Saturday, 13 May 2017

TRUE BELIEVER: Stalin’s Last American Spy


Simon & Schuster, 2016, 288 pages


Review by Phil Shannon

Breadlines, mass unemployment and Nazis made Noel Field a communist in the 1930s.  This gentle, intelligent son of American Quaker pacifists, however, was to be betrayed by Stalin, the man Field thought embodied the socialist vision, writes Kati Marton in True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy.


A progressive but, as Field reflected, ‘typical middle class intellectual’, he worked in official government channels (the US State Department and the League of Nations), trying to influence international affairs away from war.  This strategy proved frustrating to the young Field whose skills and idealism were being squandered by politically self-interested diplomacy and institutional ineffectiveness.


An Ivy League graduate of ‘good breeding’ and ‘distinctly a gentleman’, as his government examiners put it, with boundless talent (he completed a four year Harvard degree in just two), Field was marked by Moscow’s agents as a suitable intellectual for recruitment to their undercover spy network.  At the same time, Field finally figured out whether he was ‘a Socialist, a Liberal, or a Radical, or a Democrat’ and threw in his lot with the only ones – the communists – who had the political inspiration and energy to overthrow all he detested – war, inequality, class exploitation, racism.


Field was thus recruited in 1935 to Stalin’s intelligence network (the NKVD), providing them with classified US documents.  Stalin, being Stalin, however, was more interested in his secret police keeping in check potential political opponents than learning of Hitler’s military designs on Soviet Russia.  Field, an unquestioning Stalinist, was ineluctably drawn into the dictator’s Great Terror – first, as enabler, and then as victim.


Amongst Field’s Soviet control officers was Ignaz Reiss, a Soviet spy who had broken with Stalin - ‘Our paths part … [you are] a traitor to the cause of the working class and socialism’, Reiss rashly but bravely wrote to Stalin himself, guaranteeing his liquidation.  Field willingly agreed that, should Reiss get in touch with him in Geneva, he would alert the NKVD.  Although other Stalinist plotters got to Reiss first, Field was an aspiring accessory to political assassination.


As guilt-by-association spread in ever-widening circles amongst Stalin’s intelligence periphery, the paranoia inevitably lapped against Field, too.  Even though his war work in Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Vichy France for a non-government humanitarian aid organisation rescuing refugees trapped by fascism was skewed towards the saving anti-fascist communists for repatriation, this political ulterior motive counted against him in the view of Stalin.  Western communists were regarded as politically suspect by Stalin, tainted by their capitalist cultures and for having the quaint habit of seeing (Trotskyist) international revolution and Stalin’s Mother-Russia-First ‘Socialism in One Country’ as the same thing.


Named as a Russian spy by a communist renegade appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Field feared an FBI subpoena and sought safety in post-war ‘communist’ Czechoslovakia in 1949.  It was a fateful decision.  Handed over to the hard-line Stalinist secret police in ‘communist’ Hungary, Field was called an American spy and abused, beaten and tortured into naming all his contacts, dooming hundreds of European communists as ‘Fieldists’ (a pejorative as mortal as ‘Trotskyist’ or ‘Titoist’) to show trials and Stalinist repression in Moscow’s satellite subsidiaries in eastern Europe.


After five years of grim prison in Budapest, Field abjectly came to agree with his jailers that he was guilty.  His only avenue of escape from execution was as a Cold War trophy, an ‘American progressive’ who had renounced his Western capitalist wickedness by seeking asylum in the ‘communist’ east, which Field duly requested in 1954.


Field was a sad, broken, betrayed man, given the job as editor of a turgidly Stalinist, English-language journal in Hungary.  In its pages, he dutifully denounced the 1956 Hungarian anti-Stalinist revolt as a counter-revolutionary ‘White Terror’ plot properly snuffed out by Soviet tanks.   


Field died in 1970.  His state funeral would have been an embarrassment to him, as his mourners mumbled the long-forgotten lyrics to unfashionable revolutionary songs, including the Internationale which had so stirred him in his socialist epiphany decades ago.


Kati Marton is a line-and-length anti-communist (“Marxism curdles into Leninism, then hardens into Stalinism” is her political creed), so she fingers Marxism as the Original Sin responsible for Field “never [being able to] abandon the faith which gave his life meaning”, despite all the degeneracy of Stalinism.


Yet, her account of Field’s final two years shows that deep inside even the coldest-hearted Stalinist, there was no guarantee that the first flame of revolutionary idealism could ever be entirely extinguished.  When the Soviet military crushed the 1968 Czechoslovakian revolution, Field wrote no defence of the Kremlin’s action in his journal, and he stopped paying his party dues.  Field’s final gestures had rekindled the remaining embers of dissent against political injustice that had made him a “true believer” in the first place.

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