In his new book The Millionaire was a Mole: The Twisted Life of
David Karr, Harvey Klehr, the distinguished historian of
Communism, recounts the colorful, sordid, and altogether unlikely
story of a man who, born into an ordinary middle-class Brooklyn
family in 1918, was, in turn, a writer for Communist newspapers like
the Daily Worker, an employee of the Office of War Information
in Washington, a flunky for the syndicated D.C.-based columnist Drew
Pearson, a PR guy in New York, the CEO of a major defense contractor,
a corporate raider, a Broadway and Hollywood producer, the general
manager of the George V Hotel in Paris, and – finally, from 1973
until his mysterious death in 1979, which has been attributed
variously to the CIA, the Mossad, the Mafia, and the KGB – a Soviet
Along the way, Karr acquired a multitude of friends, enemies, and
acquaintances in high places, becoming a target during his years with
Pearson of Senator Joseph McCarthy and columnist Westbrook Pegler;
after relocating to France, he became a business partner of Aristotle
Onassis and a friend of Kennedy clan member Sargent Shriver, who
introduced him to famous oil tycoon Armand Hammer. In turn, Hammer,
who had enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin since 1919, and who helped
fund Communist operations in the U.S. and Europe in exchange for
business concessions in the Soviet Union, introduced Karr to Soviet
officials and ended up with a lucrative job helping U.S. firms set up
business in the USSR. It was Karr, for example, who set up the
financing for the first Western hotel constructed in the Soviet
What exactly did Karr do during his brief stint as a KGB agent? He
provided his Kremlin bosses with inside information on the
presidential campaigns of several Democratic candidates – Shriver,
Henry Jackson, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter. “He tried to
insinuate himself in the Gerald Ford White House,” said Klehr in an
“He probably also worked for the Mossad.” Was he a convinced
Communist, betraying his country in the name of principle, however
misguided? No. Throughout his life, Karr seems to have been a man who
believed only in advancing his career and lining his pockets. Almost
certainly, he committed treason – serving the interests of
America’s totalitarian enemy – only because it was profitable.
When you think about it, becoming a Kremlin pawn was the natural last
act in the career of this sleazy, thoroughly unscrupulous character.
When, other than under the Third Reich
itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the
hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such
picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as
an endorsement of totalitarianism.
But for some reason the same doesn’t
apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture
after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated
sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs
was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995)
depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains
but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the
Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American
Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First
Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially
turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a
hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle
Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something
resembling a classical liberal.
The latest contribution this
reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita
Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British
Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to
her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life
working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB
agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to
produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 –
years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities
publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her
Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter calledRed Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.
In real life, Norwood was the daughter
of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came
naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her
country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop.
Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for
treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her
callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews
and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the
case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the
same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism,
investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that
giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on
nukes and thus make the world safer.
After perusing the idiotic reviews in
the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were
pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on
right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily
Mail‘s Guy Walters described
it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s
most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil
and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard
for some people to see?
We’ve written about a few spies on this website, but Richard Sorge, the subject of a new biography by Owen Matthews, was not just any spy. As Joseph Bottum wrote in a recent review of Matthews’s book, An Impeccable Spy, Sorge was “possibly the greatest spy who ever lived.” A German nationalist in his youth, he emerged from World War I (and a subsequent doctoral program in political science) as a diehard Communist. Moving to Moscow, he was hired by the Soviets as a spy and sent back to Germany to work undercover as a journalist and pretend to be a loyal Nazi even as he was spying not only on the Nazis but on their Japanese allies.
He was so good at posing as a Nazi that
Goebbels became a friend, or at least a friendly acquaintance.
That wasn’t all. He infested the social and professional circle of Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe with fellow Soviet
agents. The German ambassador to Japan, Herbert von Dirksen,
trusted him so much that he became a fast friend, appointing Sorge to
an intelligence post, and giving him “the run of the German
embassy.” (Apparently the ambassador didn’t know that Sorge had
bedded his wife.) For eight years, as Bottum puts it, Sorge “managed
to convince the Germans that he was working for them, the Japanese
that he was an important Nazi to whom secrets could be revealed, and
the Soviets that he was their man.” It was thanks to him that the
Kremlin learned about the establishment of the Axis alliance, about a
German-Japanese pact banning the Comintern in those countries, about
the Japanese decision not to attack the USSR through Manchuria, and
about the planned German invasion of Russia in 1941. Meanwhile Sorge
led a social life that makes at least a few of the James Bond movies
look tame and unimaginative.
It all had to come crashing down
eventually, and so it did. After the Japanese secret police heard one
of his secret radio transmissions to te Soviets, they arrested and
tortured him, wringing from him a confession before he was hanged in
1944. Although he had provided the Soviets with an extraordinary
amount of useful information, and although he proclaimed his undying
loyalty to the Communist cause even as he was being executed, the
Kremlin repaid his intense devotion by arresting his wife after his
death on charges of being a German spy, which she almost certainly
Whether Sorge really was the greatest
spy ever seems doubtful. Does the best spy ever end up being caught
and hanged by the enemy? Never mind: if not the greatest spy, he was
surely one of the most colorful ones. There’s enough material here
for a thrilling spy movie. It has sex and skullduggery, drinking and
carousing, Nazis and Commies, glimpses of two world wars and a
gallery of famous historical figures, plus a whole bunch of
picturesque international settings. There’s everything, in fact,
except somebody to cheer for: Sorge was, after all, spying against
two of the most loathsome regimes in history on behalf of another of
the most loathsome regimes in history. What, after all, to make of a
German who spied against Hitler to help Stalin? The Soviets, in later
years, made him a national hero; to those of us today who despise
both Hitler and Stalin equally, he remains one of those puzzling
figures whose contempt for one form of totalitarianism was equaled
only by his adoration for another form of it.
On this site we’ve discussed Oliver Stone and Sharon Stone, but one Stone we haven’t yet gotten around to is the journalist I.F. Stone (1907-89). Which is odd, because this particular Stone could very well have been the mascot of this website, a dubious honor we awarded at the outset to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent who systematically whitewashed Stalin’s crimes and sang his praises in America’s newspaper of record.
It is no exaggeration to say that Stone was revered. In 1999, New York University’s journalism department named his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he published from 1953 to 1971, the second most important American journalistic periodical of the twentieth century. In 2008, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University began awarding the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.
Independence: that was the word they invariably used when describing Stone. That, and words like “rectitude” and “probity.” His New York Times obituary began as follows: “I. F. Stone, the independent, radical pamphleteer of American journalism….” It went on to call him a “maverick” and praise his “integrity.” The London Times entitled its obituary “I.F. Stone: Spirit of America’s Independent Journalism”; the headline in the Los Angeles Times obit called him “The Conscience of Investigative Journalism.” A posthumous editorial in the Boston Globe began with this statement: “For thousands of American journalists, I.F. Stone represented an ideal.”
In fact, he was a KGB spy.
A brief bio: the son of Russian immigrants (his birth name was Isidor Feinstein), Stone quit college to become a journalist. He served for a time as editor of the New York Post, then worked as a staffer and/or contributor to The Nation, New Republic, PM, and other left-wing political journals before starting his ownweekly. Throughout his long career, he was known for his strong leftist leanings.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he was an ardent supporter of the newly born State of Israel, but later became one of its fiercest critics and an outspoken champion of the Palestinian cause. He was also a vocal opponent of the Korean War and Vietnam War. Nobody who read his work could mistake him for anything but a far leftist with (usually) an obvious soft spot for the Soviet Union.
All along, a few canny observers suspected that Stone was working for the Kremlin. In 1992, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, credible-sounding reports began circulating to the effect that Stone had been a KGB man. John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev finally coughed up the goods in their 2009 book Spies, about KGB operatives in America. Stone, it turned out, had been on the Kremlin’s payroll as a full-fledged spy beginning in 1936 and ending perhaps in 1938, perhaps several years later. (On this question the records have yet to yield a definitive answer.) “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of tasks,” wrote Haynes and his co-authors, “ranging from doing some talent spotting acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.”
In other words, this widely venerated pillar of integrity and personification of independence was in fact a secret Kremlin operative. Spies established this fact beyond question in 2009. It is interesting to note that this information has not made much of a dent in Stone’s reputation among true believers on the left. Harvard did not change the name of its medal for journalistic independence, and none of the people who have won the award since 2009 have declined to accept it.
Then again, many of those winners – including Putin apologist Robert Parry, socialist radio host Amy Goodman, and Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky – are precisely the sort of “journalists” who wouldn’t much mind having their name associated with that of a Soviet spy. Which is precisely why we’re here at this website, writing about these unpleasant people and their unpleasant antics day after day.
After Soviet spy Guy Burgess defected to Russia, what was his life like?
First he and fellow traitor Donald Maclean were held under house arrest for several months, if not years (reports vary), and were interrogated the whole time. Burgess was then installed, alone, in a dacha in a village near Moscow, where he was constantly under armed guard and was not allowed to go outside without permission.
For five years after their disappearance, the USSR maintained a public silence about the fate of Burgess and Maclean. Nobody in Britain was sure whether they were alive or dead. Then, in 1956, Richard Hughes of the Sunday Times was called to a Moscow meeting at which the two defectors handed him a joint statement in which they denied having been Soviet agents and claimed to have gone to the USSR to work toward “better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West.”
Their statement made headlines. Thenceforth both men began communicating regularly with relatives and chums in the UK. Burgess wrote a piece for the Sunday Express denouncing U.S. foreign policy. Nobody high up criticized this; but when Burgess’s former friend Goronwy Rees published a series of intimate articles about the “real Guy Burgess,” Rees became an Establishment pariah: he was dismissed from a university position and dropped by friends who felt he’d betrayed Burgess. (They apparently didn’t mind that Burgess had betrayed his country.) One of these friends wrote to Rees: “Guy was such a charming, cultivated, civilised and loveable person.” That he worked for Stalin, apparently, was irrelevant; what mattered what the charm.
Mind-bogglingly, the British government let Burgess ship his furniture and other possessions from London to Moscow. His mother was permitted to visit him annually (she taught his cooks how to make his favorite dishes) and to send him food shipments several times a year. He corresponded freely with several friends, including Harold Nicolson. The British government even arranged for the contents of his London bank account to be transferred to him in Russia, and didn’t stand in his way when he ordered groceries from Fortnum & Mason, clothes from Turnbull & Asser, shirts from New & Lingwood, and books from Collet’s on Charing Cross Road. British authorities didn’t even strip him of his citizenship: he was designated a non-resident British subject, which meant he could receive money legally from the UK.
In Russia, Burgess continued to work actively against British interests. He wrote a spy-recruiting manual, helped counterfeit official British and American documents, and composed letters that were mailed to British MPs and Western newspapers bearing the signatures of private citizens who didn’t, in fact, exist. He was considered the mot useful of all British defectors.
He also led a more orderly life than he had in Britain. He had to. When he drank too much, his “minders” gave him a “talking-to.” His mother, who after his father’s death had never made an effort to control her constantly out-of-control son, observed that “Soviet discipline is good for Guy.” As Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie writes, “Burgess was a spoilt child, indulged by his mother,” and “had never been given boundaries.” For some people, indeed, this is indeed the appeal of totalitarianism: the idea of freedom is terrifying; they are incapable of self-control; they crave a strong authority above them, restricting their movements and punishing them for any violation of the rules.
Still, in a 1959 interview with Canadian TV, Burgess said: “My life ended when I left London.”
Three years later, he told British visitors that while he was “a firm believer in communism,” he didn’t “like the Russian communists.” He was even more vehement with another visitor, saying: “I hate Russia. I simply loathe Russia. I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!” The difference, of course, was that in the UK he could be a Communist while living under the capitalist system. What was the fun of being a Communist in a Communist country?
One thing seems clear. Burgess, we suspect, didn’t really want to see Britain transformed into a Communist state. What he wanted was to continue to live in a capitalist Britain where he was fully free to enjoy the manifold privileges and pleasures that were available to him as a member of the Establishment. At the same time, however, he wanted to be able to play the part of the rebel – without, of course, ever having to pay the slightest price for it. There was, in short, no moral or philosophical foundation underlying any of his actions. As one BBC colleague commented after his defection: “He had literally no principles at all. None at all.” Another acquaintance agreed: “There was a solid core missing….épater le bourgeois. That’s what really started him off.” What a shallow reason, indeed, to serve a monster like Stalin.
The 1951 defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union made the CIA livid. It was, as Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie puts it, “the third body-blow that American security had suffered as a result of the British, after the atom spies Alan Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and they were beginning to feel their whole atomic programme was being betrayed by foreigners.” The British people were also disgusted to know that these two men at the heart of British Intelligence had been traitors.
But the two traitors’ friends and former colleagues in the British elite had a somewhat more muted response. For example, diplomat and politician Harold Nicolson, who reflected in his diary that Burgess’s disappearance would mark the end of “the old easygoing confidence of the Foreign Office” and hence “the loss of one more element of civilization,” admitted that while he felt “so angry with Guy in some ways – feel that he has behaved so much like a cad,” in another sense he felt “deeply sorry for him.” Note the curious word choice here: not “traitor,” but “cad” – as if Burgess had pinched a chorus girl’s cheek rather than pinching government secrets.
The reaction was much the same throughout the cozy club that was the British political, cultural, media, and academic elite. Burgess’s fellow Etonians and Oxbridgeans couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the idea that two of their own were Soviet spies. Actual spies. As we’ve seen, Burgess had drunkenly blabbed about his Soviet connections to BBC colleagues and heaven knows who else. But these people’s minds were wired in such a way that even what amounted to an explicit confession of treason somehow just didn’t compute. They could imagine a member of the working classes betraying their country, but not Guy Burgess.
Even after Burgess and Maclean defected, this upper-crust naivete – this inability to work up a reasonable distrust for one of their own – remained intact. They still trusted another Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt, even though a great deal of evidence pointed toward him. This British blind spot so outraged the CIA and U.S. Defense Department that these two agencies withdrew temporarily from cooperating with British Intelligence. It was, indeed, the CIA that soon realized that Kim Philby was probably also a Soviet agent, and demanded that MI6 get rid of him or risk destroying the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. After standing by Philby for a brief while, MI6 did remove Philby from his position. But instead of investigating him for treason and putting him under arrest, it rewarded him with “a golden handshake of £ 4,000,” a pretty penny in those days. (Philby would eventually abscond to Moscow in 1963.)
Meanwhile the government, plainly more fearful of negative publicity than of Soviet infiltration, covered up key data about Burgess and Maclean, lied to the public about the extent of the two spies’ access to sensitive information, and made no effort whatsoever to rout out other spies. It was in response to this disgraceful display that Henry Fairlie, in an article for the Spectator, coined the term “The Establishment,” complaining that the first loyalty of the nation’s Oxbridge elite was not to King and Country but to itself. In a perfect demonstration of Fairlie’s argument, it was an American agency, the FBI, that finally fingered Philby as a Soviet agent – and it was top-level British politician (and future PM) Harold Macmillan who vehemently rejected this charge, saving Philby’s career – for a time, anyway.
We’ve seen how Cambridge man turned BBC producer, Foreign Office official, and British Intelligence agent Guy Burgess enjoyed the absolute confidence of his superiors in the UK corridors of power. And yet all the while he was a secret spy for the Soviet Union. What is baffling is that he was far from the most discreet of spooks. For one thing, as one BBC coworker, an on-air clergyman, later said, Burgess promised that “[w]hen we [i.e., the Communists] get into power” he (the clergyman) would be “one of the first to hang from a lamppost.” After one 1948 party at which he talked an “extremely pro-Russian” line, one of the attendees, Kate Maugham, told her brother, author Robin Maugham: “I believe Guy Burgess is a communist.” But Robin wasn’t having it: “Nonsense. If he were a communist surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlour communist so obviously.” To which Kate replied: “Perhaps it’s a double bluff.”
He was also outspoken in his hatred of America and the American way of life. This feeling intensified after the war, when he felt Britain had become a “satellite” of the U.S. and believed that the only way to resist American hegemony was to stand with the Soviets. One day in 1950, he walked into the dining room at the Reform Club in London and found a friend sitting with two High Court judges. They were discussing a new memoir, I Chose Freedom, by Victor Kravchenko, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union to the United States. Seeing a copy of the book on his friend’s lap, Burgess delivered a rant about “the iniquity of the Americans” and then picked up the book and tossed it across the room.
Yet none of this kept him from being posted later that year to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. So well-known were his political sympathies among his colleagues at the Foreign Office that one of them, before he left London, actually urged him not to be “too aggressively communist” while in the States.
In any event, after relocating to Washington, Burgess wore his contempt for America – and Americans – on his sleeve. At a dinner party hosted by his fellow Soviet spy Kim Philby (who was also working at the British Embassy) and attended by CIA counterintelligence head William Harvey, Burgess drew an unflattering caricature of Harvey’s wife, causing the Harveys to leave in a huff. As Burgess biographer Andrew Lownie puts it: “One Soviet spy had, in the home of another Soviet spy, insutled the man whose job it was to flush out Soviet spies.” This was only the beginning. Burgess’s outrageous conduct in the U.S. occasioned complaints to the CIA, State Department, and Governor of Virginia, and resulted in his being recalled to London, where he shared with everyone who would listen “his hatred for the Americans.”
But Burgess’s indiscreet behavior in the U.S. marked the beginning of the end. British Intelligence soon requested his resignation. Meanwhile, the Soviets informed his fellow spy Donald Maclean that he’d fallen under suspicion. On May 25, 1951, the two men defected to the Soviet Union.
After Cambridge student Guy Burgess went to work as a spy for the Soviet Comintern, he resigned his membership in the British Communist Party and pretended to have joined the political right. In 1936, with a glittering set of recommendations from well-placed friends and acquaintances, he got a job as a radio producer at the BBC.
Almost immediately, he proved his value to his Kremlin masters: he introduced pro-Russian radio programming (diplomat Harold Nicolson, a friend of Burgess’s, complained that thanks largely to Burgess’s efforts, BBC coverage of the Soviet Union was “completely distorted”); he was involved in the broadcast of speeches by high-level politicians and military officers whose gossip he readily passed on to Moscow; and he used his position at the Corporation to help established his Cambridge friend and fellow spy Anthony Blunt as an on-air art expert. He also recruited various friends as spies.
But that wasn’t all. The Soviets, as it happened, really lucked out. Soon after going to work at the BBC, Burgess was also tapped by the office Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to serve as a “secret courier between No. 10 Downing Street and the French government.” He was then hired by British intelligence to secretly report to it on the Prime Minister’s activities. In short, he was spying on the PM for British intelligence, and spying on both of them for the Soviets, to whom he provided a rich trove of material. His work for British intelligence also involved liaising with anti-Nazi groups around Europe and serving on the Joint Broadcasting Committee, which fed pro-British radio shows to the U.S. and Europe. The top-level connections he now enjoyed in Britain gave him “access to highly confidential information about the preparations for war” that proved extremely helpful to the Soviets. In particular, his tip-off that the British government felt it could easily defeat Hitler alone, and thus had no serious intention of allying with the USSR against him, helped convince Stalin that his only salvation lay in a temporary alliance with the Nazis.
In 1944, he was tasked with planning postwar British propaganda for the Foreign Office, and in that capacity had access to “almost all material produced by the Foreign Office.” The material he fed to the Russians at this point was “dynamite.” And it just got better: in 1946 he became private secretary to a top Foreign Office official and began to take part in the formulation of foreign policy. Thanks to him, Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, knew what the British and American position on Berlin was before the Brits’ own delegates to the 1947 London Conference did.
Yet nobody in British intelligence suspected what Burgess was up to; on the contrary, so highly trusted was he that when his superiors decided that there was need to fight Soviet propaganda with propaganda of their own, they tapped Burgess to help formulate it. Indeed, his immediate boss, Hector McNeil, trusted Burgess so much that McNeil asked him “to report on anyone who might be suspicious on the staff.”
Guy Burgess (1911-63) lost his father, a Naval officer, at thirteen, went to Eton, and at Cambridge, where he was considered “the most brilliant undergraduate of his day,” became part of a circle of debauched, entitled young aesthetes-cum-intellectuals (including the heir to the Rothschild fortune). While enjoying a louche, lavish life of privilege – garden parties, champagne breakfasts, lunch with E. M. Forster, a weekend chez Somerset Maugham on the Riviera, servants who waited on him hand and foot – Burgess also became a Communist. After joining the Apostles, a “secret society” of leftist, pacifist, atheist, artsy students, Burgess and his friend Anthony Blunt set about packing the club with fellow Stalinists. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon: it was the early 1930s, and thanks to the Party’s new tactic of recruiting students instead of workers, Cambridge as a whole was turning red: the Trinity Historical Society became Marxist and the Socialist Society affiliated itself with the British Communist Party.
As Andrew Lownie notes in a recent biography, Stalin’s Englishman, Burgess was expected to have “a brilliant academic future.” But when his thesis in progress was suddenly rendered redundant by a newly published book on the same topic, the trauma was so great that he was put off from pursuing an academic career.
What else could he do with his life? In 1934, he visited the USSR, where his status as a Cambridge Communist gave him access to a number of high-level officials. When one of them showed him a list of books that were being translated into Russian, Burgess – who was more Communist than the Communists – warned that one of the titles on the list, Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, was fascist. He was so persuasive that the Soviets decided then and there not to translate it after all.
Burgess wasn’t one of those Western Communists who viewed Soviet life through rose-colored glasses. Returning to Cambridge, he was honest about the USSR’s appalling housing and infrastructure. His friend Goronwy Rees would later observe that Burgess wasn’t particularly interested in the reality on the ground in Russia. A true academic, Burgess was in love with Communist ideas; whether they worked out in real life was of little or no concern to him.
All that was left was for him to become a spy. His fellow Apostle Kim Philby, who had already become a courier for the Austrian Communists, gave his Party contact a list of Cambridge and Oxford friends who might also be willing to work for the cause. He included Burgess, but put his name at the bottom of his list because he was an “enfant terrible,” a flamboyant type who, Philby suspected, didn’t have the makings of a good secret agent.
In the end, Burgess figured out that Philby and their mutual friend Donald Maclean – who had also signed up with the Communists – were involved in something clandestine and exciting and demanded they include him, too. “He must have been one of the very few people to have forced themselves into the Soviet special service,” Philby later said. And so it happened. The Soviet Comintern signed up Burgess, giving him the codename Madchen. He was now one of the men who would come to be known as the “Cambridge Spies.”
When Noel Field, State Department official turned Soviet spy, settled down in Budapest in 1955 to spend his twilight years under the Communist totalitarianism he adored, he was given a job as translator and editor at New Hungarian Quarterly, an English-language publication that was distributed abroad to show off new Hungarian writing. He was surprised to discover that his colleagues at the magazine did not share his zealous devotion to Communism. On the contrary, as one of them would later tell biographer Kati Marton, Field was “the only pure Communist” in the office. Sophisticated intellectuals who knew the system for what it was, Field’s coworkers considered his (or anyone’s) devout Communism “a sign of intellectual backwardness.” For his part, whenever he overheard one of them saying things that weren’t entirely in line with Communist ideology, he rushed to inform on them, like any good Bolshevik, and they lost their jobs.
In mid 1956, aware that the Hungarian people were growing restive under the Soviet yoke, Field wrote an article in the Hungarian Communist Party newpaper insisting that Communism was still “fundamentally sound” and calling dissenters “enemies of progress.” Soon after came the Hungarian uprising – and a few short weeks of freedom, which came to an end when Soviet tanks rolled in and brutally put down the rebellion. The next year, when a friend in Warsaw complained about the brutality of the Soviet incursion, Field replied sharply: “I don’t want to hear this!”
In his view, the Soviet troops who marched into Hungary were “the real freedom fighters” and the Kremlin’s new puppet leader, János Kádár, had “saved Hungary from ‘White Terror.’” In 1960, four years after Khrushchev himself ardently denounced Stalin’s crimes, Field published an article in Mainstream, an American Communist Party periodical, calling those crimes “essential on the road to a Communism.” Of the men who had interrogated and tortured him years earlier, he wrote: “I approve their detestation.” When everyone around him had moved on from Stalin and embraced a somewhat softer totalitarianism, Field remained an uncompromising Stalinist.
Every time Field issued yet another pro-Communist public statement, such as his article in Mainstream, his family in the West were subjected to a new round of media attention – and public suspicion that they shared his sympathies. When Field’s brother, Hermann, wrote a letter pleading with Noel to try to keep a lower profile, Noel snapped back: “As you know, I have my convictions, and whenever these require me to speak out, I shall do so, however great the pain of causing unpleasantness to relatives I continue to hold dear.” This to someone who had been imprisoned and tortured for his sake.
The years went by. In 1968 the Kremlin again sent in tanks to crush an Eastern European revolt – this time in Czechoslovakia. Field was silent about it, but he did stop paying his Party dues. Is it possible that after so many decades of unshakable belief in the savage god of Communism, he finally lost his faith? There is no way of knowing for sure.
On this site, over the last year and a half, we’ve discussed scores of people who, out of either misguided devotion or pure self-interest, have put themselves at the service of tyrants. When it comes to unswerving ideological conviction, few if any could measure up to Noel Field. Kari Marton, Field’s biographer, sums it all up as follows: “His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequence of blind faith.”