’ home, though it arrived too late.
As he wished, his ashes were buried in a garden at his former university in Peking and also near «the Hudson River, before it enters the Atlantic to touch Europe and all the shores of mankind of which I felt a part.» The Long Revolution, describing Snow’s last encounters with Mao, was released posthumously by his widow.
Wheeler stayed friendly with China’s elite until the crackdown on the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on July 4th, 1989. Despite publicly stating that said she would never return to the country, she did so in 2000 with her son. Reception turned out to be much different from her earlier experience, as surveillance prevented them from meeting with the father of an activist whose son had been killed eleven years earlier.
Snow gained the reputation to be the Western world’s expert on Chinese Communists, which ultimately turned into a formidable force, not just the “Communist bandits” claimed by Chiang Kai-shek. A life-long Leftist, he sympathized with that political force until the end.
His love for China and the Chinese people made him a tool of Mao, reporting what he liked to believe rather than what was occurring. Although Snow undoubtedly did some important pioneering work, that imbalance blemishes his record.