Ron Radosh

I.F. Stone: Soviet Spy

In my very first week of blogging, I wrote about the revered late left-wing journalist, I.F. Stone. Sure, Izzy charmed a lot of his supporters. But as I noted, he was most well known for being an apologist for Stalinism, and a journalist who at the time of the Korean War, perpetrated Soviet disinformation that the war was started by South Korea with the backing of the United States.

Until now, there has been only highly circumstantial evidence indicating that for several years Stone may have been a KGB agent. Now, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev in their soon to be published book, Spies:The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, present new evidence that indeed this was the case. Actual KGB files they examined, scrupulously copied from the originals by Vassiliev, offer us proof that from 1936 to 1938, Stone was in fact a Soviet agent. The chapter giving the data now appears on the website of Commentary magazine.

There is simply no more room for doubt. As the New York KGB station agent reported in May of 1936, “Relations with ‘Pancake’ [Stone’s KGB name] have entered ‘the channel of normal operational work.'” For the next few years, the authors write, “Stone worked closely with the KGB” as a talent spotter and recruiter of other people for KGB work, including William A. Dodd, Jr., son of the US Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. He also worked with the American Communist Victor Perlo, who while an economist at the War Production Group, led a Soviet espionage apparatus. Perlo compiled material for Stone that he could use in journalistic exposes beneficial to the Soviets.

The Stone revelations cannot help but tarnish Stone’s reputation among the legion of his former supporters.  Finding some humor in this, Marty Peretz, writing today in his TNR blog, says the revelations are “devastating. Poor Izzy! He will always have attached to his adopted name his code-name, ‘Pancake.’ (His real name was Feinstein.)”

But, as one expects, the folks at The Nation remain adamantly in denial. Eric Alterman wasted no time rushing to the web, on the site of Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast, to declare, as the headline puts it, “I.F.Stone Was No Spy.” Alterman argues that Stone could not be a spy, because the dictionary definition of a spy does not fit Stone!  Spies, according to the dictionary, have to give military or naval secrets.  So talent spotting, acting as a courier for other spies, relaying information to KGB agents, and giving the KGB information he found that the Soviets might find useful is not spying.

Next Alterman spins Vassiliev’s revelations to give them the most benign interpretation possible.  To Alterman, I.F. Stone was merely “a man of avowed anti-Fascist sympathies…still-foolishly naive about Stalin and the Soviet Union,” who therefore “agreed on a couple of occasions, to help those whom he believed to be actually fighting fascism, while his own country, still mired in childish isolationism, preferred to look away.”  In other words, Alterman is acknowledging that perhaps Stone did cooperate, but for good anti-fascist motives.

Alterman ends up saying he will not argue that what Klehr, Haynes and Vasiliev found “does not affect the historical record at all.” But Alterman finds it hard to believe, since he writes that “Stone and I were close friends during the final decade or so of his life and he never mentioned anything of this to me.”  This means, in other words, Alterman believes that if it was true, Stone would have told him!

Alterman should remember that Alger Hiss lived the lie to his dying day, despite the fact he must have known the truth would eventually come out, and that all those who believed him and fought for him would appear to be fools. So did the Rosenbergs, who told their sons never to forget they were innocent, and urged them to fight to clear their names. As Haynes et  al write: “That Stone chose never to reveal this part of his life strongly suggests that he knew just how incompatible it would be with his public image as a courageous and independent journalist.”

I myself know that Stone thoughts ran along these lines, even after he had become thoroughly disillusioned with the Soviet Union.  When Joyce Milton and I wrote The Rosenberg File, we found that way before publication, I.F. Stone had become a strong supporter. He got in touch with our editor, and invited me to his home in Washington, D.C., to discuss the case. Stone told me that he always thought they were guilty, and was delighted that the full truth would come out in our book. But then we did something that caused a sudden reversal on his part.

We began The Rosenberg File with a quote from Stone that demonstrated his doubts about the couple’s innocence. But when he saw the galleys, with the quote from him in the frontpiece, he went ballistic. Stone demanded that it be removed, that it seemed to indicate to readers that he supported our book, and that he would sue unless it was taken out. I answered Stone with a letter, in which I said I was shocked that I. F. Stone would seek to censor a book, to prohibit us from using his own words from one of his own columns that clearly was not a blurb, but rather indicated our approval of Stone for being one of the few on the Left to question the official line on the Rosenberg case. I told Stone that we were going to use the quote no matter what he did. He came to his senses, and backed down.

His original anger made no sense, since he agreed with our view of the case and had said as much, especially when I spent that whole day with him at his home. It could have been prompted by his awareness that some of his best friends-like his relative Leonard Boudin and Boudin’s law partner Victor Rabinowitz-would be very upset by his words. Stone’s relatives and others of his close friends were still either Communists or fellow-travelers, and Stone clearly wanted to be clear to all that he was a man of the Left, and did not want to be identified with those who said Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were real Soviet agents. Or perhaps he realized that the revelations about the Rosenbergs were hitting too close to home.

Alterman suggests that if Stone was alive, he could have sued the authors for libel, since they have proved nothing. Putting aside that a defender of free speech such as Stone would never sue for historical interpretation of genuine documents, Alterman’s words reveal only that he cannot at this late date accept the truth about his own personal journalistic hero.

Sorry, Eric. I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy!