The Man Who Shook the World

Winter 2020

Jack Belden ’31, Feb. 3, 1910–June 3, 1989

I first met the legendary American war reporter Jack Belden ’31 in late 1970s’ Paris.

He was broke and broken, but he survived, barely, holed up in a one-room flat in the Marais district of central Paris, living off modest royalties from his books and the generosity of friends.

He was bitter, cantankerous, and deeply troubled (or so it seemed to me, a young American reporter based in Brussels). But, above all, he was lonely.

“I’ve been called everything from an idealist to a man of action,” he told me one day. “I’ve also been called a ‘friend of China.’ I aspire to no such distinctions. I am quite satisfied to be myself.”

Being Belden meant being without a job and restless at 23, signing on as an able-bodied seaman on the SS President Johnson and jumping ship in Hong Kong on Armistice Day in 1933 with 10 cents to his name.

He begged enough money to buy a train ticket to Beijing, where he taught English and was a proofreader at the Peiping Chronicle (an English-language newspaper) until he was hired by United Press in 1937. In July of that year, he was the only reporter outside Beijing to witness the opening battle (the so-called Marco Polo Bridge Incident) of what would become all-out war between China and Japan. His life as a war reporter had begun.

Years later, after covering war on three continents for more than a decade, he said his life “more than anyone I know, has been spent in lonely wanderings among the dreary wastelands of war … simply putting one foot ahead of the other, while keeping my eyes peeled over my shoulder for the blood-seeking thing that was hissing on the trail behind.”

In China, he would make a name for himself turning out powerful, firsthand accounts of armed conflict from the front lines — first as a reporter for United Press and later for TIME-LIFE. A 1941 report he wrote for Time verifying claims by the Chinese that the Japanese had used nerve gas in the battle of Ichang prompted the magazine to call Belden the “ablest field correspondent assigned to cover the China war.”

From 1942–45, as a correspondent for TIME-LIFE, he covered fighting in Burma, North Africa, Italy, and France. In 1946, he returned to China to report on the Communist takeover, which provided the material for China Shakes the World (1949), his most well-known book.

China expert Peter Rand has called the book, written from the perspective of the peasants who fought alongside the communists, “a lasting contribution to the literature of war and revolution.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman said Belden was one of the “more venturesome” reporters who covered China in the 1930s and 1940s. He “roamed the country ‘from the heart,’” she wrote, “a great romantic and idealist … moody, driven, alternatively gay and despondent.”

Another colleague, Owen Lattimore, called him a “legendary figure,” saying he was a man who knew the seamy side of China, “where the lice lurked… Most of the rest of us … were a prosaic lot…. He was the man who knew where underemployed peasants, underpaid workers, and sullen soldiery did about sex and drink and drugs.”

And Edgar Snow, whose fame and public persona would far surpass Belden’s (some say unfairly), called him “mad and gifted.”

Belden died in Paris on June 3, 1989, after a long battle with cancer. A memorial service was held for him at Père Lachaise Cemetery, where his body was cremated, on June 19. He was 79 years old.

Gary Yerkey is the author of Still Time To Live: A Biography of Jack Belden, which focuses on Belden’s most productive years, beginning in 1933 when he jumped ship in Hong Kong and ending in 1949 with the publication of China Shakes the World.