There are countless debates out there surrounding Ernest Hemingway, including whether or not he’s the greatest American novelist of all-time, as well as about the themes of misogyny in his writing (and his life). But, there’s another, less literature-based question lingering about the author – was Ernest Hemingway a spy? Specifically, was there a direct connection between Hemingway and the KGB? The notion might seen ridiculous, but enough evidence has come to light in recent years that it’s now a historical certainty – Hemingway: a Soviet spy. One J. Edgar Hoover and his CIA were on to, at that.
Hemingway, who was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 21, 1899, lived in the United States for much of his 61 year, but it was his international cavorting that got him involved in the whole clandestine-operative thing. Hemingway is most famous for his great works like A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea, and for his winning of a Nobel Prize. Unfortunately, Hemingway was never really able to say farewell to his time as a spy, something that led directly to the final bell tolling on this particular tale of an old man and the KGB.
Although Ernest Hemingway passed away in 1961, the story about his time spying for the Soviets didn’t come out until 2009. That year, a book was released that shared the personal notes of a former KGB officer, Alexander Vassiliev, and it was full of insider information on the Russian spy agency. In his time with the KGB, Vassiliev was granted access to archives from as far back as the Stalinist period, providing an unprecedented look at the inner workings of the KGB and their predecessor, the NKVD. Among those archives, Vassiliev found details of Hemingway’s “dilettante spy” career.
Ernest Hemingway was a serious enough asset for the Soviets that they gave him his own codename: Argo. The name, borrowed from the boat that ferried the mythical Jason and his Argonauts on their fleece-seeking quest, was a fitting moniker for a man so associated with the sea. In addition to providing cover for his clandestine operations, the codename Argo was likely meant to flatter Hemingway and make him feel like a real secret agent. Given his enthusiasm to work for the Soviets, the tactic worked.
Hemingway didn't find himself working with the Soviets due to blackmail or financial leverage. He was described in Vassiliev’s notes as having “repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help us.” He was approached by the NKVD, a KGB predecessor, in 1941, and they didn't have to do much convincing in order to get Hemingway to work for them. He received no money for his services, and the Soviets described the process as “ideological recruitment.” In other words, Hemingway believed in what he was doing.
Ernest Hemingway spent the early part of his life largely ignoring politics, but that all changed with the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936-1939. Hemingway had a firsthand look at the conflict as a journalist, and he did not like what he saw from Francisco Franco and fascism in general. Hemingway became virulently anti-fascist, and he appreciated the aid that the Soviets had leant to anti-fascist forces in Spain. It was this mutual hatred of fascism that allowed the NKVD to “ideologically recruit” Hemingway into spying for them.