Politics & Policy

Their Man in Havana?

Ernest Hemingway and the KGB.

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.

#ad#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.”


Moscow was more hopeful. Hemingway received a cover name, “Argo,” and in November 1941 Moscow Center instructed the KGB New York station: “Look for an opportunity for him to travel abroad to countries of interest to us.” Hemingway met with KGB officers four more times, and Moscow remained hopeful. But as a KGB summary of 1948 shows, J. Edgar Hoover’s dismissal of Hemingway as a dilettante would have been better advised:

Argo” — Ernest Hemingway (Ernest Hemingway), year of birth: 1898, born in Duke Park, Illinois (USA), American citizen, secondary education, a writer. During the First War of Imperialism, he was a correspondent in the French and Italian armies’ medical units.

Our meetings with Argo” in London and Havana were conducted with the aim of studying him and determining his potential for our work. Throughout the period of his connection with us, Argo” did not give us any polit. information, though he repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help us. Argo” has not been studied thoroughly and is unverified. We have a material password for renewing ties with Argo.”

In 1937, while in Spain, Argo wrote in defense of the Popular Front in his articles and appealed for help for Republican Spain, sharply criticizing isolationists in Congress and the U.S. State Department. Argo insisted that the U.S. lift the embargo on the importation of arms into Repub. Spain. . . . 

In 1941, before he left for China, Argo was recruited for our work on ideological grounds by Sound. Contact was not established with Argo in China. In Sept. 1943, when Argo was in Havana, where he owned a villa, our worker contacted him and, prior to his departure for Europe, met with him only twice. In June 1943, the connection with Argo was once more renewed in London, where he had gone as an Amer. correspondent with the Allied Army in the field for the magazine Colliers. This connection was soon interrupted, b/c Argo left for France. When Argo returned to Havana from France in April 1945, we met with him once. We could not maintain a connection with Argo in view of our worker’s urgent summons out of the country. Since then, there have been no attempts to establish a connection with Argo.

#ad#(The “material password” would have been the stamps Hemingway earlier gave Golos.) Despite all these meetings and promises of cooperation since 1941, Hemingway had actually delivered nothing as of 1948. In light of this, sensibly, the American station listed Hemingway in 1949 as among earlier American sources with whom it had not renewed contact.

But that did not end the matter. In the late 1940s, the combination of crippling defections, the FBI’s aggressive posture, and intense public hostility toward communism devastated the KGB’s once flourishing espionage networks in America. In 1950 Moscow Center pressed its American station to look into renewing ties to agents and sources long ago deactivated or abandoned as useless. One of these was Ernest Hemingway. In August it told the KGB Washington station: “We remind you that ‘Argo’ was recruited for our work on ideological grounds in 1941 by ‘Sound’ but that he has been studied little and has not been verified in practical work. We have a material recognition signal for renewing ties with ‘Argo,’ which we will send you in case the need should arise.” But in October the New York station reported that although Hemingway continued to maintain ties with Joseph North, a CPUSA official active in the party’s cultural /intellectual work, “It is said that he allegedly supports the Trotskyites and that he has attacked the Sov. Union in his articles and pamphlets.” After that nothing more about Hemingway appeared.

– John Earl Haynes is a historian at the Library of Congress. Harvey Klehr is a professor of politics and history at Emory University. They are co-authors of several books, including Venona. Alexander Vassiliev, a journalist, is co-author of The Haunted Wood. This is reprinted with permission from their new book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).

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