YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 30, 2011

Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (4)

Cover design, T. H. White’s Thunder Out of China

[Added 6-10-12: It was revealed in 2009 that EH was recruited by the KGB in October 1940.  For my review of the HBO movie on the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/.]

Astonishingly, Moreira waits until the end of his book to suggest that both Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie were passing secret intelligence to Moscow (pp.192-193), but cannot explain how the pro-KMT articles in Collier’s and PM might have served both Soviet and U.S. interests as they were perceived by the Roosevelt administration and Moscow.  Moreira cites Barbara Tuchman’s pro-Stilwell biography. Might he agree with Stillwell’s protest to George C. Marshall (after Chiang had requested that Stilwell be relieved of his command) that Chiang had “no intention of instituting any real democratic regime of forming a united front with the Communists?”[1] Might H. D. White have sent Hemingway to report back on “difficulties” between the KMT and CCP, hoping to get damaging material that would condemn the KMT for subverting the united front (a persistent claim of the CCP), a task made urgent after the New Fourth Army incident that provoked “emotional hysteria”,[2] and might Hemingway’s critical remarks about Communists in Spain account for Lauchlin Currie’s advice not to “inflame” the situation, with the unabridged letter to Morgenthau unpublished until conservative senators investigating Communist subversion of the U.S. Treasury and State Departments excerpted the nine-volume Morgenthau diary? Or was Hemingway, notwithstanding his reservations about Communist exaggerations of their military successes, still an admirer of the discipline and organization of the Communists, quietly aiding their objectives, while appearing to be even-handed? His friend Gustav Regler, purged political commissar of the Twelfth International Brigade in Spain, certainly thought so in his memoir, The Owl of Minerva (1959), describing an outburst from a probably tipsy Hemingway:

Mexico, 1941:…Hemingway came from Cuba to see the bullfights. We had drinks at the Tampico Club. When we were out in the street again he clapped his hand on my shoulder and thrust me against the marble façade. ‘Why did you leave them?’ (He meant the Communists.)… but he would not let me go; he was in an alarming state of emotional confusion. ‘Why did you believe them in Spain? There has to be an organization, and they have one. Go back to them! Beat the slanderers in their own house!’ After a time he turned away from me and cursed the whole world. ‘The US is finished, just like France. All Nazis should be castrated. The Russians are the only ones who are doing any fighting.’ Then he came back to me. ‘What do you care about the lies they are telling about you? All that’s just chicken-shit!’ ”

In her favorable essay on Moreira’s book for the Hemingway Review, Kaimei Zheng contributes an item not found by Moreira: Renjing Yang, author of Hemingway in China, has consulted the Chinese Communist Central Archive’s Chou En-lai Chronology published in 1989, discovering that “a month after Chou En-lai met with Hemingway, Chou telegraphed Liao Cheng Zhi and Mao in Yanan from Chongqing on 16 May 1941….Chou said, “According to our conversation with Hemingway, we still have a lot of room to maneuver diplomatically. We suggest adding several people in Hong Kong to coordinate our activities, and the objectives and guidelines in Hong Kong have to be the same as in Chongqing” (Central Archive 503)…. It suggests that Hemingway’s conversation had an impact on Communist diplomacy.” [3] As presented, this nugget suggests that Hemingway saw himself as an ally to the CCP; or, alternatively, perhaps he was as willing to display his analytic capacities and connections to major players to the Communists as he was to White and Morgenthau, but we learn nothing about the sources of his (hinted) inside dope, and nothing in Moreira helps us here.  Compare this report (suggesting partisanship) with the praise heaped upon the objective Hemingway by Hollington K. Tong, Vice-Minister of Information in the Chinese government, and who does not appear in Moreira’s book, who claimed in his book Dateline:China (1950) that Hemingway saw through Communist prevarications, an observation consistent with Hemingway’s letter to Morgenthau.

I am not proposing that Hemingway was either a compliant mouthpiece for the Roosevelt administration or a duped fellow-traveler. For instance, the Hemingway lengthy letter of July 30, 1941 to Morgenthau, the centerpiece of Moreira’s book, contains his solution to the China problem, (a suggestion not included in White’s digest of Hemingway’s letter[4]). Hemingway wrote, “To keep the whole thing as simple as possible, I think we can be sure that war between the Kuomingtang [sic] and the Communists is inevitable unless the Soviet Union and the Chungking Government come to some mutual agreement which will make part of China really Soviet China with a defensible frontier which will be respected by both the Chungking Government and the Communists.” (p.204). This is a remarkable suggestion, one that would not have pleased the CCP. When asked by the OSS, “Would the Chinese Communists welcome formal separation of Communist and Kuomintang China accompanied by international recognition of a Chinese Soviet,” Chou En-Lai responded, “…the Communist Party does not want the breakup of China into separate states. It wishes to help in establishing a democratic regime throughout all China—this system would involve elections, local choice, and freedom for all parties to organize a voting electorate. The Communist Party wants no more than one-third representation in China from top to bottom. The Communist Party wants the Kuomintang to study and learn from the success of democratic procedures already established in the Northwest.”[5]

Moreover, the partitioning of China would have appalled both the Roosevelt administration and the Chinese Nationalists, looking to a unified Chinese republic as a prospective great power in the postwar United Nations, and as a democratic capitalist bulwark against either Japanese or Soviet expansion; while the Soviet Union was sending aid to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces (even after the Soviet-Japanese Pact) to forestall further Japanese incursions into the Asian land mass. Moreira writes that Hemingway committed “the classic mistake of mid-century Kremlinologists of assuming that the Soviet Union could control Mao and restrict his ambition of ruling all of China” (p.191, ignoring Hemingway’s initial proviso that the Communists “will attempt to expand their sphere of influence in China no matter what territorial limits they may accept on paper”). But Hemingway’s waffling judgment may indicate that, at rock bottom, he was out of his depth, a peacemaking “moderate” hoping against hope for compromise.  As Kenneth S. Lynn has argued, Hemingway struggled to achieve unity between the warring impulses in his personality, to the detriment of political clarity. It was a struggle that he famously lost.[6]  We are left with a mystery: how is it possible that so many biographers and Hemingway fans miss the irrational cast to his politics?

In conclusion, by framing his book as a corrective to Hemingway studies, the author masked the political message that runs throughout: that the U.S. should have vigorously opposed Chiang Kai-shek’s thieving, collaborationist, decadent, and authoritarian regime—one that, unlike the Communists, lacked a popular base–, and that his protagonists, the generally populist Hemingway and Gellhorn, erred in bowing to pressures from editors and the Roosevelt administration, hiding their true responses to personalities and dispiriting conditions encountered in February through late May, 1941. I have shown Moreira’s indebtedness to the prevalent left-liberal interpretation of U.S.-China relations during the Sino-Japanese war, a line sympathetic to the Chinese Communists who had presented themselves to the OSS as twin New Dealers, the bearers of Lincoln-style democracy and a progressive capitalist economy.  Moreira relies upon what Hans J. van de Ven calls the “overwhelming” “Stilwell-[Theodore H.] White paradigm,”[7] for instance in his identification of “the key flaw in the Allied strategy in the Asian theater—the flaw being the Kuomintang’s unwillingness to attack the Japanese. Censorship prevented American reporters from actually saying that the Nationalists wouldn’t attack….” (p. 77). But this was precisely the propaganda line of the CCP and was identified as such by Edward Dreyer, one of  Moreira’s abused sources.[8] Moreover, the author perpetuates the view that Chinese Communism developed, in both politics and ideology, independently from the directives and example of the Soviet Union. Moreira’s scholarly apparatus of endnotes and bibliography are outdated, incorrectly transmitted, skimpy or absent where crucial, and grossly inadequate in tackling the subject at hand. The faults and biases of this book deserve exposure because it has been favorably received, notwithstanding its failure to engage previously hidden archival materials from China and the Soviet Union, revealed for example in the work of Michael M. Sheng, Niu Jun, Dieter Heinzig, Jung Chang, Jon Halliday,  and many others.[9] Moreira’s book is emblematic of a troubling pattern of partisan histories written by non-specialists for educated audiences.


[1] Stillwell to Marshall, 26 Sept. 1944, U.S. Relations With China, p.68, quoted in Kubek, p.217.

[2] “The…incident drew a line of emotional hysteria across all future relations of government and Communists.” Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, Thunder Out of China (N.Y.: William Sloane, 1946): 76.

[3] Kaimei Zheng, review of Moreira, p.120, Hemingway Review, vol. 26, No.1 Fall 2006, 115-121.

[4] Morgenthau Diary (China): 457. See item 6. White includes Hemingway’s statement about “an agreement between Generalissimo’s Government and Soviet Union [to settle] definite limits to the territories the Communists are to occupy,” but omits the next sentence that warns of Communist expansionism, regardless of paper promises (458).

[5] Morgenthau Diary(China), 879. This was not a direct quote, but a synopsis taken from the notes of an anonymous interviewer.

[6] Kenneth S. Lynn, Hemingway (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1987):593. See also Stephen Koch, The Breaking Point: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robles (N.Y.: Counterpoint, 2005): esp. 37-38, 171, 211, 250.  In a review of both Koch and Moreira for The Spectator, August 19, 2006, Caroline Moorehead, the only biographer of Martha Gellhorn with access to her papers, mostly panned Koch’s depiction of Hemingway, and was supportive of Moreira.

[7] Hans J. van de Ven, War and Nationalism in China 1935-1945 (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003): 7. Ironically, Theodore White disowned his younger self in a letter to a conference on reportage from China, held at the Nieman  Center at Harvard: “We were all very young men, ignorant men, unskilled men. China was a mystery to all of us as it remains to this day a mystery to the most learned scholars. We never knew who was doing what to whom and why; we could not penetrate Chinese politics. We lived on the slope of a volcano; we could see it steaming, record an eruption now and then, knew the landscape was heaving, and all of us sensed that this volcano would blow its top.” Nonetheless, White (writing in the third person) named Chou En-Lai as one of his heroes: “Whatever the entries on the balance of violence, his net judgment was that Chou En-Lai was a man who had done more good than harm.” See In Search of History (N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1978): 528.

[8] This allegation is directly contradicted by one of Moreira’s sources, Edward L. Dreyer, China At War, 1901-1949 (N.Y.: Longman, 1995): 248 “…the CCP propaganda line that the KMT did not have its heart in the war.”

[9] Michael M. Sheng, Battling Western Imperialism: Mao, Stalin, and the United States (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997). See also Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (N.Y.: Knopf, 2005).



  1. Chiang’s “collaborationist” government? It was at war with Japan for four years prior to our own entry, and kept about a million Japanese troops busy despite numerous Japanese appeals for a separate peace and anti-Communist collaboration. While much is made of the importance of Mao’s guerrilla warfare, the fact is that the Chinese government forces bore the brunt of Japanese aggression. Certainly this is a better record than our “heroic” and “noble” French allies, who caved in a matter of weeks, and, despite all the romance of “The Resistance”, had figures such a s Sartre who never lost a minute on the production of his plays during the German occupation (heck, our supposedly weak and ineffectual South Vietnamese allies held out for three years after our Congress cut them off against a North Viet army on which the Soviets and Chinese both spared no expense).

    As for Hemingway, he himself volunteered to serve Soviet intelligence while in Spain, and bullied John Dos Passos about the latter’s skepticism about Communism. We have also known since the fall of the Soviet Union that Theodore H. White was also regarded as an asset in Moscow. Perhaps even now, our view of China during World War II still suffers from the pictures painted by those for whom the Chinese Nationalists could never be forgiven for their rupture with the Communists. I believe a lot more sifting of both Chinese and Western sources from the period is in order–especially now that we know that the CCP is perhaps the last, best hope for 20th century totalitarianism.

    Comment by cephash — March 29, 2015 @ 12:18 am | Reply

  2. […] The author is similarly confused about the “united front,” the ostensible object of Roosevelt’s curiosity. The intricate relations between Soviet Leninists and the CCP are either invisible or unspecified, while the concept of a united front comes and goes.  Referring to the career of Chou as he returns to China from Europe (Chou was “the great statesman of the Chinese Communists, admired by foreign diplomats and adored by the Chinese people”), Moreira writes, “In 1924 [there was] “the period of cooperation between the Communists and Kuomintang” (pp.129, 128, my emph.).  The only impetus to a “united front” appears as a strategy to avoid exacerbating the “feud” (pp.77,132); a strategy insisted upon only by Americans (i.e., Lauchlin Currie acting on behalf of the Roosevelt administration, warning Hemingway not to make trouble), not Leninist protocols as mediated by Soviet national interests, however much they were occasionally resisted by Mao’s ultra-leftism.[7] The point is that the pressure was on, and Hemingway could not have been unaware of Soviet designs. Yet Moreira condemns Hemingway’s silence in the PM articles regarding influential “peace groups” (Chiang-supporting wealthy collaborationists with the Japanese) he learned about in Chungking (132): “What Hemingway failed to appreciate was that Chiang got his money—both for his army and his family—from two sources: the Soviets, who would never have tolerated an overt anti-Communist offensive; and the Americans, who were insisting upon a united front against Japan.” Actually, the USSR did tolerate an anti-Communist offensive: they did not cut off aid at the time of the New Fourth Army Incident, and Moscow did not send military aid to the relatively weak CCP until 1945. [8] (For part four of this review of Peter Moreira’s book see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-4/.) […]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (3) « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 6, 2013 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  3. […] having quoted from his book regarding Hemingway’s feisty defense of the Communists in Spain (see https://clarespark.com/2011/06/30/ernest-hemingway-and-gellhorn-in-china-1941-4/) I was not amazed that briefly opened Soviet archives revealed that Hemingway was recruited by the […]

    Pingback by Ernest Hemingway, Carlos Baker, and the Spanish Civil War « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — August 20, 2012 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  4. I think inconsistent is a better characterization of Hemingway’s politics than “irratonal.” It strikes me that the both sides have had a great deal of difficulty in dealing with the the non-communist (non-stalinist) left of the 30’s and 40’s including Roosevelt.

    Comment by Leo — June 30, 2011 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Leo. I don’t mind the correction. I could have said the same about Herman Melville in his 19th century agitated and confusing political environment. But for me, inconsistent, wavering, and irrational go together.

      Comment by clarespark — June 30, 2011 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

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