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Edgar Snow: Citizen of the World

On July 19, 1905, Edgar Parks Snow was born in Kansas City, Missouri, into a middle-class family. His father, James Edgar Snow, owned a printing shop where young Snow would occasionally work. It was here, through his father’s love of reciting Goethe while working, that Snow developed his interest in literature and journalism coupled with a desire to travel the world. In 1919, when he was only 14, Snow acted upon this wanderlust for the first time by going to California with two friends for the summer in search of adventure.

After graduating from Westport High School, Snow went to Columbia, Missouri, to study journalism at the University of Missouri in the fall of 1925. Distracted by his desire to see the world and worried about the cost of education, he left Columbia after one year and moved to New York.

By August 1926, Snow was living in Manhattan with his brother Howard and three roommates. He spent the next year and a half working for an advertising agency, Scovil Brothers. In early 1928, at the age of 22, Snow decided to leave his job and travel to Asia. He accepted an offer from the son of Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of a steamship line, to work as a deck boy on the Radnor. Snow had originally planned to stay on the ship all the way to China but after a short stop in Panama, the Radnor broke down in Hawaii. Snow was forced to remain on the island longer than he planned with no sure way back home.

After over two months in Hawaii, Snow stowed away on a ship headed for Japan. He eventually ended up in Shanghai, where a letter of recommendation from the dean of his journalism school earned him a job at the China Weekly Review making $180 a month. The position would be a launching pad for Snow as he progressed from a young writer to one of the most well-informed and widely recognized journalists covering China throughout some of the pivotal decades of the country’s history.

Much like his arrival in China, Snow’s rise to international acclaim came from a mixture of good fortune and hard work. In late December of 1928, Chinese officials invited J.B. Powell, editor of the China Weekly Review, to the country’s northeastern province of Shandong to report on the growing tensions between Chinese residents and Japanese military forces stationed in the region. Unable to go because of his busy schedule, Powell asked Snow to take his place.

Snow covered the conflict, but he also spent the first half of 1929 traveling through China reporting for the Review. For four months, he rode all 8,000 miles of China’s railway system writing articles that would also be used by the Chinese Tourist Bureau. His journey took him from Beijing to the railway’s end in Suiyuan, and to a number of regions in northeastern China that Westerners and even Chinese officials usually avoided. There he witnessed a famine that would haunt him for years. Upon returning to Shanghai, Snow sought and received a position with the Consolidated Press Association that allowed him to continue to visit and write about Asia’s less covered regions. From Shanghai, Snow set out for Burma, India, and Southeast Asia.

In early 1930, Snow arrived in Burma where he witnessed the first agrarian rebellion and wrote the only detailed report on the subject that was published in America. From there Snow traveled to India where he met Mahatma Gandhi, who was leading a movement of Indian nationalists protesting Britain's colonial rule. These trips and his widely read reports of them not only solidified Snow’s reputation as a journalist, but also made him sympathetic toward many of Asia’s nascent working-class and nationalist causes. His keen eye documented working people’s living conditions, and his ability to converse with nearly anyone enabled him to gather a wide range of views, including the negative opinion many Indian nationalists had of Britain’s colonial rule. This sympathy and sensitivity were reflected in Snow’s reporting throughout his life.

After four months in India, Snow returned to China where he met and married his first wife, Helen Foster. Soon after, the couple relocated from Shanghai to Beijing. There, Snow received an assignment to write a profile on Soong Ching-ling, wife of the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen. During the interview, Snow learned a great deal about the history of China and its people. Snow and Soong Ching-ling would become friends, a relationship that proved instrumental in the coming years.

As his connections and experience grew, Snow undertook to write his first book, Far Eastern Front. The book, which focused on China, Japan and Manchuria, eventually became one of the leading sources of information on eastern Asia. Despite his acclaim, Snow found himself in need of a job after the Consolidated Press closed during the depression. Snow soon picked up work writing for various western newspapers but also took a position teaching journalism at Yenching (Peking) University.

Snow’s position at Yenching would, like so many of his connections, prove fortuitous. Students at the university were at the forefront of a campaign that protested Japan’s aggression toward China. Snow knew the movement’s leaders and encouraged their protest, helping to plan and support one of their largest demonstrations on December 9, 1935. The protest was peaceful until the students reached the district of Xidan. There, Chinese police attacked them, exposing the growing rift between the government of Chiang Kai-shek and those who resented it for not standing up to the Japanese.

The following year, Snow was offered a position as special correspondent by the Daily Herald of London. In 1936 he proposed to both the New York Sun and the Daily Herald that he go into China’s Communist-controlled territories to get the first real interview with the Communist forces that had gathered there. The “Red Army,” as these forces were called, had retreated to this area after they had clashed with Chiang Kai-shek’s forces. The Communists, led by the then unknown Mao Zedong, had walked for almost a year to get to Ya'nan in what became known as the Long March, a perilous journey in which many lost their lives.

Upon arriving, Snow succeeded in interviewing Red Army leaders Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in a series of meetings that would establish long-lasting relationships with both men. After several months spent with the Red Army, Snow returned to Beijing and wrote his second book, Red Star Over China. The text was the first to introduce Western audiences to China’s Communist Party and became one of the hallmarks of Snow’s career. The onset of the Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s taking of Nanking forced Snow and his wife to relocate to the Philippines.

China’s war with Japan transformed Snow’s journalism into a form of activism, as he personally began taking up China’s cause. In 1938, after almost a year of preparations, the Snows set up the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives (INDUSCO), together with New Zealander Rewi Alley. Its purpose was to collect loans, gifts, and materials to aid the Chinese economy. Snow resigned from his position as correspondent for the China Weekly Review to focus on raising funds for INDUSCO. He made regular trips to Hong Kong, where its headquarters were located, to meet with potential supporters and he spent a good part of 1939 touring cooperatives in mainland China. He made a final trip up to the northwest to meet with Mao one last time before returning to the Philippines and later to the United States.

In early 1941, Snow returned to the United States where he and his wife separated and eventually divorced. The next year, Snow accepted a position as a World War II correspondent with the Saturday Evening Post. Throughout the war, Snow reported from Egypt, India, France, Germany, and Poland, but his most extensive reporting came from the time he spent in Russia. He was in Moscow when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and he reported on how ordinary Russians felt about Stalin, communism and what the future held.

At the war’s end, Snow continued to travel and report on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Japan’s disarmament. He also returned to India, where he reunited with Gandhi only hours before his assassination.

In 1948, Snow arrived back in the United States where he settled in New York and continued to work for the Saturday Evening Post as associate editor. With the success of the Communists in China and Stalin's alliance with the new People's Republic of China, however, and with the onset of the Cold War, Snow’s unprecedented access to and reporting on the two countries suddenly became a liability. The “Red Scare” over communist infiltration in America led some, including his new neighbors in Snedens Landing, to call Snow’s loyalty into question. He became the subject of an FBI investigation, throughout which Snow stated that he was first and foremost a journalist and that he had no political affiliations. The stigma, however, remained. He and his new wife, actress Lois Wheeler, whom he married in 1949, therefore faced difficulty finding work. Without employment, Snow began to write his autobiography, Journey to the Beginning, which detailed his life, travels, and personal views.

In 1959, Snow accepted a position with the International School of America (ISA), an educational program that allowed students from the United States to experience international travel. With this new position, Snow and his family relocated to Switzerland. Within a year, Snow used his connections with the ISA to return to China for the first time since 1939. In 1963, Snow published his book Red China Today, documenting a decade of Communist rule. Snow returned to China again in 1964 and conducted an interview with Premier Zhou Enlai. Upon his return to Switzerland, Snow sent off the interview to major newspapers in the United States but, to his dismay, they refused to run it. What had once been the source of Snow’s success became an obstacle in his homeland during the McCarthy era, but by the late 1960s Snow’s connection with China would propel him to the center of international affairs once again.

When Snow returned to China in 1960, he was the first American to be invited to the country since the Communist revolution. In 1970, Edgar and Lois Snow joined Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai for the October Day parade celebrating the twenty-first anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. This event heralded the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China.

In December of 1970, Mao Zedong called Snow to his office one morning before dawn for an informal talk lasting over five hours. During the talk, Mao told Snow that he would welcome Richard Nixon to China either as a tourist or in his official capacity as President of the United States. Snow reached an agreement with Time magazine to publish his final interview with Mao, including the Nixon invitation, provided the earlier interview with Zhou Enlai was also published.

In 1971, Snow was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent surgery but his health never returned. Mao sent a full medical team to Switzerland to treat Snow during his final weeks. A few days before he died, Snow received a letter from President Nixon, in which Nixon wrote: "Your distinguished career and achievements are so widely respected and appreciated." The irony of this was not lost on Snow, whose career had been damaged by false accusations during the Red Scare that Nixon helped to promote.

Despite all the efforts of the Chinese medical team, Snow passed away on February 15, 1972, the same week President Nixon made his famous trip to China to meet with Mao Zedong. In his will, Snow wrote: “Please scatter some of my ashes over the city of Peking, and say that I loved China.” Snow’s ashes were divided in two, with half of them buried at a memorial at Peking University and the other half scattered near the Hudson River, New York, so that he could also be laid to rest in his homeland. “America fostered and nourished me,” he wrote, “I should like part of [my ashes] scattered over the Hudson River, to join other debris which touches our shores before it enters the Atlantic, and in turn touches Europe and all the shores of mankind. For I have known good people in many lands.”

© University of Missouri – Kansas City Archives and Lois Wheeler Snow


Built by Dr. Christopher Cantwell and the students in his Spring 2014 "Introduction to Digital History" class. Completed by HistoryMaker intern Autumn Neal.