Agnes Smedley

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A young Agnes Smedley, 1914.

Agnes Smedley (February 23, 1892 – May 6, 1950) was an American journalist and writer, well known for her semi-autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth as well as for her sympathetic chronicling of the Communist forces in the Chinese Civil War. During World War I, she worked in the United States for the independence of India from the United Kingdom, receiving financial support from the government of Germany. Subsequently, she went to China, where she is suspected of acting as a spy for the Comintern. As the lover of Soviet super spy Richard Sorge in Shanghai in the early 1930s, she helped get him established for his final and greatest work as spymaster in Tokyo. She also worked on behalf of various causes including women's rights, birth control, and children's welfare. Smedley wrote six books, including a novel, reportage, and a biography of the Chinese general Zhu De, reported for newspapers such as New York Call, Frankfurter Zeitung and Manchester Guardian, and wrote for periodicals such as the Modern Review, New Masses, Asia, New Republic, and Nation.


Early years[edit]

Agnes Smedley was born in Osgood, Missouri on Feb 23, 1892, the second of five children. In 1901, at the age of nine, she and her family moved to Trinidad, Colorado, where she witnessed many of the events in the 1903–04 coal miners' strike.[1] Her father worked for several of the coal companies in Colorado and the family moved back and forth across southwestern Colorado. At the age of 17, Smedley took the county teacher's examination and taught in rural schools near her home for a semester. She returned home when her mother, Sarah, became ill. Sarah died in early 1910.[2]

Later that year, with the help of an aunt, Smedley enrolled in a business school in Greeley, Colorado, after which she worked as a traveling salesperson. Suffering from physical and emotional stress in 1911, Smedley checked into a sanatorium. A family friend in Arizona offered her a place to stay after she was discharged, and from 1911 to 1912 Smedley enrolled in Tempe Normal School.[3] She published her first writings as editor and contributor to the school paper, Tempe Normal Student. At Tempe, she became friends with a woman named Thorberg Brundin and her brother Ernest Brundin. Both Brundins were members of the Socialist Party of America and gave Smedley her first exposure to socialist ideas. When the Brundins left Tempe for San Francisco, they invited Smedley to come stay with them, and in August 1912 Smedley married Ernest. The marriage did not last, however; by 1916, Smedley and her husband divorced and at the beginning of 1917, Smedley moved to New York City.[4]

Smedley and Indian Activism[edit]

Smedley's sister-in-law, Thorberg Brundin, had herself recently returned to New York, and Smedley was able to stay with Brundin and her husband Robert Haberman in their Greenwich Village home for her first few months in New York.[5] During her stay with them, Smedley came to know a number of Brundin's acquaintances, including feminist Henrietta Rodman and birth control activist Margaret Sanger.[6] During this same time, Smedley also became involved with a number of Bengali Indian revolutionaries working in the United States, including M. N. Roy and Sailendranath Ghose.[7] Working to overthrow British rule in India, these revolutionaries saw World War I as an opportunity for their cause, and began to cooperate with Germany, which saw in the revolutionaries' activities an opportunity to distract Britain from the European battlefront. The cooperation between the revolutionaries and Germany became known as the Hindu-German Conspiracy, and the United States government soon took action against the Indians. Roy and Ghose both moved to Mexico, and recruited Smedley to help coordinate the group's activities in the United States during their absence, including operating a front office for the group and publishing anti-allied propaganda. Most of these activities continued to be funded by Germany.[8] Both American and British military intelligence soon became interested in Smedley's activities. To avoid surveillance, Smedley changed addresses frequently, moving ten times in the period from May 1917 to March 1918, according to biographer Ruth Price.[9]

In March 1918, Smedley was finally arrested by the U.S. Naval Intelligence Bureau.[10] She was indicted for violations of the Espionage Act, first in New York and later in San Francisco, and imprisoned for two months, when she was released on bail through the efforts of friends such as Rodman.[11] Smedley spent the next year and a half fighting the indictments; the New York indictment was dismissed in late 1918, and the government dropped the San Francisco charges in November 1919.[12] Smedley continued working for the next year on behalf of the Indians who had been indicted in the Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial. She then moved to Germany, where she met an Indian communist, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, whom she lived with for the next several years in Germany, involved with various left-wing causes.[13]

In 1928, she finished her autobiographical novel Daughter of Earth. She then left Chattopadhyaya and moved to Shanghai, initially as a correspondent for a liberal German newspaper. Daughter of Earth was published in 1929 to general acclaim.[14]

Years in China[edit]

Smedley (second from the right) with Soong Ching-ling (third from right), 1930s

Smedley had a sexual relationship with Richard Sorge, a Soviet spymaster, while in Shanghai, and probably with Ozaki Hotsumi, a correspondent for the Asahi Shinbun. Later he translated Smedley's Daughter of Earth into Japanese. She introduced Sorge to Ozaki, who became Sorge's most important informant in Japan. Maj. Gen. Charles A. Willoughby, who served with Gen. Douglas MacArthur's chief of intelligence, claimed that Smedley was a member of the anti-Japanese Sorge spy ring. After the war, Smedley threatened to sue Willoughby for making the accusation. Ruth Price, author of the most recent and extensive biography of Smedley, writes that there is very strong evidence in former Soviet archives that Smedley was indeed a spy who engaged in espionage for the Comintern and on behalf of the Soviet Union.[15]

In China, Smedley served as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung and the Manchester Guardian. She covered many topics, including the Chinese Civil War. She was also in Xi'an during the Xi'an Incident, which took her by surprise but led to her making broadcasts in English for the rebels. She then reported on the Anti-Japanese war during the Second United Front. She first travelled with the 8th Route Army and then with the New Fourth Army, as well as visiting some units of the non-Communist Chinese army.

During the 1930s she applied for membership in the Chinese Communist Party but was rejected due to Party reservations about her lack of discipline and what it viewed as her excessive independence of mind. Smedley was devastated by this rejection but remained passionately devoted to the Chinese communist cause.

Smedley left the field in 1937; she organized medical supplies and continued writing. From 1938 to 1941, she visited both Communist and Guomindang forces in the war zone. It was during her stay with Communist forces in Yan'an, after the Long March, that she conducted extensive interviews with General Zhu De, the basis of her book on him.

It is recorded that this is the longest tour of the Chinese war front conducted by any foreign correspondent, male or female.

Final years[edit]

Headstone for Agnes Smedley at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing.

She relocated to Washington, DC to advocate for China and authored several works on China's revolution. During the 1940s she lived at Yaddo, a writer's colony in upstate New York. In 1947 she was accused of espionage. Feeling pressure, she left the U.S. in the fall of 1949. She died in the UK after surgery for an ulcer. Her final book, a biography of Zhu De, was complete but unpublished at the time of her death. It was published in 1956.

Her ashes were buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery in Beijing in 1951.


Smedley is a featured figure on Judy Chicago's installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor.[16]

According to PBS, in her work as triple agent for Communists in China, India, and the Soviet Union, Smedley "was one of the most prolific female spies of the 20th century."[17]


A selection of her writings on China was published (posthumously) in 1976 as Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution.[18]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Price 20–23
  2. ^ Price 31–32
  3. ^ Price 34–36
  4. ^ Price 56.
  5. ^ Price, 57.
  6. ^ Price, 58.
  7. ^ Price, 60-61.
  8. ^ Price 2005, pp. 63–66
  9. ^ Price 2005, p. 65
  10. ^ Price, 68.
  11. ^ Price, 69-72
  12. ^ Price, 82
  13. ^ Price, 86-88
  14. ^ Price, 183
  15. ^ Price 5–9
  16. ^ "Agnes Sampson". Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Agnes Smedley. Brooklyn Museum. 2007. Retrieved December 25, 2011. 
  17. ^ Agnes Smedley PBS Nova
  18. ^ Parts of this book are available online here, at Google Books.


  • MacKinnon, Janice R. and MacKinnon, Stephen R. (1988) Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, ISBN 0-520-05966-2
  • Price, Ruth. (2005) The Lives of Agnes Smedley. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514189-X
  • Willoughby, Charles Andrew (1952) Shanghai Conspiracy: The Sorge Spy Ring: Moscow, Shanghai, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York E.P. Dutton and Co., New York (reprinted in 1965 by Western Islands, Boston, MA);

External links[edit]