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.

Becoming a traitor

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J. Edgar Hoover

After World War II, there would be much talk about the “paranoia” about Communism that supposedly could be found in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But during the years between the world wars, the problem in the nation’s capital was the opposite. Almost anybody working at, say, the State or War department could easily access classified documents. Communist sympathies on the part of high-level officials were accepted with a shrug by the FBI and other agencies. J. Edgar Hoover and his men were all but oblivious to the danger of Soviet spying.

In fact there were plenty of Soviet spies in Washington, some of whom held very high-level positions in the U.S. government. Those who worked for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) reported to J. Peters, a Hungarian who had been born Sándor Goldberger and who worked out of the American Communist Party’s offices in New York. In 1934, Peters sent one of his underlings, Hede Massing, to Washington to try to enlist State Department official Noel Field, as Kati Marton reports in her fascinating biography of Field. As it happened, Field was also being wooed by a friend at State, Alger Hiss, who worked for the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency.

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Hede Massing

Field hesitated, then finally signed up with the NKVD in the fall of 1935.

Spying proved easy. These were days, he later recalled, when the “most secret documents… circulated from hand to hand.”

His new NKVD colleagues noticed several things about Field. One was his incredible naivete. Another was the “innate need for a guiding faith to imbue his life with meaning”: this “made him a devoted Communist.” Yet another was his desperate need to obey orders: he was a follower, not a leader or original thinker. “Noel could be strong only when he was doing what his superiors told him to do,” his friend and fellow spy Paul Massing later observed. Then there was his absolute belief in the goodness and rightness of Stalin and the Party. “For Noel,” Massing said, “the leaders of the Revolution can do no wrong.”

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Noel Field (right) at the League of Nations, 1939

Leaving the State Department in 1936, Field went to Geneva to work for the League of Nations – and to continue his espionage work. The next year, this young man who’d been drawn to Communism by a desire to usher in a better world was an accessory to the assassination of Ignaz Reisz, a veteran Soviet spy chief who’d dared to complain to Stalin about the show trials and executions of loyal Communists that were then underway in the USSR. Field had no remorse about this coldblooded murder. “He was a traitor,” Field said. “He deserved to die.”

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Gen. Walter Krivitsky

Field wasn’t troubled by the show trials, at which heroes of the Russian Revolution were railroaded and condemned to death. Other Communists, however, were outraged. Among them was Field’s handler, General Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the U.S., wrote exposés of Stalinism in the Saturday Evening Post, and ended up being murdered by Soviet agents in a Washington hotel room – a victim of Western officials’ unawareness of just how brutal the Kremlin was. (Krivitsky had actually told British Intelligence about the spies who’d later be known as the Cambridge Five, but they, like the FBI, had responded with a shrug.)

In 1938, a former colleague told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Field was a Communist. But thanks to official Washington’s – and America’s – lackadaisical attitude toward Communism during the FDR years, nothing happened to him. At about the same time, Field’s State Department friend Larry Duggan was also revealed to be a Soviet agent, but he, too, got away with it. Indeed, instead of being arrested or at least fired, Duggan was – incredibly – promoted: during most of World War II he served as assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a position that provided him with access to the nation’s most secret documents.

More tomorrow.