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Noel Field is not a name you’re likely to recognize. But you’ll never forget his story once you hear it. His is the tale of a 20th century American who fell in love with an idea called communism and decided to betray his country for it, even as the system betrayed him and nearly destroyed him. In a new book, “True Believer,” journalist Kati Marton tells Field’s story. She joins guest host John Donvan to explore Field’s fascination with the Soviet cause and why young people today can still fall in love with dangerous ideologies.
- Kati Marton Author and journalist
MR. JOHN DONVANThanks for joining us. I'm John Donvan, moderator of the Intelligence Squared US Debates, sitting in for Diane Rehm. "True Believer" is the title of the latest book by journalist Kati Marton in which she tells the story of a man named Noel Field, an American who, like many other young intellectuals in the 1920s, was drawn to the idea of Communism. Yet, as the cruelty of the Stalin regime became more and more apparent, Noel Field held even tighter to his Communist ideals.
MR. JOHN DONVANIn the end, betraying his employers, his country and even members of this family. Kati Marton is here to tell us what she uncovered about this strange and elusive Cold War figure, some of it thanks to her own parents who were reporting from behind the Iron Curtain in post-war Hungary. Kati, thanks so much for joining us.
MS. KATI MARTONOh, it's a pleasure. First of all, you and I go way back, John, to ABC days and Diane really launched my brilliant literary career, such as it is. She was the first person to interview me when I wrote my first book on Raoul Wallenberg. So Diane, thank you, if you're listening.
DONVANI'm sure that she is and Kati, you have since that book on Raoul Wallenberg become a very accomplished and successful author. You have books that include "Paris: A Love Story," "Enemies of the People," and I want to point out that you're a former correspondent, as you mentioned, for ABC News and also NPR. You're a human rights advocate, former chair of the International Women's Health Coalition, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. And now, you've written yet another book about a very, very strange -- I would say strange man.
DONVANWho was both, in some ways, both good and evil at the same time.
MARTONYes, yes. You know, I think, John, if "True Believer" proves anything it's that it isn't enough to want to do good in the world. It isn't enough to be an idealist. You also have to have judgment and the relevance of the book is that -- is the power of fanaticism, which we're, of course, seeing all around us today with Islamic fundamentalism. And this was an earlier version of the same kind of powerful and addictive faith that captured this man, Noel Field, along with many of his contemporaries.
DONVANSo let's dive in. Who was Noel Field?
MARTONOkay. So he was an American aristocrat. He was second generation Harvard grad from an old New England family. And he was on his way to a brilliant career as a young diplomat in the state department. But he was crushed by what was happening to his country, the United States. Then, as now, was extremely divided. Capitalism seemed to be failing. 11 million unemployed, this was before FDR and the New Deal and so on and racism rampant.
MARTONAnd for an idealist do-gooder just out of Harvard, Communism seemed to have the answers.
DONVANBefore we get to what he found is the answer, let's go back a little bit more to his impulses, which were -- sounded incredibly positive and...
MARTONVery much so.
DONVANSo a lot of it had to do with his upbringing and his dad.
MARTONYes. Powerful father figure, Quaker, stellar career at Harvard as the son -- the son, by the way, just to underscore how brilliant he was, he finished Harvard in two years, a four-year program in two years. So this man was not lacking in intellectual matter. What he was lacking in -- and the father dies suddenly, leaving the son and the family bereft. They moved back from -- they'd been living in Switzerland when the father was a biologist at a Pizzone Institute and suddenly transplanted and really Noel Field is a stranger everywhere.
MARTONI mean, in "True Believer," the theme of the fact that he's always an outsider. At Harvard, he's an outsider because he's a geek. He's not a cool guy on campus and because he's spent his childhood in Europe and he doesn't adjust. And then, along comes this really searing incident, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. For our listeners who have no reason to know much about Sacco and Vanzetti, it was a -- it really was a case the revealed the cold heart of America in its most cruel way. A pair of Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti, were hauled in for committing a bank robbery.
MARTONThe whole thing became a trial against immigrants. And, again, another parallel with today. There was a deep current of anti-foreign, anti-immigrant, anti-engagement in the world after World War I. And the U.S. was drawing inside herself again, isolationism. And here comes this young do-gooding internationalist American, Noel Field, and he's appalled at this trial which is taking place very near Harvard. And, in fact, the president of Harvard, Lowell, is very much involved in the trial.
MARTONAnd all of this feeds an alienation in Field who then aces the foreign service exam, gets his dream job at the state department. What he doesn't understand is that Moscow's recruits are observing him. Agents...
DONVANHow did they know him?
MARTONWell, they had agents here even then. We are now in the '30s and he's talent-spotted from the Kremlin. Imagine. They send someone with a specific task of seducing him. Not, I don't think, literally, but she had the equipment to do that, by the way. She was kind of a Raymond Carver-esque so-so actress from Vienna, but, you know, voluptuous red-head who does seduce him into becoming Stalin's agent in the state department.
DONVANTalking again about his goodness, what was it his -- what is it his father instilled in him about his role and responsibility in the world?
MARTONAh. Well, okay, so this is just after World War I, the most horrific devastating war until then, and the father, as a Quaker, takes Noel to the battlefields, to the Marne, to Verdun, which are still almost...
MARTON...fresh, yes. The graves are still fresh. And the son is absolutely devastated by the sight of so many young people, his peers, who died for what? For a few meters of territory. And the father turns to him and says, make sure it never happens again. And so this plants this seed of pacifism, which is already embedded him through the Quaker faith, but, of course, the Quaker faith was very bland stuff compared to what Moscow was preaching, which was a muscular and violent overthrow of the existing order.
MARTONBut in addition to that violent Communist ideology, it was also providing an answer to every question. So for a questing idealist like Noel Field and many others of his generation -- but we will get to how Noel Field was different from all the others -- this was an answer. This was what he was looking for and, suddenly, his life took on much greater significance and meaning. He was self radicalizing. He was reading everything he could get his hands on. He was beginning a double life, even whilst going to the state department, going to his office every day, his real life was at night when he was reading Marx and Lenin and these revolutionary texts, which all sounded so beautiful.
DONVANAnd it's hard to understand now the extent to which the horror is already unfolding in the Soviet Union under Stalin were not known to the outside world.
MARTONNo, no. All that these young Americans, and Field was just one of many, all that they knew came from Moscow's extremely well-oiled propaganda machine. And I mean, that kind of invented spin Moscow did. There was a guy I write about in "True Believer" called Willi Munzonberg who is an incredible character. The book is really filled with eccentric nut cases, many of them not only nut cases, but brilliant and killers.
DONVANWell, we're going to be taking your comments and questions throughout the hour and you can call us to join the conversation at 800-433-8850 or send us your email at email@example.com or join us on Facebook or Twitter. I'm talking with Kati Marton about her book "True Believer." And as we come up to the break, Kati, when we come back, you're going to be telling us about a very personal...
DONVAN...connection that you had with the story as well through your parents.
MARTONOkay, well, not too personal.
DONVANNot too personal. But you had some pretty tumultuous events in your childhood is what I'm talking about.
MARTONYes. No, John, you and I go way back so just don't exploit that for the benefit of your listeners.
DONVANI'm not -- It's not gonna go -- definitely not gonna go in that direction.
DONVANSo stay with us. And, again, the number to call is 800-433-8850. I'm John Donvan, moderator of Intelligence Squared US Debates, sitting in for Diane Rehm.
DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, the moderator of Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking with Kati Marton, author of "True Believer: Stalin's Last American Spy." And when we went to the break, Kati, you had just explained that this man, Noel Field, was this idealistic, motivated young man, brilliant, who managed to get through Harvard in two years, gets a great job in the State Department. And also, at the same time, begins living this secret life. Disillusioned with the United States, with the Great Depression, he starts to think the answer is Marxism. And so much of what he was doing secretly, even the way that -- the neighborhood that he...
DONVAN...chose to fit in...
MARTON...which, in those days, was really a run-down part of town. Diplomats did not live there. He lived in a black neighborhood. In those days it was called a Negro neighborhood. And actually his closest friends were black, none of which did him much good in the State Department or in the Washington social world. The only blacks he saw were those that served the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, in his dining room. And all of this really fed -- fueled Noel's alienation from American life, from American society. And he, you know, this is the part that appealed to me about the man, is that he really was a genuinely good person. But, again, it's not enough.
DONVANYou write that he used to invite homeless people...
DONVAN...home for dinner...
MARTONRight. Right. Yeah.
DONVAN...when he saw people on the street.
MARTONYeah. Yeah. So these are beautiful things. And, you know, he set out wanting to save the world after his father died and his father left him with that mission, to make the world a peaceful place. And the tragic irony is that he ended up as the servant of one of the most violent, treacherous movements ever, which is Stalinism.
DONVANWhich he did by becoming a spy.
DONVANSo how did...
DONVAN...when did his spying begin?
MARTONHis spying began in the -- about 1934, when this recruiter, the Raymond Carver character, Hede Massing, recruiting him for what was the predecessor to the KGB. And the secret life suited Noel Field, who was already a very private kind of person. The only person he shared his spying with -- and by spying, I mean he was stealing documents, at first hesitantly, with scruples, but he was doing it -- and he and his wife, we haven't mentioned the fact that he married his childhood sweetheart, Herta, who would have -- had he, I quote somebody in the book as saying, had Noel become a Buddhist monk, Herta would have followed him there.
MARTONSo, I mean, she was a study in absolute commitment and devotion and followed him every step of his tragic, misbegotten journey, including -- not to jump too far ahead -- into a Soviet prison.
MARTONI mean, it's one -- this -- "True Believer" is also the portrait of a marriage, an astonishingly durable, I believe kind of crazy marriage, but nevertheless based on devotion. So Herta and Noel really are together in their spying. He's the active spy, but she helps him transcribe...
MARTON...documents. They develop a code for their Soviet agent, Hede Massing. And then what is happening is that Stalin -- so Lenin is now gone and Stalin is not so interested in international communism. He just wants power. And the old Bolsheviks and it is their kin that draws Noel Field in to an international movement, they want communism here in the United States. And they think, and this didn't seem delusional in the '30s, that they could -- that that could happen. Because they had a very powerful network of Soviet spies in the highest reaches of the United States government -- in the Treasury, in the State Department, above all, in the Agricultural Adjustment Bureau, which was like a hotbed of...
MARTON...of, that's where Alger Hiss was. And, you know, by the time J. Edgar Hoover and not even speaking of McCarthy started their witch hunts, there were no witches left. But in the '30s, the woods were full of witches. And the FBI was oblivious. And I think partly to compensate for being -- having been so careless about spies in the government back in the '30s, they kind of went overboard in hunting when there were no witches left.
DONVANDid Noel Field and these other spies hurt us?
MARTONAbsolutely. First of all, Noel Field led hundreds of people to their deaths. He -- well, now we're fast forwarding to when he did his great damage, which was when Stalin, who was utterly cruel to his own followers when necessary, with -- okay...
DONVANWell, since I've read the book, I actually think...
DONVAN...maybe we're getting a little bit ahead of ourselves.
MARTONYes, we are, we are, sorry.
DONVANSo, because we do want to get to that point...
DONVAN...because that's where the story just turns upside down.
MARTONYes. Yes. And just becomes so violent and awful.
DONVANBut he -- so Noel and his wife ended up being posted to Europe and ended up...
DONVAN...spending many years passing documents.
DONVANAll of the time continuing to meet his Soviet contacts.
MARTONYes. The -- if I can just jump in, John. The hinge event for Noel, as for many of his generation, was the Spanish Civil War. And he went there -- he's by now working for the League of Nations -- and he went there to try to rescue as many refugees fleeing Franco's onslaught. And just as a quick reminder, the Spanish Civil War was the first chance that the West had to actually fight the fascists and the Fascists and the Nazis, as opposed to just talking about it. Because the Spanish people rose up against them. But it was also a trial of Mussolini and Hitler's biggest weapons.
MARTONSo the Fascists were powerfully arming -- and all of this is in the book, I'm just giving a brief glimpse because it plays a huge role in Noel Field's saga. It is in Spain, where he's helping the refugees fleeing Franco, that he meets the future heads of the Soviet satellites, the post-war Soviet states...
MARTON...in Eastern and Central Europe. He makes lifelong connections with them, to their dismay. Because ultimately -- I don't want to give everything away -- but ultimately just having met this American was enough to cost them their lives.
DONVANBut we can also see, during that period when he was working for the League of Nations and then for the International Rescue Committee afterwards...
DONVAN...his mission was to help the many refugees...
DONVAN...from that war and then later from the Second World War. And what he was doing was channeling money from American organizations to help the Communists.
DONVANHe was going to the refugee camps and picking out the Communists and getting them out...
DONVAN...and getting them funding and leaving everybody else behind.
MARTONPrecisely. The irony of that, that American charity dollars were being used to set up Communists in the post-War system, that is not what they had in mind.
DONVANAnd Noel Field was the lynchpin of that operation.
MARTONOh, yes. He did, you know, his best shield against suspicion was that he was so well brought up and so, you know, he was, quote, unquote, "one of us."
MARTONHow could such a handsome, well-educated, soft-spoken, Harvard man be a traitor. Well, Kim Philby, by the way, had the same shield.
DONVANThe British spy?
MARTONYes, the British spy.
MARTONAnd in many ways, Noel Field is the closest we come to a Kim Philby, except that Kim Philby had performance skills and, how should I put it, more steel than Noel Field. Noel Field was -- I mean, part of the reason that he had to flee eastward, ultimately, was because he knew that he couldn't lie his way out of trouble.
DONVANWell, let's get to that part. He finally is exposed.
MARTONYes, by Whittaker Chambers.
DONVANRight. He picks up the newspaper one day. He's in Europe and he sees that he's been named and it's front page of the newspaper.
MARTONNew York Times.
DONVANNew York Times. And it's at that point that he decides to run into the arms of the Communist Bloc.
DONVANAnd that's when the story turns...
MARTONYeah. The trap.
MARTONYeah, kind of like Edward Snowdon. He went East to fleeing an FBI subpoena. And he is lured to Prague, now Soviet controlled, with a fake job offer. And in Prague, he is nabbed by Czech security acting on Moscow's orders. As he's leaving his hotel, a couple of thugs throw a chloroform-soaked rag on his face, shove him in the back of a car. Next thing he knows, he is in Budapest.
DONVANHe wakes up in another country.
MARTONYes, yes. And he has vanished from the face of the earth.
DONVANSo just to make this clear to listeners, he is running from the FBI...
DONVAN...Moscow. But it's Moscow who actually...
DONVAN...and knocks him out and secrets him away to Hungary and makes him a prisoner.
MARTONYeah. John le Carre couldn't make this up.
DONVANThe tables have turned.
DONVANIn other words, they now -- Moscow now thinks that he's the spy.
MARTONYou know what? Moscow doesn't care. Moscow just wants a confession out of him. Stalin needs to -- Stalin, in advanced paranoia now, furious that Tito, head of Yugoslavia, has broken from the fold, now a new wave of show trials, as he had organized in the '30s. Stalin got rid of his perceived enemies in the '30s with show trials, which by the way are kind of the equivalent of ISIS beheadings, in that they are a propaganda tool. They have nothing to do with justice. Show trials are all about, this is what happens to you if you divert one step from Stalin's edicts.
MARTONIt's a propaganda tool and an effective one because it scared the bejesus out of Communists. And to see these former heroes of the Communist movement in the dock, reduced to blithering yes men, ready to confess to any damn crime, because they'd been tortured, including now this American who, it makes the perfect witness for the prosecution. That is, he is a witness who has been tortured into confessing that he wasn't working for Stalin, he was working for the CIA.
DONVANWow. I'm John Donvan. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So they're put -- they are torturing him to turn him into a friendly witness. And he -- how many days of torture?
MARTONOh, my God. Well, five years I would say.
MARTONBecause he was in solitary, which is a form of torture, for five years. But it only took several weeks to get the confession out of him, because people will say anything...
MARTON...to make it stop. But, you know, let's not forget that, one by one, the rest of his family, you know, naively, goes in pursuit of the man. And they, too, vanish. So a whole American family now gone -- his wife, his brother, a distinguished Boston-based architect, Herman, and his adopted daughter Erica. And here, John, we finally have a heroin and true believer. Erica is, in my view, just a spectacular character -- gutsy, sassy, good looking, full of love of life -- and goes looking for her stepfather and stepmother, feeling that she owes them that because they rescued her. This is a whole other story inside the book, is that Erica's parents handed her to Noel Field and his wife during the Spanish Civil War because they couldn't look after her...
MARTON...and she was very sick. And Noel, indeed -- this is another positive trait of his -- he was a very devoted, adopted father for Erica. So she feels an obligation. She goes looking for him. She gets tossed in the Gulag, gets sent to the northernmost station of the gulag archipelago for Kuto (sp?) , where she's laying railroad tracks in the freezing winter of Siberia.
DONVANSo his family is destroyed...
DONVAN...and Stalin has tortured him into acting as a false witness against a whole range of other Communists whom Stalin suspects...
MARTONWanted to get rid of.
DONVAN...wanted to get rid of.
DONVANAnd does. And he -- and so Field names names, hundreds of names, testifies.
DONVANThese trials are held. And what happened to all of these people whose names...
MARTONGone. Gone. Gone.
DONVANThey were murdered.
MARTONYeah. Or never -- well, with the exception, in Hungary, to the gallows, all gone. In -- same in Prague, the famous Slansky Trial. In -- they couldn't pull it off in East Berlin because East -- because of East Berlin's proximity to West Berlin and it would have just -- I mean the whole thing was such a transparent, fake operation, that they couldn't expose it that close to the West. But as it happens, my parents, whom you referred to, covered the Noel Fields trial in Budapest, because they were the last independent journalists left after the war. My father was AP, my mother UPI. This is actually how I got to this bizarre and, lucky for me, unknown -- virtually unknown story. I mean, aspects of it were known.
MARTONBut nobody had gotten under the skin of the story, if I can put it that way.
DONVANWe're coming up to a break. But in about a minute, can you tell me -- let's jump ahead to the fact that ultimately the torture ended and Noel Field and his wife were released from prison but they had to keep living in Hungary. So he spent the rest of his years in Hungary. Did he ever renounce Stalin? Did he ever turn against the Communist system that had -- he had used to betray his country and that then had betrayed him?
MARTONAstonishingly no. Nor did he ever apologize to his brother, whose life he wrecked, who spent five years in a Warsaw dungeon -- to his wife or to his daughter. No, no. No apologies. No acknowledgement of the terrible choices that he had made. And this is where it's so clear that ideology can just poison your thinking, is that to the last, Noel Field believed that this was -- that Communism was the way of the future. And by the way, he was living in a Communist country that no longer believed that. It was, you know, Hungary, in the '60s and '70s, was a -- kind of a petite-bourgeoisie country, where people lived for their passports.
DONVANWell, a country that you spent part of your life in...
MARTONI did. Mm-hmm.
DONVAN...as a child. We can talk about that when we come back and your connection to the story in a little bit more detail. Our number is 800-433-8850. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We're going to take some calls from listeners. Talking to Kati Marton about her book, "True Believer." I'm John Donvan.
DONVANWelcome back. I'm John Donvan, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Kati Marton about her latest book, "True Believer," nonfiction that almost reads like fiction because the story it tells is just so astounding. We've been talking about the anti-hero of your book, I would say, Noel Field, this American who became a spy for the Soviet Union out of, in his mind, the goodness of his heart, causing enormous damage to people who had been his friends and to his family.
DONVANAt the end, you say in the book, on Page 198, he forgave the torture and the terror -- he forgave the torture and the terror as acceptable mistakes on the road toward the perfect worker state. So he never stopped believing.
DONVANHow could you live with this guy? I don't mean literally, but I mean, do you like him?
MARTONYou know, some of the most interesting and complex people are not the most likeable, but they make great subjects for authors. And no, I can't say I like -- I like him, but since I had a window, my parents became the only journalists ever to do an interview with Noel Field because one of the conditions of Noel and his wife Herta's release from custody was that they never talk to Western media because of course they'd been through hell, and Moscow didn't want this revealed.
MARTONAnd -- but during the -- and my parents, who were jailed at roughly the same time as Noel and Herta, and in fact my father was in the same cell for a period, they...
DONVANWell let -- I mean, for people who don't know your background, you grew up for the first part of your life in communist Hungary.
DONVANAnd your parents were Hungarians. We're not talking about American expatriates who were there working for the American organizations. They were local people working for American organizations, which was risky in itself.
MARTONYeah, to say the least, yeah, and, you know, in -- I did a lot of research for this book, both in the KGB archives in Moscow and in the Hungarian archives in Budapest, and one of the astonishing documents I found was a letter from the -- a memo from the minister of the interior saying that the Martons, my parents, were getting very close to the Fields, and the Fields had just been released from prison because Stalin is now dead, and Moscow under Kruschev is making nice to Eisenhower, and, you know, new day.
MARTONSo they're released -- oh, and I forgot to tell you that their interrogator, interrogator is a polite word for torturer, defects and turns up here in Washington, big CIA news conference, and he tells the Washington press corps that the Fields are alive, not with the sound of music but that the Fields, Noel, Herta, Herman and Erika, are alive, I know because I was their interrogator in such-and-such prisons.
MARTONAnd so now Washington starts bombarding Moscow with demands that they release the Americans, and the rest of the family all hightail out of there and attempt to reconstruct their lives here but not Noel and Herta, who know that if they come back they're going to face the music here. You know, it could be another Rosenberg trial because the man was a traitor. And unlike Alger Hiss, who plays a big role in my book, Noel does not feel he has the equipment or the legal training that Hiss had, and can't -- he doesn't think he can lie his way out of -- out of a mess.
MARTONSo he chooses -- he asks for political asylum behind the Iron Curtain, and so -- but to return to the -- which is astonishing, by the way, when everybody, you know, people like...
DONVANIs trying to go the other way.
MARTONYeah, people like my family, we spent my entire early childhood in the '50s trying to escape.
DONVANAnd your parents put in serious time behind bars.
MARTONYes, they did, and what I started to tell you, John, is that it appears that one of the reasons that my parents were arrested in early 1955 was because they were about to -- the American ambassador had just given them the Fields' address.
DONVANOh my gosh.
MARTONYou see? And virtually the next day a bunch of thugs surrounded my parents' car as they drove home from a late night of bridge at the American embassy, and my father was gone. I didn't see him -- I was a little kid, six years old, for nearly two years. Then they gave my mother a couple more months to look after my older sister and me, and then they took her, as well.
DONVANSo Noel Field hurt you, too. I mean, we've got to be...
MARTONWell yeah, but that's...
DONVANMaybe not as much as other people, (unintelligible)
MARTONAnd they would have arrested my parents anyway. My parents were a big pain in the side of the Soviets, and it was -- they were just waiting for a good time to arrest them.
DONVANLet's bring in some calls, and I want to welcome to the conversation Lenny, who is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lenny, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
LENNYThis is -- this is such a fun conversation. You are going to be one of my new favorite authors.
MARTONOh thank you, Lenny.
LENNYI'm going to run out and buy this book, by the way, immediately.
MARTONWell thank you.
LENNYI never heard of this story, but I'm student of Soviet -- of history, and the one area I wanted to ask you on because I wanted you to clarify it was I've always looked at the period from 1920 to 1937, and it made, like nationwide headlines, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, there's volumes in Congress just about the sheer brutality of the Soviet regime. I mean, the blood lust, and it was -- that's one of the tools that Hitler was able to use to justify the Holocaust in a way. He used that for reverse propaganda and of what was going to happen to the rest of Europe that had -- you know what I mean?
DONVANLenny, can I ask you to zero in on a question for Kati Marton?
LENNYYeah, that was my comment. I wanted her to comment because I wasn't -- to me the whole free world knew what was going on in the former Soviet Union.
DONVANOkay, I think I'm taking your point. So let me bring that to Kati because we were talking about how could -- Noel Field didn't know, but Lenny is saying, well, if you read the papers, you would know that things were really bad.
MARTONBut not -- but not when Noel was recruited in the '30s. No, you did not know. And by the way, Stalin, Uncle Joe, was our ally during the war. And no, we did not know in the '30s. Very few people -- and that's the astonishment is that so many brilliant, you know, Harvard educated Americans were willing to swallow propaganda without ever having set foot in the great prison of the Soviet state.
MARTONArthur Koestler with "Darkness at Noon" was really the first to unmask Stalin, but that wasn't until the '40s.
DONVANWe have an email from Collette. She says I am an avid fan of "The Americans."
DONVANAnd I'm inserting that's a TV show about a couple of Soviet agents who are living in the United States for years disguised as Americans and living an American life. Collette goes on, I'm wondering if there is any parallel to Noel Field, especially as to lifestyle.
MARTONWell Collette is on to something there because absolutely. And in fact, Collette, I'm happy to tell you that the folks at "The Americans," Joe Weisberg, who is the creator of the show, and Stephen Schiff, one of the main writers, loved this book and in fact have said that it's been very helpful to them in writing the upcoming season because it really is about how spies can, you know, merge into American society and kind of seamlessly live among us because with Noel Field, I mean, he -- nobody believed that this man could be an agent because he's, as I said earlier, he seemed like too nice a guy.
DONVANOne of us.
DONVANLet's bring in James from Pittsburg. James, welcome to the Diane Rehm Show. What's your question?
JAMESYes, I have a question about Noel Field's background as a (unintelligible)
MARTONAs a what?
DONVANAs a Quaker?
JAMESWith communism's emergence in Soviet Union, Lenin also had very much of a strong anti-theist, atheist sort of bent, as well. And I wonder if Lenin's approach towards atheism and anti-theism...
JAMESHad any effect on Noel Field's faith, as well, because he embraced it.
DONVANInteresting question. Thanks, James. I'll let Kati get to that question, thank you.
MARTONYeah, James, Noel, and the first name is like the French word for Christmas, Noel, is by now -- by the time he's converted to communism, the Quaker faith no longer features very prominently for him. He was looking for stronger medicine than what the Quakers provided. And he loved the fact that he was now part of a secret underground that gave his life a sense of meaning. It gave him a new family. He was prepared to pretty much betray his own family for this international brotherhood of comrades. And that replaced -- that replaced the original Quaker faith.
MARTONBut it was the Quaker faith that launched him on his initial goal of doing good things in life. But that went terribly wrong.
DONVANLet's bring in Elizabeth from San Antonio, Texas. Hi Elizabeth, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show," hi.
ELIZABETHYes, good morning, and thank you for the opportunity. I started out wanting to ask about the connections between Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, you've already mentioned both of those, and then the Rosenbergs. Were they in any way in contact with Noel, or was he an influence on them, or was he an influence on him? Or did they simply work together? And then I love your title because it really is a key to how personalities and some groups of people, for example in between the two world wars in Nazi Germany, they were absolutely loyal to Adolf Hitler in spite of everything that he stood for.
ELIZABETHSo there is I think a subconscious element at work here in both some social groups and also, like religions, perhaps, or personalities.
DONVANOkay, I'm going to let Kati comment on that, thank you.
MARTONYes, yes, well, and you ask such a good question, and so -- and so timely, too, isn't it because -- because today, you know, our world is again troubled by -- by, you know, ideologies that promise everything and which deliver violence. And this was the equivalent of those days. And yes, indeed, Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss featured very prominently in Noel Field's Washington tenure. And Alger Hiss stayed a true friend. Alger Hiss was also convicted and went to jail at roughly the same period that Noel Field was in jail in Soviet controlled Hungary.
MARTONAnd bizarrely they were freed on the same day, but there the comparison between the two -- the two prison terms ends because Alger Hiss actually had a pretty decent time in prison. I mean, he could -- his family could visit him. Noel Field couldn't write a single letter. Nobody in his family knew where he was. And he was brutalized, and he was in solitary.
MARTONBut among the bizarre documents I found in the Soviet archives was a letter that Noel Field wrote Alger Hiss after my parents, in his word, rudely surprised he and his night one night during the chaos of the Hungarian revolution. And imagine Alger, writes Noel Field, he didn't have the decency to call for an interview. As if.
DONVANI'm John Donvan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Kati Marton, we've talked around this topic a little bit, but the -- and the caller just mentioned it, as well, the way that young people can buy into an ideology and not let go no matter what. And you've talked directly about seeing this happening with ISIS. Can you talk a little bit about -- more about that?
MARTONWell, it, you know, it couldn't be a more burning issue for our day is that -- and when -- actually, John, when I finished writing this book, I thought how am I going to capture the attention of the American public this -- during this election season when all we care about is the war on terrorism and Trump versus Clinton. So I wrote an essay called "The Capture of Minds," just inserted at the front of the book, where I compare the two movements and how really similar they are and how once a young person is captured early enough by a faith that promises a righting of all wrongs, and if you are already feeling alienated from your school, your society, you perhaps are not aware that others are watching you and looking to you as a potential recruit to a cause that will suddenly ease your pain and promises the sun and moon.
MARTONBut most people have enough good sense to, when confronted with the reality, as opposed to the myth, acknowledge the mistake. But Noel Field never did, and that's what makes it so astonishing is...
DONVANAnd almost Shakespearian.
DONVANI mean, you lay out his flaws, and his flaws are also what's good about him.
MARTONYes, like with most of us.
DONVANAnd he -- and there is no redemption. He ends up living in Hungary and dying an old man there, not so old, by the way, died in the '60s, but looked very old.
MARTONNo, well he looked old because he'd been so brutalized that his -- you know, I found colleagues of his still alive today who had worked with him at the Hungarian journal that he'd helped to edit. And they said we had no idea until we read his obituary that he was so young when we met him. But the funny thing is that in death he really realized his dream because he was given a hero's funeral.
MARTONYeah, with a full military -- full complement of military blah-blah-blah, and -- and he had dictated before he died that the communist, the old communist anthem, "The Internationale," be sung at his -- at his funeral. And said to say nobody remembered the words to it anymore. So they kind of mumbled along.
DONVANOh my gosh, and you have a scene in which he sang it in Russian on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a young man.
MARTONYes, to the absolute horror of his Soviet agent, who thought oh my God, this guy will never make a good spy.
DONVANBut in the end I think you leave us with the portrait of a man who turned out to be rather pathetic.
MARTONWell yes but pathetic in his personality, but the damage that he did, starting with -- first of all he blew a brilliant career, he crushed his own family, he betrayed his country, he betrayed his comrades from, you know, the real fighters in Spain, I mean under torture. But he was -- he was ultimately a misspent a life. His was a misspent life but such a powerful object lesson for all of us today, that, you know, ideologies can -- of any stripe, you know, left, right, center, can poison our thinking process.
DONVANI know that when Stalin died in 1953 that millions and millions of Soviets wept on the streets. But those were people who had been fed a lifetime of propaganda about Stalin. Should Noel Field have known better?
MARTONWell absolutely, yes, but the fact is that he was a product of a time in our country when really the American system was on its knees. Capitalism seemed to be failing, and this -- this was a very vulnerable moment for our country. Thank God we chose to elect FDR rather than going the other way.
DONVANHe was, as your book calls him in the title, a "True Believer," the book by Kati Marton. Kati Marton, thanks so much for joining us.
MARTONOh thank you for having me.
DONVANThis has been fascinating, and I've read the book, and it is terrific. I'm John Donvan, host and moderator of the Intelligence Squared US debates, I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you so much for listening.
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