Closed on Alger Hiss?
The Nation, November 8, 1993
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."
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Sam Tanenhaus relies upon the unpublished findings of a 34-year-old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.
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.
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.
Strange Life of Noel Field
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
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.
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's 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.
us consider each category of evidence in turn. The first three
can be dealt with quickly.
Anxiety and Musings
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.")
November 2, 1948, Field replied:
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
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.
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
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.
the officials overseeing Field knew very little about Alger
air of innocence similarly characterizes Field's recorded
anxiety over Chambers's 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.
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.
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.
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:
[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.
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.
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.
Closer Look: "Lies as Truth"
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
more important, evidence suggests that Field's statements
were made under coercive circumstances and conditions of considerable
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."
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
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.