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Hamptons Life

May 19, 2017 12:37 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Book Review: 'True Believer' Is A Fascinating Account Of The Life Of Spy And Traitor Noel Field

May 19, 2017 12:37 PM

The title of Kati Marton’s new book, “True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy,” (Simon & Schuster, $27, 289 pp.) echoes that of another book, “The True Believer,” by the longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer. Hoffer examines the nature of mass movements and their effects on their followers. Ms. Marton puts flesh on the bones of Hoffer’s subject in the person of Noel Field,

She asks the pertinent questions, “How does an idealist turn into a willing participant in murder? How does such a person—who is neither poor, nor socially deprived—learn to crush those he loves for the sake of a cause, a promise, and an illusion? Noel Field was such a man—and for that reason his story is relevant for our troubled times. The mystery at the core of Field’s life is how an apparently good man, who started out with noble intentions, could sacrifice his own and his family’s freedom, a promising career, and his country, all for a fatal myth.”

Ms. Marton, who divides her time between Water Mill and New York, is the author of eight previous books, including “Paris: A Love Story,” about her life with Richard Holbrooke, “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America,” “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History” and “A Death in Jerusalem.” She is a prize-winning journalist who has worked for NPR and for ABC News, and is the recipient of a George Foster Peabody Award for broadcast journalism. Ms. Marton was born in Hungary and came to this country as a little girl, the daughter of journalist parents who fled after the failed uprising in 1956. Her parents, incidentally, were the last people to interview Field.

Noel Field was an idealistic and brilliant Quaker who completed Harvard in two years. He was also socially awkward and isolated. He wrote to his brother, “Nobody has ever been interested in the fact that I graduated with distinction … whereas the fact that I raced through college without mixing in its life and without learning its practical life lessons has caused me endless embarrassment.” Ms. Marton comments, “Social embarrassment fueled Noel Field’s alienation from American life.”

After college he went to work for the State Department. He was extremely affected by the Spanish Civil War and was sympathetic to the Republican side. He was convinced that only the Soviets and the Communists could defeat the fascists.

He was a friend and colleague of Alger Hiss and was recruited by the Communist Party shortly after he started working for the State Department. Along with Alger Hiss, he was named by Whittaker Chambers as a spy. He was, in fact, a member of the NKVD, or secret police, actively spying for Russia and passing on secret documents to his masters.

All accounts of him note that he was a kind and gentle soul. He was, nevertheless, an accomplice in the murder of Ignaz Reiss, a man who was judged to be a traitor to the cause. Field later said of him, “He deserved to die.”

During the war, Field worked for a number of relief organizations and also, ironically, for Allen Dulles, the head of the O.S.S. (which evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency). He acted as a liaison between Dulles and various Communist and Resistance forces in Eastern Europe, and fed whatever information he could to his handlers in the NKVD. Of course, Dulles had no idea.

After the war, Field was unmasked by Chambers as a traitor and a spy. He could not return to the United States. Field was arrested in Prague and whisked off to prison, a place called, ironically, “The Villa,” one of the interrogation houses of the Hungarian secret police. A further irony in a narrative interwoven with them, he was accused of spying for Allen Dulles. “When his guards removed his blindfold, Noel finally saw his jailers: expressionless, grim-faced men, the hammer-and-sickle insignia on their shoulder boards indicating they were ‘his’ people.”

He was arrested and tortured, spending more than five years in solitary confinement, but never went to trial. His wife, Herta, was also arrested and imprisoned, held in a cell that was three cells away from him, though neither knew it.

When they were released, they never held it against their jailers, thinking that there was a good reason for it all. Such was their intellectual blindness that when they discovered that Stalin had died, they both sobbed uncontrollably, and remained Stalinists despite all that was revealed about him, true believers to the end.

“True Believer” is strangely relevant today, when so many believe that the end justifies the means and demagogues walk the earth, even close to home. Someone once said that the 20th century is like a nightmare from which we may never waken. Field was so blinded by ideology that he never woke from it. Ms. Marton has written a fascinating book.

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