Did Ernest Hemingway, one of the 20th-century's most prolific American novelists, have involvement in espionage activities associated with the FBI and the KGB? Wikimedia Commons photos. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time at war, both as a journalist and as a soldier — and sometimes somewhere in between. While his adolescent World War I experiences resonated throughout his early works, Hemingway’s time reporting on and participating in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s profoundly altered the novelist’s stance on American foreign policy. Nearing 40, the author of A Farewell to Arms evolved from an isolationist to an active solicitor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support for the Soviet-backed Spanish rebels fighting to overthrow dictator Francisco Franco and his fascist regime.
Though often described as a political conservative, Hemingway maintained a soft spot for communist causes. He openly supported socialist luminaries like Fidel Castro and Eugene Debs, a founder of the American Socialist Party. In his comprehensive biography of Hemingway, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, the historian Nicholas Reynolds concludes that the great novelist was a socialist for most of his life. These leftward leanings spurred Hemingway to dabble in a few abortive, and sometimes harebrained attempts at espionage and covert operations. Nothing ever came of these endeavors, but they certainly added to his mantle as a man of adventure.
In early 1941, Hemingway and his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn, were preparing to go to China for Collier’s magazine to report on the Japanese invasion. A few months earlier, Hemingway’s publisher had released For Whom the Bell Tolls, the epic novel about an American volunteer fighting alongside anti-Franco forces in Spain, and he was riding a celebrity wave around the world as America’s favorite literary figure. Intending to write and publish dispatches from the Chinese front, Hemingway contracted with a leftist newspaper called PM.
Ernest Hemingway worked as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy during World War I. Pictured on the right is Hemingway pointing a Thompson submachine gun at the camera while on his boat in 1935. Wikimedia Commons photos. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Japan had not yet attacked Pearl Harbor, but America already existed within a world at war. Since 1937, Japan and China had been locked in the Second Sino-Japanese War. By 1941, Hitler was battering London with night raids while Paris sizzled under Nazi occupation.
For its part, the United States did its best to stay out of the fray, proclaiming a series of neutrality acts in 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939. Against that backdrop, Gellhorn and Hemingway went to China “surreptitiously gathering intelligence for the [American] government,” according to author and historian Peter Moreira. The trip also doubled as their honeymoon.
Before leaving, Hemingway met with his handler, Harry White, a senior official with the US Treasury. White asked Hemingway to report to him on the “relations between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang, the Chinese transportation system, and the condition of the Burma Road,” according to Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.
Hemingway and Gellhorn traveled to Hong Kong by ship. Upon arrival, Gellhorn went to work while Hemingway drank and gambled — he also allegedly introduced local drinkers to the Bloody Mary. Yet, apart from exercising his famously large appetite for a good time, Hemingway also managed to get some work done. He interviewed the Republic of China’s Premier Chiang Kai-shek and his wife, Soong Mei-ling. He also secretly spoke with Chinese Communist Party leader Zhou Enlai.
Hemingway with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, and Gen. Yu Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Fulfilling his espionage duties, Hemingway wrote numerous reports for White over the course of his four-month stint in China. However, Hemingway remained unaware that his information was also probably making its way to the Kremlin. According to Spies, White was “the most important member” of a Soviet spy ring operating in the United States at that time.
Hemingway did not know that White might be a Soviet spy — but if he was, he was not the first communist agent to have set his sights on the adventuresome novelist.
Some scholars estimate that around 1932, the Soviets began planting spies within the Communist Party of the United States of America, or CPUSA. For years Hemingway had maintained close ties with the political party. Yet, as sympathetic to communism as he was, Hemingway wasn’t willing to adopt the party’s label. He did, however, tell Jacob Golos, a man within the party who covertly doubled as a Kremlin mole, about his upcoming China trip.
Golos sent a dispatch to Moscow Center — the CIA’s nickname for the KGB’s base headquarters in the Russian capital city — discussing Hemingway’s placement and access while in China. “I am sure that he will cooperate with us and will do everything he can,” Golos wrote of Hemingway.
Ernest Hemingway and others in Havana Harbor with a prized marlin in July 1934. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Hemingway’s code name was “Argo.”
No evidence suggests that Hemingway provided any useful intelligence to the Soviets. Still, his brush with espionage gave him a fresh dose of adventure, which he tried to re-create a year later when, back at home in Cuba, he reached out to the FBI via the US Consulate and offered his services as a Nazi U-boat hunter.
The FBI agreed to Hemingway’s outlandish scheme and provided him with gasoline for his boat, Pilar, as well as firearms and depth charges. Hemingway’s “Crook Factory,” as Gellhorn called them, was a motley crew of fishing pals and drinking buddies. Together they trawled the coast of Cuba in 1942, quixotically searching for German U-boats. According to Hemingway’s file in the FBI FOIA vault (available online), the novelist claimed he had four men working for him full-time, and up to 14 “barmen, waiters, and the like” on his payroll. He also charged the bureau $500 a month for his services, boasting that he refused a $150,000 offer to write a screenplay about the famous “Flying Tigers” fighter aircraft unit.
The FBI had legitimate reasons to support Hemingway’s sub-hunting operation. The author possessed detailed knowledge of the Cuban coast; he’d even conducted scientific research on marlin migration over a period of 12 years for New York’s Museum of Natural History. The FBI ultimately felt Hemingway was qualified to “patrol certain areas where submarine activity has been reported.”
Ernest Hemingway in the cabin of his boat named Pilar off the coast of Cuba,1950. Wikimedia Commons photo.
But FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover disparaged the endeavor. He told subordinates that Hemingway was “the last man, in my estimation, to be used in any such capacity,” Spies states.
In any case, Hemingway and his cronies were able to fish, drink, and drop explosive charges into Cuban waters on the FBI’s dime. They never did sink a Nazi sub.
In the late 1940s, Russian intelligence attempted to reestablish its once prolific network of sources in the US. At that time, the FBI was aggressively rooting out spies and moles within the US government, frustrating KGB operations. The Soviets had remained interested in Hemingway in the years after World War II. Hoover’s disdain for the novelist, who never provided any useful information, spurred the KGB to officially terminate Hemingway from their asset list in 1948.
With his sub-hunting and espionage days finally and fully behind him, Hemingway returned to his true craft. He published The Old Man and the Sea in 1952, reinvigorating his writing career and the public’s interest in his literary work. The novella also helped earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, which recognized Hemingway’s “mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style.”
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as "The Old Man and the KGB."
Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.
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