Strong, Anna Louise (1885–1970)

views updated

Strong, Anna Louise (1885–1970)

Radical American journalist and author who was an ardent defender of the Soviet Union (1920s–1940s) and of the People's Republic of China (1950s–1960s). Born Anna Louise Strong on November 24, 1885, in Friend, Kansas; died on March 29, 1970, in Beijing, China, of a heart attack; daughter of Sydney Dix Strong (a Congregationalist minister) and Ruth Maria (Tracy) Strong (a lay missionary leader); graduated from Oak Park (Ill.) high school, 1900; studied in Germany and Switzerland, 1902; attended Oberlin, 1902–03, and Bryn Mawr, 1903–04; Oberlin College, A.B., 1905; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1908; common-law marriage to Joel Shubin, late 1931 (died 1942); no children.

Lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio (1887), Cincinnati (1892), and Oak Park, Illinois (1897); organized "Know Your City" exhibits in Seattle, Walla Walla, Portland, and Spokane (1909–10); employed by Russell Sage Foundation, National Child Labor Committee (1910); named exhibit expert, U.S. Children's Bureau, Washington, D.C. (1912); elected to Seattle school board (1916–18); served as feature editor, Seattle Record (1918–21); became correspondent, American Friends Relief Mission in Russia (1921–22); served as correspondent, Hearst's International Magazine for Central and Eastern Europe (1922–25); worked as correspondent, North American Newspaper Alliance in Russia (1925), and for Federated Press (1925); worked as editor, Today (1951–56); wrote newsletter Letter from China (1962–70).

Selected publications:

(poems) Storm Songs and Fables (Langston, 1904); (poem) The Song of the City (Howard Severence, 1906); (play) The King's Palace (Oak Leaves, 1908); Boys and Girls of the Bible (Howard Severence, 1908); The Psychology of Prayer (University of Chicago, 1908); Bible Hero Classics in the Words of the Scriptures (Howard Severence, 1909); Biographical Studies in the Bible (Howard Severence, 1911); The Seattle General Strike (Seattle Union-Record, 1919); Ragged Verse of "Anise" (Seattle Union-Record, 1921); The First Time in History: Two Years of Russia's New Life, September 1921 to December 1923 (Boni and Liveright, 1924); Children of the Revolution (Pigot, 1925); Red Star in Samarkand (Coward-McCann, 1929); The Road to the Grey Pamirs (Henry Holt, 1931); The Soviets Conquer Wheat: The Drama of Collective Farming (Henry Holt, 1931); From Stalingrad to the Kuzbas: Sketches of the Socialist Construction of the USSR (International Publishers, 1931); Dictatorship and Democracy in the Soviet Union (International Publishers, 1934); I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American (Henry Holt, 1935); China's Millions (Coward-McCann, 1928, updated and revised, Knights, 1935); The New Soviet Constitution: A Study in Socialist Democracy (Henry Holt, 1936); This Soviet World (Henry Holt, 1936); Spain in Arms (Henry Holt, 1937); One-Fifth of Mankind (Modern Age, 1938); My Native Land (Viking, 1940); The New Lithuania (Workers' Library, 1941); The Soviets Expected It (Dial, 1941); Wild River (Little, Brown, 1943); Peoples of the USSR (Macmillan, 1944); I Saw the New Poland (Little,Brown, 1946); The Stalin Era (Mainstream, 1956); The Rise of the Chinese People's Communes (New World Press, 1959); Tibetan Interviews (New World Press, 1960); When Serfs Stood Up in Tibet (New World Press, 1960); Cash and Violence in Laos and Vietnam (New World Press, 1962).

On March 29, 1970, Xinhua (Hsinhua), the official press agency of the People's Republic of China, announced the death of Anna Louise Strong. She would, it was revealed, be buried with full honors in the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. At age 84, she had succumbed to a heart attack. According to Beijing radio, leading officials such as Premier Zhou Enlai had recently visited her in the hospital.

For almost half a century, Strong had promoted Communist regimes with evangelical zeal. Moreover, she had also written a learned treatise on prayer, acted as a spearhead of the Seattle General Strike of 1919, been a friend of Leon Trotsky, dined in the White House with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt , and founded the first English-language daily in the Soviet Union.

Hers was a radicalism of the heart, not of the intellect.

—Kenneth E. Shewmaker

In a front-page story reporting her death, The New York Times described Strong as a "large woman of powerful frame, with white hair and piercing blue eyes." Riding on rickety railroads and precarious airplanes, walking down dusty roads and even obliged at times to lie sick and weak on a stretcher, she traveled in the last five decades of her life all over the vast Communist world, from Manchuria to Tibet, from North Korea to Prague, from Moscow to Beijing (Peking), always returning to her adopted land.

Anna Louise Strong was born in a two-room parsonage in Friend, Kansas, on November 24, 1885, the eldest of three children of Congregational minister Sydney Dix Strong and Ruth Tracy Strong . Sydney's frequent change of pastorates—Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1887 and Cincinnati in 1892—did not hinder the precociously bright Anna Louise from becoming literate at age four and writing verse at age six. In Cincinnati, she finished the 8th grade at age 11, frequently correcting her instructor in the process. When her father took a church in Oak Park, Illinois, she went to high school there, graduating when barely 15. In fact, by the time she was 12, she was already coordinating sewing lessons in settlement houses on Chicago's West Side. As a teen, Strong contributed to the youth magazine American Weekly. She spent a year and a half in Germany and Switzerland studying languages, entered Oberlin College in 1902, and transferred to Bryn Mawr a year later. Returning to Oberlin as a senior, she graduated with high honors.

For several months, Strong was associate editor of Advance, a Protestant weekly published in Chicago. Writing under four pseudonyms, each week she penned features for children, three women's columns, and half a dozen book reviews. Yet, as soon as circulation had increased, the obviously overworked Strong was fired.

In April 1906, she began graduate work at the University of Chicago, at the same time taking part-time work in a canning plant and Jane Addams ' Hull House. In 1908, she was awarded a Ph.D. magna cum laude. She defended her dissertation, published as The Psychology of Prayer, before the combined faculties of philosophy and theology. Drawing upon medieval mystics and contemporary authorities in social psychology, she argued that prayer could aid one in performing social duties. At age 23, she was the youngest person ever to have been awarded a doctorate from that university.

Once she completed her thesis, Strong went to Seattle, a progressive city with much municipal ownership. Here she joined her father in organizing "Know Your City" programs, which combined lectures, discussions, and walking tours. Together with Sydney, Anna also wrote a series of "Bible Hero Classics," whose purpose, she said, was "to make this generation acquainted with Abraham, David, Paul, and the others as they were with Alexander, Caesar, and King Arthur." By 1910, she had moved to New York, where she worked for the prestigious Russell Sage Foundation in the field of child hygiene and began exposés of urban life for Survey magazine. In September of that year, she took on a second task: showing stereoptic and cinema exhibits across the nation for the National Child Labor Committee. While preparing one particular exhibit in Kansas City, she joined the Socialist Party. During these years, Strong was pursued by a number of suitors, including reformers Judge Ben Lindsay and Roger Baldwin. She was briefly and informally engaged to Baldwin, but found him insufficiently pious.

In the fall of 1912, Strong took on a third assignment, directing exhibits for the U.S. Children's Bureau in Washington, D.C. On paper, at least, she was simultaneously affiliated with three major reform organizations. The spring of 1913 saw her in Dublin, where she arranged a child welfare display at the request of the wife of Ireland's lord lieutenant.

In October 1916, Strong moved back to Seattle, where she ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature but was elected to the city's school board. A strong Wilsonian, she was staunchly opposed to America's entry into World War I and was active in various peace groups. The U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 was a milestone for her, marking—in the words of biographers Tracy B. Strong and Helene Keyssar —"the beginning of Anna Louise's disaffection with the American political system." Anna Strong later wrote:

Nothing in my whole life, not even my mother's death, so shook the foundations of my soul…. "Our America" was dead! The profiteers and the militarists had violated her and forced her to do their bidding. The people wanted peace; the profiteers wanted war—and got it.

Strong threw herself into radical activity, defending foes of conscription and anonymously writing or editing one-fourth of the copy for the Seattle Daily Call, a paper oriented towards the Industrial Workers of the World. In March 1918, such action led to her recall from the school board by 4,000 votes. When, in January 1918, "patriots" wrecked the Call's presses, Strong became feature editor and editorial writer of the Seattle Union-Record, an influential weekly that soon became a daily. The only general circulation paper operated by a trade union, it was run by the city's Central Labor Council. Under the pen name "Anise," she constantly accused the Wilson administration of moral bankruptcy and suppression of civil liberties. Pro-Soviet from the time the Bolshevik Revolution broke out, she was responsible for the Union-Record's printing of V.I. Lenin's speech to the 1918 Congress of Soviets, a daring journalistic feat. On February 4, 1919, she gained even greater fame, for she wrote an editorial, "No One Knows Where," which helped trigger the short-lived Seattle General Strike of 1919. In November 1919, the Department of Justice charged Strong with seeking to overthrow the government and encouraging sabotage. Yet, as the Union-Record had contained no pleas for violent revolution, a jury freed all defendants.

Disillusioned by the factionalism rampant among Seattle's left, Strong heeded the advice of muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens and went to Russia. She was correspondent for Hearst's International News Service, publicist for the American Friends Service Committee, and envoy

of the Seattle Labor Council. Before entering Russia, she worked 10-to-12 hours a day aiding Belorussian refugees in Baranovice, Poland. In 1921, she traveled to the famine-ridden Volga town of Samara (later Kuibyshev), where she acted as a relief worker in daytime and a journalist at night. Contracting typhus there, she was delirious for a week and had to spend seven months in a Moscow hospital. In 1922, she was close enough to Leon Trotsky, the second most powerful figure in the land, to give him English lessons at least four times a week in return for political instruction. In 1923, she began her annual lecture tours in the United States, unaware that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had started establishing its file on her.

Already Strong was a pronounced enthusiast of the Soviet experiment, and her pro-Soviet articles started appearing in Hearst's International Magazine, The Nation, Collier's, Survey, and Current History. She was particularly impressed by those party members who sacrificed themselves in the mines of the Donbas, the deserts of Kazakhstan, and the woods of Karelia. She attacked the White Terror while rationalizing executions committed by the Red regime. Lenin, as her readers in the Forum discovered, was "The Greatest Man of Our Time." She said, "No public man of our time has made such a gift to human life as Lenin. No man has been increasingly loved by so many millions of people."

In one sense, Strong had never abandoned her original vocation: social work. As she constantly maintained, "I wanted to fight the disorder of the world." In 1923, she fostered the John Reed Children's Colony, established in Khvalynsk as an agricultural commune for adolescents left homeless by the Volga famine. She raised money, pleaded its case in Children of the Revolution (1925), and personally worked in the Colony's apple orchard in her effort to create an American-style farm. Yet the experiment lasted only two years, for she could not counter corrupt management and careless bureaucrats. Three years later, she promoted a somewhat similar effort, a trade school called the American Industrial Workshops, located in a two-room shack some 15 miles from Moscow. Looted by two American experts, it also failed.

In the fall of 1925, Strong left Moscow for Beijing, where she interviewed major figures for the North American Newspaper Alliance. She found General Zhang Zuolin (Chang Tso-lin) "a gorgeous general backed by Japan," General Feng Youxiang (Feng Yu-hsiang) an engaging bandit, and Song Qingling , widow of the revered Dr. Sun Yat-sen, "the most gentle and exquisite creature I have known anywhere in the world." Early in 1927, Strong traveled to Mexico. There she found the people full of "grace and joy" but the politics chaotic.

Returning to China later that year, Strong renewed her friendship with Michael Borodin, Russian adviser to the Chinese Nationalists in Canton. When, early in June, Borodin made a 300-mile trip to Chengzhou, there to negotiate with Feng, Strong accompanied his delegation. Similarly, in mid-July, when Borodin was forced to flee Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Strong was one of the five who made the uncharted trek through the Gobi desert. The trip began in 100 degree heat, covered 1,800 miles, and took six days just to reach Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Sometimes less than five miles a day were covered. Recounting these events in China's Millions (1928), Strong combined travelogue with eulogies of awakened worker and peasant masses.

Back in Moscow by October 1927, Strong publicly renounced the now discredited Trotsky. In 1928 and 1929, she took two trips to Central Asia, out of which came Red Star in Samarkand (1929) and The Road to the Grey Pamirs (1931). Visiting the countryside three times between November 1929 and May 1930, she observed farm collectivization. In a private letter, she conceded that in the Ukraine there had been "much cruelty and terrible injustice," but reflected, "a hundred million people are being taken through three centuries in a decade." In print, in a book entitled The Soviets Conquer Wheat (1931), she wrote:

How loyal is the Red Way! How [the collective farm] loves the Soviet government which gives it land and seed and bread and now sends tractors! How wonderful the clubwork, how fine the choruses and dramas. When someone starts the idea of a "socialist competition" with the next village, how work rushes along like a royal sport.

Describing forced labor camps in 1932, Strong wrote that workers were "free to leave if they like, but prefer to stay. For they found there in the camps a normal life which is better, more interesting than the abnormal one they lived outside." By the mid-1930s, she was telling New Republic readers that Soviet citizens played an active role in governing, that the OGPU secret police was a progressive force, that there had been no famine in the Ukraine, and that an unnamed Western power had assassinated Stalin's rival Sergei Kirov, an event that triggered the famous purge trials. Although frequently turned down in her bid to join the Russian Communist Party, in 1935 she took advantage of a trip to America to join the U.S. communists.

Late in 1931, Strong had entered into a common-law marriage with Joel Shubin, an agronomist, Menshevik-turned-Communist, and an editor of the Moscow Peasant's Gazette. Deputy minister of agriculture in the late '30s, Shubin died of overwork in 1942.

In the summer of 1930, Strong had founded the English-language Moscow Daily News, intended as a forum for Americans working in the Soviet Union and a source about developments both in Russia and back home. As associate editor, she personally typed most of the first issue and arranged the layout herself. Returning from a lecture tour in the U.S. early in 1931, she found her own reporting ignored and the paper poorly edited. Furthermore, the government was sponsoring a competing journal, the Worker's News, which was even more drab. In an effort to preserve the integrity of her journal, she met personally in 1932 with Joseph Stalin, Lazar Kaganovich, first secretary of the Moscow party committee, and Kliment Voroshilov, people's commissar of military and naval affairs. When Stalin merged the Moscow Daily News andWorker's News and vested Strong with some formal authority, she said privately, "I'd like to take orders from those men anywhere in the world." Indeed, the conference was "the most important half-hour of my existence." Yet her dissatisfaction with the paper continued, and she resigned in 1936. The journal folded ten years later.

In 1935, Strong's autobiography, I Change Worlds, was published. Strong made sure that various sections were checked for "political reliability," having Stalin correct the chapter on himself in green pencil. In a letter that introduced the volume, Steffens expressed their common view: "The truth from now on is always dated, never absolute, never eternal." Strong uttered similar sentiments in This Soviet World (1936), in which she wrote: "I tell not the whole truth for truth is never 'whole'; there are always at least two truths in conflict, the truth that is dying and the truth that is coming into existence." Another Strong book, The New Soviet Constitution (1936), found preliminary nationwide "discussions" about that document "the most spectacularly widespread … in connection with any government in history." In 1936, she attended the purge trials, which she defended in Soviet Russia Today. Such old revolutionists as Trotsky, she commented, had sought to betray the Soviet Union into the hands of Fascist powers.

From December 1936 to early 1937, Strong covered the Spanish Civil War, visiting Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona. Her book Spain in Arms (1937) portrayed the struggle in simplistic terms ("the fascists of the world were attacking the Spanish people") and predicted future war if the insurgents won. In late December 1937, she returned to China. Her account One-Fifth of Mankind (1938) predicted victory over Japan and stressed Communist-Guomindang unity. Earlier Strong had found Chiang Kai-shek a traitor to his people; now, he was a potential George Washington. Indeed, Mme Chiang (Song Meiling ) wrote the introduction.

In 1940, while visiting the U.S., Strong defended the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, claiming it was in the interests of peace. To Strong, World War II was at first the "Second Imperialist War," although she was quick to defend the Soviet occupation of Poland. At the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt, Strong wrote a book on contemporary America, My Native Land (1940). Here she portrayed the New Deal as "a first-aid device," called Franklin Roosevelt the founder of a corporate state, and predicted the fall of American capitalism. She then briefly returned to the Soviet Union, during which she praised the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. By the end of the year, she went to China. This time she found the Guomindang undemocratic. Chiang's regime, she claimed, was using U.S. military aid to fight Communists, not the Japanese.

In 1941, Strong was back in America, where she spent most of the war years. Once Russia entered the war, she wrote a book whose title aptly conveyed its thesis: The Soviets Expected It (1941). She was showing the first signs of Paget's disease, a bone disorder that made walking painful. At one point, she lectured from a wheelchair. In 1943, she was technical adviser for the MGM film Song of Russia. A Strong novel, Wild River (1943), told of two Russian lovers dedicated to rebuilding their war-stricken land. Similarly her Peoples of the USSR (1944) was loaded with smiling heroes from every Russian republic portrayed in dreary Sovfoto shots.

In 1944, Strong returned to Russia as an accredited correspondent for the Atlantic, doing so despite FBI opposition. In 1946, in her book I Saw the New Poland, she not only accused Poland's anti-Communist Home Army of stupidity and cowardice; it had, she said, collaborated with the Germans while the liberating Red Army had acted heroically. For the first time, her lecture tour in the U.S. was a failure. With the advent of the Cold War, many Americans were unreceptive towards her oft-stated views.

By July 1946, Strong was back in China, where she lived in a 12-by-20-foot cave at Communist headquarters at Yenan. Again she conveyed her enthusiasm by books and pamphlets. In her most famous piece of reporting, she cited Mao Zedong's proclamation that "American reactionaries are merely a paper tiger." Returning to Russia by the fall of 1947, she sought to promote Mao's brand of revolution, only to find the Soviets discouraging her efforts. On the evening of February 13, 1949, she was arrested, then held in Moscow's Lubianka prison. Her quarters: a cell with a bunk, chair, and small table. After five days, she was deported, the interrogating commissar telling her:

You are guilty of spying against the Soviet Union. We might have a trial, but this would take a long time and mean a long confinement for you. In view of your age, we think it better to expel you to Poland.

As Strong traveled to the U.S., she said to the press, "Do not use my arrest as material for the cold war. I do not know why I was arrested or why they unjustly call me a spy, but the police of any country can make mistakes." Never denouncing the Soviet regime per se, she always blamed her arrest on minor officials. When the American Communist Party refused to support her, she sold the story of her internment to the New York Herald-Tribune. Shunned by friends and allies of 30 years' standing, she confided in 1950 that she would rather be dead. She candidly wrote reformer Raymond Robins concerning her journalistic career, "The people I really cared for, on whose side I felt myself to be fighting—they winced if a single human weakness in the U.S.S.R. were noticed. So I let my audiences pressure me into giving what I knew was a partial picture…. I told no lies, but I didn't tell the truth. And I still think this may be the correct procedure." At one point, the 64-year-old Strong told an Oberlin student:

You know, I am no longer young. At my age it is not easy to give up something to which one has devoted one's entire lifetime…. It is not a matter of age. It is a matter of dedication…. I have had doubts; of course, I have had doubts. But when one believes deeply in something, one must accept certain doubts…. If I were convinced that the Soviet Union did not justify my faith, the world would become a hopeless, dreadful place for me.

Living in Los Angeles, Strong was befriended by the Reverend Stephen Fritchman, the left-leaning minister of the First Unitarian Church, who found her a troubled spirit. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, she thought it a U.S. effort to entrap the Soviets into global conflict. From 1951 to 1956, she gave vent to her views in a mimeographed monthly, Today.

On March 4, 1955, the Soviets dropped all charges against Strong. A day later, Pravda blamed her arrest on secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. Ten days later, Strong claimed that Beria had been acting under orders from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In her book The Stalin Era (1956), she conceded that "a great madness" had come down on the Soviet Union. However, she still praised Stalin, saying he was "a man who could bring diverse views into harmony with a speed that amounted to genius." Conceding that she had been silent when close friends were sent to Siberia, she asked:

Why then could I protest when the same injustice came to me? Then I asked, "Why had I made no outcry?" And my answer was: "Because all those years I felt myself in the presence of something so vast, so important for all mankind's future, that it must not be halted or diverted, whatever the cost."

Indeed, she denounced party chair Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech to the 20th Party Congress: "It contains too much truth to be denied, but too much emotional exaggeration to be sanctioned." Only Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution caused her to protest publicly.

In 1958, Strong returned to Russia, staying there for less than two months before she took up permanent residence in Beijing, where she was much honored by Chinese officials. The government gave her a secretary and automobile, and she shared a cook and maid with residents of a well-preserved old house called the Peace Compound. In 1959, she defended the Chinese repression of a major rebellion in Tibet, even hailing showtrials of ex-landlords. From 1962 to 1970, she wrote a monthly four-page newsletter, Letter from China, which defended all aspects of Mao's regime and had some 40,000 readers. During her last ten years, she denounced Soviet "revisionism," called the Pathet Lao "very primitive democrats," compared John F. Kennedy to Genghis Khan, and found the Vietnam War an example of "American imperialism." A firm defender of China's Cultural Revolution, she became an honorary member of the Red Guard. On March 29, 1970, Anna Louise Strong died in Beijing, China.


Pringle, Robert William, Jr. "Anna Louise Strong: Propagandist of Communism." Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, 1970.

Strong, Anna Louise. I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American. NY: Henry Holt, 1935.

Strong, Tracy B., and Keyssar, Helene. Right in Her Soul: The Life of Anna Louise Strong. NY: Random House, 1983.

suggested reading:

Caute, David. The Fellow Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment. NY: Macmillan, 1973.

Shewmaker, Kenneth E. Americans and the Chinese Communists, 1927–1945: A Persuading Encounter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971.

Willen, Paul. "Anna Louise Strong Goes Home Again," in The Reporter. Vol. 12. April 7, 1955, pp. 28–31.


The papers of Anna Louise Strong until 1931, as well as some materials from the 1930s through 1950s, are located at the Suzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle. Valuable Strong letters to Sydney Dix Strong and Tracy Strong, Jr., her nephew, are also there. Her papers from 1958 until her death are at the Beijing Library, China. Other Strong materials are located at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford, California.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

About this article

Strong, Anna Louise (1885–1970)

Updated About content Print Article