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February 16, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright February 16, 2009. Used by permission.


Stephen MacKinnon is a Professor of History at Arizona State University whose most recent book (reviewed by Nicole Barnes on China Beat last August) is Wuhan 1938. He has an abiding interest, as this post shows, in the history of Western journalists in China–an interest that led to publication of earlier books such asAgnes Smedley. He sent us this piece from India, but our PRC-based readers might like to know that they can catch him live at the Shanghai International Literary Festival on March 22, where he will give a talk at M on the Bund on “Intrigue and Romance the 1930s–Agnes Smedley’s Shanghai.”

Bill Powell (John W. Powell) died suddenly on December 15 at the age of 89. Obituaries (New York Times, 12/17/08) focused on the sedition trial of the 1950s in which Bill, wife Sylvia, and Julian Schuman were pilloried for repeating in the Shanghai English language weekly, China Weekly Review, the charge that U.S. forces used germ warfare in the Korean War. The story of their defense is a remarkable one of personal courage and tenacity – and of course it should be addressed. The ordeal made McCarthy hysteria martyrs of the Powells.

But there is another, more Chinese story to tell about Bill Powell. Bill was a central figure, one of the few who survived into the twenty-first century, among a group of young men and women from the West (mostly American) who reported on the China theatre during World War II. In the face of censorship, language barriers (the country was a check-board of regional dialects), and the horrors of daily bombing raids, Powell and others dug for stories and then found various means to get their stories out and in print. Their reports marked the most extensive news coverage at that point of a non-Western country in the Western press. Bill’s comrades included John Hersey, Teddy White, Harold Isaacs, AT Steele, Til and Peggy Durdin, Jack Belden, Anna L. Jacoby, Stewart Alsop, Mac Fisher, Chris Rand, Graham Peck, Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, and Freda Utley.