An Enemy of the State

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            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 America's domestic and foreign policy throughout the last century had their source in institutions that remain in place, and the difficulty of penetrating the screen of business and government propaganda is undiminished. If Obama cares to know what he is up against - he seems, most of the way through his first year in office, still largely clueless - a quick trip through The I.F. Stone's Weekly Reader[1], or better, a leisurely trip through Stone's invaluable five-volume collection, A Nonconformist History of Our Time[2], would help orient our personable President to America's deeper political realities.

            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).[3] He was born on Christmas Eve 1907, in Philadelphia, and christened Isadore Feinstein. His parents had a dry goods store, which prospered modestly during Izzy's boyhood and adolescence, and his cheerful, bustling mother doted on him. He was inordinately bookish, starting very young. (And continuing throughout life - he was, for what it's worth, far more literate, in his unostentatious way, than William F. Buckley Jr.) But he didn't care much for school, or succeed very well. He was also moonlighting from schoolwork as a reporter for local newspapers, and after a year he left college to work full-time as a journalist. He never looked back, at least until retirement, when he learned Greek, investigated Socrates, and discovered that that universally revered martyr for free speech was actually a good deal more hostile to democratic freedoms in Athens than most of Senator McCarthy's victims were to democratic freedoms in America.

            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 Washington DC - was not much of a partygoer. He led a full life, professionally and domestically, with few storms, and had a sunny and feisty personality, with few shadows or enigmas. The one moment of high drama was his decision in 1953, amid the ostracism that followed his fierce denunciations of the Smith Act and the publication of The Hidden History of the Korean War, to found I.F. Stone's Weekly. A lesser man would have folded his tent, or at least lowered his voice.

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 Washington, was his coverage of American unpreparedness for World War II. Long after it became obvious that US involvement in the war was likely, American industry simply would not stop doing business with Germany and Japan, even in strategic commodities like oil, rubber, metals, minerals, chemicals, and machine parts. The trade was too profitable, and the ties between German cartels (by then an arm of the Nazi regime) and American banks, corporations, and law firms (including Sullivan and Cromwell, where John Foster Dulles represented a great many German clients) were too close. Stone tracked down the figures on industry after industry and hammered away at the story until even the Senate committee investigating war preparedness commended him. The additional German and Japanese war production enabled by the delivery of these materials may well have cost the lives of thousands of American and Allied soldiers - more damage, arguably, than was caused even by Communist infiltrators in the State Department.

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 Gulf of Tonkin episode, which had prompted Congress to authorize the use of force against North Vietnam. Piecing together information from Senate and UN debates and from European and Vietnamese news reports, Stone showed that the official account was false. The US boats deliberately entered what they knew the North Vietnamese claimed as territorial waters; they were supporting, perhaps directing, a South Vietnamese military operation; there was no second attack, as claimed; and the Pentagon had detailed plans already drawn up for the extensive bombing reprisals that followed the North Vietnamese "attack" (which had not caused any injuries or damage), suggesting that the US was hoping for, if not actually attempting to provoke, an incident.

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 US remained far ahead of the USSR through most of the nuclear era and could have had a far-reaching arms-control agreement at virtually any time. It was equally plain that the prospect of "limited nuclear war" adumbrated in Henry Kissinger's influential Nuclear War and Foreign Policy was "poisonously delusive." And amid much high-minded hand-wringing about the malignant but mysteriously self-sustaining momentum of the arms race, Stone kept pointing out the extent to which it was not some "tragic" historical imperative but rather sheer, unstoppable bureaucratic self-aggrandizement by the armed services that drove the progress of weapons technology.

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 Hoover to the American Legion, and he was hardly less scathing about McCarthy. Walter Lippmann and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, by contrast, wrote little about McCarthy and barely a word about Hoover. Stone had his reward, however. The FBI read his mail, searched his garbage, tapped his phone, and monitored his public appearances, while the State Department denied him a visa and tried to confiscate his passport. These marks of distinction were denied were denied to his more circumspect contemporaries. About race, Stone simply said the (now-)obvious, repeatedly and eloquently. His columns on the subject are still bracing.

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 Israel.













            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 Middle East. Those actions may have been deemed unwise for one reason or another; criticism in this vein was "responsible." But to question America's good intentions - to assume that the US is as capable of aggression, brutality, and deceit as every other state, and that American policy, like that of every other state, serves the purposes of those with predominant domestic power rather than a fictive "national interest," much less a singular idealism - was to place oneself beyond the pale. Then as now, such skepticism was the operative definition of "anti-Americanism." By that definition Stone was anti-American, and America needed more such enemies.






... 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 Bay of Pigs invasion. Noam Chomsky's views on American foreign policy would be no more or less valid if it were discovered that the Viet Cong or the Sandinistas had paid his children's college tuition. Even Henry Kissinger's scholarly history of diplomacy is no more or less valuable because its author is an authentic war criminal. If Stone, rather than Julius Rosenberg, had given American atomic secrets to the Soviets, he would still be the finest political journalist of the twentieth century; and if Rosenberg had actually written everything that appeared under Stone's byline, then Rosenberg  would be the finest political journalist of the twentieth century. It is simply good intellectual hygiene to reject politically-motivated demands to devalue art or arguments by citing the real or alleged failings of their author.

            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.[4] 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 Germany how to get in touch with a (presumably Communist) anti-fascist organization.

            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 Hungary in 1956; and after a period of disillusionment, he fell back into his old ways until the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia "caused the KGB to lose Stone again." His "most outrageous" performance was The Hidden History of the Korean War, in which Stone "used bizarre reasoning" to prove "that the South Koreans attacked North Korea."

            In fact, Stone was never a fan of Stalin or the Soviet Union. He sympathized with its effort at independent development and criticized its lack of political and intellectual freedom. After the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, he declared himself an ex-"fellow traveler." I strongly doubt (his pre-1939 writings are unfortunately more difficult of access than the later ones) that he was ever an uncritical or dishonest one.

            After 1939, in any case, he was sharply - though not, given the horrors already known, adequately - critical of the Soviet Union. He never referred to the USSR as anything but a "dictatorship." There is very little praise: Soviet communism is "the greatest social experiment of our time" - little more than boilerplate in 1937. Stalin, he wrote in an obituary, was a "giant figure" - though he seems to have meant this only in the sense that Napoleon and Bismarck and Churchill were giant figures and Harry Truman was not. In his collected writings at least, unfavorable references to the Soviet Union are very much more frequent than favorable ones. A sample:

·        "The FBI is carrying out OGPU tactics." (1937)

·        In "the Russia of 1937," there is "a hunt for and extermination of dissident elements that has left the outside world bewildered." (1937)

·        Stalin has unleashed "an old-fashioned Russian orgy of suspicion of foreigners, intellectuals, and any kind of dissent." (1948)

·        "No political dissident in the USSR could hope to get as much fair treatment as has been accorded the Communists even in the hysteria-haunted US of this date." (1949)

·        "To picture Russia as a democratic utopia is only to store up explosively bitter disillusion." (1950)

·        "I [have been] represented as saying there was more freedom in the Soviet Union than in the United States. I consider a statement of that kind wholly untrue and politically idiotic." (1951)

·        "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 USSR?" (1953)

·        "[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 Russia under the Constitution promulgated by Stalin was broader than in the United States. ... Thirty years later this is still a bitter hoax." (1967)

·        "Fifty years after the Revolution, there is still neither free discussion nor free press in the Soviet Union. It has become a gigantic caricature of what socialism was meant to be." (1967)

 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 South Korea started this war. ... North Korea started the war, and North Korea was well-prepared for such a war. ... Where did a little power like North Korea get such a strong war machine? The Soviet Union equipped North Korean Communist forces, and the Soviet Union is behind the North Koreans in this war.



Nowhere in The Hidden History of the Korean War does Stone claim to "prove that the South Koreans attacked North Korea," only to show that the provocations preceding the war were mutual. His final judgment on the war's origins is spelled out plainly in the book's preface: "I believe that in Korea the big powers were the victims ... of headstrong satellites itching for a showdown, which Washington, Moscow, and Peking had long anticipated, but were alike anxious to avoid." What was "hidden," and what he claimed to have brought to light, was not a South Korean attack but rather "the operations of MacArthur and Dulles, the weaknesses of Truman and Acheson, the way the Chinese were provoked to intervene, and the way the truce talks were dragged out and the issues muddied by American military men hostile from the first to negotiations." He might have added that the book, published in 1952, was one of the first to call attention to the barbaric American bombing campaign, which foreshadowed the holocaust in Indochina.

  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 Russia and even Stalinist communism something of a double standard, fearing that to do otherwise would endanger the Popular Front and the very possibility of socialism.



            Stone's stance toward the Soviet Union in the 1930s rested on three premises. First that the dictatorship had achieved remarkable economic growth and greatly improved the country's standard of living, including consumption, health, and literacy. Second, that, given Hitler's apparent determination to crush Bolshevism, the USSR would be a reliable and powerful ally in case of a European war. Third, that the United States and Britain would be secretly (in fact, it was no secret) pleased if Germany and Russia went to war and destroyed, or at least exhausted, each other.

            These premises were largely true and together justified Stone's criticism of American hostility toward Russia in the 1930s. Unquestionably, he should have been more forthcoming about Soviet crimes. He seems to have feared that, given the rancor and dishonesty of his ideological opponents, such candor would unduly complicate his arguments against American policy; and moreover, that the situation was desperate. Plausible fears, but still he was wrong. It would have been more effective as well as more honest to have said, perhaps at the beginning of every column on the subject: "The Soviet Union is indeed a bloody tyranny. Of course that is not at all why our rulers are hostile to it. American policy is often friendly toward bloody tyrannies. But a country that tries to withdraw from the global economy, which we dominate, and develop under its own auspices, restricting the scope of American business, is a threat. And a country that seems to be making a success of it, and may thereby arouse that dangerous and perverse inclination in other developing countries, is an intolerable threat."

            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 United States. Impressing this distinction on conservatives (and liberals) was no easier in the 1930s than it is today. But Stone, who was by instinct a genuine and not (like Lenin and Trotsky) a pseudo-socialist, should have been more careful with the word.

             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 United States or the conquest of the rest of the world by the Soviet Union. To warn the populace against remote and implausible threats, toward which incessant government and business propaganda had in any case already rendered them implacably hostile, was not much of a contribution to preserving the spirit of freedom. Stone, in contrast, by regularly exposing the mendacity, greed, callousness, and incompetence of their rulers, did more to unfit the American people for totalitarianism than all the Cold War liberals combined. Of non-liberals - National Review, Human Events, Readers' Digest, the Luce publications, and their conservative and neoconservative descendants - it is unnecessary to speak.

            "I know," Stone joked, "that if the Communists come to power I'd soon find myself eating cold kasha in a concentration camp in Kansas gubernya." Actually, it is possible to imagine a Soviet America with a Soviet Reinhold Niebuhr as the regime's favorite moralist, a Soviet Sidney Hook as chief ideological arbiter, a Soviet Arthur Schlesinger Jr as court historian, and a Soviet Walter Lippmann as high pundit and counselor. But it is impossible to imagine an unfree society of any political hue that would not send an I.F. Stone to prison and keep him there.




[1] Edited by Neil Middleton, 1971.

[2] 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.

[3]See also Robert Cottrell, Izzy: A Biography of I.F. Stone (Rutgers, 1992) and Myra MacPherson, "All Governments Lie": The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone (Scribner, 2006).

[4] The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors, Regnery, 2000; Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, Yale, 2009. For a lengthy and impartial examination of the Stone "case," see Max Holland, "I.F. Stone: Encounters with Soviet Intelligence," Journal of Cold War Studies 11:3 (2009). For a persuasive rebuttal of Haynes and Klehr, see D.S. Guttenplan's review of Spies in the Nation, 5/25/09.

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