When I stumbled across a copy of Kati Marton’s True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy not long ago at the public library I quickly snapped it up. I’d been wanting to read True Believer for over five years and figured now was a good a time as any to finally read it. What I didn’t realize however until I got the book home it’s by the same author who also wrote The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. Had I known that, I would have tried a little harder to get my hands on it. But this also raised my expectations, since I’m a big fan of Marton’s 2006 The Great Escape. In the end I generally liked True Believer, even if I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Great Escape.
During the Great Depression with millions of Americans out of work it appeared capitalism itself was on its last legs. Meanwhile, free peoples across the globe were threatened by the rising tide of fascism. While it might be hard for us to imagine today but during this dark period in history a small number of Americans saw communism as the answer. Seeking a successful model to emulate these same idealistic individuals looked to the USSR for inspiration and guidance. As a result a surprising number of intelligent and socially conscious individuals in the United States government, joined, or allied themselves in one way or another with the Communist Party. Noel Field was one of them.
Born and raised in Europe and son of an internationally-renowned American zoologist, the Harvard-educated Field was an ideal candidate for the State Department. An outspoken idealist of progressive opinions he quickly attracted the attention of a local Soviet spy ring. Hoping to create a more equitable world, he eagerly agreed signed on as a communist agent. Even though he zealously believed in his cause and happily provided his masters with valuable intelligence, for secrecy reasons Field was never allowed to formally join the Communist Party. Later, during World War II he worked in France and Switzerland offering support to Jewish and anti-fascist refugees while also assisting the OSS.
But Field’s story takes a tragic turn. The true believer he was, Field dutifully followed Moscow’s orders. After the war, as the Cold War heated up, Stalin began purging newly installed communist leaders across the Eastern Bloc. Either out of ignorance or blind faith, he offered up his former comrades to Stalin’s henchmen. Soon after that security services of the USSR lured Field behind the Iron Curtain. He was promptly arrested, and based on his past association with the American OSS charged with spying for the West. After his interrogation and torture Field was convicted in a sham trail and cast into prison. Eventually released after Stalin’s death he spent the remainder of his life in Budapest a committed communist serving in the Hungarian government.
While I might not have enjoyed True Believer as much as Marton’s earlier book The Great Escape, it’s a great look at a sadly forgotten piece of Cold War history.
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