"After all a man's life is all he's got."
In 1938 Ernest Hemingway, still upset with his friend John Dos
Passos about the disagreement they had the previous year in Spain,
sent him a harsh letter. "Always happy with the good old friends,"
he wrote. "Got them that will knife you in the back for a
dime. Regular price two for a quarter. Two for a quarter,
hell. Honest Jack Passos'll knife you three times in the back
for fifteen cents and sing Giovanezza free."
Dos Passos, galvanized by the outbreak of civil war in Spain, joined
with other writers in a group they called "Contemporary Historians."
His primary object was to produce a documentary film about the plight
of the Spanish people that was to be called The Spanish Earth.
He arrived-in the embattled country early in 1937 to meet with the
Dutch director, Joris Ivens, and to work on the script with Hemingway,
who would also narrate the film. He went first to Valencia,
then the provisional capital of the Spanish Republic, to confer
with various government officials about his purpose in the country.
While there, he also decided to look up an old acquaintance, Jose
Robles Pazos, whom he had met more than twenty years ago when they
were students together in Spain.
A professor of Spanish literature at Johns Hopkins University,
Robles also served as a translator for the American writer.
In 1936, following the end of the spring semester, Robles took his
wife and children to Spain for a vacation. Shortly after they
arrived, hostilities broke out, with General Francisco Franco leading
an insurrection against the elected government. Although Robles
could have returned to Baltimore with his family, he chose to remain
in his native land to serve the government in what-ever capacity
he could be most beneficial. Among the languages Robles was
fluent in was Russian. So, initially, he was assigned to the
Ministry of War as a cultural attache then he was transferred to
the Soviet embassy where he served as the English interpreter for
General Ian Antonovich Berzin, who was known as Goriev in Spain.
Robles rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel but still thought
of himself as a civilian and declined to wear a uniform.
When Dos Passos eventually tracked down his old friend's apartment
in an impoverished section of the port city, he was astonished to
discover that Robles had been arrested some weeks earlier.
His distraught wife, Margare, did not have any idea why he was taken
away or where he was being held despite all the queries she had
made to the police. She asked Dos Passos for his assistance
in finding out what had happened to her husband, figuring he might
have some influence because he was one of the more prominent supporters
of the Spanish Republic in the United States. He readily agreed,
also puzzled why someone so supportive of the government should
be arrested by its agents.
The following day he had lunch with the Minister for Foreign Affairs,
Alvarez del Vayo, and raised the issue with him at the end of the
meal. Del Vayo claimed not to know anything about the arrest
but promised to find out what he could. Dos Passos next questioned
Pepe Quintanilla, head of the Department of Justice, who was aware
of Robles' detention, but assured the American his friend was not
in any peril because the charges against him were insignificant.
Dos Passos remained concerned, however, particularly after he learned
that Robles' son, known as "Coco," had been secretly informed that
his father was executed. The informer, Liston Oak, an American
who worked with the son in the Republican Press Bureau, also advised
the young man that it would be prudent not to pursue the matter
any further. Dos Passos did not agree and continued to question
other officials in Valencia who gave the impression that if the
rumor was true, as he later wrote, Robles "had been kidnapped
and shot by anarchist 'uncontrollables.'"
Not satisfied with the evasive answers he received in Valencia,
he traveled to Madrid the next week to seek the assistance of government
officials he knew there. He also went to Madrid to work on
the documentary film with Hemingway and Ivens but his interest in
the project had waned considerably as he endeavored to verify the
report of his friend's death. Hemingway became agitated
with his "conspicuous inquiries" and urged him to stop because he
was going to put everyone in the film in jeopardy. Pepe Quintanella
"was a swell guy," according to Hemingway, and if he assured Dos
Passos that Robles would receive a fair trial, he should believe
him and stop asking about the man. Dos Passos, stunned that
Hemingway regarded the film as more important than someone's life,
disregarded his advice and pressed on with his investigation.
Among the people Hemingway approached to urge Dos Passos to give
up his inquiry was the American writer Josephine Herbst. To
his surprise, she informed him that a confidential source in Valencia
had told her that Robles had been executed for treason. She
said that the officials Dos Passos questioned did not tell him because
they were afraid he would angrily denounce the action and perhaps,
as a result, tarnish the reputation of the government. As
a matter of simple decency, she believed Dos Passos deserved to
be told the truth but was unable to tell him herself because she
was obliged to honor the confidence of her informer. She suggested
that Hemingway let him know, and he "agreed with too cheerful a
readiness" she thought.
Hemingway and Dos Passos were among the many foreign correspondents
invited to a fiesta celebrating the establishment of a new international
brigade that included Soviet troops, and it was at this event that
Hemingway disclosed to Dos Passos that the death of Robles had been
confirmed. Dos Passos was not shocked by the disclosure.
He had heard the rumor from Robles' son, and it was probably already
confirmed to him by another acquaintance, Carlos Posada, who was
chief of counter-espionage in Madrid. He was, however, quite
disturbed by the insensitive manner in which Hemingway conveyed
the information. His view was that if Quintanella believed
Robles was guilty of treason, it must be so, and the "worthless"
traitor deserved to be executed. For Hemingway, the matter
was settled, and he believed the sooner Dos Passos accepted the
verdict the better it would be for everyone.
Dos Passos did not agree. Not for an instant did he accept
the government position, heartily endorsed by Hemingway and other
"romantic American Communist sympathizers," that Robles was shot
as a traitor by one of the Republic's "special sections."
This notion seemed untenable to him, as it did to Robles' family,
who believed the Hopkins professor was killed by anarchists.
Dos Passos was confident that his friend would not have worked for
the rebels because he was a democrat and an enthusiastic supporter
of the Republic. But he did recognize that Robles was probably
under some suspicion because he "was a member of a family of monarchical
and generally reactionary sympathies in politics." Moreover,
his estranged brother was a career military officer who fought on
the side of Franco. And further adding to the suspicion was
the fact that after his brother was captured by Loyalists, Robles
visited him numerous times in his cell in Madrid.
Despite all his efforts, Dos Passos was never able to determine
the real reason why his friend was arrested and then executed.
His own theory was that Robles was set up by the Communists because
he was not considered "politically reliable." Not only were
they suspicious of his loyalty because of his family background,
but they were worried that he was not sympathetic to all their objectives
in the war. Their justification, according to people Dos Passos
spoke with, was that "he had been overheard indiscreetly discussing
military plans in a cafe" and was "shot as an example to other officials."
Prior to sailing to Spain, Dos Passos had been warned of such brutality
by Carlo Tresca, an editor of a weekly publication in New York,
who told him, "If the Communists don't like a man in Spain, right
away they shoot him."
He remained in Spain for most of April, working on the film, but
he did not stop inquiring about the execution. He even returned
to Valencia to ask the American ambassador to help him obtain from
the Foreign Minister an official death certificate sod that Robles'
widow could collect on the life insurance policy held as a result
of his position at Johns Hopkins, from which he was still officially
on leave. The minister promised to comply with his request,
but the certificate was never issued, and Robles' widow was never
able to collect any proceeds from the policy.
Dos Passos left Spain an embittered man. Seemingly trapped
in a territory of ignorance, he was thwarted at every turn when
he brought up the subject of Jose Robles. Incensed by the
execution of his friend and by the callous indifference of Hemingway
and others toward it, he was also terribly disillusioned by the
brutal and repressive behavior of the Communists in Spain.
On his way home he stopped for a few days in Paris then early in
May he and his wife went to the train depot to cross the channel
to England. To their surprise, Hemingway showed up at the
depot, apparently to wish them a safe journey, but actually he wanted
to know what Dos Passos was going to say about the turmoil in Spain
when he got back to the States. He answered that he intended
to tell the truth about what he saw of the war. Hemingway,
concerned that the death of Robles would cause him to be critical
of the Republican forces, became perturbed and demanded to know
if he supported the Loyalists or opposed them. Dos Passos
replied with a shrug, and for a moment Hemingway raised his fist
as if he were going to strike him, then he relaxed his arm and warned
his friend that if he was too critical of the Loyalists, "the New
York reviewers will kill you. They will demolish you forever."
Back in the United States Dos Passos professed that he remained
sympathetic to the Loyalist cause in Spain, but he also made it
clear that he was very suspicious of the role of the Communist Party
in the conflict. While "the declared aims of the Bolsheviks
were ... admirable," he wrote, his concern was "whether the dictatorship
method didn't make these aims impossible to obtain." Indeed,
for some time he had beend worried about the oppressive methods
of the Communists, and what he witnessed in Spain confirmed his
fear and distrust of these methods. The critics, as Hemingway
predicted, did vehemently attack him for daring to oppose the conduct
of the Communists in the war. Such opposition, they believed,
was tantamount to impugning everything that the Republican government
represented. Malcolm Cowley, in his caustic review of the
novel Adventures of a Young Man, pointed out that the cause of Dos
Passos' disillusionment with the Communists in Spain was the arrest
and execution of Jose Robles. He believed his disillusionment
was unjustified, however, agreeing with Hemingway that "There are
always traitors in a civil war ... Some of them are likable
people in ordinary life, but a revolutionary government has to protect
itself against them if it is going to survive."
His critics regarded him as politically naive, unable to appreciate
that in the struggle for survival certain drastic measures sometimes
must be taken. When he asked Hemingway at the Paris depot
what was the point of fighting a war if you lost your liberties,
Hemingway dismissed such concerns as unimportant. Yet, for
Dos Passos, the life of a single person was always of paramount
importance; it was the foundation upon which any popular government
must be based. His critics were the naive ones, he believed,
willing to excuse any reports of the brutal repressions conducted
by the Communists in order to protect the integrity of the Spanish
regime. "Understanding the personal histories of a few of
the men, women and children really involved," he replied to Cowley,
"would I think free our minds somewhat from the black is black and
white is white obsessions of partisanship."
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