One day in New York, in the winter of 1940-1941, a Soviet spy named Jacob Golos recruited Ernest Hemingway “for our work.” Golos was a colorful old Bolshevik, a lifelong revolutionary who had escaped from czarist banishment by walking from Siberia to China. Golos eventually settled on the lower east side of Manhattan, where he became one of the founders of the Communist Party of the USA and a linchpin for Soviet espionage on the east coast. On the day that he pitched Hemingway, he was acting on behalf of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB during the Cold War and of the SVR today. After the meeting, Golos reported to Moscow that he was “sure that he [Hemingway] will cooperate with us and … do everything he can” to help the NKVD.
Why did Soviets focus on Hemingway? He first caught their attention in 1935 by writing for the far left American journal New Masses. His article was an angry denunciation of the U.S. establishment for leaving a large group of veterans, at work on government relief, to die in the path of a hurricane that struck the Florida Keys that year. Then, during the Spanish civil war, he came into contact with Comintern agents, Soviet spies, and communist guerrillas. They intrigued and captivated him, all the more so because they were fighting for a cause that had ignited his passion: anti-fascism. That passion drove the plot of For Whom The Bell Tolls—and not incidentally disposed him to agree to Golos’s pitch when it came a few months after Scribner’s released the great political novel.
What did the NKVD want from Hemingway? He did not work for the government; he had no access to official secrets. He would not be meeting in a dark alley to hand over a briefcase full of documents. To please their first customer, Stalin, that is what Soviet spies wanted most: written secrets, especially about American technology and foreign policy. They knew that one day the U.S. would emerge from its isolationism and change the balance of power in Europe. When that day came, they wanted to be ready. In the meantime, they would continue pirating American technology. After the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1933, the NKVD (along with its sister service, the GRU) proceeded to recruit ever more American civil servants who fed them a steady diet of secrets. In the ’30s, they had spies with superb access in the Departments of State, Justice, and the Treasury, to say nothing of the White House itself, and during the war they penetrated the Manhattan Project, stealing the plans for the atom bomb.