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.
One might also compare Oshinsky’s review to that by historian Jackson Lears that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review. Lears’ review, like Sigal’s, is positive. That the NYTBR ran this kind of piece is strange, given that a few years ago, when journalist Myra MacPherson published her biography of Stone, All Governments Lie, editor Sam Tanenhaus chose Paul Berman as reviewer, and like Oshinksy today, Berman treated Stone critically and essentially viewed MacPherson’s book as a faulty apologia. On Vietnam, for example, Berman writes that “Stone foresaw that America would lose the war, and he war remarkably shrewd about this. But, from reading his articles, you would never have guessed what the consequences of Communism’s victory would be- the forced labor camps, the flight of the boat people, …the massacre of huge portions of the population of Cambodia and so forth.” He notes that later, when Stone signed singer Joan Baez’s letter of protest to the Vietnamese Communists, he made his own prior journalism “look inconsistent.” Concluding his review, Berman found Stone to be “in his own fashion, willy-nilly a totalitarian- at least, sometimes,” and wrote articles “he knew to be untrue.” And he ends by writing that “we will have to rise to our own occasion, and not expect heroes from the past to guide our faltering steps.”
Berman was discussing the same I.F. Stone characterized by Jackson Lears yesterday as “a revered sage” whom he believes Guttenplan has shown to be a man who, clearly disagreeing with Berman’s view, has “continuing relevance to our own time.” Lears has a right to admire Stone, and his review has none of the exuberant type of apologia that scars Clancy Sigal’s piece. Yet, in its own way, Lears makes arguments that are not wrong. On the Korean War, he writes that Stone “did not claim- as his detractors have charged-that the South Koreans solely instigated the war.” One has only to look at the Stone book on the Korean War, as well as the Kaner essay I cited earlier, to know that this is not exactly precise.
He also writes that it was Stone’s views that “aroused the suspicion of the F.B.I.,” when it again was clearly what they found in the Venona transcripts, and not Stone’s columns. Lears also thinks Stone was completely correct in his analysis of Vietnam, and he ignores the work of recent historians who have argued that the National Liberation Front of Vietman (the VietCong) was not an indigenous independent radical force, but was part of a traditional army created and directed by Ho Chi Minh’s troops in the North. And Lears praises all of Stone’s views-he writes that Stone criticized the Bay of Pigs invasion- certainly something quite easy to do at the time. Yet Lears, unlike Berman, ignores Stone’s love affair with Castro. And unlike Oshinksy, he believes that Stone was an “independent radical.” One might have hoped, since Guttenplan’s book is even more of a hagiography than MacPherson’s, that the NYTBR might have assigned a review to someone a bit more critical.
Finally, much more has appeared that takes up the issue in a thorough fashion. The blog by Jefferson Flanders is of special interest. Take a look at the section of Stone and the KGB, as well as the important exchange between Flanders and Guttenplan in the comments section. And of major importance is the lengthy article by Max Holland in the new issue of the Harvard publication Journal of Cold War Studies. Holland’s lengthy essay, “I.F.Stone: Encounters with Soviet Intelligence,” is the single most comprehensive and brilliant exploration that ties together Stone’s journalism and his world outlook, with the nature of the kind of service he carried out on behalf of the KGB.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this article is. Anyone who doubts that Stone worked for the Soviets at one time, or who thinks he was a completely independent radical, had better read this article. Holland explains, for example, Stone’s core beliefs:
That [his New Dealism] was matched by his fervent belief-which some would label a self-delusion-that the New Deal state and the world’s only socialist state were separated by just a few degrees, and could coexist amiably.
Using this logic, it was a virtuous act to cooperate with Soviet intelligence.
Stone would actually be serving the best interests of his fellow citizens
and the country. A socialist America, ushered in with the critical help of
Communists, was inevitable, in his view.
Later, Holland explains how Stone’s failure to foresee the Nazi-Soviet Pact had much to do with his prior service to Soviet intelligence. And similarly, unlike George Orwell, Stone failed to deal at all with the Stalinization of Republican Spain. And when Holland deals very carefully with Stone’s actual views on the Korean War, he shows the manner in which Stone’s views echoed those of the Soviet Union, and Holland seconds Richard Rovere’s famous statement that Stone was a man who thought up “good arguments for poor Communist positions.” Holland writes:
The Hidden History makes [Oleg] Kalugin’s claim about a pre-1956 relationship[with the KGB]
more plausible. Soviet intelligence would have welcomed a book that blamed
the conflict on U.S. warmongers, possibly even bringing forgiveness for
Stone’s earlier transgressions, such as his enthusiasm in the late 1940s for Tito.
The usefulness of The Hidden History in influencing public opinion in nonaligned
countries like India was palpable.
And finally, let me end by presenting Holland’s wise words on the legacy of I.F. Stone:
Stone was an authentic, muckraking radical in the best American tradition.
Yet he also personifies, perhaps uniquely, the tragic encounter between
indigenous radicalism and Soviet Communism during the twentieth century,
including the subordination of the former to the latter for decades, resulting
in the enervation and long decline of the progressive impulse in American political
To paraphrase Orwell, Stone’s sin was being anti-fascist without being,
for too long, anti-totalitarian.
Amen! How unfortunate that a major publication like the NYTBR did not ask Max Holland, a man of the Left and a contributing editor of The Nation, to review the Guttenplan biography.
July 7th update:
The latest entry on I.F. Stone by D.D. Guttenplan suggests that his urge for publicity for his book has perhaps led him to lose it. Read his new blog on the Huffington Post website and see if you think I am right. This may be an example of an attempt at humor, but reading it, the blog comes off as a rather pathetic attempt to tie in the hoopla over the passing of Michael Jackson with I.F. Stone. The comparison is so off the charts that I think Stone is literally turning over in his grave.
Guttenplan’s ending is really too much. He writes: “You might object that this whole exercise is a stretch, and that the attempt to connect I.F. Stone and Michael Jackson is nothing more than desperate bid for publicity, fabricated out of thin air and a few coincidences. And I might well agree with you. But if you feel that way, just wait until you see what Stone’s attackers do to try to connect him with the KGB…Talk about a stretch!”
The only problem, as you readers well know, is that there is real evidence connecting Stone to the KGB. And there is none that really connects Stone and Jackson. So I conclude. Yes indeed-the whole article “is nothing more than [a] desperate bid for publicity.” At least Guttenplan realizes the truth of his own antics.