Noel Field: defending his torturers

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Noel Field (right) with his wife, Herda, and Unitarian leader Charles Joy

Quitting the League of Nations in 1940, Soviet spy Noel Field and wife, Herta, began working for the Unitarian Service Committee in Marseille. Their job, as Field’s biographer Kati Marton recounts, was to aid refugees, and in particular to lend life-saving help to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Unbeknownst to the committee, however, the Fields used its money, above all, to help their fellow Communists and to further the Communist cause. They also refused to help Ukrainian refugees, because in their eyes anyone fleeing from the Soviets was by definition “only a little less reactionary than Nazis.”

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Allen Dulles

In 1942, with the U.S. finally in the war, the Fields relocated to Switzerland, where Noel joined the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) under Allen Dulles. He served as a sort of middleman, passing on U.S. resources to Communist friends, who in turn provided the OSS with intelligence from Communist resistance fighters in France and Germany.

After the war, a jobless Field traveled around “liberated” Eastern Europe. Years earlier, back in Washington, he had been acutely aware of the poverty and sadness he witnessed, but now he was blind to the far worse privation and misery around him. All he could see was a “Promised Land” in the process of being born.

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Whittaker Chambers

In 1948, Whittaker Chambers, a former Communist, told the House Un-American Activities Committee that his old State Department colleague, Alger Hiss, was a Communist. Hiss had powerful friends who protected him, including future Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles. Field didn’t. What to do? Jobless, footloose in Western Europe, and scared to return to the U.S., Field wrote to a Czech official begging for a job in Prague. His letter, as Marton writes, betrays an “astonishing zeal to enter a country slowly morphing into a prison state.”

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Tito

Field was invited to Prague – where he was promptly kidnapped by the authorities, transported to Budapest, and accused of being a U.S. spy. Interrogated, beaten, and tortured, he ultimately confessed to a ridiculous charge that his tormenters knew to be untrue: that his rescue of Communists in wartime Marseille had been a cover for recruiting them for the CIA and the Yugoslav leader, Tito. Ordered to list all the Communists whose return to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary he had facilitated, Field provided 562 names. Most of the people he fingered ended up being subjected to new show trials, convicted on his “evidence,” and executed.

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Noel and Herda Field

Field later regretted the weakness that had led him to ascribe guilt to innocent people. But he never criticized his torturers. On the contrary, he defended them. And he made a list of reasons why they were right to have beaten a false confession out of him:

  1. I am an American

  1. I worked for the State Department

  2. I worked for a Christian philanthropy

  3. I was in touch with Dulles

  4. I snooped around the East Bloc after the war

  5. I was born bourgeois

“This,” writes Marton, “was the ultimate triumph of totalitarianism: the accused accepted, even embraced, his guilt. The party can never be wrong.”

More anon.

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