True Believer

Title:                      True Believer

Author:                  Kati Marton

Marton, Kati (2016). True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy. New York ; London ; Toronto: Simon & Schuster

LCCN:    2015041712

E743.5.F47 M37 2016

Scope and content

  • “This astonishing real-life spy thriller, filled with danger, misplaced loyalties, betrayal, treachery, and pure evil, with a plot twist worthy of John le Carré, is relevant today as a tale of fanaticism and the lengths it takes us to. True Believer reveals the life of Noel Field, an American who betrayed his country and crushed his family. Field, once a well-meaning and privileged American, spied for Stalin during the 1930s and ‘40s. Then a pawn in Stalin’s sinister master strategy, Field was kidnapped and tortured by the KGB and forced to testify against his own Communist comrades. How does an Ivy League-educated, US State Department employee, deeply rooted in American culture and history, become a hardcore Stalinist? The 1930s, when Noel Field joined the secret underground of the International Communist Movement, were a time of national collapse: ten million Americans unemployed, rampant racism, retreat from the world just as fascism was gaining ground, and Washington—pre FDR—parched of fresh ideas. Communism promised the righting of social and political wrongs and many in Field’s generation were seduced by its siren song. Few, however, went as far as Noel Field in betraying their own country. With a reporter’s eye for detail, and a historian’s grasp of the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century, Kati Marton captures Field’s riveting quest for a life of meaning that went horribly wrong. True Believer is supported by unprecedented access to Field family correspondence, Soviet Secret Police records, and reporting on key players from Alger Hiss, CIA Director Allen Dulles, and World War II spy master, ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan—to the most sinister of all: Josef Stalin. A story of another time, this is a tale relevant for all times”—Provided by publisher.


Date Updated:  October 13, 2017

Reviewed by Timothy Naftali[1]

In these troubling times, we are more likely than our parents or grandparents to accept on face value that John F. Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald could have been a lone wolf. The archetype of the self-radicalized individual’—seduced by poisonous ideas into being a soldier for a cause, acting on dark impulses without need of a supporting organization and becoming a stranger to his family and community’—now haunts the public imagination.

This makes Kati Marton’s newest book, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, the exploration of a self-radicalized American of an earlier age, so relevant. “Noel Field, a sensitive, self-absorbed idealist and dreamer,” Marton explains, “was both an unlikely revolutionary and an ideal target for conversion to a powerful faith.”

Born in London in 1904 to a Quaker pacifist family, Field put himself on the road to revolution as a student at Harvard and continued when he joined the State Department in 1926. “I gradually started to live an illegal life,” Field would later write, “separate from my official life.” This initially involved reading taboo texts, notably The Daily Worker. In time, he would share his emerging faith with his wife, Herta, and his best friend, Laurence Duggan, a fellow Harvard graduate, colleague at the State Department and future Soviet spy.

In the 1930s, Soviet intelligence was playing the long game, looking for well-educated young men in the West like Field with promise and ideological commitment who would spy for Stalin as they climbed bureaucratic ladders. When the precursor of the K.G.B. came knocking in 1934, both Field and Duggan signed up.

Field was no Kim Philby; he tried to parse his treason. He didn’t much like stealing documents (though he did), and felt generally uneasy spying on his government. He was nevertheless a prized recruit. Marton cites Russian documents showing that another spying friend in government, Alger Hiss, tried to recruit both Duggan and Field for Soviet military intelligence instead of the K.G.B., but in 1936 Field went to Geneva to work for the League of Nations, where he felt more comfortable spying. With his qualms now set aside, Soviet intelligence enlisted him to assist in killing the defector Ignatz Reiss, and he readily agreed. “He was a traitor,” Field later boasted. “He deserved to die.” After the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, Field would join the American intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services. In 1943 he began spying on his own country once again.

It is not the spy stories that make this book so fascinating. It is the account of the bizarre events involving Field and, more poignantly, his family once the Cold War began and waves of paranoia swept both superpowers. In 1948, as the F.B.I. was investigating Field and Hiss, Larry Duggan committed suicide, and the Fields resolved not to return to the United States. The next year, while in Prague, Field was kidnapped by the Czech police for being an American agent. His acquaintance with the O.S.S. spymaster Allen Dulles had made him an easy though absurd target for Stalin’s last purge.

Even imprisonment and torture couldn’t shake Field’s faith. He would spend the next five years in a Budapest prison (the Czechs turned him over to the Hungarians) trying to convince his interrogators not only that he was an eternal Communist but also that he, Duggan and Hiss had spied only for Stalin.

The toll visited upon Field’s family in these years was shocking. One by one, as his brother, Hermann; his wife, Herta; and his adopted daughter, Erica Wallach, each tried to find the disappeared Field in Eastern Europe, they were themselves arrested. All three would spend five years in a Soviet-bloc prison simply because they were related to Noel Field.

Kati Marton’s parents, both respected Hungarian journalists, were the only reporters to interview Field after he left prison in 1954, giving her a special connection to the man. He died in 1970 unrepentant, a staunch defender of the cause, acknowledging neither his years of spying nor the suffering his secret life had caused his own family. As vividly reconstructed by Marton, Noel Field’s life is a window on the delusion and narcissism that fuel the self-radicalized of any era.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

Of all the American nitwits who spied for Josef Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship, none perhaps behaved with more die-hard stupidity than State Department officer Noel Field.

Born into a prominent Quaker family, Field spent his boyhood in Europe. While at Harvard, his Quaker idealism, coupled with a loathing for capitalism, morphed into admiration for communism. Bent upon “reforming America,” he joined State’s Western European Division in 1926 and achieved a reputation for brilliance—and also for unconcealed leftism.

His sordid story is grippingly related by Kati Marton, whose parents, Hungarian journalists, covered various show trials that resulted in Field and other “traitors to the cause” being jailed. She also gained access to Field family papers and those of persons brought down with him.

In a New Deal Washington teeming with communists and sympathizers, Field proved to be a prime prospect for Soviet intelligence recruiters. A legendary KGB recruiter known as “J. Peters” easily hooked Field. “An ideal target,” Kati Marton termed him. “Who would ever believe a well-mannered young man with deep New England roots and immaculate appearances such as Noel Field could betray his country?”

A rival ring run by GRU, Soviet military intelligence, competed with the KGB over another State Department spy, Alger Hiss, who was identified by name in KGB cable traffic. The more cautious GRU used a cover name for Hiss, “Ales.”

Lack of security made spying easy. “The mentality of the State Department was rather provincial… This was evident from the careless manner in which state secrets were managed. The most secret documents, sometimes in multiple copies, circulated from hand to hand.”

Among Field’s grabs were documents on State’s positions for a naval conference in London in 1935-6. In attendance, Field regularly briefed his Soviet handler, Paul Massing, on talks intended to limit the growth of naval armaments in the rapidly growing German and Italian navies. Field even accompanied Massing to a Swiss ski resort over the Christmas holidays to prepare an in-depth report.

But Field was careless to the point of recklessness. Contrary to KGB dicta, he subscribed to The Daily Worker, the US communist newspaper, and waved copies to make points in debates. He marched in leftist protest demonstrations. And perhaps most striking, he drove a group of friends to the Lincoln Memorial one evening, got out of the car, and loudly sang the “International”—in Russian.

Switching to the United Nations in Geneva in 1936, Field took on a most odious Soviet assignment—to help assassinate a longtime KGB officer named Ignace Reiss, who was threatening to defect to protest the Stalin “show trials” that killed many former associates. Field was tasked with watching for Reiss and notifying the assigned assassin if he appeared. As matters turned out, another killer disposed of Reiss (12 shots to the head). But as Morton observes, Field “had shown his willingness to do Moscow’s bidding—even as an accessory in a comrade’s murder.”

Field next shifted to France and an office of the Unitarian Service Committee charged with helping refugees flee as war spread through Europe. Associates noted that Field had a preference for helping hard-core Stalinists. And when war came, he sought out an old family friend, Allen Dulles, and signed on with the Office of Strategic Services. (The OSS director, Gen. William Donovan, had famously declared, “I’d put Stalin on the OSS payroll if I thought it would help us defeat Hitler.”)

But a young Arthur S. Schlesinger (the future Harvard historian and JFK aide) saw what his OSS col-league was doing: concentrating on helping pro-Soviet refugees set up postwar Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe.

Field’s world tumbled in 1948. Communist agent Whittaker Chambers defected and revealed wide Red infiltration of Federal agencies. He named Field and Hiss, among others. Field sought refuge in Hungary, a Soviet puppet state.

Then another jolt: a paranoid Stalin accused Field and several other former agents for being secret American intelligence agents working against the USSR, specifically to help Josip Tito lead Yugoslavia out of the Soviet bloc.

A stunned Field was tortured—at times so severely he had to be carried to his cell on a stretcher. He followed a prepared script and “confessed” that his rescue of communists “was a cover for recruiting them for Dulles and the other arch traitor, Tito.” He named 562 persons as his “agents.” His sentence: five years in solitary confinement.

Incredibly, Field played along with his tormentors, faulting himself for “lack of Communist character” and begging to continue with the Party. Even the jailing of his wife, brother and adopted daughter did not shake his faith in communism. He chose to remain in Hungary after his release from prison—still worshipping at the feet of the failed god communism.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[3]

May 1949 found one-time American diplomat Noel Field in Prague where he had gone to pursue a teaching opportunity. His wife Herta remained in Geneva. When Field’s letters stopped, she called his brother Hermann, then in Italy, and they went to Prague to find out why. When Herta’s foster daughter, Erica Glaser, tried to contact the Fields, she got no response so she went to Berlin to enlist the help of a wartime friend. Neither the Fields nor Erica were heard from again for five years. True Believer explains why.

The basics of Noel Field’s story have been told before, but author Kati Marton adds new particulars based on material released after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the author’s parents, Endre and Illona Marton, were the only journalists ever to interview Field, in Budapest after the Hungarian Revolution.

Marton traces Field’s life from his birth to Quaker parents in London (1904), to his early education in Switzerland (where he first met Allen Dulles), and his college life at Harvard where he graduated with honors. By the 1930s he had married his childhood sweetheart and was a rising star in the foreign service. He was also on a “path to an alternate faith”—communism—and began addressing his mother as “Comrade Nina.” (p. 45)

True Believer describes Field’s recruitment as a Soviet agent by Hede Massing and his contacts with communist coworkers Larry Duggan and Alger Hiss—links that would later seriously complicate his life. Marton goes on to explain his decision to leave the foreign service in 1936 for the League of Nations Disarmament Section, where he could work for world peace. But he also agreed to continue his work for the Soviets, and Massing arranged for him to support Soviet officers Ignace Reiss and Walter Krivitsky in several nasty operations. During the Spanish Civil War, the Fields helped anti-fascist refugees escape Franco’s forces, which is when he and Herta met a young teenager, Erica Glaser, who would live with them in Switzerland throughout World War II, eventually join the OSS, and marry an Army officer. Marton claims Field also worked for Allen Dulles during the war, a claim that has skeptics.

After the war, Field, knowing Krivitsky had defected, had no doubt Krivitsky had revealed to the FBI Field’s role as a Soviet agent. In fact, others—including Massing—had also disclosed this information. Worse, his friend Alger Hiss had become the subject of a congressional espionage investigation, and if Field returned, he knew he, too, would be charged and required to testify against Hiss. Thus, he remained in Switzerland until he received the May 1949 job offer from Prague—a ruse that led to his arrest, disappearance, and imprisonment in Budapest.

As Field would later learn, Stalin had had Field arrested so his putative links to Dulles and the OSS could be used to show Field was the leader of an and-Soviet espionage network during the war. He was forced to acknowledge his guilt and to testify against Stalin’s targets in a show trial that purged Hungarian communists. Five years later, thanks to a Polish defector to the CIA who had arrested Hermann in Warsaw and knew the fate of the Fields in Hungary, their story became public. Only then did Noel learn that Herta had also been a prisoner in the same jail; both were released, as was Hermann. The Fields remained in Budapest, ever the loyal communists, until their deaths. Hermann returned to the West. Erica, who had been in a Soviet gulag that kept her from raising a public fuss, was released a year later. She returned to her family in Warrenton, Virginia, where she taught in a local school.

True Believer reveals the power and dangers of total commitment to a radical political cause and offers many parallels to current events.

[1] Timothy Naftali. A version of this appeared in the New York Times (September 9, 2016), on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “Which Side Was He On?”. Downloaded November 15, 2016. Timothy Naftali, a clinical associate professor of history and public service at New York University, is working on a new narrative of John F. Kennedy’s presidential years.

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp. 101-102). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[3] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp.133-134 ). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at



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