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Another CIA Plot?

Operation Splinter Factor

by Stewart Steven
Lippincott, 249 pp., $7.95

Noel Field was an amiable and naïve fellow-traveler who, while working with the OSS during World War II, made friends with a number of communists who later became leaders in Eastern Europe. In 1949 he was lured to Prague by the Czechoslovak authorities and arrested. His wife Herta, his brother Hermann, and his “foster daughter” Erica Glaser all went to look for him; Erica was arrested in East Germany, Hermann in Warsaw. They were each of them tortured, and Noel Field “confessed” that as an American agent he had recruited many Party leaders to serve Washington. This “confession” was one of the main pieces of evidence in the European show trials between 1949 and 1953 in which so many communist leaders were destroyed.

During the thaw that followed Stalin’s death Field and the rest of his family were released. Noel and Herta chose to stay in Budapest, where he died, honored by the Party press, in 1970, and where Herta still lives. Hermann teaches at Tufts University in Boston, and Erica teaches in a school in Virginia. She has written an excellent account of her experiences in first East German and then Soviet prison camps. *

The man who arrested Hermann Field in Warsaw was Jozef Swiatlo, a Polish intelligence officer who also helped to stage many of the Polish trials, and who defected to the West in 1953. Stewart Steven has never talked to Swiatlo, who is now said to live in the United States; but the principal claim he makes in this book is that Swiatlo played a far greater part than has hitherto been suspected in all the main East European trials and that he did so as an American agent.

In 1948, says Steven, when Swiatlo was one of the most powerful men in Poland’s secret police, he told the British Secret Intelligence Service in Warsaw that he wanted to defect. (Steven describes the scene of this encounter in very remarkable detail.) The British turned the suggestion over to Allen Dulles, who persuaded Swiatlo to stay on in Warsaw and work for him.

Dulles, according to Steven, had a theory, as nasty as it was foolish, that the peoples of Eastern Europe would rise up and “roll back” the iron curtain if only they were subjected to the worst sort of Stalinist tyranny. Although the West was then backing Tito, Dulles determined, according to Steven, to destroy all those so-called “liberal,” “nationalist,” and “home” communists who could conceivably become popular leaders and to promote instead those who would be hated by the East Europeans.

Dulles, in Steven’s account, also detested Field who he believed had betrayed and embarrassed the OSS by helping to install communists in East European countries during the closing days of the war. When Swiatlo suggested in 1949 that he denounce Field as an American agent, Dulles happily agreed and ordered Swiatlo to “find spies everywhere. He would denounce top party leaders as American agents, and the evidence … would be provided by the Americans themselves. He would uncover a major Trotskyist conspiracy, financed by the United States….He would report to Beria himself that the center of that conspiracy … was a man named Noel Haviland Field.” This plot, Steven claims, was named by Dulles himself Operation Splinter Factor.

If this ugly story were true, many thousands of people were killed or tortured or persecuted because of a plot by Dulles that had the unintended effect of making Stalin’s control over Eastern Europe even tighter. But is it true? Almost all of Steven’s crucial information and allegations are derived from anonymous CIA, SIS, and East European sources. Very little investigative reporting can be done without the help of protected insiders, but the blanket immunity Mr. Steven (perhaps inevitably) gives his sources, and the complete lack of corroborative evidence he provides for his claims make it hard to assess their worth.

While Mr. Steven will not identify his sources for the alleged plot, he did not bother to consult two of its victims—Hermann Field and Erica Wallach—even though he could easily have seen them when he visited Washington and Boston. Since both knew Field intimately and Hermann Field had seen more of the techniques and behavior of Jozef Swiatlo than any other man in the West, Steven’s failure to interview them is astonishing. When, after this book was published, Hermann Field wrote Steven asking why he had not tried to do so, Steven replied that he had not had time and that those who had been victims were least likely to know the background of the events in question. In fact, soon after his release Hermann Field wrote a detailed, unpublished account of his time in a Polish prison and his meetings with Swiatlo. While he believes that there are aspects of Swiatlo’s defection that pose troubling questions, he remains unconvinced by Steven’s general thesis. Erica Wallach suspects more strongly than he does that Swiatlo had some connection with the CIA. Their testimony is more pertinent than any which Mr. Steven has obtained.

Mr. Steven, moreover, makes jarring mistakes that undermine confidence in his book. He writes that after the war the East European peoples “were ready for socialism and a friendly firm alliance with the Soviet Union” but then describes Soviet soldiers in Warsaw as having “their spirit crushed by the hatred surrounding them.” He claims that crucial to the conviction of Gottwald’s foreign minister Vladimir Clementis for the then crime of “Slovak nationalism” was the prior unmasking of Otto Sling as a Slovak nationalist. He writes, “No one in Czechoslovakia would believe the line that Clementis was the leader of a Slovak anti-state center without Sling being involved too.” But Sling was not, as Steven claims, “Slovak regional Party secretary” but a Czech in charge of the Czech town of Brno; he never was and never could be associated with Slovak nationalism in any way. Operation Splinter Factor, announces Steven, “… had as its last fling direct responsibility for the Potsdam riots which were so dramatically to change modern Polish history.” Potsdam happens to be in East Germany; the Polish riots took place in Poznan.

It is possible to interpret, as Steven does, the ruin of such men as the Hungarian minister of the interior, Laszlo Rajk, and of Vladimir Clementis, as consistent with a plot by Dulles to destroy the more “moderate” leaders of Eastern Europe. But then Steven declares, in a typical passage, that by 1951 “Splinter Factor had lost all interest in the now-imprisoned Vladimir Clementis. Allen Dulles was after the biggest catch of all”—Rudolf Slansky, general secretary of the Czechoslovak Party. Why? Because “to Allen Dulles and the CIA, Rudolf Slansky was the one man capable of keeping Czechoslovakia inside the Communist bloc. Only he was able to control the simmering revolt.”

No matter how foolish Dulles may have been, this is unconvincing. Slansky was more Stalinist than many of his colleagues; it was he who had instituted the arrest of noncommunists in 1947, who had proposed forced labor camps, and who had declared that a Czechoslovak communist as prominent as Laszlo Rajk must be found and “unmasked.” As it turned out, he was himself the man who was selected. But his was just the sort of behavior which, in the Splinter Factor, would have perfectly qualified him for leadership. Why would Dulles want to destroy rather than promote him?

Mr. Steven says that the Polish commission which studied Swiatlo’s case after his defection “began to arrive at the awful truth: Swiatlo had been working for the other side all along.” He does not tell us whether the commission ever issued a report, however, and once again we do not know how to assess his information. The Poles did tell Hermann Field that Swiatlo was an American spy and they later mentioned this publicly. But they did so with no more apparent conviction than the Russians had, for example, when they denounced Beria as an American agent. If Splinter Factor did take place why has none of the subsequent East European inquiries into the trials, partial though they have been, uncovered it? It might be hard for the Parties to admit being Dulles’s dupes, but no harder than the alternative—placing much of the blame on their own men and system.

In 1962, during a period of “de-Stalinization,” the Hungarian Communist Party chose to blame not Swiatlo but its former chief, Matyas Rakosi, when it declared,

The Members of the Rakosi clique had already decided before the liberation that they would expropriate the leadership of the Party … established in a position of power, they proclaimed the incorrect Stalinist thesis on the constant sharpening of the class struggle…. Rakosi, to secure his personal power, invented the slanders that those who had fought in the brother parties of the capitalist countries or in the Spanish civil war became agents of the imperialist intelligence organs.

Hence the execution of Laszlo Rajk. Would the Party not have preferred to denounce Swiatlo and Dulles if they had any basis for doing so?

Mr. Steven declares, with great confidence, that in 1949 Stalin, because of Swiatlo’s plot, was quite convinced that Field was “an American agent who had corrupted or was about to corrupt the entire party throughout the Soviet bloc.” It is just as plausible that Stalin, and men like Rakosi, saw Field as a wonderfully convenient peg on which to hang all those whom they did not trust. The Piller Report on the Czech trials, produced by the Czechoslovak Party under Dubcek in 1968, says that in 1948-1949 “a suitable link was needed to show a connection between the imperialists and a definite group of communists…. Noel Field … was seen as the most suitable candidate.”

The Czech authors of this report pointed out what Mr. Steven attempts to play down: that the trials “did not follow solely from the search for members of an international conspiracy.” On the contrary, “the impact of the Cold War as an external factor was so strong precisely because the soil had been well prepared by the warped methods used in building the socialist order and by the increasing destruction of the political system.” Many factors contributed to the nearly hysterical atmosphere in the Eastern European capitals in the late 1940s.

To understand the trials of that period we must recall the effects of the communization of Eastern Europe—including collectivization, the expropriation of property, and the deliberate intensifying of the class struggle; the personality and the paranoia of Stalin (who, after all, invented show trials long before the days of Noel Field); the formation of NATO; the determination of those communists who had spent the war in Moscow to destroy those who had fought in the West; and especially the defection of Tito, which made that destruction seem all the more urgent. All these events helped to ensure that the trials would have taken place whether or not Jozef Swiatlo was in some way acting for the CIA, as Erica Wallach suspects he might have been.

It is certainly true, as Mr. Steven points out, that the CIA and other Western intelligence services did all they could to exacerbate tensions within Eastern Europe. A serious study of these Western provocations needs to be made. But Steven has not made it; nor has he even shown, as he claims to do, that Dulles was creating the events rather than just responding to them. And he vastly exaggerates the importance any such operation as Splinter Factor would have had, even if it did take place. One suspects that he has spent rather too much time in places like Rockville, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia, listening to men like Howard Hunt talking of the great days when they and Allen Dulles ran rings round old Joe Stalin. This book reads like the dedicated and ingenious work of a man who has been told in confidence a fascinating, if bourbonsoaked, yarn and who has tried with all his might to entice the facts—enlarging some, diminishing some, ignoring some—toward confirming it.

  1. *

    Erica Glaser Wallach, Light at Midnight (Doubleday, 1967).

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