Every once in a while, a trove of source material makes an entire work of nonfiction possible. At least, it can turn a run-of-the-mill narrative into a tale that hums and sparks with energy. I made the related argument in this space last month that Martha Dodd’s activities in Berlin, 1933-1937, gave Erik Larson material (complemented by her father’s more official activities) too intriguing and titillating not to shape into a book.
Now I contend that the letters of Harold Isaacs and Viola Robinson have given Peter Rand a rare historical treasure: not merely a window into a young man’s political conversion, but into a romantic couple’s ideological give-and-take amid momentous world events, as well as their own sexual awakening. The correspondence forms the backbone not of an entire book (China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of the American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution, 1995) but a crucial part of a lengthy chapter, in a volume of five lengthy chapters. [I have never read a book whose footnotes are so completely filled with unpublished letters, as well as dated communications with the author. It helped that many of the subjects in the book knew the author’s father who was, himself, a “China Hand” and as such the subject of the final chapter of the book.]
Rand tells us that Harold and Viola were both the products of Orthodox Jewish families on the Upper West Side of New York City. They met and began dating in university, he at Columbia, she at Barnard. They chose to save their first sexual encounter for their marriage, which they considered a foregone conclusion, despite Harold’s intent to go to China while Viola finished her degree. It was 1930. China was still emerging from colonial dominance, striving for political unity, dreaming of economic advancement. Harold was a young, idealistic progressive, seeking to make a difference in the world. He would go to China.
“A born reporter,”  according to Rand, Harold had no difficult getting hired by two different China dailies, in succession. But tight control by the Kuomintang left his reports highly censored. Frustrated, missing Viola, Harold contemplated leaving the land he had so recently come to.
His early letters home tell the story of a young man intellectually and emotionally adrift: “Sometimes I wish I could work up the emotional drive necessary for me to hurl myself into some cause…to lose myself in it…but i [sic] almost always find myself seeing too much that is incontrovertible on the other side–or else a distorted and unexpected sense of humor intrudes at the wrong moment.”  Intellect, schooled into cleverness, impeded action. And Harold felt he should take action, even if he didn’t know what that action would be. He closed his letter more hopefully telling Viola, “Under your influence I may lead a useful life yet.” 
Fortune favors the prepared. In quick succession, Harold met Ch’en Hansheng, Agnes Smedley, and Frank Glass. These three true believers opened his eyes to Communist principles and the possibilities of a life of political commitment. Harold documented his ensuing transformation to Viola: “I am being exposed to newer influences which are stirring something in me which may develop…. Something of the dynamics that is Agnes Smedley has communicated itself to some part of my spirit not yet articulate.”  In fact, Agnes grilled him out of his intellectual circumspection and his “distorted…sense of humor”: “What are your motivations? What do you aim to do? Where do you stand?.” Glass recalled later that she called Harold a “wishy washy liberal.” 
The action these two “stirred” Harold to take was a boat trip up the Yangtze to Chunking and beyond. It would be on that trip that his full conversion to a man of action, homme engagé, took place.
His traveling companion would be Frank Glass, who explained in retrospect that Harold “had a very sharp mind. Very quick to pick up ideas. Good reporter, good observer. But he didn’t have any principles. Petit bourgeois intellectual college student. Rather callow but with great promise.”  He also called him “adventurous,” for it was Harold’s idea to travel into the Chinese interior where few white men dared go.
In June, 1931, through rain then oppressive heat, the two riverboat passengers had long hours to themselves, among the sacks and crates of cargo, tipping bottles of whiskey, talking political theory and action. Harold imbibed many fine points, but it was the heart of Glass’s message that stuck with him most clearly: “You cannot sit on the fence. You cannot remain merely a spectator, on the sidelines.” 
From the pier at Hankow, they watched a bedraggle unit of Chiang Kai-Shek‘s Nationalist army, slumped and worn (and distressingly pre-pubescent!) returning from their unsuccessful Bandit Suppression Campaign against the Communists: images to fuel Harold’s awakening political consciousness.
Harold left Glass at Chungking and continued even further into the Heart of Darkness, all the way to the base of the Himalayas. After turning back downstream on his return to Shanghai, Harold experienced the conversion experience he had been preparing for. “I believe, Viola, that I have reached an end to my aimlessness.” He was now a Communist. He was committed in action as well as thought: “I must in other words TAKE SIDES. I must cease being a neutral, a parasite, at the very best a parlor Red.”  He admitted that he made it sound “like a religious experience” but that “there has awakened in what now seems stunning force to me this emotional response used to bemoan the lack of.” Like a born-again Christian, Harold felt “for the first time in my young life” the power of a sense of “purpose and direction.” 
Back in Shanghai his letters addressed the implications of his conversion. “My activities henceforth shall be devoted to an uncompromising anticapitalistic, communistic program. What has happened is something new in my experience. I have taken sides. I have accepted and adopted a set of convixtions [sic] which eliminates the academic waverings.”  He was surprised to report that the strength of his convictions made him feel “strong and cruel and ruthless sometimes.” (Though the old “waverings” showed staying power when he added, “I am still a pitiable excuse for a revolutionary…” 
When Agnes Smedley’s communist ardor came under attack, Harold leaped to her defense in a letter to the Shanghai Post. His old friends gave him a wide berth; his new ones congratulated him. All of this exhilarated the new convert: “It’s fun being ‘Red’ in Shanghai.”  Viola, absent from all the excitement, could not share his enthusiasm and told him so: “You are consistently absorbed in things which at best are only mildly interesting to me.” To which Harold parried, “If you could see the price of blood being paid at the altar of the oppressors–here in China–no amount of the blood of the oppressors could flow, and flowing, move you to reaction.” 
Viola was not a Barnard student for nothing. She gave as good as she got: “I maintain nothing is possible without educated and informed people…, the fundamental change is in institutions and attitudes, not the superficial change of a revolutionary regime.”  Her riposte touched a nerve. Harold wrote back, “I am neither livid nor desirous of tearing you limb from limb because of some of your paragraphs (which incidentally were damn well written, even if somewhat hazy as to content).” If Harold’s words sound patronizing, they can be understood as coming from the zeal of a convert. If the attitude they express appears rooted in sexism, at least his compliment has the ring of sincerity.
Viola had more to say. She preferred to be a “constructive revolutionary, to destroy the evils of the existing social order not by dynamite and leaving in their place nothing but a big hole, but by building up something that will inevitably throttle it, by its very force of foundation on honest recognition of the facts of human nature and of society, it must kill the old.” 
Harold was having none of it: “The working class is starving and jobless and at the tether end of its rope within the capitalist system. You don’t have to start making ‘educated and well-informed’ people out of the workers. You can’t. They’re too hungry to be well-informed as to theory and parlor concepts. You have to whip them into competent and efficient organizations–and show them the way.”  Only after reconstructing society on communist principles could the masses be “educated and well-informed.” Positive change required conviction, no fuzzy reformist thinking. “Pink is white. Only red is red.” 
What a fascinating epistolary exchange! What a unique window into young minds in the process of formation, confronting one of the momentous events of a momentous century! But what is most amazing is that the exchange did not end the relationship. The two maintained their commitment to each other even while growing independently under radically different circumstances on opposite sides of the globe.
Inevitably, Harold’s political transformation bled over into other aspects of his thinking. He began by rejecting all outward signs of traditional sexual morés. He announced in one letter to Viola, “I think, for my part that every girl should have her hymen removed at the age of puberty.”  Ouch. This is male sexual liberation at its most clueless–and abusive. “If you still have yours, it’s the product of considerable stupidity. I don’t know why you still have. I guess I never will know.” Really? Has Harold given up on any possibility of their future together? Then a flash of reason reached his consciousness: “Though it’s really my fault. You should have lost it years ago….” It does take two to lose one’s virginity. Harold’s words don’t translate well into our age of heightened awareness of sexual power, inequity, and abuse. In one ill-conceived outburst, Harold disavowed his chaste pre-marriage stance and was willing to sacrifice Viola to do it. He closed, ostentatiously revealing another side of his new consciousness: “May the non-existent god have mercy on my non-existent soul.” 
Against their better judgment, Viola’s parents allowed her to follow Harold to Shanghai and marry him. They hedged their bets by sending her with five hundred dollars toward a return passage. Instead, the money became the couple’s dowry. They were married in the American consulate the day after Viola’s arrival.
Harold and Viola stayed in China for four years. Harold’s political thinking continued to evolve, predictably, toward disillusionment. He was shocked and appalled to discover that Stalin could be no less ruthless than the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek. He documented Stalin’s betrayal in The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, which he published after returning to the United States. We can assume his views of sex and just about everything else evolved, too. Viola’s views, as far as I know, are less evident in the historical record.
Harold Isaacs went on to write for Newsweek in China during the final years of the world war (but not, I believe, to the end of the civil war). He was middle aged and writing for an establishment American weekly. It was a long way from “I must in other words TAKE SIDES.”
It was Harold who made his name as a war correspondent and so-called China Hand, but in 1930 it was Viola’s views that are the more mature. Only an “honest recognition of the facts of human nature and of society,” and the never-ending work of education and reform can build lasting, positive change.
Today, though, impatience is again in the air. The stink of injustice has become so foul to the woke that only radical action will do. The ugly imperfections of democracy are inadequate to the task. The fear of “seeing too much that is incontrovertible on the other side” impels them to action–any action–no matter how poorly thought out, no matter the consequences.
Harold and Viola can tell them how that worked out in China in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rand, Peter. China Hands: The Adventures and Ordeals of American Journalists Who Joined Forces with the Great Chinese Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
- Wikimedia Commons
- Photo Upper Yangtze River: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2016-02/22/content_23589891_9.htm