Review of True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy

true-believer-book-cover

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What is the book about?

Noel Field was an unrepentant Stalinist who betrayed his country, exacted a terrible cost on his family for doing so, and died living behind the iron curtain in Hungary. True Believer tells his story.

‘Noel Field began life with the best intentions … At the end, Noel Field was still a willing prisoner of an ideology that captured him when his youthful ardor ran highest. A man who set out to change the world ended up in a strange land.’ 1

How is it related to the Cold War?

noel-and-herta-field

Noel and Herta Field

True Believer shows how Field developed his Communist worldview, how he was recruited, his spying for the Soviet Union, and, painfully, his family’s suffering as he remained steadfastly committed to the cause, even after years in an Eastern jail.

The early part of the book is an account of Field’s upbringing in Switzerland and his spying in the US in the 1930s. It then turns to Field’s role in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, where he made connections between the OSS and Communist resistance fighters.

This connection between leading Communists and Field would be exploited by Stalin in the 1950s. Field was arrested, tortured, and made to confess that he had recruited these Communist fighters for the West on behalf of Allen Dulles. In this way, Noel Field had an important role in the show trials of the 1950s as Stalin tightened his grip in Eastern Europe.

Yet Field’s conviction never wavered and he forgave his tormentors and remained in his Socialist Paradise with his wife, Herta, ever critical of the West throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Why should you read it?

Marton’s telling of Noel Field’s story demonstrates the cost of his naive idealism. Her focus isn’t just on the narrative of Field’s betrayal of his country but also the impact on Field’s family.

His brother – Hermann – and adopted daughter – Erica – bore the terrible cost of Field’s commitment to Stalin’s socialist state. Erica ventured across the Iron Curtain to look for her missing father, mother, and uncle – who had been kidnapped by the Hungarian Secret Police – and herself ended up in a Hungarian jail.

Erica’s husband and children spent the next 5 years and 2 months frantically trying to secure her release.

‘On Christmas Eve in 1954, the world was shocked by the announcement that a pair of newly freed political prisoners had requested “the protection” of the country that had jailed them on false charges.’ 2

The Hungarian authorities eventually agreed to release their prisoners – who no longer held much value to the socialist regime – as long as the Fields handed them a final propaganda coup: Noel and Herta were to claim political asylum in Hungary.

Hermann’s and Erica’s nightmare ended, but Noel continued to make life difficult for his family from behind the Iron Curtain.

Noel had hoped Erica would also choose to stay in the East. Instead, she attempted to return to her family in the US. Unhelpfully, Field continued his public support of the Soviet Union. In the era of McCarthyism, this made it difficult for Erica to secure a visa.

It was only 6 months after her release that Erica finally obtained the paperwork that permitted her to get on with her life.

Noel Field, Marton describes, was “remorseless in inflicting pain on his family” in pursuit of his chosen ideology.

Overall:

True Believer is a very readable account of an unrepentant Stalinist whose personal story reflects a naive and idealistic response to the tumultuous mid-twentieth century: Field chose Stalin’s vision of Communism as his guiding philosophy and stuck with it until the very end.

Noel Field died unrepentant in Hungary in 1970 and was buried as a Communist hero with full state honors.

If you’d like to understand how a man can endure weeks of torment at the hands of the Soviet security apparatus along with his wife, daughter, and brother, and then himself apologise to the Communist government upon his release, then you’ll be fascinated by the saga of Noel Field.

Buy True Believer Now:

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Here’s an interview with Kati Marton on WNYC radio:

‘Field Testing’ the book:

 

More Info:

Noel Field’s Wikipedia entry

Noel Field on Spartacus Educational

How an American Spy for Russia Wound Up in a Hungarian Jail

Footnotes:

  1. Marton, True Believer, p.249
  2. Marton, True Believer, p.191