Max Holland’s Leak: reconsidering Watergate’s Deep Throat

Deep Throat never really said “follow the money.” †

Nor did he consciously intend to bring down the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

And Nixon and his closest aides knew in mid-October 1972 the name of the FBI insider—W. Mark Felt—who was leaking details of the agency’s ongoing Watergate investigation, but hesitated to move against him for fear that he would expose White House-ordered wiretapping of journalists. (Felt didn’t publicly acknowledge his role as Deep Throat until 2005.)

Those are just a few of the many intriguing historical insights found in journalist and author Max Holland’s superb new book Leak: Why Mark Felt became Deep Throat, a meticulously researched look at Felt’s instrumental, and misunderstood, role in the Watergate scandal.

Holland has crafted a page-turner—which in itself is quite a feat after the saturation media coverage of the Watergate story and the popularity of the book and film versions of All the President’s Men. At the center of Leak are two men: Bob Woodward, the Washington Post cub reporter whose career skyrocketed because of Watergate, and his secret source, Felt, a high-ranking FBI executive who was nicknamed Deep Throat (a moniker borrowed from the title of a notorious 1972 pornographic movie).

In 200 tightly-written pages Holland retraces Felt’s steps during the crucial initial Bureau investigation of the bungled black-bag job in the Democratic National Committee Watergate complex offices. Relying on interviews, transcripts of Nixon White House conversations, and memoirs from many of the participants, Holland carefully reconstructs Felt’s actions and possible motives—borrowing from, Holland says, a technique used in the world of counterintelligence to determine “in whose interests the suspected double agent was genuinely working all along.”

Motive and means

Holland shows convincingly that Felt acted solely in his own self-interest; he was not motivated by any principled need to defend the Republic against Oval Office lawbreaking or to preserve the FBI’s independence. Instead, the reader is introduced to an ambitious bureaucrat, a careerist consumed by office politics following the May 1972 death of J. Edgar Hoover. The infighting over who was to succeed Hoover became what Holland dubs the “War of the FBI Succession.”

When Nixon passed over veteran Bureau executives and named L. Patrick Gray, a Justice Department official without law enforcement experience, as interim FBI director, an embittered Felt resolved to derail the appointment. He had a powerful motive to leak. Thus Felt became Gray’s Iago, appearing to support the new FBI head while secretly undermining him.

The ongoing Watergate investigation gave Felt the opportunity—the means—to damage Gray’s credibility by leaking to Time magazine’s Sandy Smith and to Woodward the false notion that Gray was impeding the FBI’s inquiry into the break-in. Felt hoped to so tarnish Gray’s reputation that the Administration, anxious to avoid a Senate confirmation battle, would instead turn to an agency insider—Felt, the No. 2 man at the agency—as an alternative.

Felt proved quite good at the double game. He lied convincingly to Gray, who never doubted his loyalty, even when warned repeatedly about Felt by the White House. Felt personally launched several half-hearted internal investigations to try to uncover who was leaking to the press, careful to keep his own role hidden. He successfully manipulated both Smith and Woodward, feeding them the information that advanced his ends while disguising his contempt for the media.

Deep Throat as double agent

Holland’s portrait of Felt is telling: an icy personality, ambitious, vain, calculating, capable of flattery and of deception. (Some in the Bureau had nicknamed Felt the “white rat” for his shock of white hair and “tendency to squeal whenever he thought it might help his own agenda.”) After decades at headquarters in Washington, Felt had an insider’s knowledge of all things FBI and, Holland suggests, recruited confederates in the Bureau to assist him in leaking to the press.

For those familiar with the history of Cold War espionage, Felt’s sense of entitlement, his lack of empathy or remorse, and his smooth duplicity match the characteristic traits of a double agent. Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, noted in his (now-declassified) paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, is found in many moles; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” And it is not that hard to imagine Felt meeting his underlying psychic needs for control and a sense of superiority by passing secret information to the Soviets, instead of the Washington Post.

In the end, Felt failed in his scheme to succeed Gray. When it became clear that Gray didn’t have the votes in the Senate, Nixon instead chose William D. Ruckelshaus in May 1973 as the interim director, again bypassing Felt. (In his memoir Felt noted that he technically became head of the FBI, “if only for two hours and fifty minutes” —the period of time between Gray’s resignation and Ruckelshaus’ appointment.) Ruckelshaus wasted no time in forcing Felt into retirement after a confronting him over leaks and what Ruckelshaus saw as Felt’s attempts to undermine his authority.

After Felt’s role as Deep Throat was exposed, an FBI contemporary of his, John McDermott, called him “the Bureau’s Benedict Arnold…Arnold betrayed his oath, his country, and his fellow-citizen soldiers to pursue his own ambitions. Felt did no less to the Bureau and his fellow agents.” McDermott noted that Felt had no evidence that the FBI investigation of Watergate was “impeded or thwarted” by Nixon, the Justice Department, or Gray. “Some have called Felt a hero,” McDermott wrote in 2005, “but heroes don’t lurk in the shadows for 33 years.”

Questions of journalistic ethics

Bob Woodward is also not cast in the most flattering of lights in Leak. Felt found it relatively easy to steer Woodward and his reporting partner Carl Bernstein toward stories that would damage Gray. He fed Woodward “plain untruths—things Felt didn’t know because the FBI didn’t know them; exaggerations or misrepresentations of facts the Bureau had developed; and falsifications of what Felt knew to be the truth.” The Post published two such false stories: that Gray had essentially blackmailed Nixon into appointing him FBI acting director and that the White House was behind the “Canuck letter” that damaged Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign.

Perhaps Felt’s wildest claim (made right after his confrontation with Ruckelshaus) was informing Woodward that “everyone’s life was in danger” and the CIA had instituted wide-spread wiretaps. This fabrication prompted the dramatic scene in All the President’s Men where Woodward summoned Bernstein to his apartment and—now worried about electronic surveillance— typed out the disturbing claims from Deep Throat. It did make for great drama, even if (as Holland reminds us) one Washington Post editor wondered at the time whether it was “a kind of paranoid delusion of persecution.”

Holland also raises questions about the ethics of the relationship between Woodward and Felt. Woodward’s decision to include Deep Throat in All the President’s Men represented a violation of the deep background agreement the two men had made in 1972. As Holland notes: “The fascination, if not fixation, over Deep Throat obscured the unilateral abrogation of the agreement…”

This expedience paid off: All the President’s Men made Woodward a celebrity (being played by Robert Redford in the film version certainly didn’t hurt) and he and Bernstein benefited handsomely from book sales and film rights. The decades-long guessing game about Deep Throat’s identity also translated into financial rewards: Woodward pocketed a healthy advance for his 2005 book The Secret Man about his relationship with Felt, and the Felt family sold his story to Hollywood for an estimated $1 million.

Deep Throat’s legacy

Holland’s painstaking scholarship in Leak makes it impossible to see Mark Felt/Deep Throat as a principled whistleblower determined to expose the “dirty tricks” of Richard Nixon. Yet Holland’s correction of this Watergate myth comes decades after the mysterious figure of Deep Throat captured the American imagination.

For many, Deep Throat made leaking honorable, even glamorous. Deep Throat appeared to have been motivated by a higher morality, one that justified his violating whatever secrecy oaths he had sworn. The public perception was that without his furtive meetings with Woodward in that darkened underground parking garage Nixon’s cover-up of Watergate would have succeeded (a conclusion sharply challenged by Holland and other historians of the period).

This meme of Leaker as Hero had an impact in Washington in the post-Watergate years. Government officials, whether career bureaucrats or political appointees, got the message: if you don’t like a Presidential or departmental policy, or consider it legally suspect, you have the right to anonymously leak sensitive or secret information. Anonymous leaking is a less risky course of action, as well. Resigning in protest means losing your job. Pursuing a formal complaint through official legal channels can jeopardize a promising career. Leaking is the safer route.

Yet while it is true that too much government information is routinely classified as secret, there are secrets—especially those involving national security—that should be kept. The problem, of course, is who decides what exactly should remain secret. The Leaker as Hero suggests that individuals can unilaterally make those decisions based on their own ethical principles (while avoiding any unpleasant legal consequences).

This approach to secrecy has some obvious flaws. If Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame and Deep Throat are both heroic figures, what about Bradley Manning (accused of leaking confidential U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks)? What about the outing of Valerie Plame, wife of Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, as a CIA agent by Richard Armitage/Scooter Libby? In all cases, the leaker can plead conscience as a defense.

Power has a way of changing attitudes. The liberal-left apparently no longer automatically accepts the Leaker as Hero construct. How else to explain the Obama Administration’s aggressive legal pursuit of leakers? As Adam Liptak of The New York Times has noted the Eric Holder Justice Department has “brought more prosecutions against current or former government officials for providing classified information to the media than every previous administration combined.” (Critics have noted that many of these leak prosecutions have not been confined to national security matters). No doubt Richard Nixon would have appreciated the irony, if not the double standard.


† According to Holland, Felt never gave that famous advice “at least according to Woodward’s contemporaneous notes, and now it appears likely that this useful thought was actually dispensed by Henry E. Peterson, or possibly Edward Bennett Williams.”

Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech and the Stalinist past

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, addressed a closed session of the 20th Communist Party Congress and denounced the cult of personality of his predecessor, Josef Stalin. Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” was a four-hour long condemnation of Stalin’s myriad abuses of power, a shocking and detailed indictment of the dictator’s crimes delivered just three years after his death.

The Secret Speech

British author Tom Rob Smith’s new historical thriller The Secret Speech (Grand Central Publishing) traces the ripple effects of Khrushchev’s denunciation of the “pockmarked Caligula” (to use Boris Pasternak’s chilling description), and explores how those revelations profoundly altered the lives of both persecutors and persecuted in the totalitarian state Stalin had fashioned.

While Khrushchev tried to narrow the focus to Stalin and his depraved comrade Lavrenty Beria, the chief of secret police (and serial rapist of young girls) who was executed after Stalin’s death, there was broad complicity in the horrors of Stalinism, beginning with Communist Party elites. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the Soviet national security apparatus aided in the torture, abuse, summary execution, and unjust imprisonment of their fellow citizens. Some were willing accomplices in the purges and show trials, convinced that they were defending against subversion by enemies of the state. Others collaborated or informed out of fear or self-interest. The exposure of Stalinism’s systemic perversion of justice shattered the faith of true believers around the world (the American Communist Party was devastated by the revelations). They discovered that they been lied to for decades about the “necessary evil” of Stalin’s repression—it served not to advance scientific socialism, but to consolidate the power of a paranoid tyrant.

Shocking the system

The Secret Speech is set just after Khrushchev’s shock to the system, and Smith dramatizes its effects through the story of Leo Demidov, a hero of the Great Patriotic War and former MGB officer (and the protagonist of Smith’s bestselling debut novel, Child 44). As the book opens, Demidov is working as a homicide detective in Moscow, a job that brings him into contact with all levels of Soviet society and lets us watch as word of Khrushchev’s revelations quickly spreads. (The conceit—a skeptical Russian insider/outsider with police powers—is a familiar one: Martin Cruz Smith’s character Arkady Renko, also a detective, memorably explored the contradictions of Soviet life in Gorky Park and a follow-on series of thrillers.)

Leo hopes that his new position will help him make amends for his own culpability in the abuses of the past. He and his wife Raisa have adopted sisters, Zoya and Elena, in part because Leo failed to stop the murder of their parents by one of his MGB subordinates. On his self-chosen path to redemption, Leo discovers that some victims are not ready to forgive. Fraera, a woman Leo had helped wrongly condemn to the Gulag along with her husband as enemies of the state for their religious activities, has returned to Moscow, joined the vory v zakone (“thieves in law”), (the tattooed Russian mafia so vividly depicted in director David Cronenberg’s movie Eastern Promises), and has targeted Demidov for vengeance. To protect his family, Leo must journey to the Kolyma region (the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty” according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn) and attempt, against long odds, to liberate Fraera’s still-imprisoned husband, Lazar.

Smith paints a vivid portrait of the bleak, unforgiving world of the forced labor camps in Siberia. Leo’s scheme to infiltrate Gulag 57 and free Lazar goes awry when his true identify is discovered; only a camp uprising triggered by news of Khrushchev’s speech saves Demidov from immediate reprisal at the hands of the prisoners. In one of the novel’s most arresting scenes, Gulag 57’s commander Zhores Sinyavksy faces a makeshift court convened to pass judgment on his treatment of the imprisoned. Sinyavksy pleads his case in vain—he receives a just, but not merciful, sentence from the convicts before Red Army tanks end their brief moment of freedom.

In seeking to craft a suspenseful page-turner, Smith relies on too many unbelievable twists and turns to advance the narrative of The Secret Speech. A final plot contrivance that brings Leo and Raisa to Budapest to witness the Hungarian revolution in the fall of 1956 is particularly awkward. Smith invents a conspiracy—Kremlin hardliners sending agent provocateurs to Hungary to spark the uprising and justify a crackdown by a resurgent Soviet military—that doesn’t pass historical muster. In fact, the Hungarian revolt represented an authentic expression of discontent by a coalition of intellectuals, students, and workers. It was a development that took the Soviet hierarchy by surprise. The broad popular support for the uprising and the participation of young educated Hungarians posed an existential challenge to Marxist-Leninist ideology which had maintained that such classless solidarity could only develop under Communism.

Budapest 1956 also caught the West off guard. Tim Weiner notes in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, the American intelligence establishment was clueless, without a network or agents on the ground: “During the two-week life of the Hungarian revolution, the agency knew no more than what it read in the newspapers…Had the White House agreed to send weapons, the agency would have had no clue where to send them.” American involvement was limited to misleading Radio Free Europe broadcasts that raised false hopes of Western intervention.

Despite its over-plotting, The Secret Speech is compelling in its depiction of the first halting steps away from Communism. Leo’s difficult journey from dedicated secret policeman to clear-eyed survivor mirrors in personal terms the beginning of that transformation. The moral reckoning isn’t easy. Some of his MGB colleagues cannot live with their guilt. Careerists and opportunists have less difficulty adjusting to the new order. Others in the bureaucracy calculate the risks of embracing reform should de-Stalinization prove temporary and the ground under them shift once again.

Stalin’s legacy?

The Khrushchev Thaw proved to be a partial one. The Kremlin maintained Stalinist security measures throughout the Soviet empire for another three decades. Indeed, nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former KGB agent who controls the Russian government has shown little appetite for any “truth and reconciliation” process that might comprehensively address the horrors of Stalinism. Some Russians still long for the days of Stalin. In a disturbing sign of this revisionist nostalgia, Stalin was voted the third most popular Russian historical figure in a poll by the Rossiya state television channel in December 2008.

Historical myopia isn’t confined to the Russians. In his Los Angeles Times review of Smith’s novel, Michael Harris compared Stalinist collaborators with Americans today, noting: “…with hardly a repercussion to be afraid of, those who opposed Bush-era policies are acquitting themselves no better, while hard-liners such as Dick Cheney continue to warn that too much concern for civil rights will risk another 9/11.” Harris failed, however, to specify the heroic acts of resistance that he thought Code Pink and other liberal-left opposition groups should have employed during the Bush years. Yes, it’s hard to believe that even someone suffering from such a clear case of Bush Derangement Syndrome could compare Stalin’s Soviet Union to George W. Bush’s America, but, as baseball great Casey Stengel used to say, you can look it up.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

A newsworthy history of Soviet espionage: Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America

It’s the rare work of historical scholarship that also makes news but Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev has accomplished just that, provoking headlines around the world with its revelations of Cold War Soviet espionage.

Based both on KGB* archival material glossed by Vassiliev (the “Vassiliev notebooks“) and extensive research by the authors, Spies has outed several agents who spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s, including physicist Engelbert Broda, who passed vital atomic secrets while working for the British; engineer Russell A. McNutt, who was recruited by Julius Rosenberg for atomic espionage; and U.S. government officials James Hibbens, Stanley Graze, and Henry Ware, among others.

In their heavily footnoted 704-page opus, Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev also seek to resolve some lingering historical questions: they reaffirm that Alger Hiss did indeed spy for the GRU (the chapter on Hiss caused Cambridge historian David A. Garrow to write in Newsweek that “the book provides irrefutable confirmation of guilt”); they argue that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while a secret member of the American Communist Party, did not pass Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets; and they reveal that the KGB considered using Ethel Rosenberg as an agent independently of her husband, suggesting that she was more deeply entangled in spying than her defenders would care to admit.

That radical journalist I.F. Stone assisted the KGB in the late 1930s as an information source, talent spotter, and courier has proven to be the most controversial claim in Spies. Several of Stone’s biographers (D.D. Guttenplan, Myra McPherson) as well as left-of-center journalists (Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin) challenged that assertion, arguing that Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev had jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Stone’s relationship with Soviet officials. Stone was engaged in nothing more than trading political gossip with his Russian sources, they argued, and questioned the substance of the case against Stone.

Yet the key KGB documents presented in Spies, coupled with later references in decoded Soviet cables, strongly suggests that Stone was under the operational control of Soviet intelligence from 1936-1938, and that his involvement went well beyond that of a journalist working his sources. (Max Holland’s Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone and the Soviets provides more detail and context, none of it helpful to Stone’s defense). While Spies does not accuse Stone of full-bore espionage (stealing government secrets), only of working for the KGB, a journalist who covertly assists a foreign intelligence service betrays some of the basic tenets of the profession (independence, transparency, integrity). Can Harvard’s Nieman Foundation continue to award the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence without some reservations?

Some argue that if Stone assisted the KGB, it was only a reflection of his commitment to fighting fascism. But do these “noble intentions” mitigate his actions? What of an American journalist of the 1930s with isolationist views sharing information with German intelligence in the hopes of keeping the U.S. out of any European conflict? Would that also be acceptable? Collaborating with the intelligence agency of a totalitarian power should be beyond the pale for any journalist. Further, the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 resulted in close cooperation between the Abwehr, Gestapo, and the KGB, which meant that information passed to the Soviets in the late 1930s may very well have ended up in Berlin.

The historian as detective

The findings in Spies reflect painstaking historical detective work—comparing the Vassiliev notebook materials with Venona intercepts, FBI agent reports, and other historical records, to identify American agents, couriers, and sources for the KGB.

Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev unearthed some amazing stories, none more bizarre than that of Stanley Graze, a former OSS operative and State Department official who went from handing intelligence reports to Moscow Center in the 1940s to assisting swindler Robert Vesco in defrauding American investors in the 1960s. At a cocktail party in Costa Rica in 1976, Graze told a Soviet agent that his spying had been “most interesting, fruitful and beneficial to the cause of world peace.”

Other Americans, famous and obscure, were all too willing to help the KGB: Ernest Hemingway flirted with Soviet intelligence but never engaged in any clandestine work; journalist Bernard Redmond, later Moscow bureau chief for CBS and dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, became a source for the KGB in the late 1940s; and Martha Dodd Stern, the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, saw herself as a left-wing Mata Hari but her casual sexual liaisons made the puritanical comrades nervous.

By telling these stories, Spies chronicles the decades-long love affair many American intellectuals had with Communism and how ideological fervor blinded them to the true nature of Stalinism. Despite the Great Terror, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Katyn massacre, the invasion of Finland, the establishment of the Iron Curtain, and the never-ending purges in Moscow, many still kept faith, many remained willing to spy against their own country.

The historical significance

In the end, did this Soviet penetration of British and American political elites matter? Did the presence of Soviet agents in the corridors of power in the West change the course of history? Did it prolong, or extend, the Cold War? As the extent of Soviet espionage becomes clearer, its greater significance is also emerging.

It was the “XY line,” the KGB term for scientific, technical, and industrial espionage, where Soviet efforts bore the most fruit. As Spies relates, and historian Steve Usdin and others have documented, Soviet spying in the U.S. successfully focused on stealing technical and military secrets. As Spies concludes in assessing the performance of KGB operatives in pursuing the XY line:

…The scientific and technical data they transmitted to Moscow saved the Soviet Union untold amounts of money and resources by transferring American technology, which enabled it to build an atomic bomb and deploy jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses, and many other military advances long before its own industry, strained by rapid growth and immense wartime damage, could have developed them independently.

What was the benefit to Stalin of having well-placed agents and sources in the corridors of American and British power providing political intelligence? Laurence Rees in World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West notes that Soviet agent Harry Dexter White pushed for the Morgenthau Plan for demilitarizing Germany and conjectures that advocacy was at the behest of the Soviets (although Morgenthau’s scheme was eventually discarded as too punitive).

It’s now clear that Stalin knew the negotiating positions of the Allies in advance of the Yalta, Potsdam, and San Francisco conferences, and that knowledge may have helped Moscow. But a strong argument can be made that it didn’t matter—the failure of Anglo-American policy toward the Soviet Union stemmed primarily from the misreading of “Uncle Joe” and his intentions by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and, initially, Harry Truman. The flawed notion that the Allies could “do business with Stalin” in Eastern Europe had more to do with the shape of the post-war world than any covert assistance to the Kremlin by Western spies.

Countering espionage

Spies should be required reading for those responsible for countering espionage against the United States. One stark lesson: members of the elite (government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers), who on the surface should have no reason for spying, are often responsible for the most damaging betrayals. Attending the “right schools” and knowing the “right people” is no guarantee of loyalty: the American agents serving Stalin included Rhodes Scholars, numerous Ivy Leaguers, and others drawn from the ranks of the privileged “best and brightest.” During the Cold War years covered by Spies (roughly 1930-1950) most spied for ideological reasons, although other factors (the narcissistic thrill of wielding secret power, or a hidden resentment of authority) also played a part.

Just weeks after the publication of Spies came allegations that two members of the Washington’s contemporary elite, Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, spied for the Cubans for nearly three decades. Myers, a graduate of Brown and Johns Hopkins, came from a privileged background and yet embraced the leftist causes of the 1960s.

Did State Department officials know of Myers’ political radicalism and counterculture lifestyle, including a police drug raid on his South Dakota home, (risk factors for espionage which Ginger Thompson of the New York Times’ quickly uncovered) before granting him top-secret clearance? Did the vetting process surface other troubling signs of an erratic or narcissistic personality? That Myers, hired as a State Department analyst, was an open admirer of Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement toward the Nazis adds a comic, but fitting, touch to this disturbing tale of lax security.


* I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

Winter in Madrid Both American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, named Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when asked recently by journalists to cite their favorite novel. McCain has said that during his captivity in North Vietnam as a POW he recited portions of the book to himself.

It’s intriguing that both McCain and Obama chose a novel set not in the United States, but in Spain during its fratricidal Civil War in the late 1930s.

The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is an American, however, Robert Jordan, a leftist college professor and International Brigades volunteer who embarks on a dangerous mission to blow up a strategic bridge in the Iberian hill country. At least one conservative writer, Michael Knox Beran, has tartly suggested that McCain should find a different favorite, one that isn’t “a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.”

There is some irony in Beran’s critique of the politics of Hemingway’s novel, because the hard Left in the United States, including some of the American Communists who served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (part of the International Brigades), ferociously attacked the book (and its author) after its publication in 1940. These critics, among them former Lincoln commander Milton Wolff, objected to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Soviet motives and tactics in Spain and to his unsparing and harsh portraits of political commissar André Marty (known as the “Butcher of Albacete” for his purge of non-Communists in the International Brigades) and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, the Leftist icon also known as La Passionara. (Hemingway, never one to duck a fight, responded directly and profanely to those he called the “ideology boys.”)

Hemingway made a distinction between supporting the Loyalist cause, as did his fictional character Robert Jordan, and endorsing the Soviet strategy of deception and manipulation in dealing with the Republican government. Such an approach was anathema to the hardliners. There’s an amusing anecdote (recounted in Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War) involving the actor Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s choice to play Robert Jordan in the film of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alvah Bessie, a Lincoln veteran and screenwriter. During the filming, Bessie lectured Cooper about how the Spanish conflict hadn’t been a civil war, as Cooper believed, but instead was a German and Italian invasion designed to overthrow the legal government of Spain. Cooper’s laconic, and classic, response: “That so? That’s what so great about this country…a guy like you can fight in a war that’s none of his business.”

Art and the “Good Fight”

It’s not hard to see why the “Good Fight” (as the Spanish struggle was dubbed) inspired artists, poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers from the start. The conflict was rich with dramatic, and tragic, elements. Writers have been drawn by the idealism of many of the defenders of the Republic, and by the idea that the Spanish hostilities represented a dress rehearsal for World War II. Some of the best works about the conflict, such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s novel, have explored the tensions within the ranks of the Loyalists. This artistic and literary fascination with the “Good Fight” has continued into the 21st century as evidenced by a continuing stream of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, including English author C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a best-seller in Britain.

Sansom has set his fictional story in 1940 Madrid, a year after General Francisco Franco’s victory over the Loyalists, and Winter in Madrid shines brightest in its evocative portrayal of the grim life in Spain’s capital city: the compromises, and sacrifices, required for survival. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Brett, a veteran of Dunkirk, is recruited by British Intelligence to spy on a former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in shady business dealings with the Spanish government. Brett’s mission exposes him to the corruption and venality of the Nationalist victors, and to the growing rivalry between the Royalist and Falange wings of Franco’s regime.

Sansom’s characters reflect the range of British attitudes toward the Spanish conflict. Harry Brett is a self-described liberal Tory (“As far as I am concerned, Spain before the Civil War was rotten with chaos, and the Fascists and Communists both took advantage”). The crypto-Fascist Forsyth is balanced by a British Communist, Bernie Piper, an internationalist who embraces the Republican cause as part of a broader struggle against Fascism. And there is an English Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, an idealistic, but fragile, fellow traveler who becomes romantically involved with both Piper and Forsyth. The three men—Brett, Piper and Forsyth—have all attended Rookwood, a traditional British public school, and Sansom intersperses flashbacks of their school days throughout the pages of Winter in Madrid, linking past and present friendships and rivalries. That’s a lot of baggage for any novel to carry, and Sansom struggles to pull off the dual narratives.

He also misses the mark in his characterization of Forsyth, a straight-from-Central-Casting sadist, exactly the sort of predictable Fascist bad guy found in innumerable World War II thrillers. Franco’s Spanish supporters are also uniformly portrayed by Sansom as grasping, or evil, or both. Yet, it is possible for a novelist to write about the complex human dimensions of those loyal to a twisted ideology. For example, Alan Furst has created a number of fully-rounded characters drawn to totalitarian creeds in novels like The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, and Dark Star, and David Downing’s Zoo Station and Silesian Station give us flesh-and-blood Germans struggling to retain their decency in Nazi Germany. Winter in Madrid would have been better served by grays instead of black-and-white, and it would have been a much better novel if Sansom had risked more by creating less predictable, and less cliched, villains.

To his credit, Sansom gets his history right. There’s no whitewashing of Comintern treachery during the Civil War, and also no shying away from the post-war reality of Nationalist brutality. At one level, Winter in Madrid can be read as an indictment of Britain’s accomodationist policy toward Franco and the Spanish Right in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet Sansom acknowledges that by the time of the Battle of Britain, Whitehall’s options had narrowed. No matter how distasteful the Franco regime might be, keeping Spain out of an alliance with the Germans had to shape British policy.

Sansom’s imaginative leap in setting Winter in Madrid after the end of the civil war deserves praise as well. We see Spain confronting not only the human costs of its ideological death struggle—the shattered veterans, the orphans, the despairing widows—but also the grim prospects of life under a dictatorship. It is a fascinating, and haunting, story and Winter in Madrid tells it well.


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Anton Chekhov and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”

I have come to appreciate Anton Chekhov’s stories more as I move deeper into middle age. Chekhov’s fiction explores the quiet drama in the lives of ordinary people, and the prolific Russian author often concludes his stories without much of a clear-cut resolution, something I found off-putting when I was younger but now, with the benefit of life-experience, recognize as closer to reality than the tidy and clever concluding epiphanies offered by more conventional writers.

Antov Chekov
Chekhov is fascinated by people, by their contradictory behavior, by their elusive inner lives, and their capacity for cruelty, and pettiness, and, yes, love. There’s little in the way of enveloping action in Chekhov’s fiction—few Tolstoyian connections to the political and social issues of the day—but his characters are universally human in a way that transcends the 19th century bourgeois Russian setting.

Chekhov approaches his characters with a slightly ironic empathy—the legacy, no doubt, of his years as a physician—and with few illusions. That’s evident in his much-anthologized “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” where we learn of the flaws of the two main characters, an adulterous couple, as Chekhov introduces them in the first few pages of the story. (That Chekhov narrows his focus to the couple is deliberate; he once wrote: “Let two people be the center of gravity in your story: he and she.”)

A flawed couple

Dimitry Dmitrich Gurov is a Moscow banker, trapped in a loveless marriage (he is, Chekhov tells us, somewhat afraid of his severe and forbidding wife); the story traces his seduction of a young married woman while they are both vacationing in the seaside resort Yalta. His conquest, Anna Sergeyevna, has been raised in St. Petersburg but now lives in a remote provincial city with her husband, a government official she describes as “a flunkey.” Her vacation is a break from her stifling marriage; she is vulnerable, alone except for her white Pomeranian (the pet dog of the story’s title). Gurov is not, at first, a sympathetic character—Chekhov describes him as having a “coarse arrogance,” and Gurov treats women with a mixture of calculated charm and disdain.

Gurov admires Anna Sergeyevna’s “slim delicate throat, her lovely gray eyes” but beyond the sexual attraction, this jaded Moscuvite isn’t particularly impressed by his younger lover (” ‘There’s something pathetic about her, though,’ he thought…”); later we learn he is quickly “bored with her” and “irritated by her naive tone.” Anna Sergeyevna seems starved for attention and love, although she is guilty and anxious about their affair; it is easier to sympathize with her neediness than with Gurov’s selfish vanity.

And there, you might think, it would end: a brief dalliance far from home, a liaison carrying more significance for the naive Anna Sergeyevna than for the worldly Gurov. Yet that is not what happens. When Gurov returns to his daily routine he finds that rather than fading from memory, Anna Sergeyevna remains more and more on his mind (“And his memories glowed more and more vividly.”)

He has been somehow touched deeply by his connection with this fair-haired young woman; when he tries to verbalize his feelings, however, he finds he is blocked both by convention and by the emotional tone-deafness of those around him. There is a tragi-comic moment when he broaches the subject of Anna Sergeyevna and finds a friend more concerned with the freshness of the fish being served at their club than with hearing about Gurov’s “fascinating woman.”

Gurov, now obsessed, decides that he must see Anna Sergeyevna again, and so he concocts an excuse and heads off to her drab, provincial city. He attends the opening night at the local theater, hoping to see her, and he is in luck; she is there, with her husband, seated in the third row.

…when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted, and he understood clearly that in the whole world there was no human being so neat, so precious, and so important to him; she, this little undistinguished woman, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the only happiness he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the bad orchestra, of the miserable local violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.

The passage captures Chekhov’s clinically ironic approach as a writer. Gurov’s sudden awareness of his romantic love for Anna, is balanced with the reality that she is a “little undistinguished woman” with a “vulgar lorgnette”; and this moment of passion has a musical accompaniment of “miserable local violins.”

“The Lady with the Pet Dog” does not end with this dramatic reunion; instead, Chekhov describes the continuation of the affair, as Anna Sergeyevna visits Gurov in Moscow and their relationship and secret life together becomes “…everything that constituted the core of his life.” Doctor Chekhov is sensitive to the contrast between the external and internal—what is truly going on with a person (their health, their feelings, their desires and needs), he suggests, is hidden from public view.

What will happen to the lovers? Chekhov does not tell us directly but hints that, while “the end is still far off,” there will be no conventional happy ending—that there are complications and difficulties ahead. It is a mark of Chekhov’s artistry that, by the end of “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” we very much want to know how it turns out for Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, ordinary people with an extraordinary love.

Excerpts from Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s translation of “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.