Noel Field, Communist Quaker

Review: Kati Marton, 'True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy'

Noel Field, right, as a representative of the League of Nations in 1939 / New York World's Fair
September 17, 2016

They came from the old American families: Quakers out of Pennsylvania, Puritans from New England. They went to the fine old boarding schools and attended ivy-covered colleges. Their childhoods were spent in pews listening to the most intellectual and morally sophisticated pastors in America. And then they grew up and went off to spy for Stalin.

We still have no fully persuasive explanation for why members of the elite classes of British schooling and intellectual upbringing—Philby, Maclean, Blunt—became spies for the Soviets in the 1930s. But we have even less explanation for why their American parallels—including such people as Alger Hiss, Laurence Duggan, and Noel Field—joined them.

As the years pass, and book after yet another book on the Cold War tumbles from the publishing houses, I’ve grown to think the answer lies, to a larger degree than we commonly suspect, in the failing of the blue-blood Protestant institutions that had given elite America its tone. A generation of fervent young people, trained up in idealism and service by their high Protestant upbringings, found only doubt and a failure of nerve among their teachers.

In other words, the elite training given them by the old American institutions proved ineffective at its best—and at its worst aimed them straight at Stalin. They learned that the American vision had failed and that the Depression was proof of the looming end of the West. Even as they slipped away from the Protestant Christianity of their childhoods, they kept both a sense of mainline entitlement and moral outrage at the fallen state of creation. Who but they, to put it right? And what except communism seemed to offer an apocalyptic and world-changing vision? The space the old God once occupied in their hearts became filled instead with the new god of communist hope.

The most dedicated of the spies was probably Noel Field, subject of True Believer by Kati Marton. Her title is not an exaggeration. What else are we to call a man who could emerge from a communist prison still believing that Stalinism was the great truth of history?

About to be exposed as a spy by American authorities, Field suffered the irony of being grabbed by Czech police in 1949 and charged with being an American agent. Handed over to the Hungarians, Field was held and tortured for five years before the communists admitted their mistake and released him—only to have him decide to stay behind the Iron Curtain, denouncing America and praising communism until his death in 1970.

One by one, his family traveled to Eastern Europe in an attempt to find him—and one by one they were arrested and sent to prison as the spies they must have been given their relation to Field. His wife, his brother, and his adopted daughter all spent years in Soviet jails awaiting Field’s exoneration. And his response, even years later, was only that their imprisonments had been a regrettable but understandable over-diligence on the part of the communists. Kati Marton is surely right: Noel Field really was a true believer—the truest of Stalin’s believers.

The author of several non-fiction books—including Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America and Wallenberg—Marton is the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, and she comes by the topic of Noel Field honestly. Her parents were Hungarian reporters who interviewed Field in Budapest after he was finally released from prison in 1954. She uses their interviews judiciously in True Believer, relating how deeply Field retained his faith in the communist system. "My accusers essentially have the same convictions that I do, they hate the same things and the same people I hate—the conscious enemies of socialism, the fascists, the renegades, the traitors. Given their belief in my guilt, I cannot blame them. I cannot but approve their detestation. That is the real horror of it all."

All of that is interesting, of course, and the biography moves much faster than its slow beginning and middle once the reader reaches 1948. With the FBI closing in on the American spies, Duggan committed suicide and Whittaker Chambers named Alger Hiss to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Knowing what awaited him in Washington, Field took out papers to stay in Czechoslovakia. Then his real ordeal began.

Field was arrested by the communists probably to provide an excuse for a set of show trials in the Eastern Bloc. Much remains uncertain, but Marton sees the ways in which Field’s presence gave the Soviets an excuse to purge unreliable elements in the governments of their allies. They began by identifying Field as an American spymaster. He had known Allen Dulles since 1918, after all, and what more proof did one need? Then the Soviets used his supposed spymastership to eliminate local communists who felt that their national parties were not necessarily subject to Moscow’s control. Foreign Affairs Minister László Rajk was the main target in Hungary, but really what the instigator—future ruler Mátyás Rákosi—wanted was to use Soviet backing to execute all his local rivals. It was only once the show trials had finished that Field was suddenly discovered to have been not an American but a communist spy and released.

As I mentioned, the middle section of the book drags a little—which is surprising, given that this is the period of Field’s actual spying. Emerging from Harvard, Field began working at the State Department’s European section in the late 1920s. By 1934, he and his friend Duggan had become fully committed to secret communist work, and he began copying secret documents and making reports on American activities.

He didn’t much like it, however, and by 1938 he had left the State Department and was working a League of Nations representative in Spain, trying to repatriate foreigners who had fought against Franco. As the Second World War broke out, he became director of the Unitarian-Universalists’ relief mission in Marseilles, aiding attempts to help endangered refugees, especially Jews, get to Switzerland. Until the Unitarian-Universalists fired him, Field used the position mostly to identify fleeing communists, whom he aided in an effort to insure that cadres of revolutionaries were in place once the war ended.

Once the Germans overran Marseilles, he set up shop in Geneva and began working with the American spies in the OSS under the direction of Allen Dulles. That’s when he began spying for the communists again, until the evidence of his work for the Soviets became too overwhelming and he fled behind the Iron Curtain.

To my mind, however, it’s the beginning that makes Kati Marton’s True Believer so fascinating. Descended from a rich and distinguished Quaker family—his father, Herbert Haviland Field, was a respected biologist and promoter of science—Field was born in London in 1904 and raised mostly in Zurich. From his earliest days, a Quaker-influenced pacifism and idealism was spoon-fed him. When he was 14, for example, his father took him on a tour of a First World War battlefield, still bloody and churned to mud, so he could learn the horrors of war.

After his father’s death in 1921, his English mother brought the children to the United States, where he and his brother attended Harvard. He was so miserable at Harvard that he did nothing but study so he could escape by graduating early. His discontent seemed to derive from a feeling that his American classmates were essentially unserious about morality, politics, and the world situation.

All through those early years, the reader can feel building what the man would become. He needed something—some goal, some purpose—that Harvard and the United States could not provide. What he needed, in fact, was a return to the Quakerism that had unconsciously formed him. What he got instead was Stalinism. He might have been someone like the early Quaker mystic George Fox or the abolitionist John Woolman. What he became instead was the stooge of a murderous dictator.

Published under: Book reviews