And then war opened in Spain…

I went there, Hemingway went there, Gellhorn went there. All we Commies flocked there to be part of it. Gramsci was daring to call out Stalin and say that his Socialist genocide in Russia was not the method Communists should use for conquest in the future because the genocide wasn’t working. Communism was failing, Gramsci said, because of Christianity. Communists needed to take over the Means of Education in countries to supplant the Christian values with Communist values and, as I said, grow our crops in their fields. Gramsci showed the way to make elementary schools and entertainment our beachheads as we hid ourselves here to pivot to total psychological war. This peaceful approach gave me hope, because we were saying more that we could win by schooling rather than our usual promotion of hatred and murder for anyone who stood up to us.

Click here for part 1 of this story.

Stalin talked about murdering Gramsci. But Gramsci was only talking these ideas at the time and his thinking mirrored the concerns of many who were afraid to speak out. And all of us in Spain waited on pins and needles. Remember, Stalin had called to Moscow the Swedish experts on race differences and Stalin listened intently to their findings. He asked them to stay in Moscow three days while he weighed their research. On the fourth day, Stalin announced his decision that Soviet-style Global Socialism would reject the race theories and that Global Socialists were superior to other people not by virtue of our race, but by virtue of our Marxist views. Acceptance of Marxism should determine who wins or loses, lives or dies, not race differences. All of us breathed a huge sigh of relief, because now we still had this clear distinction between us and Hitler’s Nazi Socialists. And Stalin, with his usual flourish, finalized his decision on race by executing all the Swedish experts whom he had invited to Moscow.

My orders from Moscow were for me to travel and write raising American money for the war effort. I called on American Communists to join the “Lincoln Brigades” to go and fight in Spain. The name was another Soviet masterstroke.

The war in Spain set brother against brother, neighbor versus neighbor. Russian and German military advisors rushed in. Stalin’s atrocities from the Ukraine surfaced in Spanish towns and cities with the wholesale slaughter of prisoners even after they surrendered. So much for old fashioned chivalry and love of countrymen. As if they weren’t defenseless countrymen and children of God at all, but dried weeds to be scythed and burned from a field. But that’s what “class warfare” looks like. Wasn’t “Capitalism” the goiter Marx told us must be burned from the human corpus?

Our genocide was soon answered in kind by Franco. Franco was smart and desperate to stop us, and the war didn’t go well for our side. In Madrid and Barcelona, I saw the Soviet NKVD rooting out the “wreckers” and “traitors” and “spoilers” who were causing our side to lose the war. In my travels across the country, I saw the Soviets leap into terror and murder, so that our troops were pinched between two forces where the most ugly might very well be the ones at their back. It was “Total War,” or “Total Terror,” that the Soviet mind thought would cow civilian resistance. The terror gave rise to what their side called a “fifth column,” the freedom-seeking people who saw what happened behind Communist lines, who kept their feelings in deep check to keep from being swept up in the Socialist cyclone of salt and burn. Soon enough, what emerged was that the war machines built by fifteen years of Soviet purges and Five-Year Plans were inferior to the German. And in anger, the Soviets kept rounding up the little people.

A sack of disgust came up in my innards, while I saw my old friend Hemingway falling more into admiration for the Soviet no-nonsense. Maybe he could detect a difference in the two Fascisms. I think he was smitten by raw Russian pugilism on the battlefield and behind it.

“The Soviets are the only ones who can beat Hitler!” he roared at an English journalist innocently repeating arguments from back home on staying out of the war. “It’s the Fascists, goddamnit! We have to beat Fascism!”

“Fascism, fascism, fascism,” I said. “It’s all I ever hear.”

I left Spain to raise more money. When I returned to Valencia, Jose had vanished.

I knew the Soviets had picked him up a couple times to talk to him. His face was pretty beat up after the last. But why did they suspect Jose of anything? Back in Madrid, I made demands after Jose at The Chicote, the bar-central for The Movement:

“Where’s Jose? Who last saw him?”

You know something’s wrong when, each time, you get a different answer. The sinking light in the eyes. The withdrawal of the pupils. Finally, I got this:

“You should quit asking, Dos.”

I got this point-blank from a world-famous lady journalist.

“What do you mean I should quit?” I was amazed; Robles was a close friend to us all and a loyal Communist.

“You should just quit snooping around about Jose,” she repeated. Her pupils didn’t even budge. As if Robles’s life had been only a shadow.

“It’s not important to you when one of our friends just disappears?” I challenged her.

“The Cause is more important, John.”

“He’s part of The Cause!”

Her lips tensed into the frown that accompanies a shrug. “Jose came under suspicion, Dos. They brought him in a couple times for questioning.”

“Suspicion of what? Jose’s as solid as any of us!”

Again, that arrogant insinuation with the mouth. Again, as if a life is a shadow.

“Look. This is shit. Where’s Jose? Everybody in this goddamn bar, everybody in Madrid, will vouch for Jose! He’s solid… Is he here? Is he in Valencia? Who has any proof that he did anything, and when can I talk to him?”

She looked around uneasily. “Don’t make a scene!” She bumped her arm into mine like this was a performance. The bar was packed as usual and rife with cigarette and pipe smoke.

“I don’t give a damn who’s watching!” I glared around at the crowd. From the light in the eyes I knew I was not alone in my fear about what happened to Jose. Those of us who had been around knew what could happen. “Is he here? Is he in Valencia?” Everyone with whom I made eye contact did not look down because they seemed to be watching something other than real life. “Do the Russians have him in the basement?” The basement was the headquarters of the NKVD. I looked past my lady friend because she was obviously choosing to lie for them. “What if it was one of us? Do we want to be so easily forgotten?”

The only thing that moved was the cigarette smoke.

I left the Chicote and strode up the street to the Hotel Florida where we smiled all year about how the Russians ran their political terror operations from the basement. It had all been very hush-hush and “politically” exciting knowing that Russian friends we drank with, and that gave Hem caviar and vodka, were going the distance for the advancement of civilization. I was too angry to be afraid. They had pinched a good man, twice, maybe three times. It wasn’t Robles’s fault the war was going badly. Who were these Stalinist fucks to steal the authority from thin air to snatch a man off the street or out of a bar and play these games?

“Is Orlov here?” I asked the NKVD soldier who cracked the rear door. Alexander Orlov was the Madrid Station Chief who was chummy with Hem.

“No,” he lied in heavy accent. “He is not in.”

“Tell him John Dos Passos wants to talk to him again.”

He fumbled a shrug and shake that emphatically promised nothing.

“Is Jose Robles in there?” I pointed within. He gave me a bullshit half-shrug and upward eye tilt as he faked going through the Rolodex of recent people brought into the torture rooms. “You’ve questioned him, though, right?”

“No. No. No one by that name coming in.”

“I know you questioned him twice already. Right? You’ve questioned him?” I spoke accusingly to make the leap over the wall of his bad English and bullshit. He kept faking me off, and so I left angrily. I wanted to think, so I headed back to my pension and sat on the bed, my khaki uniform shirt soaked with sweat. The army-style shirt served rugged double duty in the field, and under a tweed suit jacket for speeches in front of gawking audiences. My face and chest howled in damp heat as I thought of these bastards stonewalling me like I’d never done anything for them and their cause.

A polite knock arrived on the foot-thick oak of my door. “It’s open.”

Martha Gellhorn stepped in meek and mild with Arturo the owner of the Toledo bar. They were stuffed with empathy for my feelings for our missing friend.

“We all know how you feel, Dos,” Martha whined, hand wringing. She even sidled up her sex appeal by slipping onto the flouncy mattress next to me. She set both her hands on my hairy right wrist. I watched our wrists and forearms together under the soft reach of my bedside lamp, our shoes on the rag rug on the floor. “Sometimes people lose their way. They break ranks and turn on the side of right.”

“You and I both know how these people do things, Martha.” We knew, unlike Hem, because we’d been around. I knew Jose was no traitor because I had expressed my own doubts point blank and his eyes remained sympathetic yet rock steady. “They rounded him up a few times, and we all know the Russians are over-cautious, over-zealous. They—talk to a lot of people.” I chose “talk” instead of a more impolitic verb. “This is all breathlessly fun and exciting, the world of spies. But now its time to join ranks and reign this nonsense in.”

Gellhorn hated this idea. “We can’t do that, John! This is war! We’re fighting for something important!” Martha’s blue eyes urged me to see. Arturo was right there with her, but rather more understanding with me.

“Why does our fight mean we give up our friend, Martha?”

“We can’t question—”

“If we can’t question, is it worth serving?”

Martha slapped her hands angrily onto her meaty white knees. She was unwilling to even consider my point. She puffed out any more arguments she was going to waste on me, stood up, patted me patronizingly on my shoulder and strode to the door. She was pissed the old honey pot sex ruse hadn’t softened me. But I knew that’s why we so badly wanted Hollywood. “We’ll leave you to recompose yourself, John. Make sure you see the larger picture and quit making everybody upset.” Arturo crept behind her and lightly brought to the brass latch in the door.

I got up and swung toward the tall window, and suddenly thought of Hem. He hated the Fascists and wasn’t a Communist and this stuff with Jose’s disappearance had to drive him crazy too, and together we had star power that the Madrid and Valencia NKVD and no one else on the Left could stand up to. I rushed up the Paseo Del Prado to the Palace Hotel where Hem held court in his double room suite paid for by his North American Newspaper Alliance expense account. The usual round-the-clock gang filled the suite with talk and cigarette smoke. The “gang” consisted of international journalists, visiting celebrities, and officers from the Brigades. On the antique console table stood the bottled goods and the huge canned ham with the top pried up with ragged edges so that anyone passing could use a field knife to cut a big slice and stick it between bread.

“Hem’s in Barcelona,” Walter Duranty told me. He had just arrived and looked a little out of it as he held a bottle of Hem’s Jim Beam for himself. “Martha just left to drive all night to catch him there.”

I was annoyed. I wondered if Duranty would make his New York Times 1932 Pulitzer-winner influence of any help. I quickly caught him up on the story. At first he looked stricken and concerned, but then when I put Jose last in the Russian’s hands, his feelings congealed. He wanted no part of this… Duranty, hero of the little man.

“Jose could be down in that basement right now, Walt,” I said.

“This shit happens.” The bottom of the bottle flashed coldly.

I returned to my room. During the night I started to fear if our old friend was even still alive. In the morning I was making a plate of bread and cheese when one of the old waiters we all knew from the Chicote leaned in at the door and jerked his head for me to come along outside.

“It’s already over,” he said regretfully. He removed his smudged wire spectacles and wiped them with the end of his necktie, one side of the lens at a time. “I hear he disappeared for good over a week ago.”

The news was so abrupt, and he was so casual, I wanted to choke him. “On whose orders?”

The slouched shoulders lifted high, begging off. “They took him in four times. They had—” He didn’t want to say what they did. “They say they began to fear he knew too much of their tactics. Maybe he was too upset to remain a good comrade.” He shrugged meekly and looked off through his half-smudged lenses up the street. Not with paranoia, but in the way of an elderly boulevardier. “So, they—”

“When? When did this happen?”

He shook his sad face. “I haven’t seen him since ten days ago. I heard things right around that time.” He appraised me all over my face with deep sympathy. “I’m sorry, Comrade. He was a good comrade. With so many friends it shouldn’t happen.”

“But why Jose? Did someone denounce him?”

“No one denounced him. Because they cover it up, it must have been for nothing, yes? Which is worse.” He lifted his fingertips as if wanting to brush my sleeve, but he left the gesture upright like a flag of sad futility over the whole affair. “I’m sorry, Comrade.” He shrugged goodbye and made his way back toward the Chicote and I knew he would stay below the Gran Via to avoid the sniper fire. The Chicote would be crowded with soldiers and journalists at this hour. And they maybe would question where he had gone off to. He didn’t want to get himself denounced.

I got no reply when I cabled Communist friends in New York and Paris exposing how I was being obstructed and lied to. I wanted to claim his body for his family. Orlov was avoiding me and so I knocked on the NKVD door to make a nuisance. Orlov finally talked with me in the door, not letting me in. He claimed his men never saw Jose after they questioned him the one time a month ago. He said no one denounced him and Jose did nothing wrong that he knew of. The usually friendly NKVD officer didn’t smile at me flatteringly now the way he did with us literary lights. His grey eyes were petulant, impatient, resenting having to hold my hand over this stupid political rumor.

Two days later, Hem was back and took me aside at a public conference the Russians were throwing. His wide, handsome face held indulgent irritation for my meddling. He averted his eyes a lot as we walked for privacy to the Plaza Mayor which was filled with tents for the Brigades. Hemingway closed his eyes and squinted with acute regret, though I sensed it was not so much for our friend.

“Are you a coward, Dos?” he said, palm open. We had stopped away from the smoky cook fires. Around us, we could make out the rubble and holes punched in ancient buildings from artillery. “You know these guys! They have to protect us!”

“How does what they did to Jose protect us?”

He squinted again, not wanting to hear it. “Come on. We’ve been in two wars, you and I. You know what we’ve seen. This is the way strong leadership is. We have to be tough!”

“Hem. They don’t give a shit about civil liberties!”

“They’re the only ones helping win this war! They’re the only ones who can beat Hitler!”

“And is this what we’re left with after Hitler?”

Pebbles crunched as Hem spun on his foot like a man shot, trying not to hear me come out against the Party. “Dos. Come on. We can’t say stuff like that.”

“We’re all better than this. Our loyalty deserves more than this. We both know what’s been going on, and we didn’t say anything. We kept our mouths shut for the important work part, and we kept hoping things would get better. But they’re getting worse. These people fool you with chants about helping the poor. But I’ve been to Russia. They aren’t helping the poor. And if they go this long showing no basic affection for giving the benefit of the doubt, for plain decency—then what is this all for?”

Ernest listened, and heard. “It’s war, Dos. And if you turn your back on this — every critic in New York will lay waste to you. You’ll lose all your friends! How are you going to make a living as a writer?”

“I don’t think war ever stops for some people,” I said. And, yes. Maybe we were headed into another Dark Age when artists could only portray what The Religion let them.

“What if we were in Germany having this discussion, Hem? Would you be telling me to shut up and just keep helping?”

“It’s not the same thing, Dos. Please. Please see it.”

“Frankly, I don’t. And I’m disappointed you don’t.”

We stood in the sandy lane of the park soaking in the brutal effort of each of us trying to make the other see. I fixed on trying to catch his gaze, desperate to win his talent and name so that we could denounce this garbage for what they were. All the years hiking trails, Key West, showing each other the world, flooded back. I could see his heart was pinned by the camaraderie in the violence that men and women can sometimes find a rationalization for and become addicted. And, he knew the easy glory and fame they had ingeniously stockpiled to bribe whomsoever stood silently by their sexy new take on Man’s Inhumanity to Man.

A horn raked my insides thinking that Hem might stick.

I tried a last time. “I’ve been piecing it together for awhile: They introduce the Good by claiming to be against the death penalty and poverty; but you find in time they are simply for using the death penalty on only one crime—challenging them for political power; and they support poverty so long as it’s for anybody and everybody but themselves. This is too much, Hem. It is so big and damnable that it defies seeing when so many ordinary people don’t know it’s behind them.”

Hem gave me a clever, cold look for a very long awhile, then said:

“Don’t be such a crybaby, Dos.”

When I walked out of the park he called after me:

“They’ll hate you, Dos. You’ll never publish another word.” The last thing he said was, “I can already read the reviews on your book! … You want to hear?”

I packed up my room, my typewriter, my socks, a sandwich, and left Madrid. I hitched rides to our lines where I knew of another writer-thinker I wanted to compare notes with, named George Orwell. Orwell, loyal to the Socialist ideal for a long time, was now having a tough time himself as his own group was being accused of being traitors by the NKVD. The charge was based solely on a power squabble. Yet Orwell and his wife were now hiding out. Reluctantly, I parted ways with him, and the two of us joined in a fight to expose a threat that always lurks when people refuse to question. Thankfully, Spain won its war over the Left, probably preventing the bloodbath for a million Spaniards, yet somehow putting the war forever in the column of misdeeds until what prevails is a more objective take on Twentieth Century history. I will know that day has come when I see genocide by the Left count for something, when Fascism is Fascism, when Stalin and Mao are history’s worst villains, with Adolf Hitler third or fourth behind Genghis Khan, or maybe even fifth, behind the Tai Ping Rebellion. Orwell went on to write classics on the monolith. Regrettably for us all, his talent blinked out just after 1984 was published.

Hemingway feared for his reputation when in the 1950s America briefly woke up to the takeover, and the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover uncovered the extensive effort to rewrite American education and entertainment, and American scientists thinking it was a good thing to give Stalin the bomb. Hem lost his beloved farm in Cuba to Castro in 1959 and didn’t trust them enough to stick around even after all he’d done for them.

Publishing changed more each year as I heard the voice of modern society fall in synch with too-familiar slogans. The new moral message could be read like the map of a losing war by anyone who knew what to look for. The movies went from framing universal truths to framing tired political truths. Traditional America was now “courageously” depicted as the demon. The new “hero” always exposed Old America to The New York Times, and together they breathlessly exposed the “hate and hypocrisy” to the hippies who were unwittingly helping the gigantic reptile egg of a new, political One Percent birth from America’s own ass.

To me, it was humanity lifting the revolver to its own brain. But, in this case, the patient never dies. They wake up and see what they’ve let their unquestioning do. Each day I lived after Spain, I moved more to the Republican Party and the side that knew how to evaluate freedom until one day when the patient woke up again.

 

THE END

 

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Photo by mcalamelli