The Clare Spark Blog

July 9, 2012

HBO Does Gellhorn in Red

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There is no finer example of the penetration of communist ideas into the American liberal mainstream than HBO’s recent “biopic” (or “drama”: take your pick) on the “wild and tempestuous” relationship between Ernest Hemingway and lover and third wife Martha Gellhorn, whose reputation as a pioneering war correspondent has been celebrated in multiple biographies and monographs.

There is no excuse for the carelessness, cover-ups, and distortions perpetrated by the writers, directors, and actors in this highly touted movie, one that treats some of the most sensitive and controverted events in the history of the twentieth century: I refer to the Spanish Civil War and the civil war in China that, with the complicity of some American journalists, resulted in the victory of Communism in 1949. The HBO movie presents the Stalinist and Maoist views of those events, departing from the historical record that the HBO writers should have consulted, but apparently did not, or did not think to be important; most fundamentally, the communist line pits “the People” versus “Fascism,” ignoring the actual political/diplomatic dynamics of the 1930s that led to the second world war. This blog spells out some of the more egregious errors of fact in the ostensibly historical drama.

First, it was revealed in Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB, by Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev, published by the prestigious Yale University Press in 2009 that Hemingway had been recruited by the KGB, with his control the famous Jacob Golos. (The date of October 1940 was related to me by Harvey Klehr in an email.) The book describes the surprising Hemingway recruitment on pages 152-155, but cautions that no evidence has surfaced that Hemingway delivered any intel to the Soviets. This was a bombshell to the authors, but I must say, less so to me, for Gustav Regler, purged Commissar of the 12th International Brigade, had already suggested Hemingway’s allegiance to Soviet Communists in his 1959 memoir, The Owl of Minerva:

[Regler:] 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!”

Moreover, in his play The Fifth Column (1940, but recently revived in NYC), “Dorothy Bridges” (the character obviously based on Martha Gellhorn) suggests that “Philip” (Hemingway) study “dialectics.” Gellhorn may have been, like so many of her contemporaries, a Popular Front/New Deal idealist, but until I read that line in the play, I had no idea that she might be  so well versed in Marxist-Leninist rhetoric. I now wonder if she too was something more than a fellow-traveler.

Return to the HBO film, that seems more interested in hot sex (also controversial in biographies of Gellhorn), than in the historical record. For instance, one of the more momentous events in Hemingway’s life in Spain was the ending of his friendship with the world-famous writer John Dos Passos. Dr. Jose Robles, professor of Spanish literature at Johns Hopkins University had returned to Spain to participate in the Revolution. He was famously and mysteriously executed under circumstances that remain cloudy. But Robles became desaparacedo in the HBO script, replaced by a fictional character they called Paco Zarra, a dashing fighter on horseback, carried off by the Soviet propagandist Koltsov, although Robles was killed before Hemingway arrived in Spain. (See Stephen Koch’s 2005 book, The Breaking Point,for a reconstruction of shocking events that places the Hemingway-Dos Passos friendship in proper perspective, along with endnotes that cite the latest bibliography on the subject, including material on Communist filmmaker Joris Ivens, also a character in the HBO movie, and never identified as under Comintern control.)

Moreover, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion is presented, not as communists, but as folk singers who ride along with Martha Gellhorn in a train as she enters Spain. One even carries an allusion to the Woody Guthrie placard on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.” (Machine becomes “guitar” in the movie.) As Carl Rollyson notes in his biography of Gellhorn, she rode to Spain along with Spaniards, not with members of the (American) Lincoln Battalion. Gellhorn, who wants to be remembered as a “war correspondent” (not as a “footnote” to Hemingway,  is thus merged with fighters, and partakes of their heroism. Indeed, Hemingway is shown running into battle with his rifle, followed in the rear by his lover MG. (I have never seen evidence that Hemingway actually fought in the Spanish Civil War, though his propaganda on the Communists’ behalf is legendary.)

You won’t see any reference to the Soviet destruction of POUM or the Spanish anarchists either. That subject is taken up in detail by Burnett Bolloten in his long volume on the Spanish Civil War, but I have never seen that aspect of the conflict taken up in American television or film. (Phillip Deery has just told me of Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom that does deal with the Anarchists and POUM. The lengthy account of the Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas is less sympathetic to the anarchists and generally more detailed than anything else I have read on the lead up to the war, the conflict itself, and then the aftermath.). However, Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) does transmit a story, related by Pilar in chapter 10, of a hateful anarchist-ridden mob destroying the Church and bourgeoisie of [Ronda], and would have pleased his conservative Catholic wife Pauline, not to speak of the Soviets. This is not surprising. (I just reread the chapter, and it is harrowing. The Republican, relatively pacifistic, guerilla comrades of Robert Jordan are contrasted invidiously with the drunken and barbaric anarchists. Hemingway’s guerrillas are entirely fictional and represent his general primitivism, a common post WW1 trope.)

But perhaps the most shocking transformation in the HBO (sex film) occurs in the short section on the trip to China, where Gellhorn is to write about the civil war for Collier’s. Peter Moreira’s book Hemingway’s Spy Mission to China (2007) had a thorough, if flawed, account of that trip, and there is no doubt that Gellhorn praised Madame Chiang in her Collier’s piece, but she never visited the Roosevelts later to report that “the Communists are going to win” as the HBO film claims. Rather, writing in 1941, she repressed her dislike of the rulers of China, and Moreira took her to task for the lie (p.144). What Gellhorn did was to conform to the Soviet-FDR line, that was supporting Chiang Kai-Shek at that time. (See Whether or not they consciously did it, the HBO film is friendly to Maoism and Third World-ism in general, joining such journalist celebrities as Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow, and Theodore White in their puffing of the Mao-Chou contingent.

In its publicity, the HBO film proclaims that Martha Gellhorn was “the greatest war correspondent” ever, a question that elides the question, what is the purpose of the war correspondent? Do they tell us the deep causes of war (a task that requires advanced historical training in diplomatic and military history, along with access to archives, some of which remain secret)? Or are they, as Hemingway bitterly accused Gellhorn, of being addicted to excitement and danger, and I would add, while displaying their bleeding hearts to a public also hooked on the sights and sounds of mass death?

Hemingway and Gellhorn in NYC


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]

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).

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