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People On Our Side by Edgar Snow – a review

March 21, 2020
(note – reprint, slighly revised and expanded that appears at “Goodreads”)
Old timers – or many of them/us – would be familiar with the name of Edgar Snow, early 20th Century journalist from Connecticut, graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, famous for his Red Star Over China. considered, “along with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (1931), the most influential book on Western understanding of China as well as the most influential book on Western sympathy for Red China in the 1930s.” It appeared first in 1937 and went through a number of editions.
People On Our Side is something between a personal diary and a political travelogue of Snow’s travels to India, the USSR and China in the main, but also brief but insightful snippets of his stopovers in the Middle East (Palestine and Iran). It is clear from his writings that Iran would play a greatly increased role in U.S. policy after the war than it did before 1945. He also gives a detailed description/analysis of the political situation in India at the time as well, as Gandhi and Nehru differ on how India should (Nehru) or shouldn’t (Gandhi) commit to the Allies in WW2. Snow was internationally prestigious enough at that time to have met with and interviewed both Gandhi and Nehru.

Fascinating read in all, although the part I will focus on is Snow’s period in the USSR, during and just after the Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942-February 1943) and his analysis of the consequences of that battle. Snow arrived in the USSR at the time of the great battle of Stalingrad, which along with the Battle of Moscow (late 1941, early 1942) marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi juggernaut. After Stalingrad, with few exceptions, the Nazis found themselves on the defensive and never again gained the initiative. However it appeared from the outside, the Soviet Union did not collapse and essentially single-handedly until June 6, 1944 dealt the Nazis blow after blow, pushing them out of their territory and in 1944 and 5 throwing further west back into Germany.

In 1941, Snow, by now well known – and in conservative circles, notorious for the book – was called into the office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who seemed to know that Snow was on his way to Europe and Asia to report on the war. I found it interesting that Roosevelt asked Snow to send him private reports on the state of affairs in Soviet Union (and later China). This was at a time when it appeared that the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of the Nazi invasion, Operation Barbarossa. Thee is no mention in the book whether Roosevelt ever received Snow’s communications or read his news articles. This was at a time when it was difficult to impossible, even for the president of the United States to get accurate information on the state of affairs in the USSR and, specifically on the status of the war.

Snow was able to report both about life on the front – he was in Stalingrad already on February 4, two days after the Nazi surrender there, was among the foreign journalists who was able to verify the capture of German Field Marshall Friedrich von Paulus. His reports on the how the battle had proceeded – the pincer operation from north and south of the city, the failure of the Nazi general von Mannstein to break through to the Soviet encirclement and the final collapse of the Nazi war machine involved in the six month battle.

Attacked mercilessly in the U.S. media of the day as little more than a Communist stooge, his descriptions of the Stalingrad battle along with the overall socio-economic situation in the USSR at the time have, easily stood the test of time as some of the finest journalism of that period. After the battle he visited several collective farms as well as industrial parks that had been relocated to the east into the area of the Ural Mountains and Siberia. That reporting helped explain how the Soviets were able to “win the battle of war material production” as it is often described, again reporting that was later verified as deadly accurate. His description of some of the leading military figures, Chuikov in particular, also has endured.

While Snow would go on in “People on our Side” to visit China – and that part of the book is also worth reading, I was particularly interested in the six months he spent in the USSR. At the time there was a heated discussion within the Roosevelt Administration as to whether the Soviet Union would collapse and just how much Washington should provide material support, and more importantly, open a second front against Hitler from the West. As long as it appeared that the USSR was losing the Americans – and already their junior partners the British were weary of offering too much support. Indeed there is a famous comment by Churchill of letting the Nazis and Soviets mutually destroy each other, – nice way to treat an ally.

But after Stalingrad – and months later the biggest tank battle in history – at what is called “The Kursk Salient” there was no doubt that Stalin had turned the situation around and was now on the offensive. As a result, aid poured in (a good deal of it – US aid – from Iran) and although it took another year, in June 1944 the second front was opened by the Normandy invasion – the beginning of the end for Hitler and Germany’s vile experiment of Nazism.

How much did Snow’s analyses play in convincing the Allies to get off their butts and get serious about opening a second front? We’ll never know but at the same time Snow was writing from the USSR, Roosevelt sent another private emissary to Moscow, his friend Wendell Wilkie (whom he defeated for the presidency in 1940)to assess the situation as his personal representative. Interesting that Roosevelt had more faith in the take of his Republican opponent for the presidency and a Marxist journalist than the analyses of his own foreign service, both State Department and Department of Defense.

Wilkie arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1942 as the Battle of Stalingrad was heating up, a few months prior to Snow. Wilkie actually met with Stalin; my knowledge Snow didn’t. Wilkie not only reported back directly to Roosevelt that the USSR would withstand the Nazi onslaught, but he did report back to Roosevelt directly with essentially the same message as Snow’s reporting – that USSR would not collapse. In October, 1942 Wilkie gave his “Report to the People” on his journey, a radio program listened to by 38 million people. Engaging Wilkie as he did was yet another example of Roosevelt’s political cunning, getting his Republican opponent on board – and with him the Republican Party with its isolationist, anti-war involvement stance – behind Roosevelt’s war plans.

Wendell Wilkie and Edgar Snow.

Snow does not mention Vasily Grossman, the Soviet journalist later turned dissident but Grossman mentions having met Snow – and traveling with Snow for several days in the aftermath of the February 2, 1943 Nazi surrender at Stalingrad. Snow does mention, repeatedly, his close friend and associate “Alex Werth” (Alexander Werth) who would go on the write one of the definitive volumes on World War II, “Russia At War” – another one “The Year of Stalingrad.” Snow and Werth interviewed the same people, and had essentially the same take on what was transpiring in the USSR at the time, today, regardless of political orientation, taken as accurate and some of the best reporting on the war by American journalists, but in its day, suspect.

Snow would pay dearly for his journalistic objectivity. In the early 1950s, like so many others, he was hauled before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee and pretty much blackballed from American journalism. He moved to Switzerland with his family. Yet later it was to Edgar Snow and no one else, that Mao Tse Tung personally related his willingness to meet with Richard Nixon to normalize U.S.-Chinese relations. Snow related that to Henry Kissinger, whom, megalomaniac that he was and remains, has tried to hog all the credit for the historic Mao-Nixon meeting. But it was Snow who set it up in the first place. Edgar Snow died of cancer before the meeting, never seeing the fruit of his labor.

Like Red Star Over China, Snow’s reporting in People on Our Side is a major journalist achievement that some 78 years later has met the test of time.




3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Schoenberg permalink
    March 21, 2020 9:55 am

    That aid from Iran originally came for the US

  2. tim mccarthy KGNU Wendnesday AM receptionist permalink
    March 22, 2020 9:19 am

    Thanks rob, Edger Snow was one of my idols in my 20’s and 30’s I thought I had read everything.

    • March 22, 2020 10:31 am

      Worth the read… very perceptive about what was going on in India, Soviet Union, China during WW 2…Interesting how Roosevelt trusted him enough to make Snow his “informal” personal representative… Trusted his ideas more that the State Dept.s? … or simply wanted the views of an outside expert, which he was.

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