11/26/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Those Were the Days

An obituary deep in the pages of the New York Times on Thanksgiving Day disclosed the death of Huang Hua, perhaps one of the most discreet, influential negotiators in China's contemporary history. He was unknown to most Americans. In the 1930s, he helped the American journalist Edgar Snow write a series of newspaper articles about China that eventually was turned into a best-selling book about Mao Zedong and his rebel army entitled Red Star Over China. Snow never acknowledged Huang's assistance in any of his reporting.

In 1944, he served as an interpreter, accompanying the U.S. Dixie Mission into the caves of Yenan where, for the first time, American military officers and diplomats got their first glimpse of, and extended meetings with, Mao Zedong and other Communist Party officials. It was a controversial initiative that angered the ruling Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek and eventually led to the firing of John Stewart Service from the U.S. State Department and cost Colonel David Barrett the likelihood of his promotion to Brigadier General.Their treatment was a forerunner of the Cold War madness that led to the dismantling of America's outstanding corps of China diplomats that was to follow.

I first met Huang in 1971, by which time he had risen through the ranks of the Communist Party and was China's ambassador to Canada. I was on a flight to Ottawa to cover the visit of Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin as a forerunner of my CBS News assignment to Moscow. Huang happened to be on the same plane, and I had a history of the Dixie Mission written by Barrett that was in my bag. I offered it to Huang and his wife because it contained a photo of him with the U.S. delegation. That seemed to break the ice for me, and I managed to keep in touch with him, using Chinese professors as conduits over the years.

Huang proved to be remarkably at ease with Americans, probably because of his earlier background as a student at a Beijing university run by U.S. missionaries, his friendship with Snow and his contacts with Presidents Nixon, Carter, Bush and Reagan and a number of journalists after he rose to become foreign minister. They were days, particularly after Mao's death, when cordiality and not ideology occasionally ruled the day.