The Clare Spark Blog

June 30, 2011

Links to review essay on Hemingway spy mission to China

 [Added 6-9-12: Hemingway was recruited by the KGB in October 1940, months before he and Gellhorn went on their “spy mission” to China in early 1941, though Harvey Klehr, co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (2009) does not believe he gave them anything. It is thus crucial to read my essay in all its segments.] HBO screened a movie based on the Gellhorn-Hemingway marriage, May 28, 2012. The film stars Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, and has been shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Part 4 has the money quote from Gustav Regler, demonstrating EH’s defense of Communist tactics in Spain, and also suggesting mental instability.  The movie, directed by Philip Kaufman, is remarkably pornographic and grossly distorts history along Stalinist/Popular Front lines, meantime making Gellhorn a Great Woman and pioneer war correspondent, while Hemingway is a slobbering idiot for much of the script. In my view, it parrots a common hot pink line on the lead up to World War 2, alleging that 1930s Communists were THE true and only antifascists.

My review of Peter Moreira’s book took eight months of focused research, went through many drafts, and was vetted by scholars. (Because of Nicole Kidman’s star power and sex appeal, over 3300 views of this segment alone) (This segment has the Gustav Regler quote that demonstrates EH’s support of the Communists in the Spanish Civil War)

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]

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).

Ernest Hemingway and Gellhorn in China, 1941 (1)

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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.

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