Operation Splinter Factor Combined Espionage and Personal Revenge
The CIA tricked the Eastern Bloc into purging hundreds of loyal officials and settled a vendetta in the process
This story originally appeared on Feb. 27, 2017.
While Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI terrorized suspected communists and their alleged sympathizers in the United States during the 1940s and ’50s, the CIA was simultaneously helping to orchestrate a campaign of witch hunts and show trials against those accused of betraying Moscow in Soviet Bloc countries.
The CIA’s Operation Splinter Factor led to the arrest of hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members and others in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland on the suspicion of espionage or otherwise undermining the Communist Party.
Communist authorities executed hundreds, and thousands more died in prison. Almost all were innocent of the crimes of the crimes they had been accused of.
In its early stages the operation revolved almost entirely around three men — a former U.S. State Department employee turned Soviet spy, a high-ranking Polish official and a future CIA director who sought revenge on one of those men for personally betraying him.
Noel Field was born in London in 1904. His father was a prominent zoologist born in the United States, and his mother was a successful journalist with a Quaker upbringing. Field’s father was based out of Zurich, and his mother relocated the family to the United States in 1921 after his father died.
Field received a Ph.D. in political science in 1926 from Harvard and married Herta Katharina Vieser, a German women he had met in Switzerland years earlier and who had followed him to America. In short order Field took a job at the State Department.
Field was as a bright young man from a successful family and with a promising future. But he had a secret — Field was a closet communist.
Noel Field, right, as a representative of the League of Nations in 1939. New York World’s Fair photo
Field was self-radicalized, but his leftist inclinations were reinforced by what he saw as the unjust trials and executions of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, President Herbert Hoover’s brutal treatment of the Bonus Army, and the ravages of the Great Depression — which Field blamed primarily on the exploitative nature of capitalism.
He was also horrified by the destruction World War I brought upon Europe, and hoped to prevent such large scale wars. He was convinced that the Soviet Union offered more hope than the United States for a peaceful world.
His foray into the world of espionage began rather modestly. He would socialize with communists and other leftists and occasionally write articles for communist newspapers under a pseudonym, but he was not involved with any actual covert activities.
However, it seemed Field was destined to become a spy. While at Harvard, he met and became life-long friends with Laurence Duggan, who would also go on to become a State Department employee and a spy for Moscow. In the 1930s he made the acquaintance of Hede Gumpertz, a German spy for the Communist Party, and her husband Paul Massing.
It was Gumpertz who encouraged Field to take his activities to the level of a true spy. Field would even cross paths with notorious communist agent Alger Hiss, who Field later claimed also tried to recruit him, but Field worked with Gumpertz instead.
Field left the State Department in 1936 to take a job with the League of Nations in Geneva. He was ostensibly in Switzerland to work on disarmament but soon turned his eye to Spain, where Francisco Franco was leading a military campaign against the democratically elected anarcho-socialist government of President Manuel Azaña.
Field became the head of the League of Nation’s Intergovernmental Committee, which oversaw the organization’s refugee operations during the Spanish Civil War. As the Spanish Republic fell to Franco’s forces — which was receiving support from both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy — Field helped foreign fighters who had volunteered to serve the Republic in the International Brigades repatriate to their home countries.
The Spanish Republic’s defeat intensified Field’s hatred of fascism and his support for communism. But it also made him lose faith in the League of Nations. He resigned his post there and took a job as the head of the American Society of Assistance of the Unitarian Service Committee.
From that group’s office in Marseilles, Noel and Herta helped communists, Jews, and other anti-Nazis flee from Nazi occupied territories. When Germany took the southern portion of France in 1942, the Fields relocated to Zurich, where they continued their work.
Aerial bombing of Barcelona by the Italian Air Force on March 17, 1938. Photo via Wikimedia
Soon after returning to Zurich, Noel Field came into contact with Allen Dulles, who was currently working for the Office of Strategic Services and would later become the head of the CIA.
A Soviet operative and an American spymaster may seem like strange bedfellows, but they saw their relationship as mutually beneficial. Field wanted OSS support for his refugee work, and Dulles hoped that Field’s communist connections would give his agency invaluable information and access to party members and assets.
To this end, Dulles was more than happy to provide assistance to Fields. However, he apparently misread the intentions of Field’s work with the communists and underestimated his influence in Eastern Europe.
“Toward the end of the war, Field induced Dulles to provide American support for a project which placed agents in various European countries to prepare the way for the advancing Allied troops,” Howard Blum wrote in Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II.
“The men chosen by Field, unsurprisingly, were all communists and their placement in certain Eastern European countries helped them to get their hands on the reins of power long before non-communist forces were able to regroup and organize themselves.”
Field also helped convince Dulles and the OSS to help fund a clandestine left-wing anti-fascist newspaper in Germany called Neues Deutchland. The newspaper became the official publication of East German Communist Party as soon as Germany was defeated and partitioned.
“It could be concluded,” Blum wrote, “that Allen Dulles had been duped.” It seems that Dulles himself might have felt that way, and he would not soon forgive or forget Field’s transgression.
Field continued to help communist refugees in Eastern Europe after the war, all the while continuing to commit acts of treason for what he saw as a greater cause. At the same time, a Polish official with the Ministry of Public Security named Jozef Swiatło was also betraying his own country in hopes of defecting to either the United Kingdom or the United States.
Swiatło first tried to defect from Poland to Britain in 1948, according to Blum, but Dulles — who was expected to soon become head of the CIA at the time — advised his intelligence counterparts in England to instruct Swiatło to stay in place until further notice. He was of more use to the agency behind the Iron Curtain.
Swiatło complied for some time, but when a communist named Tibor Szőnyi was arrested in Budapest on suspicion of being a spy, Swiatło saw an opportunity. Szőnyi mentioned during interrogations that he knew of Field’s relationship with Dulles during the war.
Field was widely known throughout the Communist Party in Eastern Europe and had many friends in high places. Field’s history with the U.S. State Department was no secret, and his ties to Dulles made him even more suspect among many Communist Party members.
If Field’s loyalty could be called into questioned, Swiatło believed it could undermine the loyalty and credibility of every Party member he had come into contact with.
Swiatło approached Dulles directly with a plan he thought could shake the foundations of communism throughout the Eastern Bloc. In particular, Swiatło knew that Field had contacted Jakub Berman, the head of Poland’s Ministry of Public Security, to ask for help securing a job in Eastern Europe.
In the United States, rumors of Field’s pro-communist activities had begun to circulate, most notably from his old friend Hede Gumpertz’s confessions to the FBI — which implicated Fields and cost him his job with the USC.
Field was a man without a country, and chose to flee with Herta to Prague, where he hoped to become an official member of the Communist Party or a correspondent for leftist European or American newspapers. His letter to Berman requesting help finding employment would lead to his downfall — and the downfall of many others.
When Swiatło wrote to Dulles of his plan to use Fields to take down Berman and anyone else they could implicate, Dulles replied with “pleasure and amusement” that Swiatło should move forward. Dulles saw a much bigger picture than just Berman and Field.
He hoped that the operation could, in Blum’s words, “put the whole of the bloc into a state of acute paranoia and set off a wave or repression and Stalinist tyranny that could eventually lead to uprisings.”
Dulles dubbed the project Operation Splinter Factor.
Communist authorities arrested Field in Prague in May of 1949 and sent him to Budapest to aid in the investigations and trials there. While in custody, he was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. His wife, son and adopted daughter all faced the same fate when they came looking for him in Prague after his disappearance.
Any communist Field mentioned having any contact with became a suspect and was subject to arrest, trial and torture. Anyone named by those arrested, in turn, suffered the same fate — setting up a chain reaction of arrests, show trials and executions.
Dulles and Swiatło’s plan was working, and eventually outgrew their oversight and control. The purges that began with Operation Splinter Factor spread across the Eastern Bloc.
In all, hundreds of thousands of members of the Communist Party and others were arrested in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland. In Czechoslovakia alone 169,000 members of the Communist Party were arrested, compromising 10 percent of the party’s membership in that country, according to Blum.
The communists executed hundreds in the purge, and thousands more died in prisons.
As the odds of Swiatło being discovered as a pro-Western spy and instigator of the purges grew and he was finally granted permission to defect to the United States via West Berlin in 1953. He had attained the rank of colonel in the Ministry of Public Security by that point.
Swiatło’s defection caused the Communist Party to finally realize the grave mistake they had made. The purges that resulted from Operation Splinter Factor slowed, and Field and his family were released after five years of detainment, interrogation and torture.
They never criticized or condemned their former captors for their brutal treatment, at least not publicly. Noel and his wife were granted political asylum and moved to Budapest, where he died in 1970.