How Russia Recruited Ernest Hemingway

The Russians have been working among us in Washington and New York for a long time, and Papa Hemingway was just one of their more high profile collaborators.

Photo Illustration by Alex Brook Lynn/The Daily Beast

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.

That is not all that the NKVD wanted. There were other kinds of spies who could also be useful, like politicians and journalists. They could help the Soviets to understand the sprawling young country on the other side of the world, so foreign that it might as well have been on another planet—and occasionally influence policy. There was even a congressman on the payroll, one Samuel Dickstein, who instead of voting his conscience, voted his pocketbook, which the Soviets fed to the tune of $1,250 a month, a princely sum in the ’30s. The best of the American journalist spies—and they included some famous reporters and columnists—were very well connected. They could move effortlessly around the country, drawing on their contacts for useful information, and, from time to time, spreading stories that showed the Soviet Union in a good light.

The Soviets thought of Hemingway as a journalist. Already one of the most famous writers in the world, his network spread from the capitals of Europe to the White House — his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, was one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s protégés. One day in the summer of 1937, Gellhorn was able to arrange for the writer and a Comintern agent to spend an evening with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt. First they watched The Spanish Earth, a documentary that Hemingway and Joris Ivens, the Dutch communist filmmaker, had produced, and then they discussed foreign policy. Hemingway and Ivens attempted (without success) to persuade Roosevelt to abandon the policy of neutrality and, like the Soviet Union, support the Republic.

By agreeing to work with the NKVD in 1940, Hemingway did not violate his country's espionage laws. But he did make himself liable (at least in theory) under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law that required agents of a foreign power to register. While he did not become a great spy for the NKVD, he continued for years to adhere to a pro-Soviet point of view that made more sense in 1940 than it did in 1945, when American and Soviet interests clearly started to diverge in the run-up to the Cold War. In 1948, for example, he espoused the progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace’s rosy view of the Soviet empire, sharing the belief that the two great powers were more alike than different and arguing that they should deal directly with each other with little regard for the countries of Old Europe like Britain and France.

So why does this story matter? Does it offer any insights that may be useful today?

First, it points up the continuities in Russian history. No matter whether it is called NKVD, KGB, or SVR, the Russian secret service has since 1934 worked hard to gather information on and exert influence in the United States. Russian officials have never forgotten that it is in their interest to understand and manipulate the great power across the ocean, something that they have been most comfortable doing behind the scenes.

Second, the Hemingway case reminds us to look closely at cases that are not as clear cut as outright spying or influence peddling. The fallout from such cases can also undermine American institutions, only in more subtle ways. American interests and those of other countries occasionally overlap, but they are seldom identical. In matters of national security, it is well-nigh impossible to serve two masters, and even the appearance of conflict of interest can be corrosive, as the young Trump administration is discovering.

Third, some 70 years later, Hemingway's forays into foreign policy still resonate, but not in a reassuring way. Most of us who read and love his work do so because his writing—honest, direct, independent— evokes so many American values. Few of us want to learn that our literary icon was in a secret relationship with a foreign power, especially one whose values have always been so different from ours. Also troubling is the equivalency between America and Russia that he proposed in 1948, an idea that President Trump recently seemed to echo. I am old-fashioned enough to think that America is not just another great power but a unique experiment in self-government and democracy, a republic unlike any Russian government, Soviet or post-Soviet. This sadly is something that one of our greatest writers never fully grasped.

Nicholas Reynolds is the author of Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy, The Secret Adventures of Ernest Hemingway 1935-1961, published this month by William Morrow.