Snow Blind


Kansas City:



By Jack Cashill
© - February 2006

New UMKC Chancellor Guy Bailey will know he has an institution-rattling decision to make by the time he finishes reading this column.

The dilemma that confronts him is this: Does he hope that no one else of consequence will read what follows? Or does he preemptively cart UMKC’s Edgar Snow Exhibit off to the school’s dimmest recesses and slap a major asterisk on its tightly padlocked door?

In the way of background, Edgar Snow was born in Kansas City in 1905, graduated from Westport High School, spent some time at Missouri University’s famed J-School, (faked a diploma for his book jackets), and wandered off to China as a free lance reporter. In 1936, Snow made his way to Mao’s beleaguered band of Chinese Communists, which was then holed up in a distant province at the seeming mercy of both Chang Kai-Shek’s nationalist forces and the invading Japanese army.

Mao was looking for some western reporter to whom he could tell his story, and the eager Snow fit the bill. “Ed Snow was an activist,” the UMKC Edgar Snow Exhibit boasts, “ready to encourage worthy causes rather than be a purely passive spectator.” Once exposed to Mao’s presumed “fight for a life of justice, equality, freedom, and human dignity,” young Snow proved anything but passive.

Snow wrote the above paean to Mao in his 1938 book, Red Star Rising, a book that saved Mao’s bacon, a point on which both friend and foe agree. The UMKC exhibit refers to the Snow book as “a great classic” and “a scoop of all time,” one that “burst as a surprise upon not only the Chinese people but the whole world.”

On and off, for decades thereafter, Snow channeled the remote Mao to the rest of the world. Snow played a particularly useful role in the years before Mao assumed control of the Mainland. Indeed, the UMKC exhibit claims with some justification that Snow “acted as eyes and ears for President Roosevelt.”

Without intending to, Snow reconnected with Kansas City in 1965. Then living in Switzerland, he journeyed to a “world government” conference in New Hampshire. There he happened to meet Dr. E. Grey Dimond, the “counterculture medical educator” who would go on to found the UMKC School of Medicine. The two bonded.

After Snow’s death in 1972, Dimond’s wife, Mary Clark Dimond, launched The Edgar Snow Memorial Fund in his honor. From the beginning, this organization was much more social than the average academic adventure. The Memorial Fund has maintained the Snow Exhibit in affiliation with UMKC and sponsored a whole rash of visiting professorships, scholarships, lecturers, “and even travel parties to China.” The travel parties have proved particularly popular. Shortly before she was fired, for instance, former Chancellor Martha Gilliland led one such party to Beijing. “Symposium celebrates the heart of Snow,” reads the artless headline of the U News.

Unfortunately for Snow’s memory and UMKC’s social life, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the authors of the definitive new biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, may prove to be the ultimate in party poopers. It’s not that they deny Snow his significance. His book “profoundly influenced radical youth in China,” they admit, “and played a big role in swaying western opinion in favour of Mao.” What they deny are his credibility and his common sense. After ten years of extraordinary in-country research and writing, the authors know whereof they speak.

If the UMKC Exhibit portrays Snow as the “man who first told the true story of those times,” Chang and Halliday paint him as a “useful idiot,” the slur Lenin assigned to westerners so willfully blind they wouldn’t recognize the truth if they tripped over it. In the Lenin “big lie” tradition, claim the authors, Mao fed Snow a goulash of useful facts and “colossal falsification,” which the hungry reporter “swallowed in toto.”

What Mao falsified was his “years of torture and murder.” According to Chang and Halliday, “Appalling torture was commonplace” chez Mao. Apparently, he and his henchmen used more than 100 astonishingly sadistic varieties of torture to intimidate peasants, to eliminate internal opposition in frequent Stalinist purges, and to prevent his own soldiers from fleeing en masse.

The always creative Mao also concocted battles and feats of heroism for his always gullible biographer. And, to be sure, he concealed from Snow his contempt for the common people, especially those who were forced to carry Mao during a “Long March” that must have seemed much longer to them than to their indolent boss.

More problematic in the long run, Mao fully deceived Snow about his relationship with the Soviets, the Japanese, the Nationalists, and the Americans. Based on Snow’s say-so, the world came to believe that the selfless Communists tried to create a united front against Japan, but that the corrupt Nationalists sabotaged it, being more keen on killing their Chinese brethren than on beating the Japanese.

“All this is untrue,” say Chang and Halliday. Indeed, it was the opposite of true, but so persuasive was Snow’s reporting that America eventually lost the will to defend the Nationalists. In time, we yielded the whole of mainland China to three more decades of Mao’s homicidal madness and three more decades after that of Tianan-men Square style mayhem.

Nor is this a case of “He said, she said.” The following typical review of Mao: The Unknown Story from The London Times gives some sense of both Mao’s infamy and the authors’ insight into it.

A triumph. [Mao; The Unknown Story] is a mesmerizing portrait of tyranny, degeneracy, mass murder, and promiscuity . . . a superb piece of research. This is the first intimate, political biography of the greatest monster of them all.

This is not news really. Chang and Halliday merely confirm what every dispassionate observer has long known about Mao, namely that he was the 20th Century’s most lethal citizen. The authoritative French Black Book of Communism puts the Chinese Com-munist murder count at 65 million, twice that of Stalin and Hitler combined.

Yet despite this madness, UMKC has all but enshrined the relationship between the “greatest monster” of our time and Snow, his witless shill. They did so after Mao had dispatched his hapless hordes against us in Korea, after he had starved some 20-40 million peasants to death in the preposterous Great Leap Forward, after he had wiped Tibet off the map and murdered as many as 20% of its people, and after he had left millions of “counterrevolutionaries” to rot in prison or die in the very public absurdity of the Cultural Revolution.

The Mao that the visitor meets at UMKC’s Edgar Snow Exhibit, however, is no more toxic than Prince Charles. Indeed, the only bad guy one hears about at this self-parodying tribute to anti-anti communism is the inevitable Joe McCarthy. In pitch perfect parlor pink patois, the Exhibit tells us that McCarthy “persecut[ed] without mercy anyone who had any connection in any capacity, innocent as it might have been, with the new governmental regime of China.” Right. And give or take 65 million dead, Joe was just as merciless as Mao.

Among those persecuted, of course, were Snow and his second wife, Lois Wheeler. It was because of this persecution, the visitor learns, that the Snows hightailed it to Switzerland in 1959. What the visitor is not told is McCarthy had been powerless for five years and dead for two by the time the Snows split.

Leni Riefenstahl, the gifted filmmaker who celebrated Hitler in two pre-war documentaries, was justifiably reviled for what she produced. “She was a disgrace to her sex,” said upon her death just three years ago, “a disgrace to Germanic peoples, a disgrace to photography. Long may she rot in hell.” The mainstream media were only slightly more kind.

Riefenstahl made her films before Hitler started killing innocents. She was apolitical and largely ignorant of his intentions. Snow had no such excuses.

Neither does UMKC.



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