Agnes Smedley, the daughter of a labourer, was born in Osgood, Missouri, on 23rd February, 1892. Ten years later the family moved to the mining town of Trinidad, Colorado. Her father, Charles Smedley, deserted the family in 1903 and at the age of fourteen. Agnes now found work as a domestic servant in order to help to support her mother and her younger brothers and sisters.
In 1908 Smedley passed the New Mexico teacher's examination and although only sixteen years old, started work as a teacher in Terico. However, she was soon forced to return to Osgood to look after her younger brothers and sisters on the death of her mother, Sara Smedley. She later commented: "My mother, being frail, quiet, and gentle, died at the age of 38, of no particular disease, but from great weariness, loneliness of spirit, and unendurable suffering and hunger."
In September 1911 Smedley obtained a place at Tempe College. She immediately got involved in student politics and in March 1912 was appointed as editor of the campus newspaper. While at college she met Ernest Brundin who she married in 1912. The following year she moved to a teacher's college in San Diego.
Smedley became increasingly involved in politics and invited leading radicals such as Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair and Eugene Debs to speak at the college. In 1916 she joined the Socialist Party of America. In December of that year she was dismissed from San Diego College for her socialist beliefs.
In 1917 Smedley and her husband divorced and she moved to New York City. In 1918 she was arrested and charged under the Espionage Act for attempting to stir up rebellion against British rule in India. Smedley was also charged with disseminating birth control information. While in prison Margaret Sanger and John Haynes Holmes led the campaign for her release.
In prison Smedley met two other radicals, Mollie Steimer and Kitty Marion. Steimer had been imprisoned for circulating leaflets in opposition to United States intervention in the Russian Civil War. Marion, who had just returned from England where she had been a leading member of the Women Social & Political Union, was serving a 30-day sentence for distributing pamphlets on birth control. She also became friends with Roger Baldwin who had been imprisoned for his public support of conscientious objectors in the First World War.
After being released from prison Smedley began writing for New York Call and the Birth Control Review, a journal run by Margaret Sanger. Smedley also published Cell Mates, a collection of stories inspired by women she met in prison. In March 1919 Smedley joined with Robert Morss Lovett, Norman Thomas and Roger Baldwin to form the Friends of Freedom for India. Although a close friend of Robert Minor, Smedley refused his invitation to join the American Communist Party.
In 1920 Smedley moved to Germany with the Indian revolutionary leader, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and set up Berlin's first birth-control clinic. Although they did not marry, they lived as man and wife. During this period Smedley met Emma Goldman. She later recalled: "Agnes Smedley was a striking girl, an earnest and true rebel, who seemed to have no interest in life except the cause of the oppressed people in India. Chatto was intellectual and witty, but he impressed me as a somewhat crafty individual. He called himself an anarchist, though it was evident that it was Hindu nationalism to which he devoted himself entirely."
Agnes Smedley told a friend: "I've married an artist, revolutionary in a dozen different ways, a man of truly fine frenzy, nervous as a cat, always moving, never at rest, indefatigable energy a hundred fold more than I ever had, a thin man with much hair, a tongue like a razor and a brain like hell on fire. What a couple. I'm consumed into ashes. And he's always raking up the ashes and setting them on fire again. Suspicious as hell of every man near me - and of all men or women from America...I feel like a person living on the brink of a volcano crater. Yet it is awful to love a person who is a torture to you. And a fascinating person who loves you and won't hear of anything but your loving him and living right by his side through all eternity! We make a merry hell for each other, I assure you. He is rapidly growing grey, under my influence, I fear. And that tortures me."
In 1921 Smedley went to Russia but she was soon disillusioned with the lack of freedom in the country. She was especially upset to hear that old friends, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, had been imprisoned for their political beliefs. She wrote to her friend, Florence Lennon: "The prisons are jammed with anarchists and syndicalists who fought in the revolution. Emma Goldman and Berkman are out only because of their international reputations. And they are under house arrest; they expect to go to prison any day, and may be there now for all I know. Any Communist who excuses such things is a scoundrel and a blaggard. Yet they do excuse it - and defend it. If I'm not expelled or locked up or something, I'll raise a small-sized hell. Everybody calls everybody a spy, secretly, in Russia, and everybody is under surveillance. You never feel safe."
Smedley wrote about events in Weimar Germany for The Nation and the New Masses. She was critical of both the Freikorps and the Communist Party. In one letter Smedley claimed that on occasions she "could see no difference between the two." While in Germany she became a close friend of the left-wing artist, Kathe Kollwitz.
In 1928 Smedley went to China and over the next few years wrote for the Manchester Guardian and the China Weekly Review. The following year her autobiographical novel, Daughter of Earth was published in the United States and Germany. It received good reviews and The Nation described it as "America's first feminist-proletarian novel".
In 1930 Smedley began a relationship with Richard Sorge, a German journalist working for the Frankfurter Zeitung. While in China Smedley spent a great deal of time with the communist forces and wrote several books including Chinese Destinies: Sketches of Present-Day China (1933), China's Red Army Marches (1934) and China Fights Back (1938).
Malcolm Cowley met Agnes Smedley for the first time in 1934: "Agnes Smedley is fanatical. Her hair grows thinly above an immense forehead. When she talks about people who betrayed the Chinese rebels, her mouth becomes a thin scar and her eyes bulge and glint with hatred. If this coal miner's daughter ever had urbanity, she would have lost it forever in Shanghai when her comrades were dragged off one by one for execution. .This evening I'm drawing back. I don't wait to hear Agnes Smedley give her speech, which will be more convincing than the others, as if each phrase of it were dyed in the blood of her Chinese friends."
Smedley also became close friends with Joseph Stilwell and Evans Carlson. Stilwell was commander of the United States Army in China whereas Carson was President Roosevelt's personal adviser in the country. While in China Smedley reported on the Japanese Army invasion in 1937 for the Manchester Guardian.
Freda Utley met Smedley in 1938: "Agnes was one of the few people of whom one can truly say that her character had given beauty to her face, which was both boyish and feminine, rugged and yet attractive. She was one of the few spiritually great people I have ever met, with that burning sympathy for the misery and wrongs of mankind which some of the saints and some of the revolutionaries have possessed. For her the wounded soldiers of China, the starving peasants and the overworked coolies, were brothers in a real sense. She was acutely, vividly aware of their misery and could not rest for trying to alleviate it. Unlike those doctrinaire revolutionaries who love the masses in the abstract but are cold to the sufferings of individuals, Agnes Smedley spent much of her time, energy, and scant earnings in helping a multitude of individuals."
Smedley returned to the United States in May 1941 and went on a nationwide lecture tour where she gave talks on her experiences in China. Her book, Battle Hymn of China, was published in 1943, and is considered to be one of the best works of war reporting that came out of the Second World War.
On a tour of the Deep South in 1942 she was appalled by the Jim Crow laws. Smedley caused a stir when she gave an interview to the Los Angeles Tribune where she complained "we can't treat men like dogs and expect them to act like men." As a result of this outburst, J. Edgar Hoover instructed FBI agents to investigate her political past. John S. Gibson of Georgia raised the issue of Smedley's comments in the House of Representatives and accused her of being the "author of many books which portray the glory of the Communist Party."
The FBI interviewed Whittaker Chambers in May 1945. Chambers, a former communist spy, claimed wrongly that Smedley was a secret member of the American Communist Party. This was untrue, in fact Smedley had been a strong opponent of the party since the 1920s. As a libertarian socialist she had appalled by the way the party had supported the repressive policies of Joseph Stalin and his communist government in the Soviet Union.
Smedley continued to lecture on world politics. These speeches were monitored by the FBI and the agents became increasingly concerned with Smedley's attacks on the US government's support for totalitarian regimes. In July 1946 the FBI put Smedley on its Security Watch List.
In 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), chaired by J. Parnell Thomas, began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. The HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named nineteen people who they accused of holding left-wing views.
One of those named, Bertolt Brecht, an emigrant playwright, gave evidence and then left for East Germany. Ten others: Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Samuel Ornitz,, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and Alvah Bessie refused to answer any questions.
Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of congress and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison. Smedley responded to these events by helping to form the Progressive Citizens of America, a civil rights group that was committed to defending Hollywood writers, directors and producers who had been named as communists or communist sympathizers by the HUAC.
On 1st January 1948, the Chicago Tribune carried a story claiming that Smedley was being investigated as part of communist espionage ring based in Japan during the 1930s. The article claimed that Smedley was working with the German journalist, Richard Sorge, who was spying on the Japanese government on behalf of the Soviet Union.
Sorge was indeed a spy and had been the first to supply evidence to the west about the proposed attack on Pearl Harbour. Sorge had been arrested by the Japanese authorities in October 1941 and was executed three years later. Although Smedley had been a close friend of Sorge when he had been in China in 1930, she was not involved in his spying activities and despite the article no charges were ever brought against Smedley.
Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior for ten years under Franklin D. Roosevelt, bravely wrote an article in the New York Post, arguing that there was no truth in the claim that the United States government knew that Smedley was a communist spy. However, America was now entering the period of McCarthyism and this was the first of many smear stories circulated about Smedley.
Depressed by the smear stories and the early deaths of her close friends, Joseph Stilwell and Evans Carlson, Smedley decided to move to England in November 1949. Agnes Smedley went to live in Oxford but was now in poor health and she died of acute circulatory failure on 6th May, 1950.