WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S SECRET ADVENTURES, 1936-1961 by Nicholas Reynolds

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(Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War)

In Nicholas Reynolds new book, WRITER, SAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY: ERNEST HEMINGWAY’S SECRET ADVENTURES, 1935-1961, the author, the CIA Museum’s historian poses the question as to why Hemingway, who tried all forms of spying, before and during World War II would sign on with Stalin’s henchmen at the NKVD.  Reynolds relates that he had been working on an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) exhibit at the museum when he came across the links between Soviet intelligence and Hemingway and wondered how this could have happened, and what it means for Hemingway’s legacy.  Reynolds thesis is clear; Hemingway’s relationship with the NKVD was impactful, and this chapter in his life has often been overlooked.  According to the author it influenced Hemingway’s decision making the last fifteen years of his life and played a role in his eventual suicide in 1961.  With the Cold War/Red Scare all around him, it is Reynolds contention that Hemingway felt he was losing control of his life, something that he could not tolerate, so he ended it as a means of self-control.

The thesis that Reynolds lays out is not really dealt with in a substantive manner until the latter stages of the narrative.  Before the onset of the Cold War we are exposed to Hemingway’s contacts with various Soviet operatives in Washington, Spain, Cuba and Europe which did not seem to amount to a great deal except it put the author on the NKVD’s radar for the future.  Soviet spymasters liked Hemingway’s public condemnations of the New Deal, England and France before World War II, particularly in relationship to allied neutrality during the Spanish Civil War.  Hemingway was a firm believer in small government and resented Roosevelt’s domestic policy, especially when he sent so many “poor bonus marchers” (American veterans of World War I) to work in the Florida Keys during the 1935 hurricane season, resulting in many of their deaths.  Hemingway’s life is a testament to controlling his environment to do the things he wanted to do whether it was in the Keys, Cuba, Spain, or the battlefields of Europe.  This theme is dominant as Hemingway needed the stimulus of adventure and danger to get the most out of his life.

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(Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, his mistress then his second wife)

The first few chapters concentrate on Hemingway’s experiences in Spain between 1937 and 1939, the heart of the civil war.  Reynolds describes Hemingway’s transformation to support the Republican cause with almost a religious enthusiasm.  The author makes a number of interesting observations as to why Hemingway became so obsessed with Spain. Hemingway wanted to be the dominant “war writer” of his generation, and viewed the civil war as a dress rehearsal for the coming European conflict, therefore his participation was an imperative.  At this point Hemingway had a low opinion of the Soviet Union and felt that Joseph Stalin with his “show trials” (particularly the trial and execution of his friend Lev Kamenev) and collectivization policies was no better that Nazi Germany.  Hemingway’s experience in Spain was impactful as he was his own “commissar,” as he ignored Comintern attempts to recruit him and saw himself as a humanitarian, military advisor, and most of all a writer in support of the Republican cause.  If he had any affinity for the Soviet Union it was because they were the only ones who provided weapons and financial support for Republican forces against Franco.  Even though he respected what Moscow was doing he realized the split in “communist” forces and the bloody purges and executions they carried out under orders from Stalin.  Hemingway would come into contact with a number of important links to the NKVD in Spain including German Communist Gustav Regler, who would turn against “the stink of Moscow,” Jacob Golos, an NKVD operative in New York who recruited Hemingway in late 1940, and Alexander Orlov, the NKVD Station Chief in Spain (who is the subject of a new biography that just was published, STALIN’S AGENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ALEXANDER ORLOV) who would give Hemingway carte blanche to carry out operations against Franco’s forces as he viewed Hemingway as a true believer in the Republican cause, not a man under Soviet control.  Hemingway’s experiences in Spain would form the basis of his classic novel, FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS.

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(Ernest Hemingway and his army driver outside Paris in 1944)

After Franco’s victory and the outbreak of World War II Hemingway was given the NKVD codename of “Argo.”  For Hemingway, any cooperation with Soviet intelligence would be based on his abhorrence of fascism, and by the summer of 1941 he believed that Russia was the bulwark against Nazi Germany as France surrendered and the British were rescued at Dunkirk.  Hemingway viewed Russia through that lens, and since his own country had ignored his warnings about what was about to take place, he would act in secret.  “Hemingway was looking for that leeway in politics and war.  He loved things military and being around soldiers, but did not want to join any man’s army.  His preference was a lose affiliation with other irregulars, especially guerillas, which made him feel like he was part of the action but left him free to come and go as he pleased.  He was not a communist, or even a fellow traveler.” There is no evidence that he was a Russian spy during the war, just a general commitment to fight fascism. (88-89)

Reynolds does a workman like job following Hemingway’s journey throughout World War II.  From his August, 1942 offer to spy for the United States in Havana and employ his boat, the Pilar to search for German U-Boats; his witnessing of the D-Day landing; gathering intelligence for the safest route to liberate Paris; almost being court martialed for exercising command, stockpiling weapons, and fighting to liberate the French capital; to his attachment to the US Army 22nd Infantry Regiment as it slogged through Belgium into Germany. Throughout the war Hemingway did prove to be an American asset, despite a number of controversies.   Hemingway’s last hurrah was during the Battle of the Bulge, but by March, 1945 he was spent and returned to Havana to write down his wartime experiences in a new novel.

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(Ernest Hemingway’s visa as a journalist to cover World War II)

Hemingway formed many important relationships in Spain and Europe, but none are more important than his friendship with Colonel Charles T. “Buck” Lanham who he fought with in France and Belgium, a relationship that would last a lifetime.  Reynolds zeroes in on Hemingway’s persona in explaining that the thing Hemingway loved the best was “when he was risking his life, all of his senses fulling engaged, putting his well-developed field and military experiences to good use…..he also relished the comradeship that jelled in combat.” (183)  The friendships he formed on the battlefield be it the patrician spy David Bruce, or Lanham, the thoughtful soldier were more important to him than anything.  No one in the NKVD ever connected with Hemingway in this manner, and to this point Reynolds has not really laid the basis for his thesis which he finally delves into as the Cold War evolves after World War II.

Finally, in the last fifty pages of the book the author returns to his thesis and reargues that Hemingway’s experiences in Spain and Havana would greatly affect his behavior for the last fifteen years of his life.  Hemingway grew very concerned with the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, McCarthy hearings, Rosenberg Trials and the entire domestic paranoid atmosphere in American politics after the Second World War.  He grew increasingly anxious that his contacts with the NKVD in the 1930s and during the war might one day place him in front of a congressional committee.  Hemingway swore off “causes” of any kind, including helping with an International Brigade Parade in New York City.  Hemingway kept his distance from anything that could create difficulties for him.  He reached the conclusion that it was more important to write books than be an activist, that could result in being blacklisted from publishing his works.  As far as any contact with the NKVD after the war, Reynolds examines internal NKVD documents about re-contacting with Hemingway, but by 1950 this was never done, and for the remainder of his life he had no contact with Soviet intelligence.  No matter what the reality was after the war, Hemingway realized that he had agreed to work with the NKVD in its war against fascism in Spain in the 1930s, and after the winter of 1940-41, even though he was clear he would not betray his country and only cared about defeating the Nazis.

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(Ernest Hemingway at his home outside Havana during the unrest that brought Castro to power)

Reynolds brings his narrative to a close as he explores Hemingway’s relationship to the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s until his death.  For Hemingway the Cuban Revolution could be the unrealized hope of the 1930s Spanish Republic.  For him “supporting Castro was the equivalent to fighting Franco and Hitler in Spain.” (250)  However, the United States was pressuring him to make a choice, his country or his home, particularly when Castro ramped up his invective against Washington, and singled out Hemingway for praise.  By this time Hemingway was a man in decline, with depression and paranoia resulting in “shock treatments” at the Mayo Clinic.  With the failure of the Bay of Pigs, increasing fear of FBI surveillance and the loss of his home outside Havana, Hemingway would take his own life.  Reynolds theory pertaining to Hemingway is well argued and researched, but I believe that Paul Hendrickson’s HEMINGWAY’S BOAT: EVERYTHING HE LOVED IN LIFE, AND LOST, 1934-1961 is a better study of the same period and is a bit more nuanced with a smoother narrative flow than Reynolds’ effort.

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(Ernest Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War)

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