Modern liberals face the fact that one of their heroes was a Communist spy.
By Mark Hemingway
May 7, 2009
Journalist I. F. Stone died 20 years ago, so it seems pretty unusual
that anyone would care about any new revelations pertaining his life
and work. Especially when those revelations only confirm what
intelligent observers have long suspected: I. F. Stone, beloved
journalist of the American Left, was a Soviet spy.
Many details have been the source of these suspicions. As a
journalist in the 1930s, Stone worked for the then-liberal New York
Post, but was fired in 1939 for espousing views that were seen by the
paper's editor as excessively pro-Stalin. Stone quickly found a home
at The Nation, and later the defunct leftist paper P.M., where
pro-Soviet views were encouraged.
Stone was involved with though he never joined the Communist
Party USA. And perhaps most important, no one much denies that Stone
had regular contact, over a long period of time, with a Soviet press
attaché who was an undercover KGB agent. Stone had been given the
codename Blin, Russian for "pancake," and his name was mentioned in a
number of KGB documents, known as the Venona Papers, that were
declassified after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Profs. Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes scholars who've previously
done extensive work on Soviet espionage examine the Stone case in
their new book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. The
book is also co-authored with Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent
turned journalist. Vassilev is in possession of detailed records from
now-closed Soviet archives that convincingly demonstrate that from
1936 to 1939 Stone was on the Soviet payroll. (The relevant excerpt
from the book has been published by Commentary.) Stone was a spy, case closed.
Except it's not. Rather than deal with the facts at hand, the
American Left once again appears to be stricken with willful
blindness. The fact that a beloved godfather of the left-wing press
was in reality a traitor, in league with an enemy that represented an
existential threat to America, simply does not jibe with the
purported purity of the Left's political motives. Therefore, Stone
must not have been a traitor.
DEFENDING THEIR HERO
Stone's high status among the Left is not in doubt though, to be
fair, he has this status in part because he moderated his pro-Soviet
views slightly after the '40s. His I. F. Stone's Weekly, and his
outspokenness in the Vietnam era, made him a darling of the New Left.
Just a few years ago, a former Washington Post reporter published a
hagiography of Stone, All Governments Lie!, that dismissed concerns
about his Soviet ties. According to Booklist, Myra MacPherson "offers
a penetrating look at one of the nation's most respected journalists
and a tour de force of five decades of challenge to the principles of
press freedom in a democracy." High praise, considering Stone was an
agent of a foreign power that had neither democracy nor freedom of the press.
Since the latest revelation, the attempt to reconcile Stone's
espionage with his mythic status has produced some frankly laughable
contortions. The Nation's Eric Alterman, a former protege of Stone's,
rushed to his mentor's defense at the The Daily Beast. Was Stone a
spy? For Alterman, it depends on what what the meaning of spy is:
Stone is identified by Soviet agents as having "assisted Soviet
intelligence on a number of such tasks: talent-spotting, acting as a
courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing
private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting."
First off, none of those activities comport with my or
Dictionary.com's definition of the word "spy."
While we're on the subject of semantics, perhaps Alterman should
consult the Dictionary.com entry for "obfuscation."
Alterman then puts an unrealistically charitable spin on Stone's
relations with the Soviets, with Stone's purity of motive being his
operating assumption. (See Ron Radosh's skillful dissection of
Alterman's defense of Stone.)
But Alterman has some stiff competition from the left-wing watchdog
group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting: "The Commentary writers gloss
the phrase 'channel of normal operational work' as meaning that
'Stone had become a fully active agent.' If you enter 'normal
operational work' into Google with 'KGB,' you get two hits, one to
the Commentary article and one to Stone's Wikipedia article quoting
Commentary; if you put those key words into Nexis, you get no hits at
all. So the implication that this is how the KGB routinely describes
its operative work is dubious."
This is the fourth book Klehr and Haynes have written about Soviet
espionage, a topic that is by definition shrouded in a degree of
secrecy and requires a great deal of research. But because FAIR could
not find any support for their case against Stone without leaving
their desks, the charges are suspect? What about the fact that a
former KGB agent co-authored the book? Do you suppose Alexander
Vassiliev has some familiarity with the terminology used in Soviet espionage?
NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT
This is simply the modus operandi among much of the American Left
never, ever admit anything that might make the figureheads or
historical motives of the movement look bad.
The same Venona Papers that raised initial doubts about Stone seemed
to totally vindicate reformed Communist and later, National Review
editor Whittaker Chambers's accusations that high-ranking State
Department official Alger Hiss was a Soviet spy. And New York Times
book editor Sam Tanenhaus's seminal 1997 biography of Chambers helped
cement consensus on the issue. However, as late as 2007, Victor
Navasky, Columbia journalism professor and longtime editor of The
Nation, was insisting that the case against Hiss "has never really
In 2005, a letter written by leftist muckraker Upton Sinclair was
discovered, in which Sinclair confessed that Sacco and Vanzetti's
lawyer had told him the pair was guilty. Nonetheless, Sinclair went
on to write the novel Boston, a thinly fictionalized account of the
Sacco and Vanzetti trial that represented the killers as innocents
railroaded for their political views. Sinclair justified his decision
thus in a letter to a friend at the Socialist Daily Worker: "The next
big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the
Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims."
In 2007, one of Sinclair's other novels was turned into the
Oscar-winning movie There Will Be Blood. Of the thousands of words
critics spilled about the film and its political overtones, no one
seemed much concerned with considering Sinclair's motives or lack of
Rather than accept the fact the Black Panthers were a criminal
enterprise, a recent book written by Congresswoman Barbara Lee
actually goes so far as to assert that a number of individuals likely
killed by the Panthers were really done in by the FBI in an attempt
to discredit the organization. After combing Lexis-Nexis, it doesn't
appear a single reporter or news organization highlighted, much less
tested, the veracity of this absurd claim other than, well, me.
It was considered impolitic during the election to discuss how for
years our current president shared an office with an unreformed
domestic terrorist. The Left insisted that William Ayers was now a
respectable educational scholar.
However, Ayers's adopted son, Chesa Boudin, has just published a book
that gives new insight into how reformed the Ayers household was.
Boudin was raised by Ayers and his wife after his own parents were
jailed. As members of Ayers's notorious Weather Underground, Boudin's
parents teamed up with the Black Liberation Army a radical group
mostly comprised of ex-Black Panthers to rob a Brinks truck. Three
security guards were killed. And yet, Boudin has parlayed his family
story into sympathetic New York Times profiles, dates with Hollywood
actresses, and judging by his latest utterly hacktastic book, a
completely undeserved Rhodes Scholarship. If you think that's
judgmental, go ahead and suffer through the bits where he obliviously
brags about how his Marxist grandfather repeatedly helped Castro's
murderous regime, and makes insane rationalizations such as,
"Certainly violence is illegitimate when it targets civilians or
intends to cause generalized or widespread fear, but my parents never
did either of those."
And those are just more recent examples of the Left's obdurate
unwillingness to confront their movement's troubling history of
excusing sedition and violence.
As if this tendency weren't intolerable enough, the Left never fails
to seize the opportunity to insist that it's the gun nuts on the
right that are the real danger. One of the Left's premier think tanks
recently attacked the Politico's Mike Allen for sensibly dismissing
the Department of Homeland Security's concerns about returning Iraq
vets becoming right-wing terrorists.
And judging by the comments on the Center for American Progress's
website, plenty of people agree. Here's just the second one down:
"Someone should tell Mike Allen that in reality, right wingers are
historically violent. Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, James Kopp, Paul
Hill, etc are all right wing murderers. How many left-wing 'radicals'
have committed murder? Ask him to name one." If you know who James
Kopp and Paul Hill are off the top of your head, but can't name a
single left-wing radical who has killed someone well,
congratulations! You are officially and totally blinded by ideology.
It's certainly true that violence and attempts at political
subversion are associated with extremists across the political
spectrum if you want, you can certainly find examples of this on
the right. But notably, apologias for those people are much, much
harder to come by. By comparison, The Nation has a couple hundred
thousand readers, even though much of the masthead is still in denial
about how much their fellow-travelers did to aid and abet a regime
that killed 40 million people.
As for the question of whether Mike Allen can name a left-wing
radical who's committed a murder, it's all but certain that he can
personally, I'd start with Lee Harvey Oswald.
None of this is to suggest that the American Left is inherently
violent or treasonous. But the Left can't claim to uphold the values
of I. F. Stone as they envision him a crusading
defender-of-democracy without reckoning with the Communist spy he
was in reality. Political sympathies shouldn't prevent anyone from
seeing the truth about a man even 20 years after his death and 70
years after his misdeeds. If you can't admit the truth when it's
inconsequential, it hardly seems surprising you would justify doing
something terrible when it serves your interests.
Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.