Once again, the left/liberal intelligentsia is showing its never-ending love affair with the late journalist I.F. Stone. The event this time- it seems Stone is brought out of the woodworks every few years as a mythological hero from the past they can celebrate- is publication of D.D. Guttenplan’s hagiography, American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone.
The Los Angeles Times proved to be the most sycophantic. First, it ran an op-ed by Guttenplan himself heralding Stone as one of America’s greatest journalists and radicals. Guttenplan charges that the news that Stone was a Soviet agent between 1936 and 1939 was based “on the flimsiest of evidence” and that he has been a “hate figure to the far right.” To those who understand the past, Guttenplan writes, “he remains a hero.”
If Gutteplan’s op-ed was not enough, yesterday’s edition featured a completely uncritical and rave review of his book by a man whose remains a starry-eyed unreconstructed Old Leftist- who believes every cause he took part in has been proved to have been on the right side of history. It was written by novelist, screenwriter and journalist Clancy Sigal, once a friend of mine who stopped speaking to me after publication of the book my wife and I wrote, Red Star Over Hollywood.
Resembling anything but a real review, Sigal’s piece is a continuation, in effect, of Guttenplan’s op-ed—-a hagiographical tribute meant to complement Guttenplan’s own hagiography. (To be fair to the paper, Sigal’s review might have been commissioned before Guttenplan submitted his op-ed. But the right hand should know what the left hand is doing. In any case, having run the op-ed, it should have cancelled the Sigal review and substituted another.)
Sigal admits from the start that Stone always was a hero to him. So how can anyone who believes this do anything but praise Guttenplan to the skies, and be immune to seeing anything potentially problematic with his book? Of course, Sigal makes his own serious errors. He attributes FBI investigations of Stone to Hoover’s anger at Stone’s criticism of him. Now J. Edgar Hoover was no saint; more likely he was just the opposite. But Sigal ignores the fact that the Venona files identification of Stone as “Blin”- who worked for the KGB as an agent, was reason enough to carry out an investigation and start a file on him.
Sigal, of course, thinks that the charges against Stone were nothing but a “fairy tale,” and oblivious evidently to the material that appears in the Haynes-Klehr-Vassiliev book Spies:The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, he writes that what he calls a “smear” comes only from “a purported KGB agent’s report to Moscow of his wartime lunch, or lunches, with Stone.” Here Sigal confuses the words made by Oleg Kalugin to different people about his lunches with Stone decades later with what appeared in Venona and dealt with the 1930′s. Perhaps Sigal should do some reading before writing about all this.
Sigal goes so far as to praise Stone’s tendentious 1953 book The Hidden History of the Korean War, which even a sympathizer of Stone like the historian Norman Kaner wrote in 1971, in an little known essay on “I.F. Stone and the Korean War,” that “Stone went so far as to suggest that President Rhee in collusion with Chiang Kai-shek had deliberately provoked the North Koreans into attacking. He furthermore implied that certain high military officials, including General MacArthur, were aware of these machinations.” Kaner thought Stone had some valid criticisms to make about US policy, but he acknowledges that Stone’s re-examination of the war’s origins “detracted from Stone’s credibility as a commentator on the Korean War.”
What Sigal thinks makes the book “outstanding” is what he calls “a colorful, rambunctious left-of center American cavalcade, from the Great Depression to the Vietnam War.” Indeed, this is precisely what makes the book weak.
An antidote, fortunately, may be found in David Oshinsky’s wise and nuanced discussion in Slate, the online magazine. Oshinksy, a serious centrist liberal and a first-rate historian, who justly won the Pulitzer Prize two years ago for his book on the polio scare in America, knows how to critically evaluate a book and deal with both its strengths and weaknesses. He acknowledges, for example, that he sees good reason to view Stone “as a superb investigative reporter and a writer of lasting impact.”
But he manages to see right away that Guttenplan is trying to “smooth every blemish,” and by treating Stone as a prescient hero who was correct about all he considered, takes away Stone’s humanity and whitewashes the inexcusable. Oshinkshy notes correctly that Stone was “a dogged apologist for the Soviet Union during much of his career,” and that it is certainly possible that this outlook led him to serve the KGB as an agent, serving as a “talent-spotter and confidential source.” (He gets what Klehr and Haynes say correctly; they do not say he was a spy.)
Oshinksy continues to nail Guttenplan for seeing “no contradiction between Stone’s soft spot for Stalinism, on the one hand, and his journalistic integrity, on the other.” Stone, he notes, never wrote about the Gulag, the Soviet suppression of free speech, and regularly ignored—till it had ended way after Stalin’s death-the “mass murder in the Soviet Union. And he observes that while Stone’s criticism of the Vietnam War certainly was warranted, Stone also was at the same time enchanted “with a new crop of left-wing dictators like Fidel Castro.”
Oshinksy’s main point is that rather than being an independent radical, “radicalism and independent thinking were mutually exclusive elements for Stone, with the former dominating the latter.” Stone essentially viewed the world through the lens of the Soviet Union- what served its needs served the world. During the war, Stone favored prosecution of Americans opposed to World War II, and like the Communist Party, USA, he remained silent about the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Stone, Oshinksy understands, had many contradictions that deserve a critical examination, and not a celebration.