Salisbury began working for United Press after being suspended from the University of Minnesota in 1930. He never graduated. He served as UP's foreign editor during the last two years of World War II, and traveled with the Red Army as it pursued the retreating Germans. In 1945, he wrote a series for Collier's Weekly about Russia that became a book Russia on the Way (1946). He served as the Times' Moscow bureau chief for five years beginning in 1949. In Russia, he constantly sparred with Soviet officials over censorship, though he was criticized by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and by writer Gay Talese (The Kingdom and the Power) for being too sympathetic to the Soviets.
Salisbury served as the Times' chief of domestic correspondents during the 1960s and covered the Civil Rights struggle in the South. He directed the coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He visited North Vietnam in 1966 and became convinced that the United States policy of pursuing the air war was a bad policy as it was killing thousands of civilians. He was the first American journalist to report on the war from North Vietnam and among the first to oppose the war.
Salisbury also traveled extensively in China. He witnessed the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that led to a bloody massacre at the hands of the Chinese military.
Salisbury's books include American in Russia (1955), The Shook-Up Generation (1968), Behind the Lines: Hanoi (1967), Orbit of China (1967), War Between Russia and China (1969), The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad (1969), The Gates of Hell (1975), Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1978), Without Fear or Favor: The New York Times and Its Times (1980), Journey For Our Times (autobiography) (1983), China: 100 Years of Revolution (1983), The Long March: The Untold Story (1985), Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June (1989), The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng (1992), Heroes of My Time (1993).
Salisbury died from a sudden heart attack in Connecticut in 1993 at the age of 84.