Those familiar with the Alger Hiss case may remember Noel Field as one of the people Whittaker Chambers identified as a Soviet spy. Like his friend Hiss, Field was an upper-crust young man: He grew up at a lakeside villa in Switzerland, returning to the U.S. only to attend Harvard. In 1918, when Field was 14, he met his father’s friend Allen Dulles at a lunch held at the villa. Decades later, Dulles must have been stunned to learn that the young man he had turned to and asked “What do you plan to do with your life?” had grown up to become an agent of Stalin.
In her riveting page-turner, which includes information from previously unavailable archival manuscripts, Kati Marton offers us Field’s entire story, following him as he evolved from an idealist and pacifist to a committed Communist, willing to sacrifice literally everything for Stalin and the Party. Field was not alone. His pro-Soviet activities took place in the era described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon (1940) and in the period immediately after its publication. Koestler’s protagonist, a committed Soviet police operative, willingly goes to his execution — not because he is guilty of anything, but because he believes it is necessary to serve the Party’s current line. Field would illustrate the truth of Koestler’s fictional character. Koestler’s novel had a major impact on his generation’s view of Stalinist barbarism; Marton’s biography of Field will acquaint a new generation with how the search for utopia ultimately led Field to sacrifice his own well-being and that of the people he loved for the Party’s needs.
After graduating from Harvard with honors in two years, Field, with his wife, Herta, went off to Washington, D.C., where he entered the West European division of the State Department. Working there through the 1920s and into the Great Depression, Field, like others of his generation and social class, turned to Communism, believing that it could put an end to the failed capitalist economics that was producing such disastrous effects around the world. He thought Herbert Hoover lacked compassion; he drew comfort from Hoover’s defeat and hoped that FDR would be open to radical solutions.
But Field did not want to wait, and had something bigger in mind than open participation in the American Communist movement. He met two Soviet agents, Hede and Paul Massing, who were dispatched to the capital in 1934 to set up American cells for the Soviet intelligence network. They, along with the American spymaster J. Peters, established the Ware group, which included both Alger Hiss and Field’s close friend Larry Duggan. The network’s goal was to steal government documents to be sent to Moscow and to gain entry into critical departments such as State, War, Treasury, and Interior, where they could influence U.S. policy. Peters immediately saw the potential in Field. As Marton writes, he preferred “tall, pedigreed WASPs,” since no one would believe that “a well-mannered young man with deep New England roots and immaculate appearance such as Noel Field could betray his country.”
So began Field’s journey. The Massings successfully recruited him to work for the NKVD. In 1935, he agreed to spy for the Soviet Union. Lest they question his commitment, Field drove the couple to the Lincoln Memorial, ascended the steps, and serenaded them with a full-throated performance, in Russian, of “The Internationale,” the Communist anthem.
In 1936, Field was presented with a new opportunity that matched the Soviets’ goals. He was asked to take a job with the League of Nations disarmament section in Geneva, where he could be of use to the already existing Communist-led anti-Nazi movement. Paul Massing, who later broke with Communism, noted that, unlike himself and his wife, Field remained a true believer: “The more irrational, nonsensical the Soviets behaved, the more devoted he was. For Noel, the leaders of the Revolution can do no wrong.”
Field certainly proved his loyalty and his willingness to follow Stalin’s orders when Ignace Reiss, a former top Soviet agent in Europe, became disillusioned after the purge trials in Russia. Field was asked to meet Reiss and help lure him to another agent, who would see to it that Reiss was killed. Reiss was found with twelve bullets in his back in a forest near Lausanne. Later, Field told the Massings: “I helped arrange the assassination of your great friend. He was a traitor. He deserved to die.”
Like leftists the world over, Field supported the Republican Popular Front government in Spain, which had won power in 1936. Now it was threatened with overthrow by the invading forces of General Francisco Franco. The international Left saw this as a fight between Fascism and democracy, and, with Nazi and Italian Fascist support of Franco, as a dress rehearsal for a new world war. Field would spend four months in Spain for the League, helping to repatriate members of the International Brigades after the Republic’s collapse. Since the majority of the Brigade’s fighters were Communists, it was a way for him to blend humanitarianism and solidarity with the Soviet Union.
In Spain, the Fields took responsibility for Erica Glaser, the 14-year-old daughter of a doctor and his wife who had to flee the country after Madrid fell to Franco in 1938. Erica had been working with her father in makeshift hospitals when she contracted typhoid fever and was unable to travel. The Fields became her surrogate parents. As Marton puts it, next to his wife, Erica was “the most important person in Noel Field’s life.” But she eventually rejected his ideology, becoming a fierce, independent-minded opponent of totalitarian regimes, who made her own way and ended up suffering the consequences of her relationship with the Fields.
Then Field began working out of Marseilles for a relief group, the American Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. His job was to get the interned refugees settled in Eastern and Central Europe, hoping that the Communists he sent back to their homelands would be in place to build Communist states in Europe. “My goal,” Field bragged, “was to set up a Red Aid — to save our cadres.” Marton writes that what he worked for was simply to rescue and return “Communists to their homelands, to start the revolution of his dreams.”
One family that was notably anti-Communist and waiting for passage to Martinique had their small stipend from the Unitarian committee cut off by Field. Yet the Communists interned in France whom Field supported, Marton notes, were kept “healthy, well fed, well funded, and connected to each other.”
Ironically, when the war ended, the people Field had helped who went on to have leadership positions in local Eastern European Communist parties became the very people whom Stalin and his secret police would use to “prove” Field guilty of espionage against Communist powers. In Stalin’s view, all those Communists who had escaped the Nazis and gone to the West or gone to Spain to fight against Franco were suspect, possibly “contaminated” by reactionary ideas.
Field was the perfect American scapegoat who could be tied to the now-despised Tito of Yugoslavia, who had broken with Moscow and taken an independent path. Stalin’s henchmen asserted that, while working with the Unitarian relief agency, Noel Field had brought back to Eastern Europe imperialist spies, all of whom were coordinated by none other than CIA chief Allen Dulles. Soon, Stalin would stage a major purge trial in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in which the leading Communists confessed to treason and implicated Field as the agent they served in the supposed Titoist conspiracy.
Deciding to stay and live in the new Communist countries, Field went to Czechoslovakia. Once there, he was immediately grabbed by the secret police, drugged, and taken to Hungary, where he was put in a secret prison in which he was interrogated, brutally tortured, and brought almost to the brink of death. Other Hungarian Communists were tortured until they corroborated that they had been recruited by Field. Eventually, Field, too, confessed, saying that his recruitment of Communists was a cover for getting them to join the CIA. Men were put to death as a result of Field’s false testimony.
Later, when Erica, Field’s brother Hermann, and Hermann’s wife, Kate, went to Eastern Europe to search for him, they too disappeared and were imprisoned and tortured. Only Erica bravely refused to grovel. She was kept up 24 hours a day for five days and nights, suffering “icy nights of mental and physical torture,” leaving her unable to stand up or walk. The Hungarians sentenced her to death at the age of 31 and packed her off to Russia. She was sent to Vorkuta, north of the Arctic Circle, where she laid railroad tracks in subzero temperatures. Only Stalin’s passing allowed her to escape death. She was freed in 1955, as the most brutal form of Stalinism was in retreat.
Apparently, Noel Field did not learn anything from his experiences. He was finally freed because of the defection to the United States of the very Hungarian Stalinist torturer who worked on Field and who then told the United States of Field’s whereabouts and of his situation. Freed by the regime, Field chose to live in Czechoslovakia and help build the Communist system that had imprisoned him.
Field explained himself in an article he wrote for an American Communist magazine. He said he bore no ill will toward those who tortured, jailed, and abducted him because they “hate the same things and the same people I hate. . . . Given their belief in my guilt, I cannot blame them. . . . I approve their detestation.” What he called the “fundamental truths” of Communism would “inevitably win out over temporary aberrations.”
With those chilling words, one finds the essence of the totalitarian mentality. One cannot be “right against the Party,” as Leon Trotsky once famously wrote. Only the cause matters; the individual is but its humble servant.
– Mr. Radosh, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author or co-author of many books, including The Rosenberg File and Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War.