EDITOR’S NOTE: We now know more than ever before about Soviet intelligence operations in the United States, thanks to the efforts of John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev. Their just-published book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, is based on material from the KGB archives in Moscow. It presents new evidence on the activities of Alger Hiss, I. F. Stone, and many others. In this exclusive NRO excerpt, they impart previously unknown information about author Ernest Hemingway and his contacts with the KGB.
The mere fact that Ernest Hemingway toyed with Soviet intelligence is one of the more surprising revelations in the KGB files. Although the future Nobel Prize winner never provided any significant information to the KGB, he was in contact with several of its agents for a few years and remained an object of interest into the 1950s.
While principally a novelist, Hemingway also wrote as a journalist, providing topical essays and reports on contemporary events that appeared in newspapers and magazines. After the Spanish Civil War broke out, he traveled to Madrid with press credentials from the North American Newspaper Alliance to cover the conflict. Once there, he grew close to the Communist movement and cooperated with party front organizations in the aftermath of the war. Although the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was unhappy with his portrayal of International Brigades’ chief Andre Marty in the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s fame and willingness to cooperate on selected issues ensured that he remained close to the CPUSA.
Early in 1941 Hemingway and his new wife, Martha Gellhorn, were preparing to leave for a trip to China. Gellhorn had secured an assignment from Colliers magazine, and Hemingway reluctantly agreed to accompany her. The left-wing newspaper PM contracted to run his stories. More significant, Hemingway spoke to Harry White, chief of the Treasury Department’s Monetary Division, who asked him to report secretly to him on relations between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang, the Chinese transportation system, and the condition of the Burma Road. Hemingway agreed. During his four-month odyssey, he met with Lauchlin Currie (White House aide on a mission in China) at a dinner in Hong Kong, interviewed Nationalist China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek and his wife in Chungking, and met secretly with Communist leader Chou En-Lai. Upon his return he wrote reports for White and met with an official in the Office of Naval Intelligence. A later historical account of the trip noted that if White really was a Soviet spy, “Hemingway’s information very well could have ended up in the Kremlin.”
White assuredly was a Soviet source, but any link with Soviet intelligence Hemingway might have had through White would have been indirect and unknowing. What has not been previously known, however, is that Hemingway had been in
direct contact with Soviet intelligence before leaving for China. Moscow Center received a report from Jacob Golos, the KGB’s liaison with the CPUSA, stating: “A few days ago I found out that Ernest Hemingway is traveling to China via the Soviet Union. He may apply for an entry visa to the Soviet Union. He was in New York for only one day and I couldn’t meet with him. I arranged with him that our people will meet with him in China and show him the stamps that he gave us. We must attempt to meet with him in China or the Soviet Union by using the password that was arranged with him previously. I am sure that he will cooperate with us and will do everything he can.” Golos didn’t state who arranged the password and picked up the stamps that Hemingway handed over. (One possibility would be John Herrmann, an old Hemingway drinking buddy and friend who had himself worked for the CPUSA underground in Washington for several years in the 1930s.)
Although there is no evidence that Hemingway did any actual work for the KGB, his brushes with the clandestine world were apparently intoxicating. He remained infatuated with espionage for the next several years. Upon returning to Cuba, he organized a crew of his drinking and fishing pals and former Spanish Civil War veterans to spy on pro-German elements on the island, even obtaining some funds from the American ambassador to pay for the operation. Later derisively named “the Crook Factory” by Gellhorn, this motley crew outfitted a fishing boat with light weapons and trawled offshore looking for U-boats. While it afforded the writer an opportunity to indulge in fantasies that he was a secret operative, J. Edgar Hoover (then supervising American intelligence in Central and South America) was not impressed, telling subordinates that Hemingway was “the last man, in my estimation, to be used in any such capacity.”