True Believer: Stalin's Last American Spy
By Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster
292 pages, $27
What turned an American Quaker from a religious pacifist to a traitor who willingly sacrificed his own and his family's freedom, a promising career and his country, all for the sake of the Soviet Union's imaginary utopia?
How did he discard his principles, taking a life's journey from the State Department's "intelligentsia" in the 1930s to a willing participant in the murder of a fellow spy, to almost voluntary imprisonment, along with his wife, brother and daughter, after a brutal 1949 show trial?
Kati Maron calls Noel Field's the story of the sometimes terrible consequences of blind faith. She points out parallels between the dupes of Soviet propaganda and others who yield moral responsibility--the duty to think for oneself--to the master, be it the fuhrer, the commissar or the caliph. She uses Field's pathetic downfall to shed light on recruitment techniques used even today by totalitarian thought-controllers including ISIS. Some of those techniques date back to the Russian revolution in 1917.
Field lived in Switzerland until he was 18, when his father's death sent the widowed Nina and the four Field children to Boston. There, Noel followed his father's footsteps and attended Harvard University, earning a BA with highest honors in just two years. The family left behind the research institute Herbert Field, a Harvard-trained biologist and Quaker pacifist, had founded in the wake of the First World War.
During the 1930s, young idealist Field joined a secret underground cell of Soviet military intelligence. This cell was so secret that the official Communist Party had no knowledge of it until military intelligence granted permission. Even then toward the end of his life, Field had to struggle at length to even receive a party membership card.
Field was too naive, dangerously so, to see that his path would lead to the eventual execution of hundreds on the wrong side of Stalin's tyrannical whims. In 1949, Stalin redirected the party from its focus as an international movement to something resembling his own personal gang of thugs. The show trials of the thirties returned, with confessions extorted under torture and confessions pasted onto blank paper contains the signature of the "traitors."
Field was arrested in Prague--his blind loyalty rewarded with a blindfold, a cloth full of chloroform and years of unrelenting torture in a Soviet Hungarian prison, followed by a bizarre kind of house arrest after his release.
The Hungarians immediately offered to take Field's wife, Herta, to visit him "in a hospital" and locked her up in the same prison, each of them in solitary confinement. Sometimes they were only three cells apart, but neither knew if the other was dead or alive. Both were tortured every day, as were Noel Field's brother, Hermann, and foster daughter, Erica. Erica not only spent years in prison but was sent to a Soviet gulag in Irkutsk, north of the Arctic Circle.
Even after Stalin's death led to their eventual release, the entire family was hassled by the FBI. Erica and Hermann's return to the United States was delayed for years during the height of McCarthyism. Erica, for example, received semi-weekly interrogation visits by FBI agents for a year. For her five years in Soviet captivity, she ultimately received, in 1958, a check from the House Un-American Activities Committee in the amount of $31.16. Her "crime" was being related to Noel and Herta Field.
Noel Field died in Hungary in September 1970 with only his beloved Herta by his side. Herta lived a decade longer. He never criticized the system he served, never showed regret for his role in abetting a murderous dictatorship.
Devoted until the end, he never gave up trying to persuade Erica to return to Hungary and work with him and Herta in the "struggle."
Kati Marton could have written about other unfortunates in the dim world of espionage. But her parents were journalists and in a twist of fate, were arrested and put into a prison cell where Noel Field previously had been held. After their release, they tracked Field down and interviewed him and Herta, despite the ever-watching Hungarian police.
Marton also has the advantage of access to the state papers' continuing release in the former Iron Curtain countries. Field had achieved some prominence in Europe through his relief efforts during the Spanish Civil War, humanitarian work he subverted from an American church organization to benefit communists in Marseille during World War II, and his value as a propaganda puppet and perpetrator--all these factors pointed to him as a logical subject for a book about the effects blind faith on an otherwise well-intentioned and well-educated person.
She manages to provide the background of events she describes, never leaving the reader struggling to find their context. She also has not skimped on the characters who passed through Field's life, from notorious spy Alger Hiss to CIA head Allen Dulles, and less familiar names but hugely important, such as Lenin's propaganda genius, Willi Munzenberg.
The methods of Lenin and Stalin throughout the 20th Century are not so different from those used today by subversive organizations, such as ISIS. Kati Marton shows how and why those methods worked and continue to be effective even today with newer means of communication. Meanwhile, city after city clears from its streets the debris of pressure-cooker bombs built by devoted disciples of evil.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.