- True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy by Kati Marton
True Believer chronicles the life and times of Cold War–era espionage agent Noel Field and, to a lesser extent, the life of his wife, Herta, both of whom remained steadfast believers in the ideals and promises of Soviet-style Communism even when it had fallen out of fashion. In telling their story, Kati Marton paints a vivid and somewhat sympathetic portrait of the couple. She draws in a cast of characters, including Paul and Hede Massing, Alger Hiss, Lawrence Duggan, J. Peters (aka Sandor Goldberger), Allen Dulles, “Wild Bill” Donovan, and Iosif Stalin. A major strength of the book is Marton’s success in integrating these characters and their beliefs into the context of the times. The result is not only a balanced biography of Noel Field but also a nuanced account of espionage during the Red Decade and early Cold War era.
Marton is uniquely qualified to tell this story. Like Field, her father was a political prisoner of the Hungarian Communists who for a time occupied the same cell with Field. Later, after both men were released from prison, Marton’s parents interviewed Noel and Herta, earning the distinction of being the only Western journalists ever to do so. Marton came to possess her parent’s notes of that interview, which, when combined with private correspondence from cooperating surviving members of the Field family, enabled her to flesh out the story of Noel Field, assessing his motives and adeptly placing him in his era.
Like many others of his generation who were seduced by the promise of Soviet-style internationalism, an idealistic Noel Field joined the Communist movement thinking it would be able to right all the social and political wrongs of the world. In the 1930s, fascism was on the rise, and capitalism seemed to be in decline. For Field and others of his ilk, however, Stalin’s Soviet Union offered a promise of a new day dawning. Marton traces the story of how Field not only came to embrace Communism but also eventually became an underground agent for Soviet foreign intelligence. Her book chronicles the tale of how compromising one’s principles and exchanging them for unquestioning idealism, submission, service, and sacrifice not only ruined Field’s life but also wreaked havoc with the lives of his family and friends.
Marton portrays Field as a “sensitive, self-absorbed idealist and dreamer ... an unlikely revolutionary” who became an ideal target for “conversion to a powerful faith” (p. 3). Raised in a devout Quaker family in which pacifism and service were core values, Field attended America’s most privileged sanctuary of higher learning, Harvard [End Page 215] University. There he became convinced of the injustice of the capitalist system’s distribution of wealth. Moved by Charles Beard’s tome The Rise of American Civilization and having absorbed articles found in the Communist Party’s main newspaper, The Daily Worker, Field became a secret Communist.
The election of Herbert Hoover—a man who possessed a proud record of humanitarian intervention during World War I—failed to impress Field. He viewed his fellow Quaker’s response to the Great Depression as a heartless disaster. After completing Harvard’s degree requirements in two rather than four years, the brilliant young intellect landed a comfortable job in the U.S. State Department, where, Field recalled years later, he “gradually started to live an illegal life, separate from my official life” (p. 40). Like other Communists, fellow travelers, and left-leaning New Dealers affiliated with the “Ware Group,” such as Hope Hale Davis, the Massings, Hiss, John Abt, and Field’s best friend, Duggan, Field embraced near-unconditional obedience to Communist ideals. Marton beautifully illustrates this point in one episode as she separates fact from fiction in telling the controversial tale of the espionage recruitment “competition” between Hiss and Hede Massing as both sought to gain Field’s cooperation and assistance in providing documents for their respective Soviet intelligence agencies.
Much of the book focuses on Field’s prewar experiences...