September 6, 2010
Even before Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, the ghost of I. F. Stone was weeping bitter tears. Asked on ABC News about the possible prosecution of Bush Administration officials for violating domestic and international laws on the surveillance of citizens and the treatment of prisoners, the President-elect replied that "what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past." Thus did our new Conciliator-in-Chief implicitly declare Stone's forty-five-year, 3.5-million-word effort to look at what our rulers got wrong irrelevant to forcing them to get things right in the future. All that is "in the past."
Mr. Obama could not be more wrong. In American politics, as elsewhere, the past is not dead; it isn't even past. The greed and callousness Stone exposed week after week behind
The facts of Stone's life have been told well and often, most recently by D.D. Guttenplan in American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). He was born on Christmas Eve 1907, in
Neither Stone's inner nor his outer life seems to have been particularly complex or dramatic. He was a dutiful son: when his father's business suffered in the Depression, and his mother intermittently became mentally ill, Izzy, who was well-paid by then, helped. He met a lively, popular girl, not much given to reading but much taken with his ebullience; they stayed happily married for sixty years. He was an enthusiastic and good-humored but often distracted father. He had few but loyal friends, was close to his siblings and on good terms with his relatives and in-laws, and - especially during his years in
Stone was cursed all his life with interesting times, boiling over with war, depression, revolution, and totalitarianism. He covered these calamities not on the scene but behind the scenes, where policy was made. Some journalists could bring political action to life; Stone was one of the few who could bring political causation to life. He read official reports, studies, speeches, press conferences, Congressional testimony, and budget documents, voraciously, analytically, skeptically. He found the threads, connected the dots, brought the substructure of real causes and motives to light.
An early example, which made Stone's reputation in
Equally important were Stone's reports on how greed and incompetence retarded industry's conversion to wartime production. General Motors could not be induced to stop making cars in record numbers even after its factories and workforce were needed for tank, truck, and aircraft production. Alcoa Aluminum would not increase supply of this vital component for fear that an early end to the war would result in a surplus, hence lower prices. Major oil companies would not open their pipelines to independents; and in general, dominant companies would not cooperate with smaller rivals. All this profitable foot-dragging was aided and abetted by the "dollar-a-year men," the business executives and corporate lawyers "loaned" to the federal government in order to keep an eye out for the interests of their employers and clients. And these, of course, were precisely the "responsible" people, the men of substance - bankers, executives, and lawyers, along with professional diplomats and military officers - to whom Walter Lippmann proposed entrusting real power in a democracy, while the fickle public meekly registered its preferences every four years and hoped for the best.
Another high-profile demolition was Stone's reconstruction of the
As with the Korean War fourteen years earlier, Stone was virtually alone at the time in challenging a misleading official justification for an undeclared war. And once again, millions of lives were lost because Congress and the press were not equally conscientious.
Far more than a few million lives would have been lost in case of a nuclear war, and Stone was rightly obsessed with the arms race. It was plain to him that the
To expose corporate fraud, diplomatic obfuscation, budgetary sleight-of-hand, and wartime propaganda required the investigative enterprise for which Stone is renowned. To write about two other preoccupations, the internal security panic of the Truman era and the struggle for racial equality in the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, required only common decency - as uncommon in these cases as in most others. Stone harried - there is no other word for it - Senator McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. "Melodramatic bunk by a self-dramatizing dick" was his entirely typical comment on a speech by
Stone was an ardent Zionist in the 1940s and was the first American journalist to report on the Jewish exodus from Europe and the creation of the state of
It is true that Stone worked harder than most other reporters and hobnobbed less. But what set him apart was something else: that he applied to his own government the same moral standards we all unhesitatingly apply to others. No reporter would accept at face value a Communist or even non-Communist government's account of its own motives and intentions. Japan's insistence that it sought only to bring prosperity and order to the rest of East Asia in the 1930s, or the USSR's protestations that it invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan at the request of their legitimate governments to save those countries from subversion by the international capitalist conspiracy, were met with ridicule or simply ignored in favor of explanations based on Japanese or Soviet self-interest, and in particular on the interests of their ruling elites. But very few journalists were equally skeptical (in public, that is) about the motives of American intervention in Indochina, Central America, or the
... Haynes and Klehr conclude their case against Stone by insisting that "in the light of these revelations, Stone's entire legacy will have to be reassessed." One can see why neoconservatives would welcome such a reassessment, but is there any sense in this demand? Orwell's essays are no less admirable because on his deathbed he offered British intelligence some advice about the ideological soundness of some fellow writers; nor Silone's novels because he may have passed information about Communist activities to Fascist police. Gunter Grass's, Milan Kundera's, and Peter Handke's writings are no less impressive because Grass remained silent for so long about his youthful service in an SS fighting unit, Kundera may have informed the Czech secret police about a political refugee, and Handke defended Slobodan Milosevic. Our judgments of Heidegger's philosophy and Paul de Man's literary criticism are not (or should not be) affected by revelations about their various
degrees of sympathy with Nazism. Irving Kristol's critique of liberalism is no more or less valid because he concealed CIA sponsorship of Encounter. Arthur Schlesinger Jr's interpretations of Jacksonianism and the New Deal are no more or less valid because he lied to the press about the
Nevertheless, whatever their significance may be, what are the charges against Stone, and how valid are they? Stone's harshest critics are Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel in The Venona Secrets and Haynes and Klehr in Spies. Based on the FBI's Venona transcripts of intercepted Soviet cable traffic, on the notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev, who had research access for some years to KGB archives, and on speeches and interviews by former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, these critics infer that Stone was a "spy": a "fully active Soviet agent" who "worked closely with the KGB" for several years during the 1930s and 40s and remained an occasional contact and source until 1968, that he was paid for his work, and that he "really produced." What this production consisted of is not specified, with three exceptions: 1) "A group of journalists, including Stone, provided Pravdin [an undercover KGB officer] with information about the plans of the US General Staff to cope with the German counteroffensive in the Battle of the Bulge and resume the Allied offensive. Though the other journalists identified, Walter Lippmann [!] and Raymond Gram Swing, did not know that Pravdin was an intelligence officer rather than a fellow journalist, Stone knew full well." 2) Stone reported that William Randolph Hearst had friendly relations, and perhaps even business dealings, with Nazis. 3) Stone was asked to tell an American in
This seems like a very meager haul for decades of "close" and "active" collaboration with the KGB. There had better be a great many more, and considerably more damning, revelations from the KGB archives, or else the charges against Stone will need to be taken down several pegs. In addition, some of his critics' descriptions of Stone's public career raise doubts about their judgment and fairness. Stone was alleged to be an "openly pro-Communist journalist" in the 1940s; he was "an enthusiastic fan of Stalin" until the Soviet invasion of
In fact, Stone was never a fan of Stalin or the
After 1939, in any case, he was sharply - though not, given the horrors already known, adequately - critical of the
· "The FBI is carrying out OGPU tactics." (1937)
· In "the
· Stalin has unleashed "an old-fashioned Russian orgy of suspicion of foreigners, intellectuals, and any kind of dissent." (1948)
· "No political dissident in the
· "To picture
· "I [have been] represented as saying there was more freedom in the Soviet Union than in the
· "What was wrong with Stalin's regime that such miscarriages of justice could occur under it? And how many unjustly accused or framed political prisoners may there be in the penal labor camps of the
· "[Many observers], friendly to socialism, with a great respect for the Russian people, have been shamed and antagonized by much that has occurred since the Revolution. Amid the gigantic achievements ... there has also been an indifference to mass suffering and individual injustice, a sycophancy and an iron-clad conformity, that has disgraced the socialist ideal." (1953)
· "[By World War II], communism in practice had become not a brotherly society working for the common good, but an authoritarian hierarchical system run by a bureaucratic caste, on the basis of unquestioning obedience by subordinates." (1957)
· "The snoopery that goes on in our own country is still a long way from the perpetual surveillance to which the Russian people are subjected by their own political police." (1958)
· I well remember thirty years ago how the Communists boasted that freedom of the press in
· "Fifty years after the Revolution, there is still neither free discussion nor free press in the
But perhaps all this criticism was merely an elaborate cover, so that Stone could serve the KGB more effectively.
As for the Korean War, six weeks after it began, Stone told a left-wing audience:
You won't like what I have to say, so better prepare your tomatoes. I'm sorry to report to you that I couldn't find any proof to justify the Communists claim that
Nowhere in The Hidden History of the Korean War does Stone claim to "prove that the South Koreans attacked
The book's deeper purpose was to serve as "a study in war propaganda, in how to read newspapers and official documents in wartime. Emphasis, omission, and distortion rather than outright lying are the tools of the war propagandists, and this book may help the reader learn how to examine their output - and sift out the facts - for himself." Which was, mutatis mutandis, Stone's purpose in everything he wrote.
The case against Stone reduces to: he did not see, or at any rate acknowledge, the full horror of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s. Robert Cottrell summarizes admirably:
[Stone] did not view the Soviet Union uncritically, acknowledged that there was a stench behind the judicial proceedings in place there, had little liking for the American Communist Party, was no celebrant of any brand of totalitarianism, and certainly did not genuflect toward Moscow. Nevertheless, there was something disingenuous in his unwillingness to criticize still more forcefully the terror that was being played out in Soviet Russia. ... Stone, like many of his political and intellectual counterparts, continued to afford
Stone's stance toward the
These premises were largely true and together justified Stone's criticism of American hostility toward
Stone did say this, in effect, but far too implicitly. His anxieties about authoritarianism at home and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany got the better of him, along with an undiscriminating sympathy for what he and many others who should have known better called "socialism." Like his ideological opponents, both Communists and capitalist, Stone seems to have identified socialism with state control of the economy. Hence his frequent insistence that "socialism" and "democracy" were both indispensable. But socialism - an ideal long predating the Russian Revolution - simply means popular, democratic control of social life, including economic life. The Bolsheviks were no socialists: immediately on taking power they destroyed all independent factory councils, local councils ("soviets"), and popular assemblies and remained as hostile to them as any plutocrat or archbishop. The Communist Party owned the economy; socialism was outlawed and persecuted even more fiercely in the Soviet Union than in the
Although not much of the right-wing attack on Stone stands up, it has succeeded nonetheless. Every word spent defending Stone against attacks on his character is one not spent drawing renewed attention to his powerful criticisms of American political economy, foreign policy, and civic culture. These criticisms are Stone's real legacy, which his attackers are understandably far from eager to reassess.
Above all, right-wing hostility to Stone betrays a shallow understanding of republican virtue and the nature of freedom. More than anything else, what makes totalitarianism possible is a people's submissiveness to authority: its slowness to perceive and unwillingness to resist injustices committed not by distant villains and official enemies but at home, by those with the power to make resistance dangerous. Niebuhr, Lippmann, Schlesinger, Hook, and Cold War liberals generally, whatever their other merits, did little to discourage such submissiveness in the American public. They were, instead, fierce in urging resistance to evils to which their readers would never have either occasion or inclination to submit, such as the advent of Communist rule in the
"I know," Stone joked, "that if the Communists come to power I'd soon find myself eating cold kasha in a concentration camp in
 Edited by Neil Middleton, 1971.
 The War Years: 1939-1945; The Truman Era: 1945-1952; The Haunted Fifties: 1953-1963; In a Time of Torment: 1961-1967; and Polemics and Prophecies: 1967-1970. All published by Little, Brown.
See also Robert Cottrell, Izzy: A Bio
 The Venona Secrets: Exposin