Last modified on September 26, 2018, at 18:49

Noel Field

Noel Field was a United States government official and a Soviet agent,[1] who defected to the East bloc in 1948.[2]

Department of State

During the 1930s, Field served in the Department of State, at the Western European Desk. At a 1935 dinner at Field's home, Alger Hiss argued with OGPU recruiter Hede Massing that Field should work with Hiss' GRU group, rather than Massing's OGPU group, according to Massing.[3] According to Massing, Alger Hiss also asked Field to use his connections to help Hiss get into the State Department.[4]

In a 1936 memorandum, found in the NKVD archives by former KGB agent Alexander Vassiliev, Massing complains to Moscow that Field (whom she refers to by his code name "Ernst")[5] "was approached by Alger Hiss" (Massing uses his real name), who "informed him that he is a Communist" with "ties to an organization working for the Sov. Union" —a serious breach of discipline. (A Moscow Center annotation identifies "A. Hiss" as the GRU agent designated by the code name "Jurist.")[6] As a result, noted Boris Bazarov, OGPU "illegal" station chief for the United States, Field "and Hiss [Bazarov also used Hiss's real name] have been openly identified"[7] as Soviet agents.[8]

In 1939, Alger Hiss transferred to become personal aide to Stanley Hornbeck, political adviser to the State Department's Far Eastern Division. As his replacement, Hiss urged Francis Sayre to hire Field, despite his lack of experience.[9] Due to the fact that Field had been identified to the State Department as a member of various Red front groups starting in 1926, and as a Communist Party member the previous year,[10] he did not get the appointment.

That year, Comintern courier Whittaker Chambers told Assistant Secretary of State for Administration (in charge of security) Adolf Berle[11] of an underground apparatus of the Communist Party for employees of the Federal government in Washington, D.C. While Chambers talked, Berle took notes. Under the heading “Underground Espionage Agent,” he listed several identifications, including the following:

West European Div’n—Field—still in—

(Levine says he is out went to I.E.O.)
Then in committee for Repatriation
His leader was Hedda Gompertz[12]

Office of Strategic Services and Defection

During World War II, Field served in the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA.[13] In 1948, he defected to Communist Czechoslovakia. That year, Anatoly Gorsky, chief of Soviet intelligence in the U.S. during World War II, would author an internal Soviet secret police memorandum, entitled "Failures in the USA (1938-48)," listing 43 Soviet sources and intelligence officers likely to have been identified to U.S. authorities. Included on the list, under the heading, "'Karl’s' (Whittaker Chambers's) group," was "'Ernst'—Noel Field, former employee of the State Department."[14]

Field told the Czech secret police that he had been a Communist underground agent in the State Department during the mid-thirties, according to official records published in 1990 by Karel Kaplan, former archivist of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party.[15] A 1955 Czechoslovak secret police reinvestigation (obtained in 2000 by Czech human rights activist Karel Skrabek) confirms this story.[16] Field would end up in Communist Hungary, where in 1954 he would repeat to Hungarian secret police that he had been a Soviet agent.[17]

The transcripts also record Field saying that he turned over[18] State Department documents to Hede Massing in the 1930s. In other statements Field twice said that although Hiss knew that Field “was a Communist,” he strongly supported Field at the State Department and even tried to help him obtain a job as a State Department adviser in the Philippines in 1940.[19] The dossier likewise records a statement by Field that he briefly visited Hiss in 1939 in America, where they agreed that if either's cover was ever blown, he would communicate to the other indirectly.[20] Shortly before his death in 2001, Field's brother Hermann said the dossier was accurate; Field confirmed to him, said his brother, that he had been a spy.


Field's early history---a Quaker with Communist sympathies who rose steadily in the world of American diplomacy---offers an informative window on its era. But it does not hint at the explosion to come, in postwar Eastern Europe, for which Field unwittingly would serve as the detonator. Before it was over, investigations, trials, and executions removed key members of the ruling Communist Parties in all Eastern European states. The crime in each case was having worked with Noel Field, the notorious American spymaster. Though the pattern of victims of these purges was not uniform, they tended to remove Communists who had remained underground in Europe in favor of Moscow-based agents who returned to their native lands behind the Red Army. How the Cold War would have developed if these individuals had remained in office will never be known.

During his years at State, Field certainly harbored sympathies for the USSR. Hede Massing, a former Soviet agent turned informer, told US authorities that when she attempted to recruit him for one Soviet spy network (the OGPU), that he already worked another (the GRU). But two of Field's handlers defected, raising doubts within Soviet intelligence about Field's own role that Field, seeking to re-establish his bonafides, spent many years seeking to assuage. Field left his position at the Department of State and joined the a League of Nations program in Geneva, Switzerland. In October 1940 Field resigned his position in Geneva and went to work for the Unitarian Service Committee in Marseilles. Field used this position to serve as a courier for the underground German Communist party and convey messages to and from Hungarian, Polish, Bulgarian and Yugoslav communist party organizations as he traveled Europe ostensibly on refugee business. During the war years, Field, based in Switzerland, continued to work on behalf of refugees, including a substantial number of Communist resistance fighters who would, after the war, assume positions of power in Eastern Europe. Field served Allen Dulles, then of the OSS and later CIA chief, as liaison to Communist resistance fighters when they were needed for OSS operations.

After the war, Field was purged from the Unitarian Church relief organization and decided to settle in Prague; by some accounts, he was simply broke, but others attribute his decision to live within the Soviet bloc to fear that he would be subpoenaed to appear as a material witness in the Alger Hiss trial. Expecting to be greeted by old comrades with a warm welcome, he was instead arrested, moved to a prison in Budapest, and interrogated under extreme duress. No word of his fate reached the West, and concerned family members—his wife, Herta; his brother, Hermann; and his foster daughter, Erica—traveled to Eastern Europe to look for him. Each likewise vanished, finding a similar fate of brutal imprisonment and endless interrogation. When Field surfaced again, it was as a source of evidence used in the show trials of Communist Party leaders that were held throughout the Eastern bloc. Prosecutors used Field's confessions, obtained under torture, to implicate the accused as participants in a vast network of agents, recruited by Field on behalf of Dulles for the OSS and later controlled by the CIA. The purges and trials convulsed the governments of Eastern Europe. High officials in several countries were executed, and many others sentenced to long prison terms. Communist parties in each state turned on veterans of the Spanish Civil War and the underground resistance to Nazi occupation, once hailed as heroes. Even decades after the downfall of each of these Communist regimes, the scars have not yet fully healed.

Members of the Field family each suffered terribly. Herta Field was imprisoned near her husband, in Budapest. Hermann Field, who had taken time off from his search for his brother by flying to Warsaw to see friends, was apprehended as he attempted to board his return flight and endured inhuman conditions for five years. Erica's search for her foster father was rewarded by interrogation in East German prisons and, after a death sentence that was commuted, spent years in Vorkuta, the notorious Gulag outpost in the Arctic. All were released by the mid-1950s, with apologies and offers of compensation. Hermann and Erica wrote riveting accounts of their experiences. But upon their release in Budapest, Noel and Herta Field asked for asylum and spent their remaining years as ordinary citizens of the state that had victimized them.

The Field case was and remains one of the great mysteries of the Cold War. No evidence has come forward to support the charge that Field ever tried to recruit a spy network to serve the United States after the war. What was the source of these accusations? One hypothesis is that Stalin, bent on purging the governments of the Eastern European Communist states of any independent-minded officials, found Field to be the perfect instrument. The USSR had harbored doubts about Field's true loyalties since the 1930s, and Soviet intelligence, acting behind the scenes, directed his arrest and interrogation so as to implicate Stalin's perceived enemies in the Eastern Bloc states. In this view, Stalin might have carried out the purges in any case, using some other pretext, had Field not defected, just as he had not hesitated to purge imagined enemies at home. The alternative hypothesis is that Dulles, tipped off that Field was headed East, saw an irresistible opportunity to create havoc among the Cold War enemy and lit the fuse by instructing an agent within East European counterintelligence (Josef Swiatlo, a Pole, who soon after defected to the United States and broadcast damning exposés on Radio Free Europe before disappearing with a government-supplied alias) to alert his colleagues to the impending arrival of Dulles's master spy, coming now to activate the network of traitors he had put in place during the war years. The chaos that ensued was Dulles's reward.

Hermann Field, who lived into his 90s, was convinced of the first hypothesis, but his plea for the release of CIA files was unanswered. His arrest and interrogation were carried out, incidentally, by Swiatlo. Field's foster daughter, Erica, remained convinced of the second.

As for Noel Field himself: he remained a true believer in Communism. His final testament, written in Budapest and published in an American political journal, was entitled "Hitching Our Wagon to a Star." He died in 1970.


  1. Noel Haviland Field, Records of the Security Service, The National Archives (United Kingdom)
  2. "Peripatetics: Vanishing Act," Time, October 24, 1949
  3. Hede Massing, This Deception (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1951), p. 335. Massing's account is corroborated by Czech archives. Central Intelligence Agency memorandum for Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation: Revelations of Karel Kaplan, June 29, 1977, p. 5 (CIA Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room)
  4. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), ISBN 159403088X, p. 150; G. Edward White, Alger Hiss's Looking-glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (Oxford University Press, 2004) ISBN 0195182553, p. 228
  5. R.C.S. Trahair, Encyclopedia of Cold War Espionage, Spies, and Secret Operations (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004) ISBN 0313319553, p. 76
  6. Alexander Vassiliev, Yellow Notebook #2, Original p. 3; Transcribed p. 4; Translated p. 4; cf. Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era, (New York: Random House, 1999), ISBN 0375755365, p. 6; John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), ISBN 0300123906, pp. 6-7
  7. Thomas Powers, "The Plot Thickens," The New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No 8 (May 11, 2000)
  8. Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—the Stalin Era, (New York: Random House, 1999), ISBN 0375755365, p. 7; Thomas Powers, Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qaeda (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004) ISBN 1590170989, p. 89; G. Edward White, Alger Hiss's Looking-glass Wars: The Covert Life of a Soviet Spy (Oxford University Press, 2004) ISBN 0195182553, p. 228
  9. Allen Weinstein, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) ISBN 0394495462, pp. 349-350
  10. FBI Report: Whittaker Chambers, Internal Security—C, September 5, 1948 (FBI file: Hiss-Chambers, Vol. 1)
  11. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2006), ISBN 0521857384, p. 105
  12. Adolf Berle’s Notes on his Meeting with Whittaker Chambers, John Earl Haynes, Historical Writings
  13. Richard Harris Smith, OSS: The Secret History of America's First Central Intelligence Agency (Globe Pequot, 2005), ISBN 1592287298, p. 193-194
  14. Alexander Vassiliev, Black Notebook, Original pp. 39-40; Transcribed pp. 77-78; Translated p. 77-78; cf. Ronald Bachman and Harold Leich (tr.), with John Earl Haynes, Alexander Vassiliev's Notes on Anatoly Gorsky's December 1948 Memo on Compromised American Sources and Networks, History of American Communism (H-HOAC) Discussion Network, March 14, 2005; David Lowenthal with Svetlana A. Chervonnaya, Gorsky Report: Dec 23, 1949, History News Network (George Mason University), May 2, 2005
  15. Karel Kaplan, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary (London: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd., 1990), ISBN 1-85043-211-2, pp. 19-25
  16. Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2001), ISBN 0895262258, p. 133
  17. Transcripts: September 23, 1954; September 29, 1954. Noel Field file, Archives, Czechoslovak Ministry of the Interior, quoted in Mária Schmidt, Behind the Scenes of the Showtrials of Central-Eastern Europe, Budapest 1993 (uncorrected manuscript), cited in Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2001), ISBN 0895262258, p. 135; Mária Schmidt, “Noel Field—The American Communist at the Center of Stalin’s East European Purge: From the Hungarian Archives,” American Communist History 3, no. 2 (December 2004); Mária Schmidt, "The Hiss Dossier: A Historian's Report," The New Republic, November 8, 1993, pp. 17-20
  18. Sam Tanenhaus, "Hiss Case 'Smoking Gun'?" October 15, 1993
  19. Ethan Klingsberg, "Case Closed on Alger Hiss?" The Nation, November 8, 1993
  20. Sam Tanenhaus, “Hiss: Guilty as Charged,” Commentary, April 1993; Sam Tanenhaus, "New Reasons to Doubt Hiss," Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1993
  • Noel Field, "Hitching Our Wagon to a Star". Mainstream, January 1961
  • Hermann Field and Kate Field, Trapped in the Cold War The Ordeal of an American Family. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Erica Glaser Wallach, Light at Midnight. Garden City: Doubleday, 1967
  • Karel Kaplan, Report on the Murder of the General Secretary. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990.
  • Werner Schweizer: Noel Field, Invented Spy (documentary film). Zurich: Tchoint Venture Film Productions, 1996
  • Stewart Steven: Operation Splinter Factor. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1974
  • John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, Yale University Press, (1999).
  • Lewis, Flora, Red Pawn : The Story of Noel Field, Doubleday & Company, 1965.
  • Klingsberg, Ethan, Case Closed on Alger Hiss?, The Nation, November 8, 1993.

External links