Kati Marton, True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy
Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring
Spying has frequently been described as the world’s second oldest profession, and it may outrank rank the first as a subject matter that sells books. A substantial portion of the lucrative market for spy literature belongs to imaginative novelists churning out best-selling thrillers whose pages seem to turn themselves – think John Le Carré. Fortunately, there are also intrepid non-fiction writers who sift through evidence and dig deeply into the historical record to produce accounts of the realities of the second oldest profession and its practitioners, as two recently published biographies attest: Kati Marton’s True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, and Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman: Guy Burgess, the Cold War, and The Cambridge Spy Ring.
Bearing similar titles, these works detail the lives of two men who in the tumultuous 1930s chose to spy for the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin: American Noel Field (1904-1970) and Englishman Guy Burgess (1911-1963). Burgess, the better known of the two, was one of the infamous “Cambridge Five,” five upper class lads who, while studying at Cambridge in the 1930s, became Soviet spies. Field, less likely to be known to general readers, was a graduate of another elite institution, Harvard University. Seven years older than Burgess, he was recruited to spy for the Soviet Union at about the same time, in the mid-1930s.
While the 1930s and the war that followed were formative periods for both young men, their stories became noteworthy in the Cold War era that followed World War II. Field spent five years in solitary confinement in post-war Budapest, from 1949 to 1954, imprisoned as a traitor to the communist cause after being used by Stalin and Hungarian authorities in a major show trial designed to root out unreliable elements among Hungary’s communist leadership and consolidate Stalin’s power over the country. His imprisonment led to the imprisonment of his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter. Burgess came to international attention in 1951 when he mysteriously fled Britain for Moscow with Donald Maclean, another of the Cambridge Five. Burgess and Maclean’s whereabouts remained unknown and the source of much speculation until they resurfaced five years later, in 1956.
Both men came from comfortable but not super-rich backgrounds. Each lost his father early in life, which unmoored both. After graduating from Harvard and Cambridge with elite diplomas in hand, they even followed similar career paths. Field served in the United States State Department and was recruited during World War II by future CIA Director Allen Dulles to work for the CIA’s predecessor agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), all the while providing information to the Soviet Union. Burgess served in critical periods in the British equivalents, Britain’s Foreign Office and its premier intelligence agencies, M15 and M16, while he too reported to the Soviet Union. Field worked with refugees during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Burgess had a critical stint during the war at the BBC. Both men ended their lives in exile, Field in Budapest, Burgess in Moscow.
But the two men could not have been more different in personality. Field was an earnest American with a Quaker background, outwardly projecting rectitude and seriousness, a “sensitive, self-absorbed idealist and dreamer” (M.3), as Marton puts it. Lownie describes Burgess as “outrageous, loud, talkative, indiscreet, irreverent, overtly rebellious” (L.30), a “magnificent manipulator of people and trader in gossip” (L.324). Burgess was also openly gay and notoriously promiscuous at a time when homosexual conduct carried serious risks. Field, Marton argues, was never one of Stalin’s master spies. “He lacked both the steel and the polished performance skills of Kim Philby or Alger Hiss” (M.3). Lownie claims nearly the opposite for Burgess: that he was the “most important of the Cambridge Spies” (L.x).
Marton’s biography of Field is likely to be the more appealing of the two for general readers. It is more focused, more selective in its use of evidence and substantively tells a more compelling story, raising questions still worth pondering today. Why did Field’s quest for a life of meaning and high-minded service to mankind lead him to become an apologist for one of the 20th century’s most murderous regimes? How could his faith in that regime remain unshaken even after it imprisoned him for five years, along with his wife, brother and informally adopted daughter? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Marton raises them in a way that leads her readers to consider their implications. “True Believer” seems the perfect title for her biography, a study of the psychology of pledging and maintaining allegiance to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
“Stalin’s Englishman,” by contrast, struck me as an overstatement for Lownie’s work. Most of the book up to Burgess’ defection to Moscow in 1951— which comes at about the book’s three-quarter mark — details his interactions in Britain with a vast array of individuals: Soviet handlers and contacts, British work colleagues, lovers, friends, and acquaintances. Only in a final chapter does Lownie present his argument that Burgess had an enduring impact in the international espionage game and deserves to be considered the most important of the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s biography suffers from what young people today term TMI – too much information. He has uncovered a wealth of written documentation on Burgess and seems bent on using all of it, giving his work a gossipy flavor. At its core, Lownie’s work is probably best understood as a study of how a flamboyant life style proved compatible with taking the pledge to Stalin and the Soviet Union.
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As a high school youth, Noel Field said he had two overriding goals in life: “to work for international peace, and to help improve the social conditions of my fellow human beings” (M.14). The introspective young Field initially saw communism and the Soviet Union as his means to implement these high-minded, humanitarian goals. But in a “quest for a life of meaning that went horribly wrong” (M.9), Field evolved into a hard-core Stalinist. Marton frames her book’s central question as: how does an apparently good man, “who started out with noble intentions” end up sacrificing “his own and his family’s freedom, a promising career, and his country, all for a fatal myth. His is the story of the sometimes terrible consequences of blind faith” (M.1).
Field was raised in Switzerland, where his father, a well-known, Harvard-educated biologist and outspoken New England pacifist, established a research institute. In secondary school in Zurich, Field was far more introspective and emotionally sensitive than his classmates. He had only one close friend, Herta Vieser, the “plump, blond daughter of a German civil servant” (M.12), whom he subsequently married in 1926. Field’s father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 53, when Field was 17, shattering the peaceful, well-ordered family life the young man had known up to that time.
Field failed to find any bearings a year later when he entered Harvard, his father’s alma mater. He knew nothing of America except what he had heard from his father, and at Harvard he was again an outsider among his privileged, callow classmates. But he graduated with full honors after only two years. In his mid-twenties, Marton writes, Field was still a “romantic, idealistic young man” who“put almost total faith in books. He had lived a sheltered, family-centered life” (M.30).
From Harvard, Field entered the Foreign Service but worked in Washington, at the State Department’s West European Desk, where he performed brilliantly but again did not feel at home, “still in search of deeper fulfillment than any bureaucracy could offer” (M.26). In 1929, he attended an event in New York City sponsored by the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party. It was a turning point for him. The “warm, spontaneous fellowship” at the meeting made him think he had realized his childhood dream of “being part of the ‘brotherhood of man’” (M.41). Soviet agents formally recruited Field sometime in 1935, assisted by the persuasive efforts of State Department colleague and friend Alger Hiss.
For Field, Marton writes, communism was a substitute for his Quaker faith. Like the Quakers, communists “encouraged self-sacrifice on behalf of others.” But the austere Quakers were “no match for the siren song of the Soviet myth: man and society leveled, the promise of a new day for humanity” (M.39-40). Communism offered a tantalizing dream: “join us to build a new society, a pure, egalitarian utopia to replace the disintegrating capitalist system, a comradely embrace to replace cutthroat competition.” In embracing communism, Field felt he could “deliver on his long-ago promise to this father to work for world peace” (M.39).
In 1936, Field left the State Department to take a position in Geneva to work for the League of Nations’ Disarmament Section — and assist the Soviet Union. The following year, he reached another turning point when he participated in the assassination in Switzerland of a “traitor,“ Ignaz Reiss, a battle tested Eastern European Jewish Communist who envisioned exporting the revolution beyond Russia. Reiss was appalled by the Soviet show trials and executions of 1936-38 and expressed his dismay far too openly for Stalin, making him a marked man. Others may have hatched the plot against Reiss, and still others pulled the trigger, Marton writes, “but Field was prepared to help” (M.246). He had “shown his willingness to do Moscow’s bidding – even as an accessory in a comrade’s murder. He had demonstrated his absolute loyalty to Stalin” (M.68).
Deeply moved by the Spanish Civil War, Field became involved in efforts to assist victims and opponents of the Franco insurgency. During the conflict, Field and his wife met a refined German doctor, Wilhelm Glaser, his wife and 17-year old daughter Erica. A precocious, feisty teenager, Erica was the only member of her high school class who had refused to join her school’s Hitler Youth Group. She had contracted typhoid fever when her parents met the Fields. With her parents desperate for medical attention for their daughter, the Fields volunteered to take her with them to Switzerland. In what became an informal adoption, Erica lived with Noel and Herta for the next seven years, with the rest of her life intertwined with that of Fields. After Erica’s initial appearance in the book at about the one-third point, she becomes a central and inspiring character in Marton’s otherwise dispiriting narrative – someone who merits her own biography.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Field landed a job in Marseilles, France, with the Unitarian Service Committee (USC), a Boston-based humanitarian organization then charged with assisting the thousands of French Jews fleeing the Nazis, along with as many as 30,000 refugees from Spain, Germany, and Nazi-occupied territories of Eastern Europe. Field’s practice was to prioritize communist refugees for assistance, including many hard-core Stalinists rejected by other relief organizations, hoping to repatriate as many as possible to their own countries “to seed the ground for an eventual postwar Communist takeover” (M.106). It took a while for the USC to pick up on how Field had transformed it from a humanitarian relief organization into what Marton terms a “Red Aid organization” (M.131).
After the Germans occupied the rest of France in November 1942, the Fields escaped from Marseilles to Geneva, where they continued to assist refugees and provide special attention to communists whom Noel considered potential leaders in Eastern Europe after the war. While in Geneva, Field attracted the attention of Allen Dulles, an old family friend from Zurich in the World War I era who had also crossed paths with Field at the State Department in Washington. Dulles, then head of OSS, wanted Field to use his extensive communist connections to infiltrate Nazi-occupied countries of Eastern Europe. With Field acting as a go-between, the OSS provided communists from Field’s network with financial and logistical support both during and after the war.
But Field failed to understand that his network was composed largely of communists who had fallen into Stalin’s disfavor. Stalin considered them unreliable, with allegiances that might prioritize their home countries – Poland, East Germany, Hungary or Czechoslovakia – rather than the Soviet Union. Although Stalin tightened the Soviet grip on these countries in the early Cold War years, he failed to bring Yugoslavia’s independent-minded leader, Marshal Josip Tito, into line. To make sure that no other communist leaders entertained ideas of independence from the Soviet Union, Stalin targeted a host of Eastern European communists as “Titoists,” which became the highest crime in Stalin’s world — much like being a “Trotskyite” in the 1930s. Stalin chose Budapest as the place for new round of show trials, analogous to those of 1936-38.
Back in the United States, in Congressional testimony in 1948, Whittaker Chambers named Field’s long-time friend Alger Hiss as a member of an underground communist cell based in Washington. Hiss categorically denied the allegation and mounted an aggressive counterattack, including a libel suit against Chambers. In the course of defending the suit, Chambers named Field as another communist who had worked at a high level in the State Department. Field’s double life ended in the aftermath of Chambers’ revelations. He could no longer return to the United States.
Field’s outing occurred when he was in Prague, seeking a university position after his relief work had ended. From Prague, he was kidnapped and taken to Budapest, where he was interrogated and tortured over his association with Allen Dulles and the CIA. Like so many loyal communists in the 1930s show trials, Field “confessed” that his rescue of communists during the war was a cover for recruiting for Dulles and the arch-traitor, Tito. He provided his interrogators with a list of 562 communists he had helped return to Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. All, Marton writes, “paid with their lives, their freedom, or – the lucky ones — merely their livelihood, for the crime of being ‘Fieldists’” (M.157). At one point, authorities confronted Field with a man he had never met, a Hungarian national who had previously been a leader within Hungarian communist circles, and ordered Field to accuse the man of being his agent. Field did so, and the man was later sentenced to death and hanged.
Hungarian authorities used Field’s “confession” as the centerpiece in a massive 1949 show trial of seven Hungarian communists, including Laslo Rajk, a lifelong communist and top party theoretician who had been Hungary’s Interior Minister and later its Foreign Minister. All were accused of being “Fieldists,” who had attempted to overthrow the “peoples’ democracy” on behalf of Allen Dulles, the CIA, and Tito. Field was not tried, nor did he appear as a witness in the trials. All defendants admitted that Field had spurred them on; all were subsequently executed. By coincidence, Marton’s parents, themselves dissident Hungarian journalists, covered the trial.
Field was kept in solitary confinement until released in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. Marton excoriates Field for a public statement he made after his release. “We are not among those,” he declared, “who blame an entire people, a system or a government for the misdeeds of a handful of the overzealous and the misguided,’’ adding her own emphasis to Field’s statement. Field, she writes, thereby exonerated “one of history’s most cruel human experiments, blaming the jailing and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents on a few excessively fervent bad apples” (M.194).
Field’s wife Herta traveled to Czechoslovakia in the hope of getting information from Czech authorities on her missing husband’s whereabouts. Those authorities handed her over to their Hungarian counterparts, who placed her in solitary confinement in the same jail as her husband, although neither was aware of the other’s presence during her nearly five years of confinement. When Field’s younger brother Hermann went looking for Field, he was arrested in Warsaw, where he had worked just prior to the outbreak of the war, assisting endangered refugees to immigrate to Great Britain. Herta and Hermann were also released in 1954. Hermann returned to the United States and published a short work about the experience, Trapped in the Cold War: The Ordeal of an American Family.
Erica Glaser, Field’s unofficially adopted daughter, like Herta and Hermann, went searching for Noel and she too ended up in jail as a result. Erica had moved to the American zone of occupied Germany after the war, working for the OSS. But she left that job to work for the Communist Party in the Hesse Regional Parliament. There, she met and fell in love with U.S. Army Captain Robert Wallach. When her party superiors objected to the relationship, Erica broke her connections with the party and the couple moved to Paris. They married in 1948.
In 1950, Erica decided to search for both Noel and Herta. Using her own Communist Party contacts, Erica was lured to East Berlin, where she was arrested. She was condemned to death by a Soviet military court in Berlin and sent to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison for execution. After Stalin’s death, her death sentence was commuted, but she was shipped to Siberia, where she endured further imprisonment in a Soviet gulag (Marton’s description of Erica’s time in the Gulag reads like Caroline Moorhead’s account of several courageous French women who survived Nazi prison camps in World War II, A Train in Winter, one of the first books reviewed here in 2012).
Erica was released in October 1955 under an amnesty declared by Nikita Khrushchev, but was unable to join her husband in the United States because of State Department concern over her previous Communist Party affiliations. Allen Dulles intervened on her behalf to reunite her with her family in 1957. She finally reached the United States, where she lived with her husband and their children in Virginia’s horse country, an ironic landing point for the fiery former communist. Erica wrote a book based on her experiences in Europe, Light at Midnight, published in 1967, a clever inversion of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. She lived happily and comfortably in Virginia up to her death in 1993.
Field spent his remaining years in Hungary after his release in 1954. He fully supported the Soviet Union’s intervention in the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He stopped paying dues to the Hungarian Communist Party after the Soviets put an end to the “Prague Spring” in 1968, but Marton indicates that there is no evidence that the two events were related. Field “never criticized the system he served, never showed regret for his role in abetting a murderous dictatorship,” Marton concludes. “At the end, Noel Field was still a willing prisoner of an ideology that had captured him when his youthful ardor ran highest” (M.249). Field died in Budapest in 1970. His wife Herta died ten years later, in 1980.
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Much like Noel Field, Guy Burgess, “never felt he belonged. He was an outsider” (L.332), Lownie writes. But Burgess’ motivation for entry into the world’s second oldest profession was far removed from that of the high-minded Field: “Espionage was simply another instrument in his social revolt, another gesture of self-assertion . . . Guy Burgess sought power and realizing he was unable to achieve that overtly, he chose to do so covertly. He enjoyed intrigue and secrets for they were his currency in exerting power and controlling people” (L.332).
Burgess’ father and grandfather were military men. His father, an officer in the Royal Navy, was frequently away during Burgess’s earliest years, and the boy depended upon his mother for emotional support and guidance. His father died suddenly of a heart attack when Guy was 13, bringing him still closer to his mother. Burgess attended Eton College, Britain’s most prestigious “public school,” i.e., upper class boarding school, and from there earned a scholarship to study history at Trinity College, Cambridge. When Burgess arrived in 1930, left-wing radicalism dominated Cambridge.
Burgess entered Cambridge considering himself a socialist and it was an easy step from there to communism, which appeared to many undergraduates as “attractive and simple, a combination of the best of Christianity and liberal politics” (L.41). Fellow undergraduates Kim Philby and Donald Maclean, whom Burgess met early in his tenure at Cambridge, helped move him toward communism. Both were recruited to work as agents for the Soviet Union while at Cambridge, and Burgess followed suit in late 1934. Burgess’ contacts within Britain’s homosexual circles made him an attractive recruit for Soviet intelligence services.
Before defecting to Moscow, Burgess worked first as a producer and publicist at the BBC (for a while, alongside fellow Etonian George Orwell), followed by stints as an intelligence officer within both M15 and M16. He joined the Foreign Office in 1944. While with the Foreign Office, he was posted to the British Embassy in Washington, where he worked for about nine months. Philby was his immediate boss in Washington and Burgess lived for a while with Philby’s family. In these positions, Burgess drew attention for his eccentric habits, e.g., constantly chewing garlic; for his slovenly appearance, especially dirty fingernails; and for incessant drinking and smoking — at one point, he was smoking a mind-boggling 60 cigarettes per day. A Foreign Office colleague’s description was typical: Burgess was a “disagreeable character,” who “presented an unkempt, distinctly unclear appearance . . . his fingernails were always black with dirt. His conversation was no less grimy, laced with obscene jokes and profane language” (L.183). Burgess’ virtues were that he was witty and erudite, often a charming conversationalist, but with a tendency to name-drop and overstate his proximity to powerful government figures.
Working at the highest levels within Britain’s media, intelligence and foreign policy communities, Burgess frequently seemed on the edge of being dismissed for unprofessional conduct, well before suspicions of his loyalty began to surface. How Burgess could have remained in these high level positions despite his eccentricities remains somewhat of a mystery. One answer is that his untethered, indiscreet life-style served as a sort of cover: no one living like that could possibly be a double agent. As one colleague remarked, if he was really working for the Soviets, “surely he wouldn’t act the part of a parlor communist so obviously – with all that communist talk and those filthy clothes and filthy fingernails” (L.167). Another answer is that he was a member of Britain’s old boy network, at the very top of the English class system, where there was an ingrained tendency not to be too probing or overly judgmental of one’s social peers. Ben McIntyre emphasizes this point throughout his biography on Philby, reviewed here in June 2016, and Lownie alludes to it in explaining Burgess.
The book’s real drama starts with Burgess’ sudden defection from Britain to the Soviet Union in 1951 with Donald Maclean, at a time when British authorities had finally caught onto Maclean — but before official doubts about Burgess had crystallized. Burgess’s Soviet handler told Burgess, who had recently been sent home from the Embassy in Washington after he threatened a Virginia State Trooper who had stopped him for a speeding violation, that he needed to “exfiltrate” Maclean – get him out of Britain. By leaving himself, Burgess surprised and angered his former boss Philby, who was charged with the British investigation into Maclean’s activities. Burgess’ defection turned the focus on Philby, who defected himself a decade later.
The route out of Britain that Maclean and Burgess took remains unclear, as are Burgess’s reasons for accompanying Maclean to the Soviet Union. The official line was that the departure was nothing more than a “drunken spree by two low-level diplomats,” but the popular press saw the disappearance of the two as a “useful tool to beat the government” (L.264), while of course increasing circulation. Sometime after his defection, British authorities awoke to the realization that the eccentric Burgess may have been more than just a smooth-talking, chain-smoking drunk. But they were never able to assemble a solid case against him and did not believe that there would be sufficient evidence to prosecute him should he return to Britain. In fact, he never did and the issue never had to be faced.
The two men’s whereabouts remained an international mystery until 1956, when the Soviets staged an outing for a Sunday Times correspondent at a Moscow hotel. Burgess and Mclean issued a written statement for the correspondent indicating that they had come to Moscow to work for better understanding between the Soviet Union and the West, convinced as they were that neither Britain nor the United States was seriously interested in better relations. Burgess spent his remaining years in Moscow, where he was lonely and isolated.
Burgess read voraciously, listened to music, and pursued his promiscuous lifestyle in Moscow, a place where homosexuality was a criminal offense less likely to be overlooked than in Britain. Burgess clearly missed his former circle of friends in England. During this period, he took to saying that although he remained a loyal communist, he would prefer to live among British communists. “I don’t like the Russian communists . . . I’m a foreigner here. They don’t understand me on so many matters” (L.315). Stalin’s Englishman outlasted Stalin by a decade. Burgess died in Moscow in 1963, at age 52, an adult lifetime of unhealthy living finally catching up with him. He was buried in a Moscow cemetery, the first of the Cambridge Five to go to the grave.
Throughout the book’s main chapters, Burgess’ impact as a spy gets lost among the descriptions of his excessive smoking, drinking and homosexual trysts. Burgess passed many documents to the Soviets, Lownie indicates. Most revealed official British thinking at key points in British-Soviet relations, among them, documents involving the 1938 crisis with Hitler over Czechoslovakia; 1943-45 negotiations with the Soviets over the future of Poland; the Berlin blockade of 1948; and the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula in 1950. But there does not seem to be anything comparable to Philby’s cold-blooded revelations of anti-Soviet operations and operatives, leading directly to many deaths; or, for that matter, comparable to Field’s complicity in the Reiss assassination or his denunciation of Hungarian communists.
In a final chapter, entitled “Summing Up” – which might have been better titled “Why Burgess Matters” – Lownie acknowledges that it is unclear how valuable were the many documents were which Burgess passed to the Soviets:
[E]ven when we know what documentation was taken, we don’t know who saw it, when, and what they did with the material. The irony is that the more explosive the material, the less likely it was to be trusted, as Stalin ad his cohorts couldn’t believe that it wasn’t a plant. Also if it didn’t fit in with Soviet assumptions, then it was ignored (L. 323-24).
One of Burgess’ most damaging legacies, Lownie argues, was the defection itself, which “undermined Anglo-American intelligence co-operation at least until 1955, and public respect for the institutions of government, including Parliament and the Foreign Office. It also bequeathed a culture of suspicion and mistrust within the Security Services that was still being played out half a century after the 1951 flight” (p.325-26). Burgess may have been the “most important of the Cambridge spies,” as Lownie claims at the outset, but I was not convinced that the claim was proven in his book.
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Noel Field and Guy Burgess, highly intelligent and well educated men, were entirely different in character and motivation. That both chose to live duplicitous lives as practitioners of the world’s second oldest profession is a telling indication of the mesmerizing power which Joseph Stalin and his murderous ideology exerted over the best and brightest of the generation which came of age in the 1930s.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 25, 2017