Edgar Snow was born 100 years ago, the same year as my mother, but they never met. Most central Texas folks never heard of him. And fewer still ever read any of his writings.
He was a well-educated Missouri boy who went to China in the 1920s, studied Chinese, taught in a university and was a correspondent for the New York Sun and London Daily Herald. He also wrote articles for the Saturday Evening Post.
In 1944 Snow was one of only six American correspondents accredited to cover the Eastern European Front (The Russian Front).
On a trip across the Soviet Union during World War II he met three girls from Smolensk. The girls, all in their early 20s, had fled to the forests when the Germans invaded their Russian hometown.
Panya, Kenya and Liza were not about to give up their homeland without a fight. They gathered about 30 girls, some boys and old men, and raided a village the Germans held. They surprised them, captured a lot of guns and rifles and a field kitchen on wheels.
Liza, a weaver from Smolensk, told how more and more peasants, who could not live under the Germans, joined them. Villages all around Smolensk were burned by the Germans and the people were hiding in caves, with nothing to eat. The children were starving. “We had to fight,” Liza said to Snow.
“But who taught you how to fight?” Edgar Snow asked.
Liza said they learned a little from the old men but most of what they learned was from reading a book called Red Star Over China. “We got many ideas from it and nearly everybody here has read it.”
Now I must let Edgar Snow tell what came next in his own words: “If Liza had not just come in out of the forests and I had not met these three by chance, I would have thought the thing had been rehearsed. It was the only time I was flattered by that much attention in Russia.”
He told the girls it was a good book and that he wrote it himself.
Published in 1936, Red Star Over China was an immediate best seller and translated everywhere. Snow got his exclusive by breaking through a Chinese Nationalist blockade and reaching the Chinese Communists in northwest China. No Western reporter had seen the Communists, who were widely considered a bandit army. Snow took them seriously.
Snow went on to tell the young Russian fighters the chapters on guerrilla warfare were none of his doing, but the statements of Peng Dehuai and Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders he met in northwestern China.
Snow told them: “I merely printed verbatim what [Mao and Peng] said and the credit was entirely theirs. Still, it gave me a good feeling to know the written word could travel that far and still have meaning and find people ready to act upon it.”
After the war Snow returned the United States. He was accused of being a communist by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Snow eventually decided to leave the country he loved. He was a model of what a journalist should be. He was misunderstood during the confusing years of the Cold War. Edgar Snow died in Switzerland on Feb. 15, 1972.
Not long before his death he wrote: “The truth is that if I have written anything useful about China it has been merely because I listened to what I thought I heard the Chinese people saying about themselves. I wrote it down, as honestly and as frankly as I could–considering my own belief that it was all in the family–that I belonged to the same family as the Chinese–the human family.”
Britt Towery is a retired missionary whose column runs each Friday in the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.