Noel Field (Klingsberg)

“Case Closed on Alger Hiss?” by Ethan Klingsberg (The Nation, November 8, 1993)

On Meredek Street high in the hills overlooking Budapest, construction of attractive homes for the first wave of post-Communist nouveau riche is busily under way. One old socialist-style block home stands out on the street: the heavily fortified No. 38. Currently, the speaker of Hungary’s Parliament lives there. But in the late 1950s, this was home to Noel Field, one of the Soviet bloc’s prized asylum-seekers from the United States. Nobody on Meredek Street claims to remember Field. But detailed memories of Noel Field’s life exist in Budapest – in decades-old secret-police files at the Historical Archive of the Hungarian Interior Ministry. Field was a Communist sympathizer and perhaps a minor Soviet agent with a troubled career on both sides of the Iron Curtain – branded a Soviet spy by Whittaker Chambers before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States, imprisoned as an American spy in Hungary. An op-ed in the October 15 New York Times and an article in Commentary this past April claimed that those Hungarian files on Field contain something explosive: “unimpeachable” evidence that will “seal the case against Alger Hiss.”

In both the Times and Commentary pieces, author Sam Tanenhaus relies upon the unpublished findings of a 34-year-old Hungarian historian, Maria Schmidt, who, in the course of research in the secret-police archives, uncovered statements by Field that seemed directly to implicate Hiss in spying.

Schmidt presented her findings – which she had already discussed on Hungarian radio – in New York on October 11, at a seminar sponsored by New York University’s Institute for the Humanities. After decades of trials, books and investigative reporting, is there finally definitive proof that Alger Hiss worked for the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when he was a U.S. government employee?

Shortly after Commentary‘s “Hiss: Guilty as Charged” article appeared, The Nation contacted me in Budapest, where I had recently directed an international conference on freedom of information and the uses of Communist-era archives. Was there any way to review Maria Schmidt’s sources? Through the Budapest conference, I had met Gabor Baczoni, director of the Interior Ministry archive. After a twelve-week application process, graciously facilitated by Baczoni, I became the only foreign researcher to review Noel Field’s 2,500-page dossier, and in particular those documents relating to Hiss. In the words of Baczoni, I “saw everything in the Interior Ministry’s Noel Field dossier that Maria Schmidt saw.” What I saw turns out to provide a case study in why this new game of using uncritical readings of Communist secret-police files to make definitive historical pronouncements is misguided and does not serve the interests of truth.

The Strange Life of Noel Field

A Harvard graduate, Field enthusiastically dedicated his life, until 1947, to public service in the West, yet he ended up living out his days in silence and depression in an oppressive Soviet satellite. A friend of Communists during World War II relief efforts, he would eventually fall victim to Stalinist interrogators, who extracted false and distorted statements from him about his Communist Party contacts for use as the basis for hundreds of purges and executions throughout the Soviet bloc.

Field was a social acquaintance of Alger Hiss in Washington, D.C., during 1935-36. Field worked for the State Department at the time, while Hiss worked first for the Agriculture Department and then moved over to the Solicitor General’s office. Field left State in 1936 and headed off for Europe to work for the League of Nations; from 1941 to 1947, he served in Europe with the Unitarian Service Committee. After 1947 he traveled around Eastern Europe for two years as an unsuccessful freelance writer or “student of popular democracy,” depending on whom he was talking to. On August 27, 1948, Whittaker Chambers linked Noel Field to his own accusations against Alger Hiss, claiming that Hiss had tried to “draw Field in” to Hiss’s alleged Communist espionage cell, only to discover that Field “was already a Communist working in another apparatus.” As it turned out, HUAC would not be the only source of trouble for Field. In 1949 he was arrested by Communist police in Prague on charges that he was an “American master-spy” attempting to undermine the Soviet Union. He spent the next five years in Hungarian prisons, where he was tortured and eventually went on a hunger strike. On his release, he requested asylum in Hungary and settled in Budapest. He died in 1970; his ashes now rest in a special crematorium depository for Communist heroes in Budapest.

The Allegations

The Hungarian Interior Ministry’s Noel Field dossier spans the period 1945-65 and includes Field’s personal papers prior to and following his imprisonment; records of his interrogations by the secret police; and records of his voluminous communications with both Hungarian and Soviet authorities during his imprisonment. If I had cut out all the references to Alger Hiss from the thousands of pages in the Field dossier and then pasted them together, they would constitute about four pages. It is these papers that Maria Schmidt and her American chronicler, Sam Tanenhaus, claim “seal the case” against Hiss. According to Schmidt, the damning evidence consists of: (1) correspondence between Field and Hiss; (2) expressions of anxiety by Field concerning Whittaker Chambers’ testimony; (3) Field’s “musings on the coincidence” that he and Hiss were released from prison at the same time; and (4) direct statements by Field to his Hungarian interrogators that Hiss was a fellow Communist as well as a Soviet agent who competed with another Communist cell to recruit Field for espionage.

Let us consider each category of evidence in turn. The first three can be dealt with quickly.

Denial, Anxiety and Musings

The first exchange of letters between Field and Hiss to be found in the Hungarian archives dates from the fall of 1948, the time of Whittaker Chambers’ HUAC testimony. Hiss wrote, on October 14, 1948, to inform Field, living in Europe and without access to American newspapers, that Field was “irresponsibly smeared” in Chambers’ testimony. On its face Hiss’s letter appears to be simply from one former colleague to another. (I recently asked Hiss about this old letter. “It was a warning to a friend,” he says. “I was probably also counting on Noel to help counter Chambers’ testimony.”)

On November 2, 1948, Field replied:

Inasmuch as Chambers’s recorded fabrications concerning me are, in the main, based on his alleged conversations with you, I take it there is no point in my dignifying them with any public denial and that your libel action will automatically dispose of them….I need hardly tell you how angered and outraged I was over the irresponsible allegations made against you. Your testimony fully harmonizes with the memory I had of you during our all-too-brief acquaintance in Washington. While my views, as I recall, were somewhat to the left of yours, I always particularly admired you as an embodiment of the best Oliver Wendell Holmes tradition and as a man of unusual integrity in both his private and his official life.

I trust you will receive full satisfaction in your libel suit.

Shortly after Field’s release from prison in 1954, he wrote in response to a letter from Hiss’s attorney sent six years earlier, after Field was first jailed. Hiss’s attorney had requested Field’s “personal opinion” on “being mentioned” in the testimony of witness Hede Massing during Hiss’s perjury prosecution. Massing had claimed Hiss tried to recruit Field for a Communist cell. In his reply, Field explained that he had not answered earlier due to his imprisonment; then he dismisses Hede Massing’s testimony as “nothing but a lie. . . I got to know Alger Hiss as a liberal without communist attachments, but with a commitment to peace and the promotion of understanding with whose wife we [Field and his wife] had spent some time as Quakers in the past.” Field goes on to regret that his own “ill fame” in the United States, arising from his decision to request asylum in a Communist country, probably reduces the usefulness of his declaration.

None of this seems to be much of a smoking gun. On its face, this correspondence presumes Hiss’s innocence. In the Times, Tanenhaus propounded the theory that Field’s post-release letters must have been part of a Hungarian campaign to protect Alger Hiss. While there can be no doubt that the Hungarian secret police screened all of Field’s letters, the secret-police commentary on Fields’ post-release correspondence in the dossier fails to substantiate Tanenhaus’s theory. In particular, the secret police report on Field’s 1955 letter to Hiss simply states:

According to our documents, Alger Hiss was arrested by the American authorities. First he was accused of Communist activity, then of espionage for the Soviet Union, and he was imprisoned. He was discharged from prison roughly when the Fields were released too. He lives in the States now.

Apparently the officials overseeing Field knew very little about Alger Hiss.

An air of innocence similarly characterizes Field’s recorded anxiety over Chambers’ HUAC testimony. A week after his 1948 letter to Hiss, Field sent a note to former State Department colleague Laurence Duggan lamenting the effect that Chambers’ HUAC testimony might have on his writing career. “My first reaction was to explode with as audible a yell as I could produce from these distant lands…. I am only too aware of the fact that my publishing aims – whether in periodicals or book form – have hardly been advanced by the type of publicity my name has gotten.” Field’s expressions of fear never concede guilt and may have just been well-founded concerns for his career, reputation and good friend.

Finally, Tanenhaus’s two articles make much of a Hungarian secret police record suggesting that Field noted a parallel between his release from the Hungarian prison and Hiss’s release in the United States. When I read the actual document, however, I discovered that this was yet another instance in which a document that sounds incriminating turns out to be potentially insignificant. On November 18, 1954, a Hungarian agent noted that Field commented on the “wonderful coincidence” that he and his “old friend Alger Hiss” had been released at about the same time. Both the Hungarian agent and Field refrain from making any judgment whatsoever about the veracity of Hiss’s alleged connection with Communism.

The Prison Statements

The Field dossier’s most sensational references to Alger Hiss appear in Field’s prison statements. While Hede Massing was testifying in 1949 at the Hiss trial that Field was a Soviet agent, the Hungarian secret police had taken Field into custody and were interrogating him about his alleged efforts to undermine the Soviet Union on behalf of American intelligence. During five years in prison, he would produce over 1,000 pages of prison statements in the form of petitions for release, “autobiographies” and answers to interrogations.

Two reports by the Hungarian secret police on Field’s statements, and one Hungarian translation of Field’s “autobiography,” all dated during the last two years of his confinement, convey the same tale of relations with Hiss:

We [Field and his wife] made friends with Alger Hiss – an official of the “New Deal” brought about by Roosevelt – and his wife. After a couple of meetings, we mutually realized we were Communists. Around the summer of 1935, Alger Hiss tried to induce me to do service for the Soviets. I was indiscreet enough to tell him he had come too late. Naturally I didn’t say a word about the Massings.

In the same statements, Field says Hede Massing was the Soviet agent to whom Field turned over State Department documents in the 1930s. The statements are consistent with Chambers’ and Massing’s testimony. In two other prison “autobiographies,” Field refers to Hiss only as a colleague who knew that Field “was a Communist.” But in those statements, Field goes on to note that Hiss, while aware that Field was a Communist, was a strong supporter of Field at the State Department, and even tried to help him obtain a job as a State Department adviser in the Philippines in 1940.

All this would appear to be damaging, indeed devastating, new evidence. It would make Field’s anxiety over HUAC and those letters to Hiss and Duggan far more suspicious. Perhaps Field really did possess information that he feared HUAC could use to “hurt my friends, especially Alger Hiss,” as he put it in one of those prison “autobiographies.” Perhaps the letters to Hiss and Field were communications about strategy for keeping their cover. Indeed, the dossier records a prison 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.

A Closer Look: “Lies as Truth”

But a closer examination of the textual and historical evidence of this “unimpeachable testimony” reveals grounds for considerable skepticism about the “information” in these prison statements. First, they are what police call “raw investigative files.” The files contain no evidence that a Hungarian or other Soviet-bloc secret-police officer ever attempted to confirm any of Field’s statements about Hiss.

Even more important, evidence suggests that Field’s statements were made under coercive circumstances and conditions of considerable psychological distress.

In a March 18, 1954 letter to the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Moscow, requesting review of his case, Field attests that he has been subject to “influential terrorist pressure (from being beat up to being crippled til the starvation cure)” [sic]. The letter goes on to explain that he is “physically a coward” and his mistreatment has caused him to “confess more and more lies as truth” until “finally I do not only utter and write down the most horrible lies but partially even believe them.”

Statements by individuals familiar with the Field case support this account of brutality and coercion. No Excuses, a memoir published in Hungary in 1991 by Vladimir Farkas, about his own career as a Communist official and that of his father, who oversaw Hungary’s secret police and Stalinist show trials, asserts that the Hungarians tortured Field horribly during his interrogations.

One person close to Field – a survivor of Polish prisons in the same period – visited Noel and his wife four times in Budapest after Noel’s release. Although they avoided direct discussions of their prison experiences, this individual recalls, “Peripheral remarks that Noel [made] suggested that he had had a pretty tough going. My feeling was that he was extensively mistreated.” Field’s foster daughter, Erica Wallach, when telling me about her own imprisonment in East Germany and Russia, noted, “In prison I kept thinking, ‘How is Noel going to handle this kind of mistreatment?’ He was so sensitive and soft.” Baczoni, speaking in his capacity as a researcher familiar with interrogation records from this era rather than in his capacity as director of the Interior Ministry Historical Archive, confirms that political prisoners at the time were routinely subject to “denial of food, prolonged solitary confinement, denial of medicine, threats to family members, beatings and psychological abuse.”

Furthermore, legitimate grounds exist for concluding that the references to Alger Hiss are among those statements coerced by the Hungarians. All the prison references to Hiss have a seed prior to Field’s imprisonment. The recruitment story comes from Chambers’s HUAC testimony described in the aforementioned 1948 Hiss letter received by Field. Moreover, Alger Hiss told me that he actually did meet with Noel around 1939 in Washington, D.C. (“my sole recollection is of seeing an old friend who had been away for some time and doing good work”), and that he did try to help Noel obtain a job in the Philippines in 1940. Why would Field draw on this material to relate to his captors stories about his relationship with Hiss, Soviet agent and/or supporter of Communism, without regard for whether the stories were necessarily true?

The first explanation is straightforward. Anybody held in solitary confinement for three years on charges of being an American spy would try to think up any remotely believable stories to relate to his accusers about how he was in fact connected with supporters of Communism. The survivor of the Polish prison told me how during internment he would go back to his cell and “try to think up any believable Communist contact… and then blow that up” in an effort to convince his captors that he was a friend of Communism rather than an American spy. Erica Wallach, imprisoned after she went to the Soviet bloc looking for her foster father, says the same thing.

The second explanation requires an understanding of the historical context of the Fields’ imprisonment. Field arrived in Budapest during Hungary’s “reign of terror,” which Hungarian-American historian Charles Gati recently concluded “turned out to be much harsher than it was in the neighboring ‘people’s democracies’ of East-Central Europe and even the Soviet Union itself.” From 1948 to 1953, the Hungarian Communist Party executed thousands, imprisoned tens of thousands and purged approximately 200,000 from its own local ranks.

Some explanations for the purge focus on Field himself. In 1974 British investigative journalist Stewart Steven argued in Operation Splinter Factor that a chief source of the Stalinist purges in East-Central Europe was a Western intelligence scheme masterminded by Allen Dulles and centered on none other than Noel Field. Steven claims to have uncovered information revealing that Dulles fed information to double agent Jozef Swiatlo, a leader of Polish intelligence, that was used to unleash a wave of paranoia throughout the Soviet intelligence apparatus that the United States had infiltrated Communist organizations throughout East-Central Europe via “superspy” Noel Field. In fact, Field had the requisite contacts with both the East and West necessary for contriving such a tale. The alleged purpose of the Dulles scheme – Operation Splinter Factor – was to drive the Communists toward harsher tactics that would result in stunting the liberal-leaning and nationalist elements in the East-Central European Soviet satellites, thereby preventing Communism from attaining grass-roots credibility there. According to Steven, Operation Splinter Factor led to a decree from Lieut. Gen. Fedor Belkin, head of the Southeast European Division of the Soviet Interior Ministry, that there was a conspiracy, centered in Hungary, of nationalists who, although Communist, were disloyal to the Soviet Union. This type of suspicion in turn inspired Hungary’s paranoid terror campaign against Field and those he may have known.

Flora Lewis’s 1965 book, Red Pawn, cites a different origin, but also identifies an important position for Noel Field in the horrors in Hungary and the rest of East-Central Europe. She hypothesizes that Stalin personally identified Field as somebody with a portfolio of contacts with the dreaded set of cosmopolitan Communists who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and therefore the dictator decided to use the myth of Noel Field, “American master-spy,” as a central means to fulfill his desire to purge such figures from the parties in the Soviet satellites.

Thus, the interrogations of Noel Field and his kin were used to compile lists of hundreds of tainted Communists throughout East-Central Europe, popularly known as “Fieldists,” most of whom were either purged or executed. The tactics used to create cases against the Fieldists appear to have been similar to those techniques portrayed in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: The interrogators would force the witness to confess to a plausible detail about a contact and then that detail would be distorted to create grounds for purging the contact.

So why would Field talk about his contacts with Alger Hiss? The orders in the Field dossier indicate that the officials wanted as many details as possible from Noel. Baczoni agrees: “The general rule was, ‘The more names mentioned, the better.’ This rule applied in the Field case for sure.” Laszlo Varga, a part-time history professor who, in 1991, became the first freely elected director of the Budapest City Archive, explains, “The secret police officers did not know what information they wanted. The key was just to get as many names and details of contacts as possible… to spin tales. Names meant power.” Professor Vera Pecsi, who recently wrote a documentary about one of the many show trials in which the prosecutor created a case for treason in part from alleged contacts with Noel Field, agrees that the interrogators pressured Field to contrive as many plausible stories about contacts with Communists as possible.

Erica Wallach, when discussing her own prison experience, told me that she would intentionally create false stories about Communist contacts in the West to appease her interrogators’ demands, because she knew that those individuals were safe from the Stalinist terror campaigns for which she was being used as a source. This may be another reason that Noel Field had no qualms about casting Hiss as a potential “Fieldist.”

Moreover, the Hungarian officials apparently cared little about whether the details of contacts were truthful. Varga recalls a 1950 interrogation file in which a Hungarian poet names William Shakespeare as one of his Communist contacts in the West. Baczoni read a file in which a fearful witness offers an unbelievable 3,500 contacts. The secret police recorded such “information” with no indication of skepticism.

A Sealed Case?

What conclusions about Alger Hiss may one draw from a critical examination of the Noel Field dossier? All the documents written under noncoercive circumstances – such as the Field-Hiss correspondence – assume Hiss’s innocence on their face, while the apparently incriminating statements were made under questionable, indeed brutal, circumstances.

The most controversial archival documents about Hiss may have yet to surface. A Russian source close to the K.G.B. archivists told me that the K.G.B. does indeed have files on Hiss. But these files, even if released, may only lead into another labyrinth. Recent East-Central European experience reveals the consistent inability of newly available Communist era archives to “seal” history. In the former Czechoslovakia, courts reviewing the “lustrated” (the Czech term for those named in secret police files as collaborators) have ended up reversing 90 percent of the cases because of the ambiguity of the archival evidence. Similarly, Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall’s government, over the past two years, has strategically leaked cryptic passages from archives to slander rebels within Antall’s ruling coalition. Thus far, the Antall government’s defamation-by-disclosure efforts have largely backfired, once the subjects have had the opportunity to convey the full context of the misleading archival passages.

Tanenhaus attempts to frame his articles as a response to this trend. He criticizes last year’s successful initiative by longtime Hiss supporter John Lowenthal (on behalf of The Nation Institute’s Cold War Archives project) to have Col. Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov, chairman of Russia’s military intelligence archives, issue a widely publicized declaration that the Soviet archives show that the espionage allegations against Hiss are “completely groundless” [see The Nation, “In Re: Alger Hiss,” November 16, 1992]. I disagree with Lowenthal’s strategy. But now Tanenhaus, ironically, employs the same approach.

Access to Communist-era archives has provoked file fever on the left and the right. The interpreters of newly available material should remember that the secret-police interrogations were “fantastic situations” and the convoluted mind games that went on in those prison cells can only be understood by “fantastic imaginations,” as Arseny Roginsky, a former Russian dissident and prisoner who now heads the Memorial Society and served as an expert on archives to the Russian Constitutional Court and Parliament, told me this summer. Statements made in such a setting are neither “unimpeachable” nor even “testimony,” as those terms are used in our legal tradition.

As I left the Hungarian Interior Ministry Archive for the last time, director Baczoni asked if I had found what I was looking for. After I shrugged my shoulders, he chuckled. “Oh, come on! Everyone leaves these archives with fantastic theories!” Disclosures from secret-police archives, like those about Hiss, provide good material for tabloids and talk shows, but rarely “seal the case.”

Ethan Klingsberg, an attorney, is the former executive director of the Soros Foundation’s Institute for Constitutionalism and Legislative Policy. Research for this article was supported by The Nation Institute’s Cold War Archives project.