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.
David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University. His books include A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy.
Photograph of I.F. Stone from Wikimedia Commons.