In response to:

Message from Mao from the February 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Edgar Snow was set up by Mao and mugged by the Cold War. I first met him in 1932 in Peking and kept more or less in touch during the next forty years of his life. I think Jonathan Mirsky’s review of the Snow biography [NYR, February 16] by John Maxwell Hamilton overlooks a couple of points that need to be noted. The first is the predicament in which Ed Snow found himself after Chairman Mao, in his cave in Baoan, decided to make use of him. Ed had begun as a journalist, not a professor, and was very conscious of the code of his craft. He wanted to pay his own way, accept no favors, and be his own man. Integrity was the coin of his realm. Yet he found himself the reporter of the new China, which eventually became the People’s Republic, our Cold War enemy. For a gregarious man who naturally loved people, there were a lot of lovable people in China. As a China Hand I find myself beguiled from day to day by the ethnic charm of ordinary Chinese. Imagine being beguiled by The Great Helmsman in his Great Hall under the full blast of Chinese friendship!

Mr. Mirsky faults Snow for not reporting the great malnutrition of 1960 when Snow had his unique opportunity to cover the country and try to tell us what the Chinese Revolution had accomplished in its first ten years. Mr. Mirsky says that if “Snow had still been the reporter he had been in the 1930s he would have discovered” the famine then underway. This disregards circumstance. The fragmented China of the 1930s could be penetrated far more easily than the mobilized totalitarian China of 1960; for example, top American reporters of 1971–72 failed to notice the Cultural Revolution. But in any case, concludes Mr. Mirsky, Snow’s sentiments had become pro–People’s Republic (prematurely, of course). So what? Snow’s factual reporting, even under the suffocating blanket of the guest-host relationship, made a useful contribution that we generally refused to accept. Snow did what he could as a professional journalist.

My second disagreement concerns the achievement of Mr. Hamilton. It seems to me he has exhausted the evidence from personal sources, brought the story of Ed’s life together comprehensively, and used careful judgment in his objective appraisals. The book deserves wider reading than your reviewer suggests.

John K. Fairbank
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Jonathan Mirsky replies:

It is a brave man who crosses swords with John Fairbank, especially when he reminds us that for the Snow he knew for forty years “integrity was the coin of his realm.” My suggestion was that Snow deluded himself because he didn’t want to know the truth about his Chinese adopted family—which, as Mr. Fairbank notes, set him up.
Of course Snow could have found out about the famine. He made fun of those who knew there was one; and in Hong Kong it was well known. Mr. Hamilton himself admits that other reporters were writing about the famine, but says “this hardly proved anything.” He writes as if there was nothing untoward about Snow’s reliance on assurances from the deeply compromised Rewi Alley that there was plenty of food in China. Mr. Hamilton suggests as well that Chou Enlai, who briefed Snow on the food situation, didn’t know the truth—that 20 million or more people were dying from what Mr. Hamilton calls malnutrition rather than “outright starvation.” Rereading The Other Side of the River is not a pleasant experience for anyone who wants to think well of Snow’s post-1949 reporting. And not only about the famine but about purged intellectuals and many other things. Snow preferred to walk by on the other side. He said that “Mao has not held power by devouring his closest comrades as Stalin did.”

No, Mao did it his own way. In the published verdict after the prosecution of the Gang of Four and its supporters, A Great Trial in Chinese History (Peking: New World Press, p. 20), it is charged that of the 729,511 people named in the indictment, 34,800 of whom died, there were “38 leaders of the party and state,” and “93 members and alternate members of the Central Committee.” In his Life article of April 30, 1971, Snow makes no mention of his missing comrades from Baoan, although Mr. Hamilton says that privately he worried about them.

Mr. Fairbank says “So what?” to Snow’s pro–People’s Republic sentiments. I would say they matter. Snow’s was the sort of reporting that helped to discredit opponents of the cold war in the eyes of those China experts who knew that terrible things were happening in China.

Mr. Fairbank notes that the Chinese can be beguiling. Much of what was beguiling about Chinese officials was simply their charming lies, like the ones Mao told Snow for more than thirty years. In 1972 when some of us were sickened by the lies we were hearing in China (we had heard enough in Washington) and wanted to go home and spill the beans, we were persuaded to keep silent because we had to fight for peace. I’m sorry I gave in. Snow apparently decided to keep silent on his own. Mr. Hamilton brings this to our attention but insists that in the end, even though Snow was wholly involved on what he called the anti-rat side, he “did not skirt the hard issues.”

Reverend McCarthy remembers Chinese kindness to Snow in Geneva. I’m glad they eased his last days. Within China large numbers of people were suffering at the orders of the very same leadership that was caring for its best foreign friend. As for the bloody-minded Washington establishment, I don’t believe that telling the truth about China would have made them more likely to attack it with nuclear weapons. The people who favored such an attack were not animated by concern for the sufferings of the Chinese population.

This Issue

April 27, 1989