Preferred Citation: MacKinnon, Stephen R., and Oris Friesen China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1987 1987.

3 Romantic Hankow, 1938

Romantic Hankow, 1938

Within a half-year of the declaration of war after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, Peking, Shanghai, and Nanking fell to the Japanese. The Nationalists retreated to Hankow, in the plains of central China. Hankow was and is part of a tri-city industrial complex known as Wuhan that straddles the Yangtze River midway down its long meandering course from the Himalayas to the sea. Helped in part by a major victory at Taierhchuang in April 1938, the Chinese were able to hold on to Hankow until October 1938. Thus for about ten months Hankow became the wartime capital of a new China in which the Communists and the Kuomintang formed a united front. Spirits were high, and for the first time in a decade there was a semblance of unity. In retrospect, this was the most romantic period of China's wartime experience, and it generated a mood of optimism and idealism that was tempered only partially by the harsh realities of war .

Out of desperation, China seemed to be coming together politically and militarily. There was a sense of unified purpose and determination that had not been seen since the early 1920s. Foreign journalists enjoyed the freest atmosphere of any Chinese capital before or since .


Moreover, Hankow had international glamour. In 1938 it was catapulted to center stage in worldwide press attention because of Franco's victory in Spain. As historian Charles Hayford put it:

While it lasted, Hankow became a world center for the democratic struggle against fascism, and became almost a tourist stop-off for writers and demi-diplomats who swooped through to visit the front.

Tillman Durdin reminisced about Hankow at the conference. He began by discussing the "polyglot" nature of the press corps in China during the 1930s and 1940s—meaning that it comprised a core of professionals surrounded by all sorts of part-timers, stringers, and political advocates. By advocacy is meant a political commitment to the victory of either the revolution or counter-revolution in China and elsewhere. In later years it was usually coupled with strong opinions about American involvement in China and the forms it should take .

At Hankow we had a large number of people who had had some experience of the Spanish Civil War and who had been in Moscow. They brought with them very worldly political points of view. They felt at home in China because she, too, was fighting a just war like the one they had been pushing, observing, and covering in Spain on the Republican side. They were also great believers in the Russian Revolution. So at Hankow, with their presence, we had become part of the world scene.

This was the romantic period of Chinese resistance to the Japanese. It was also the height of the united front. Chou En-lai was in Hankow, and there seemed to be unity between the Communists and the Kuomintang about


fighting the Japanese. The unity tremendously impressed us. Although the Chinese were losing steadily after some very tough battles, their sense of unity as a people seemed to hold. We tried to report this in whatever we wrote.

We correspondents operated in relative freedom. There was censorship, usually about battlefield statistics, but by and large we were able to get the story out. Occasionally we were able to get into the field with the Chinese troops and see what was going on. Generally, we relied on Jack Belden and Joseph Stilwell, who collaborated in keeping track of where the Chinese armies were and what they were doing. Jack and Stilwell would plunge off into the hinterland and come back with information about the situation at the front, all of which was made available to us.

Very pervasive at Hankow was close collaboration and friendship between correspondents and American officials. I have mentioned Stilwell, but John Davies was also in the consulate at the time. He and others were eager to get all the information we had and vice versa. There was nothing of the confrontational and mutually suspicious approach to one another that has characterized press-government relations in more recent years. At that time we felt that we were all in this together and in the right. China, after all, was being invaded and brutalized by the Japanese, and we had deep sympathy for the Chinese side. This created a spirit of mutual sympathy and cooperation among us.

The cosmopolitan nature of the foreign press corps was extraordinary. There were quite a few Europeans drifting in and out, some with experience in Spain and others in Moscow. Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley were two colorful figures who brought this kind of international world view to Hankow. Freda Utley was another. Once an


English Communist, she brought the Moscow view in reverse. She had turned categorically anti-Communist by this time, counterbalancing the united frontists who still thought the Russian Revolution was inspiring. Indeed, reporting on what the Russians were doing in China was a sensitive subject, about which the Chinese government was not eager to have publicity. We saw huge Russian aircraft flying from time to time over Hankow and occasionally spotted a Russian in the city, but it was difficult to find out much about Russian aid or activity. Equally difficult to follow was the German Military Advisory Group. There was the ever present Captain Walther Stennes, who was a sort of front man for the group and advisor to Chiang Kai-shek. He was very affable and likable but we never found out much about him.

Of special interest in retrospect was the presence of Chou En-lai and his Communist delegation, who were very accessible. Chou held press conferences for correspondents from time to time. His influence and that of his delegation were not as great as later in the Chungking days, but they were still significant. Also he was more a part of the government than he was later, and this had an inhibiting effect. Viewing himself as a kind of government spokesman, Chou tried not to reveal more than Hollington Tong or one of the Kuomintang officials would reveal. Later, in the Chungking days, the breach was such that Chou would gladly fill correspondents in on all the dirt they wanted about the doings of Chiang's circle and the Kuomintang government in general.

As Durdin suggests, the range of journalistic personalities in Hankow was extraordinary. Yet a remarkable camaraderie or esprit de corps prevailed. This collegiality


was especially noticed and appreciated by those who were closer to the fringe of American journalism, or further from the establishment, than Durdin. One such figure was Agnes Smedley, for whom Hankow was a social oasis .

Smedley was an advocate journalist in quite a different tradition from Henry Luce. She saw the Communists as the key to China's future and had been writing since 1929 about their struggle in the countryside in clear, simple, driving prose for the international left-of-center press. She arrived in Hankow in January 1938, fresh from a year in the northwest with the Communist-led Eighth Route guerrilla army, including a stay in the mountain citadel of Yenan .

Oddly enough, she too was from Missouri—the product of a dirt-poor tenant farm, not a school of journalism. Later, in turn-of-the-century Western mining towns, she learned to ride, shoot, and write. Politically she evolved into an anarchist of the old IWW type and was arrested in New York for work with the Indian nationalist movement in 1919. Once out of jail, she worked on the socialist daily The Call. During the 1920s Smedley lived in Germany, visited Moscow, and befriended Emma Goldman. She came to China in 1929 to fight imperialism, see the revolution, and write for the Frankfurter Zeitung. She soon felt in her gut that rural China was where the real story was. Thus, by 1938, with two China books under her belt, she had shifted her focus to the Communist-led guerrilla resistance to the Japanese in North China. Hankow put her back in touch with the world at large, and she was slightly overwhelmed. Just after the fall of Hankow, she wrote to Freda Utley, one of the few women in the group:


The last days of Hankow still remain in my mind as rare, unusual days from the psychological and human viewpoint. I still think of Shaw's Heartbreak House when I recall them. As you remarked at the time, no person on earth is more charming than the American journalist abroad, particularly the cultured serious-minded ones. But I wonder what it would be like were I to meet those same men on the streets of Chicago. Gone the Magic![1]

At about the same time, Smedley wrote a letter addressed simply to the Hankow "Gang." In it she fantasized about writing a play in which the lead characters would be the Hankow fraternity of journalists and American government officials. Lovingly, she portrayed each of them:

I shall one day try to weave you all into a drama—John [Davies, American consular official], you with your white bowls filled with lovely flowers, with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the background. And, I suspect, behind your immaculate life, many dark thoughts and dreams. You are so much a part of this bourgeois, cultured civilization of the present you do not even know other ways of life. Very well, with all that you shall be a leading character in my play. Then there is Evans [Carlson, office of the US naval attaché]—where is he? Long and lanky and lovable, he shall be the man unconsciously reaching for the stars—but never touching them I fear. Yet that striving, alone, makes life worthwhile. He shall be the element of tragedy in my play. And you Walter [Bosshard, Swiss journalist], I have to try and recall your speech at Freda's and Carlson's last farewell party. I shall reproduce that, but make all readers love you and long to pat your head. George [Hogg] I


shall use as a background because his voice is suitable for sound effects and because he is young and unformed (save physically); and because he is a vigorous opposite of John. Till [Durdin] shall be the psychological case, reticent, fearful of himself as a man, yet trembling a bit at times before the harsh reality of his psychological problems. Arch [Steele] the disciplined—perhaps all too disciplined—looking with amused eyes on the passing scene. Yet at times of which I know so little—deeply moved by joy and sorrow. I shall give him seven wives and one child, but they shall be but the comedy element in the offing, while the real Arch shall be tousled and beaten down at times. Mac [Fisher] of many hidden problems—kind and generous but lovable, and something more, though I have not yet fathomed it. Freda [Utley] shall be the flame, uncontrolled and forever attracting all, instinctively and unconsciously. Mayell [Eric, newsreel photographer] I never understood; and Mr. Josselyn [American consul general] and Col. Stilwell who did not quite make the gang and never wanted to. And above all [there is] Jack Belden. Jack can be drawn down into chaos or led into a purposeful life, but not in China—at least not the way he is going.[2]

Jack Belden was one of the most remarkable figures of the war years and as a war correspondent probably the best of the bunch, as acknowledged earlier by Durdin. Belden jumped directly into the field, working closely with Col. Joseph Stilwell as a military reporter .

At the conference Charles Hayford discussed Belden and the significance of his work at length. Suffice it to say that Belden was a gifted journalist writing about war in depth with rare poetical insight. But he was also a difficult, elusive, and alcoholic figure. Today his work is amongst the most enduring of the period. And earlier his


bravery and insight inspired respect from colleagues—and for some, like Hugh Deane and Israel Epstein, Belden assumed the role of teacher .

Today Belden lives in angry exile in Paris. Blacklisted by McCarthyism and silent for decades, his vision and inimitable style remain unclouded, as in this passage from a letter of protest to the conference organizers about the application of the term advocacy journalism to some of his writings:

The trouble with most journalists, reporters, diplomats or otherwise is they have no poetry in their souls. Many historians have acknowledged that Shakespeare's Julius Caesar shows a better and more succinct and powerful understanding of the fall of the Roman Empire than a batch of historic tomes. His Troilus and Cressida might have been written about why the Vietnam war went on. When Nixon sent US troops into Cambodia he said America could not be a "pitiful giant." Some four hundred years ago in Measure for Measure, Isabella told Angelo, "O it is excellent to have a giant's strength, but tyrannous to use it like a giant. . . . Man proud man dressed in little brief authority plays such tricks before high heaven, etc." And you, dressed in the brief authority of a Center for Asian Studies, presume to tag me (in a bad sense) with the term advocacy journalist. Bah! Give me an ounce of civet to sweeten my imagination.

American journalists are taught objectivity. That's all fine, quote this leader and that leader, etc. But it often leads to a gross error and that is the interplay of the subjective and the objective. "Look into thy heart and write," said Sidney. That is what journalists too often do not do or are scared to do. In the time of falling nations what ordi-


nary people feel has an effect on events they do not have in quieter times. Into whose poor people's hearts do you and your war reporters look? As for my own reporting of facts—and I made a distinction between reporting and writing—if you will go to the United States Army, I am sure you will find military maps on the Shanghai war of 1937 there which I objectively gathered and gave to Stilwell. Or if you will look in OSS files. In 1940 I gathered some 50,000 words (facts, not writing) on Japanese and Chinese terror organizations in Shanghai, a great deal from the police. When the Japs captured Shanghai (I was not there) these papers were in a safe. They were thrown in a furnace and burned. Wild Bill Donovan somehow—God knows how—heard about it and one of his agents came to see me in a hospital when I was wounded. I gave them a copy of the material, at least on the Japanese, on Mitsui and Mitsubishi who ran the drug trade and facts on murders. They did not think I was an advocate, they have some sense of my objective facts.

Enough! I have indulged myself in a long-winded diatribe. But I refuse to be hung for what I am not. Since your conference is in some sense on war, I close with a poem by Wordsworth. If, as Henri IV said, Paris is worth a mass, then war is worth a sonnet.

The power of Armies is a visible thing 
Formal and circumscribed in time and space; 
But who the limits of that power shall trace 
Which a brave People into light can bring 
Or hide, at will, for freedom combating 
By just revenge inflamed? No foot may chase, 
No eye can follow, to a fatal place 
That power, that spirit, whether on the wing 
Like the strong wind, or sleeping like the wind 
Within its awful caves.—From year to year 
Springs this indigenous produce far and near;


No craft this subtle element can bind,
Rising like water from the soil, to find
In every nook a lip that it may cheer.

Hankow then was a unique, heady experience for the American journalist. Extraordinary camaraderie and romance filled the air. The atmosphere was free, partly because the united front between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists was at its most cordial. Moreover, the writing to be done from Hankow was relatively simple—reporting on the struggle of the united, heroic Chinese versus the villainous Japanese. In reaction to the tension, drama, and hopelessness of the situation, the correspondents responded with an almost macabre gaiety. Symbolic of the Hankow spirit among journalists was the formation during the summer of 1938 of the Last Ditchers Club. The group assembled regularly with much rhetorical flourish for farewell dinners to see off "deserters." The idea was to see who would hold out in Hankow the longest. One such dinner was staged as a trial of the guests of honor. The charges illustrate beautifully the Hankow spirit of 1938, and the need for comic relief from the bombs, corpses, and wounded.


IN THE SUPREME COURT of the Hankow Last Ditchers Corps within and for the District of East Asia, in the first Judicial Circuit, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and thirty-eight.

THE GRAND JURORS of the Hankow Last Ditchers Corps, duly empaneled, sworn and charged with inquiring in and for the said district, upon their oaths and affirmations, present that Freda Clayfoot Utley and Evans Voice-in-the-Wilderness Carlson during, to wit, the last days of September in the year of our Lord 1000 900 & 38 in the Lutheran Mission Home and Rosie's Dine, Dance and Romance Restaurant in the district aforesaid and within the jurisdiction


of this court, did, then, and there, in contravention to the Corps line, knowingly and with force of arms connive to commit—desertion, contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided, and against the peace, dialectics and dignity of the Hankow Last Ditchers Corps.

And the Grand Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths and affirmations aforesaid, do further present that the defendants, on, to wit, the last days of September, of the year of our Lord, etc., in the L.M.H. and R.D.D.R.R., in the district aforesaid, and within the jurisdiction of this court, through their connivance to commit desertion,


2nd Specification

Wreck and create diversion of the defense plans of the Hankow Last Ditchers Corps;

3rd Specification

Sabotage the economic warp and woof;

4th Specification

Sap, gut and scuttle Corps morale; contrary to the form of the statutes in such case made and provided, and against the peace, dialectics and dignity of the Hankow Last Ditchers Corps.

A. T. Steele
Presiding Judge

Note: Witnesses testify on only second, third and fourth counts. First count (desertion) will be stated by the prosecutor to be self-evident as defendants will be led during the course of the meal to state that they cannot join the Corps as they intend to depart.[3]


3 Romantic Hankow, 1938

Preferred Citation: MacKinnon, Stephen R., and Oris Friesen China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1987 1987.