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One Man Out

T. R. Healy

Hemingway and Dos Passos face off in Spain.

"After all a man's life is all he's got."
                                      John Dos Passos

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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