TRUE BELIEVER: STALIN’S LAST AMERICAN SPY
By Kati Marton
Simon and Schuster, $27, 289 pages
Of all the American nitwits who spied for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship, none perhaps behaved with more die-hard stupidity than State Department officer Noel Field.
Born into a prominent Quaker family, Field spent his boyhood in Europe. While at Harvard, his Quaker idealism, coupled with a loathing for capitalism, morphed into admiration for communism. Bent upon “reforming America,” he joined State’s Western European Division in 1926 and achieved a reputation for brilliance — and also for unconcealed leftism.
His sordid story is grippingly related by Kati Marton, whose parents, Hungarian journalists, covered various show trials that resulted in Field and other “traitors to the cause” being jailed. She also gained access to Field family papers and those of persons brought down with him.
In a New Deal Washington teeming with communists and sympathizers, Field proved to be a prime prospect for Soviet intelligence recruiters. A legendary KGB recruiter known as “J. Peters” easily hooked Field. “An ideal target,” Kati Marton terms him. “Who would ever believe a well-mannered young man with deep New England roots and immaculate appearances such as Noel Field could betray his country?”
(A rival ring run by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, competed with the KGB over another State Department spy, Alger Hiss, who was identified by name in KGB cable traffic. The more cautious GRU used a cover name for Hiss, “Ales.”
Lack of security made spying easy. “The mentality of the State Department was rather provincial This was evident from the careless manner in which state secrets were managed. The most secret documents, sometimes in multiple copies, circulated from hand to hand.”
Among Field’s grabs were documents on State’s positions for a naval conference in London in 1935-6. In attendance, Field regularly briefed his Soviet handler, Paul Massing, on talks intended to limit the growth of naval armaments in the rapidly growing German and Italian navies. Field even accompanied Massing to a Swiss ski resort over the Christmas holidays to prepare an in-depth report.
But Field was careless to the point of recklessness. Contrary to KGB dicta, he subscribed to The Daily Worker, the U. S. communist newspaper, and flashed copies to make points in debates. He marched in leftist protest demonstrations. And perhaps most striking, he drove a group of friends to the Lincoln Memorial one evening, got out of the car, and loudly sang the “International” — in Russian.
Switching to the United Nations in Geneva in 1936, Field took on a most odious Soviet assignment — to help assassinate a longtime KGB officer named Ignace Reiss, who was threatening to defect to protest the Stalin “show trials” that killed many former associates. Field was tasked with watching for Reiss and notifying the assigned assassin if he appeared. As matters turned out, another killer disposed of Reiss (12 shots to the head). But as Ms. Morton observes, Field “had shown his willingness to do Moscow’s bidding — even as an accessory in a comrade’s murder.”
Field next shifted to France and an office of the Unitarian Service Committee charged with helping refugees flee as war spread through Europe. Associates noted that Field had a preference for helping hard-core Stalinists. And when war came, he sought out an old family friend, Allen Dulles, and signed on with the Office of Strategic Services. (The OSS director, Gen. William Donovan, had famously declared, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help us defeat Hitler.)
But a young Arthur S. Schlesinger (the future Harvard historian) saw what his OSS colleague was doing: concentrating on helping pro-Soviet refugees set up postwar Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe.
Field’s world tumbled in 1948. Communist agent Whittaker Chambers defected and revealed wide Red infiltration of Federal agencies. He named Field and Hiss, among others. Field sought refuge in Hungary, a Soviet puppet state.
Then another jolt: a paranoid Stalin accused Field and several other former agents for being secret American intelligence agents working against the USSR, specifically to help Josip Tito lead Yugoslavia out of the Soviet bloc.
A stunned Field was tortured — at times so severely he had to be carried to his cell on a stretcher. He followed a prepared script and “confessed” that his rescue of communists “was a cover for recruiting them for Dulles and the other archtraitor, Tito.” He named 562 persons as his “agents.” His sentence: five years in solitary confinement.
Incredibly, Field played along with his tormentors, faulting himself for lack of Communist character” and begging to continue with the party. Even the jailing of his wife, brother and adopted daughter did not shake his faith in communism. He chose to remain in Hungary after his release from prison — still worshipping a the feet of the failed god communism.
• Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 non-fiction books.