The Clare Spark Blog

June 30, 2011

Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (1)

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 7:45 pm
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Cover design for Peter Moreira’s book

Here is my Fourth of July present to my readers, a detailed analysis of a popular partisan book in four parts. The cast of characters: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Harry Dexter White, Lauchlin Currie, Chiang Kai-shek, Chou En-lai, Mao Tse-tung, FDR, Henry Morgenthau, Theodore H. White, Gustav Regler, and numerous scholars on the relations between the Kuomintang, the Communist Party in  China, and the U.S. in early 1941. Each installment has endnotes, with full scholarly apparatus. It starts with my contention that books written for a popular audience deserve scholarly scrutiny, for this particular account of two famous newlyweds is deeply flawed, though it has been favorably reviewed by the left-liberal press and the Hemingway Society. Since this review was posted here, it has been revealed that Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in October 1940, with his control Jacob Golos. Scholars say he never gave them anything, however. But the left-liberal, soft-on-communism line advanced by Theodore White and Edgar Snow was repeated in the biopic screened by HBO, May 28, 2012, and it follows the liberal anticommunist line on the wars of the 20th century to a “T.” Which is to say that it is soft on communism, while being mildly critical.

Peter Moreira. Hemingway On The China Front: His WWII Spy Mission With Martha Gellhorn.Dulles,Virginia: Potomac Books, 2006. 244 pp.  $26.95.

Academic scholars in Cold War studies and Sinology will not be interested in this book, nor are they Moreira’s target audience. He takes aim, rather, at Hemingway readers, who may be as naïvely confident in their political opinions as Hemingway himself, and to date, the work has been well received in left-wing newspapers and by some Hemingway scholars. In other words, lay readers are fed a strong dose of Maoist  propaganda with no guidance as to its duplicities or to the gullibility of the newspaper men who helped sanitize the image of Chinese Communism during the critical period of the early to mid-1940s. It is my view that academics should engage and correct popular books that ignore archival discoveries, particularly when, as is the case of the book under review, they are pseudo-scholarly polemics that gloss over the crimes of Communist regimes.  It is customary that academic specialists write primarily to each other, reconfiguring accepted narratives when new sources become available. Insofar as diplomatic historians ignore the errors saturating popular culture, however, misguided foreign policy will win the support of the electorate as a consequence. Diplomatic historians would do well to correct such errors, addressing non-academics, for  the public opinion that ultimately influences foreign policy stands in desperate need of acquaintance with recent research that is revising our understanding of the wars of the twentieth century.  In the detailed review that follows, I attempt to drive that point home.

Moreira begins by faulting previous Ernest Hemingway biographers for ignoring the moment that propelled this newcomer to “espionage” and four subsequent years as “a government operative” (xiv, xvi). He further promises that the “spy mission,” undertaken while Martha Gellhorn, his newlywed third wife, was writing a series on wartime China for Collier’s, will deliver a spicy and colorfully populated travel narrative for general readers, taking them to Hawaii, Hong Kong, southern China, Chungking, Chengtu, Burma, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies.  The assignment was initiated by direct conversation between Ernest Hemingway and “spymaster” Harry Dexter White, “right-hand man to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau” (pp.16, 19, 65). Buttressing this claim, the caption to White’s photograph states that he “launched Hemingway’s career as a government operative when he asked the writer to spy for the U.S. treasury in China.” The secret agent was to assess the relations between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists, and also to study “transportation in China and along the Burma Road” (p.19). But Hemingway’s six-page letter to Morgenthau, July 30, 1941, simply states, “When I left for China Mr. White asked me to look into the Kuomingtang-Communist [sic] difficulties and try to find out any information which could possibly be of interest to you.”  What follows, Hemingway continues, is “a short summary of what I find at this date to be true, after studying the problem for some three months in China.” Readers may wonder if his conclusions could not have been duplicated by Chinese-speaking U.S. foreign service officers, journalists, diplomats, businessmen or other observers already in the region—and to what extent, if any, they differed from Communist-generated propaganda. Moreira does not show us hitherto suppressed contents of secret documents or the confidences of elusive leaders or other inaccessible informants; rather his prize archival specimen was previously published in the Morgenthau Diary (China) in 1965; moreover the letter’s contents were subsequently summarized by John Morton Blum (1967) and David Rees (1973).[1] Rees reports interactions between Hemingway and White and notes that “Back in the United States, Hemingway had then reported to the Office of Naval Intelligence,” but does not label the “journey to war” in late January 1941 as spying or espionage. Still, Moreira claims a consensus by major scholars that Hemingway was spying for the government, though he does not quote them. Only one of the literary scholars he mentions, Michael Reynolds, wrote briefly that “through Martha’s connections at the White House, they were asked to observe closely the politics of the China war.”  Reynolds refers to “gather[ing] intelligence” and a “somewhat clandestine interview with Chou En-lai.”[2]

Moreira mentions two encounters with Lauchlin Currie (pp.40, 52), identified first as “White House Economist,” (p. 40), later as a possible Soviet agent (p.193) noting that Currie had met with both Chiang and Chou,[3] and, relying solely on the Hemingway letter to Morgenthau of July 30, 1941, that Currie advised Hemingway not to “inflame tensions between the Communists and the Kuomintang” in his future reportage (p. 40).  Moreira does not relate the contents of Currie’s report  to Roosevelt of March 15, 1941, the distillation of his Chinese-funded trip to study inflation, a trip that partly overlapped with Hemingway’s but was more intensive, focused, and less marked by banquets and drinking contests. For instance, Currie wrote that “I was assured by many that I was given access to material never before made available to a foreigner.” His report was more optimistic than Hemingway’s letter with respect to avoidance of civil war, and only partly resembles Moreira’s polemic as Currie enumerated the deficiencies of the Chinese government (e.g., repression of dissent, a chaotic budget) that required reforms in order to move from a “military dictatorship” to “a truly democratic state.” Compare these details with Moreira’s archival find from the Roosevelt Library: “[Currie] carried with him a letter from Morgenthau to Finance Minister H. H. Kung reaffirming Morgenthau’s support for China and applauding the “splendid unity” that China had achieved under dire circumstances” (p. 40). By ignoring the contents of the Currie report, Moreira implies that the Roosevelt administration, particularly Morgenthau and his associates at the Department of the Treasury, were clueless about KMT deficiencies. Indeed, the caption to a photograph of Morgenthau states that he “was eager to receive Hemingway’s intelligence on China and on the ongoing hostilities between the Kuomintang and Communists.”

The Currie report to FDR, then, diverges from Moreira’s assessments of the Nationalists: though critical, Currie ends with recommendations for enhanced military aid (without which no future offensive against the Japanese would be possible), a commitment to postwar reconstruction, and a plea for sympathetic “publicity,” taking advantage of Chiang’s respect for FDR: “One of the most effective ways of encouraging China and deterring Japan would be to go out of our way in giving evidences of friendship, close collaboration and admiration for China. This can be done both overtly and through “inspired” stories coming out of Washington.” [4]   If there is a spy mission or “espionage” (xvii) here, it may be the muckraking project of the author, for the early chapters cater to the vogue for salacious peeps into the private lives of celebrities or for suspenseful reality television treating survival in primitive locales—a game that Hemingway initially wins until he wilts in Burma from the weather, alcohol and depression.

[1]See John Morton Blum, From The Morgenthau Diaries: Years of Urgency 1938-1941 (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1967): 381. Blum does not mention the suggestion of partition. Blum’s remarks preceding summary of the letter would have undermined Moreira’s insistence that the Roosevelt administration needed correction by Hemingway in their support of the “weak, corrupt, and cynical [Chinese government], threatened by the apathy of most of its subjects, the arms of the Japanese puppet regime in Nanking, and the hostility of the communist camp….But…the sorry government of Chiang Kai-shek was the only government in China with which the United States could work, the only government that represented Chinese sovereignty and independence.” Also see David Rees, Harry Dexter White: A Study in Paradox (N.Y.: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1973): 118-119. Rees describes EH as “an agent extraordinary to report to the Treasury.”

[2] See Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Final Years (N.Y.: Norton, 1999): 38, 39. I have not found references to spying in either Carlos Baker or Jeffrey Meyers, authors cited by Moreira as agreeing that there was a spy mission.

[3] See Michael M. Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism, for an account of the Currie-Chou En-Lai meeting, Feb.14, 1941, p.69. “…[Chou’s] intention to use the Americans to check the GMD could not be more obvious.” Chou blamed the KMT for inciting civil war, hence “the war of resistance would fail, and the Japanese would head toward the south to fight the Anglo-American force there.”

[4] See Currie to Roosevelt, March 15, 1941, Foreign Relations of the U.S., The Far East, Vol. IV (1941): 81-95.   On the ongoing desire for good relations with China, despite Chiang’s shortcomings see Currie to Eleanor Roosevelt, September 23, 1942, “With reference to your enquiry concerning our attitude toward the new Chinese Ambassador, I can only say that my own attitude is, at a time like this, to cooperate as closely as possible with all Chinese officials, whoever they may be. Almost all important Chinese officials are what we would call reactionary and many of them are or have been at one time or another corrupt. They are, however, our allies, and I have enormous faith in the potentialities of the Chinese people themselves in the post-war period. In the present circumstances, therefore, I feel that better publicity for Ambassador Wei means better publicity for China and the United Nations.” Thanks to Roger Sandilands for this unpublished letter.


  1. Claire – thanks for posting, and particularly for your thoughts about mainstream writers.
    The irony of the Hemingway story is that now some US academic scholars go out of their way to try to picture Hemingway as NKGB spy – building on excerpted notes once taken by Alexander Vassilie. By the end of the day, there is not much to go, but someone may already be rushing with a “definitive” book …
    Likely, “spy” is some label that sells a book…

    Comment by Svetlana chervonnaya — July 15, 2011 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

    • Today, Dec.31, 2011 I received the following message from Harvey Klehr, co-author of Spies, The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. From a Jacob Golos report to Moscow: “A few days ago I found out that Ernest Hemingway is traveling to China via 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 he will cooperate with us and do everything he can.”
      There’ no evidence he did very much, or anything, but Hemingway several times told the KGB he would help them. (Spies, pp.152-55)

      Comment by clarespark — January 1, 2012 @ 3:14 am | Reply

  2. […] Links to review essay on Hemingway spy mission to China Filed under: Uncategorized — clarespark @ 8:18 pm Tags: Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese Communist Party, Chou En-lai, Ernest Hemingway, Gustav Regler, Harry Dexter White, Hemingway Society, Henry Morgenthau, internationalism, Kuomintang, Lauchlin Currie, Madam Chang, Mao Tse-tung, Martha Gellhorn, Peter Moreira, Theodore H. White […]

    Pingback by Links to review essay on Hemingway spy mission to China « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 30, 2011 @ 8:18 pm | Reply

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