Saint Izzy

The tiresome canonizing of I.F. Stone.

With the exception of Edward R. Murrow, no American journalist of the post-World War II era has received more posthumous acclaim than I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone, who died in 1989. At Harvard, the Nieman Foundation now awards an annual I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence. When asked to list the 100 greatest journalistic achievements of the 20th century, a panel of 36 historians and media types ranked I.F. Stone’s Weekly at No. 16, above Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Four adoring biographies of Stone are already in print; the latest one, American Radical, is a doorstop of a book, running to 570 pages. Anthologies of Stone’s best articles appear regularly. There is no end in sight.

Here’s the problem: I.F. Stone was a complicated man—fearless, principled, and independent on some issues; compromised, uncurious, and close-minded on others. His personal brand of journalism, spanning six decades, was passionate but predictable. His devotion to progressive causes mixed the best of intentions with a heavy dose of political orthodoxy. And his spirited assaults on capitalism didn’t stop him from living the good life in Manhattan—a pioneering example for future limousine liberals. Put simply, a careful look at Stone requires a kind of subtlety that idolaters rarely possess.

American Radical is a good example. D.D. Guttenplan, a correspondent for TheNation, has done prodigious research. He is especially adept at showing how a single journalist, often isolated and working on a shoestring, could use the public record to target the misdeeds and missed opportunities of those in power. No one did more than Stone to expose the government’s lies about Vietnam. No one better explained the need for a Jewish homeland following World War II, the moral urgency of the civil rights movement, or the consequences of U.S. blundering in places as disparate as China, Cuba, and Iran. Blacklisted for his politics in the 1950s, he began his own broadsheet, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which helped keep left-wing journalism alive during the McCarthy era. While Guttenplan goes off the rails in comparing Stone to the likes of Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass, there is good reason to view him both as a superb investigative reporter and a writer of lasting impact.

But biographers can be intrusive, especially when playing defense. Determined to smooth every blemish, Guttenplan instead drains our compassion for Stone by denying him the ordinary failings we see in ourselves. Take, for example, the name change from Isadore Feinstein to I.F. Stone. There’s really nothing complicated about it. We know that Stone wasn’t trying to “pass” as a gentile; he simply understood that life the 1930s would be easier for a Jew with an Anglicized name. But Guttenplan, sensing a moral weakness here, spends several excruciating pages exploring nobler possibilities. Stone did it to separate himself from “the shadow of parental authority.” He needed to declare his editorial independence. He wanted to protect his family in the event of a fascist takeover of the United States. He even hoped to reach the bigots who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the byline of a journalist named Feinstein. “He said he didn’t want to turn off a reader who might be anti-Semitic right away, before he ever read the article,” a relative explained. Guttenplan is fond of Yiddish expressions. Here’s one he missed: “Oy vey!”

It gets worse. Following his death, rumors circulated that Stone, a dogged apologist for the Soviet Union during much of his career, may have entered the murky world of espionage as well. The rumors gained traction when Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general, described Stone as “a man with whom we had regular contact.” This was followed, in 1996, by the release of intercepted KGB cables (the so-called Venona Project) that contained references to Stone as a potential recruit. Here the matter stood until 2009, when historians Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, in collaboration with Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, published Spies, an account of Soviet espionage in the United States. Based on Vassiliev’s notes of Russian intelligence files, I.F. Stone, code-named Pancake, was said to have entered “the channel of normal operational work” by serving as both a talent-spotter and confidential source for the KGB.

Klehr and Haynes mince no words in calling Stone a “Soviet agent”—a term normally reserved for a Julius Rosenberg or an Alger Hiss. Guttenplan vigorously disagrees, portraying Stone as a curious sort who associated with all kinds of people, thereby placing the KGB on par with, say, a touring Latvian dance troupe. The truth lies somewhere in between. Stone’s contacts with the KGB cannot be wished away. That said, Stone had no valuable state secrets to divulge, nor did he appear to pal around with those who did. The information he supplied seems limited to a few tips about friends and journalists who might prove sympathetic to the Soviet cause.

Guttenplan is right in noting that thousands of Americans viewed Stalinist Russia through rose-colored glasses in the 1930s. Ignoring all hints of genocide from the left while obsessing over genocide from the right became their selective way of viewing the world. It all revolved around fear, says Guttenplan—fear of Nazis abroad and fascists at home. That, we are told, is why Stone supported so many Communist causes in the 1930s without actually joining the Communist Party (what some might call a distinction without a difference). Stone saw communism as the true enemy of domestic fascism, much as he saw Stalin as the true enemy of Hitler. “They did it in Italy,” Stone wrote of the fascists in 1934. “They did it in Germany. They did it in Austria. They will try to do it in America.”

The trouble, however, is that Guttenplan sees no contradiction between Stone’s soft spot for Stalinism, on the one hand, and his journalistic integrity, on the other. In truth, Stone never seriously complained about Stalin’s infamous labor camps or his strangling of the Russian press. Indeed, Stone’s excuse for ignoring mass murder in the Soviet Union was chillingly simple. Revolutions, he explained, “do not take place according to Emily Post.”

When America moved to the right in the 1940s and ‘50s, Stone paid the price. He became, in his own words, an “ideological typhoid Mary,” shunned by old friends and attacked by new enemies. He responded by starting his own weekly, four pages long, which attracted attention as a quirky counterbalance to blander national publications. Most readers shared Stone’s long-held views about the dangers of domestic fascism and the evils of American imperialism. But his relentless criticism of the Vietnam War, as well as his enchantment with a new crop of left-wing dictators like Fidel Castro, made him a hero to many young protesters in the 1960s. Through it all, Stone stuck to his core beliefs while the world changed around him.

What does one make of all this? Guttenplan looks at Stone’s 60-year career and sees a journalist who remained “both radical and independent”—a view that seems misguided at best. The sad truth is that radicalism and independent thinking were mutually exclusive elements for Stone, with the former dominating the latter. In the 1930s, Stone’s devotion to the Soviet Union determined his stance on virtually every political issue. During World War II, his fierce support for American involvement centered once more on the Soviet issue—his belief that the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of Stalinist Russia both depended on U.S. military power.

Indeed, Stone’s behavior in these years reached the point of zealotry. What else can be said of a journalist who called for the federal prosecution of wartime dissenters while remaining mum on the greatest civil liberties disaster in our history, the internment of 110,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry, the majority of whom were citizens of the United States? In the Cold War era, Stone charted a course that condemned U.S. foreign and domestic policy at almost every turn. Sometimes he was on target; sometimes he was wrong. Rarely, however, were his positions even remotely “independent.”        

Sanitizing Stone’s record makes him a less credible figure. His genius lay not in what he wrote but in his refusal to be silenced. A life like his—passionate, combative, and resilient—is poorly served by hagiography. Stone deserves better.