How does an idealist turn into a willing participant in murder? How does such a person - 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, one who started out with noble intentions, could sacrifice his own and his family’s freedom, a promising career, and his country, for a fatal myth. His is the story of the sometimes-terrible consequence of blind faith.
The power of an Idea – be it a holy Crusade, Fascism, Communism,or Radical Islam – that promises a final correction of all personal, social, and political injustices can be compulsive. Some movements add the lure of “immortality.” They prey on questing, restless, dissatisfied youth who are gradually persuaded to surrender their freedom to a “higher” cause, an all-knowing Master. In this submission, there is relief from soul searching. At last there is an answer to every question. Once he surrenders, the convert feels a rush of relief: his existence now has meaning beyond himself. With the conversion he gains a fraternal comradeship, a family of the like minded. For this rapture, he yields moral responsibility, the duty to think for himself. The global crusade – and its master in the person in the Commissar or the Caliph – knows best.
Communism was one such messianic global crusade able to recruit the likes of Fields and many others like him. Its seductive lure is one reason the Soviet Union proved such an unnerving Cold War adversary during the second half of the 20th Century. Great powers have always faced the danger of having traitors in their midst—citizens or officials who offer their services to rival powers, for money or petty personal grievances. But the Soviets, as the self-professed vanguard of an international revolution that would render nationalism and injustice a thing of the past, could count on a ready-made Fifth Column, especially among the intelligentsia, almost everywhere.
This was especially true in the 1930s, when Field, a young Harvard-educated State Department employee, was first approached by the Soviets. Field’s betrayal of his country and his family for the promise of Communism was not merely motivated by his deep longing for a life of significance. As was true for so many children of the Depression, disillusionment with democracy, capitalism, and the West’s appeasement of Hitler were strong motivations in signing up with Moscow. For these discontents, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat seemed to offer the only alternative to the West’s breadlines and mass unemployment, as well as opposition to the Nazis’ aggression and racism. That Stalin would later make his own deal with Hitler, that there were breadlines in Russia, that reality deviated from the Communist Manifesto—these were all facts. But what concerned Field and his compatriots were not the facts but the Cause.
Field, a sensitive, self-absorbed idealist-dreamer, was both an unlikely revolutionary and an ideal target for conversion to a powerful faith. In the 1930s, he joined the secret underground of the International Communist Movement. It was a time of national collapse: ten million unemployed, rampant racism and, before Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Washington parched of ideas. Communism promised the righting of social and political wrongs. To Field, World Revolution and the violent overthrow of his own government seemed a necessary price to pay for the ultimate triumph of the proletariat. Strict discipline and sacrifice for a cause beyond his person were expected of Field and his fellow recruits. Noel Field may never have hoisted an AK 47, nor strapped on a suicide vest, because he was never asked to. But his commitment and his submission to his cause were total and ultimately as destructive as those of today’s ISIS recruits.
But Field’s conversion wasn’t entirely political – his was a convergence of personal needs and political rationalization. What he and thousands of others like him had no way of knowing is that their recruitment was managed and manipulated by hard boiled cynics, skilled at spotting society’s vulnerable and promising youth. Nor did they suspect how far the reality of the Workers’ State would be from the promised Utopia.
Field was tapped as a potential spy in his time at the State Department—offering reports on colleagues and stealing documents from the West European Division—and continued when he took up a position in Switzerland for the League of Nations in 1936. He was lured to Prague in 1949, where he was arrested. He was then interrogated and tortured, his “confessions” manipulated and manufactured by Stalin to usher in the show trials that brought about the eventual murders of party members across the Eastern Bloc.
Field was not one of Stalin’s master spies. He lacked both the steel and the polished performance skills of a Kim Philby or an Alger Hiss. Field’s betrayals nonetheless cost lives. Above all, however, Noel Field’s story reveals his Master’s boundless cruelty and sinister disregard for human life – including the life of his own faithful. Like thousands of others, Field was used—then, having served his purpose, he was discarded.
Communism tempted many of Field’s generation. Most, having observed the chasm between its promise and brutal reality, eventually moderated or abandoned their early zeal. Not Field. Though the dream of a triumphant working class soured and turned murderous, he stayed locked to his faith. He did not die a martyr in battle, but eventually he embraced a form of the martyrdom of innocents—his own among them—because that is what his master, Stalin, ordained.
Field never publicly spoke nor wrote candidly about his terrible choices. As Hungarian journalists working for American wire services in Budapest in the Fifties, my parents covered Field’s arrest by Soviet authorities, as well as the show trial that followed. Then, my parents were themselves arrested, and my father shared Field’s interrogator before his own fake trial for espionage. Moreover, my father was held in the same cell the American had previously occupied, both had been “Prisoner Number 410” for a period. Then, during the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956, my parents located Field and his wife, and conducted the only known interview with them. Those are the circumstances that led me to write a book about him.
The post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin is a craven, sly player on the international stage – a ruthlessly self-interested authoritarian, nationalistic project. Any pretense or sense of romance or idealism about Moscow’s role in global affairs is long gone, and so it is sometimes hard to remember now the power Russia once wielded in subverting some of our best and brightest through its appropriation of the socialist ideal.
But history -and a certain human vulnerability toward Messiahs of all stripes - makes clear that there will be other waves of fanaticism in the future. They may be as dangerous and hard to control as the movement that now captures fighters for Militant Islam, or the one that once held Noel Field. And Americans must always ensure that their own ideals are maintained and renewed, to withstand these external threats and misguided betrayals from within.
This article is adapted from Kati Marton's latest book, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, released this week.