INTRODUCTION THE TRAP
I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
Kafka’s images are alive in Prague because they anticipate totalitarian society.
IN MAY 1949 an American of patrician bearing, with the slight stoop of a tall man, walks the streets of Prague. Though Noel Field appears aimless and unhurried, he is not a tourist. Tourists are scarce in Prague during the second year of Soviet rule, and foreigners, especially Americans, even more rare. Czechs passing Field avoid eye contact with a man so obviously from the enemy camp. They have no way of knowing that this elegant man with the long, aquiline features is a Soviet agent. The American is in Prague because he has nowhere else to go. For two decades he has lived a double life. Noel Field is unaware that his life as a traitor is about to be brutally ended—not by
the country he betrayed, the United States, but by the one he serves, the Soviet Union.
As always in his life replete with terrible choices, Field is focused on the rightness of the one he has just made. He has come East to escape an FBI subpoena. Field knows and loves the medieval city on the Vltava River, and tries now to let Prague work its timeless magic on his agitated spirit. On the surface, the quiet streets below the immense Hradcany castle seem unchanged. Prague had been spared the bombing that destroyed so many other ancient European cities during the recent world war. Though the great Baroque and Gothic monuments stand undisturbed, Prague’s spirit has been snuffed out. An eerie stillness hangs over the town; people in the streets do their business, then hurry home. No carefree laughter wafts from the cafés off Wenceslas Square to break the quiet. This is not the old Prague. Noel Field, however, has the gift of seeing only what he chooses to see.
As the days pass, Field pays ever less attention to the statues of Baroque saints lined up like sentries on either side of the Charles Bridge. The prematurely gray-haired American shambles unseeing among these architectural wonders. Daily he passes 22 Golden Lane, Franz Kafka’s house in the Old Town. Out of habit, he still pauses before the Gothic tower of the Old Town Hall, but he is no longer mesmerized by the hourly appearance of Death clanging its bell to mark the time.
How strange that so many friends—comrades from the Spanish Civil War and the Communist International, whom he had helped in so many ways—were too busy, or out of town. Yet they had encouraged Field to come to Prague, held out the prospect of a teaching job at the famed Charles University. When he hears nothing more about the job offer that lured him here, does he have a premonition? Some sense that he is about to embark on his own Kafkaesque journey? Did the seasoned spy realize that his every step in the Old Town is shadowed?
The American’s bland, expressionless features do not quite mask
his anxiety. Secrecy—from even friends and family—was hardwired into Field. Recently, Field’s secret exploded in articles in his own country’s front pages. Whittaker Chambers, a confessed Soviet spy, named Noel Field in his Senate testimony about Communists in the highest reaches of the US government. Chambers shattered Field’s meticulously compartmentalized life. The New York Times revealed still more details in its coverage of the trial of Noel’s friend and fellow Soviet agent Alger Hiss. With dread mounting, Noel had read those accounts in his home in Geneva. He admired his friend Alger’s smooth deception under oath, but knew he was incapable of such a performance. One step ahead of an FBI subpoena, Noel fled to the presumed safety of Prague.
Field could not know that the Kremlin had chosen him for a key role in the upcoming purge of Stalin’s would-be enemies. The fact that Field was Stalin’s loyal foot soldier was irrelevant. Noel Field, who knew all those targeted by Stalin for liquidation—and was a citizen of the new enemy—would make the perfect witness against them. Starting in 1949, the paranoid Soviet leader prescribed a fresh wave of terror and show trials, with Noel Field—his faithful acolyte—at their center.
Field’s idle stroll through the ancient city would be his last as a free man for many years.
He had served his masters with unflinching loyalty. In the thirties, as a State Department official and later at the League of Nations, and, recently, as head of an American humanitarian relief agency, Field’s loyalty to Moscow never wavered. For a long time, his earnest air of a wide-eyed idealist put most people off the scent.
Five aimless days after checking into the gloomy, tattered splendor of the Palace Hotel near Wenceslas Square, Field got the call he was waiting for. Someone was ready to talk to him about his future. On May 12, 1949, Noel strode calmly through the Palace’s revolving doors and did not reappear for six years. He would never see his own country again.
Minutes after leaving the Palace Hotel, rough hands clapped a chloroform-soaked rag on the American’s face. When, several hours later, Field regained consciousness, he was handcuffed and blindfolded, his head covered by a sack. At the Czech-Hungarian border town of Bratislava, Czech secret police agents turned him over to his new captors. All Field knew was that he was in the hands of people who spoke a language he did not understand. Noel Field’s life as prisoner of the AVO—the Hungarian secret police—had begun. The stage manager of the Hungarians’ every brutal step, however, was the man Field most revered: Josef Stalin. A decade and a half after his conversion to Communism, Field had become Stalin’s latest victim.
This is the astonishing tale of an American’s journey from pacifist idealist to hard-core Stalinist. The stage, however, is much wider. In the late twenties and early thirties, a disillusioned generation despaired at America’s ability to solve its own problems. Before FDR’s transformative, optimistic activism, the country was on its knees. In the 1930s America stood for hunger, unemployment, broken promises, and smashed hopes. With ten million Americans out of work, it was a failed state. Capitalism—indeed, democracy—seemed to have run out of new ideas. The national mood was sour and self-absorbed. The 1927 executions of Italian immigrants Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti revealed corrosive social injustice at the nation’s heart.
A continent away, fascism was surging. Many wondered if the American system was even worth saving. Appalled by the injustices, thirsting to make a difference, they were drawn to a radical ideology that left no room for doubt or skepticism. Communism shone bright in the aftermath of the successful Russian Revolution. Its dogma offered answers to social, political, and personal problems, and promised a radiant future for humanity. To echo Abraham Lincoln’s words, it appeared to many of Field’s generation as “the last best hope of earth.”
It was more than the Depression, and more than Washington’s passivity in the face of fascism that fueled Field’s alienation and led him to work actively for the overthrow of his own government. His was a quest for a life of meaning that went horribly wrong. Such was Communism’s power over him that not even Moscow’s admission that Field’s hero, Stalin, himself betrayed the dream shook his faith.