D.D. Guttenplan's The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
A new biography examines the career of one of journalism's great crusaders
By Tom Robbins
Tuesday, June 2nd 2009
For almost 20 years, those smart enough to read I.F. Stone's
four-page newsweekly got America's best bargain in journalism. The
Lippmanns, the Restons, and the other Brahmins of the punditry class
collected the big prizes, but the scoops and the
against-the-official-grain critiques were to be found in the
self-published I.F. Stone's Weekly. For $5 a year when it began in
1953 (initially from an office at 401 Broadway), readers received
searing government exposés, along with an essayist who understood,
like his hero Tom Paine, that words are weapons. "The question is
whether we are to relinquish the standards of Jefferson for those of
Torquemada," he wrote in one of his first issues, launched into the
teeth of the McCarthy inquisition.
Stone was still going strong a dozen years later when he
deconstructed the Johnson administration's fraudulent claims about
Vietnam. After the Tonkin Gulf incident provided the cover story for
that savage war's first wave of escalation, Stone alone pointed out
that "one bullet embedded in one destroyer hull" was the sole proof
offered of the allegedly unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese
gunboats. He used statistics buried in an appendix to a State
Department White Paper urging a wider war to show that 95 percent of
the Viet Cong's weaponry came, not from the Soviet bloc, but from
American arms provided to the South Vietnamese.
Such lonely detective work made him an icon to young rebels then
massing on the New Left. He was the only journalist invited to speak
at the first antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., in April
1965, organized by Students for a Democratic Society. He stood
onstage that day, alongside Phil Ochs and the beautiful Baez sisters,
a stout man with thick spectacles and a hearing aid, winning wild
cheers from a crowd of men and women half his age.
Most of us who cheered Stone back then didn't realize that this was
already the second act of a remarkable career. That's a gap filled in
detail by American Radical, the adoringly exhaustive survey of
Stone's life by D.D. Guttenplan, a former Newsday reporter who was
also my able Voice editor briefly in the 1980s. His book also tells
the parable of how the man who was arguably the greatest
investigative reporter of his time (now crowned as well as the first
blogger) went from journalism star toas he called himself in 1952,
when anti-communist fears left him jobless"a ghost."
Until that point, Izzy Stone, born in 1907 in Philadelphia, had been
pretty successful. He had a regular newspaper column in the 1940s,
first for PM, New York's left-wing daily, and later for its
successor, The Daily Compass. He did double-time as The Nation's
Washington correspondent, and was an early regular on Meet the Press,
where he delighted in skewering official guests.
Then there was Stone's greatest journalistic coup, one that goes
counter to his myth as a left-wing Cassandra. That was when he
boarded an unstable and overcrowded tramp ship filled with "displaced
persons"homeless Jews from the camps of Europetrying to sneak
around the British army into Palestine. Stone's stories boosted PM's
thin circulation, and he later wrote a book about his adventures,
Underground to Palestine. He became a Hollywood footnote when the
American crew of the ship Exodus was recruited at his Washington home.
In typical Stone fashion, he spoiled this party as well. Israel, he
wrote, was doomed to failure unless it accommodated its own displaced
people, Palestinian Arabs, in a bi-national state.
The TV invitations ended when he got his own McCarthy-era knock on
the door. The State Department reclaimed his passport. The FBI
launched full-scale surveillance, including mail intercepts, phone
taps, and excavations of the Stone family trash. Stone would have
qualified for much of this attention simply by dint of his many
left-wing associations, says Guttenplan, who obtained his FBI file.
Although never a capital-C communist, Stone flaunted his many radical
sympathies. As a young reporter in Philadelphia, he hitchhiked to
Boston to attend the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti when his
bosses refused to send him to cover the event.
But there were also darker shadows cast against his name, ones
that20 years after his death in 1989are still trotted out by those
hoping to dirty him up. A few years ago, declassified records of the
thrillingly named Venona project, which cracked the Soviet's secret
wartime cable code, showed that the KGB had at one point sought to
recruit a journalist thought to be Stone and code-named Blin (as in
blini, as in pancake). If so, the Reds didn't seem to find much use
for him since there were no more pancake references, and the FBI's
intense scrutiny (which the nearsighted Stone never even noticed)
yielded no treasonous contacts.
Other aspersions came from an out-of-work KGB agent peddling his
memoirs, who, in 1992, coyly suggested that Stone had once been on
his payroll. Oleg Kalugin's cover job in the '60s was press attaché
for the Soviet embassy, and he had dined with Stone, as he did with
other American reporters. In fact, as Guttenplan reports, Stone made
a point of delightedly taking the Russkie to J. Edgar Hoover's
favorite restaurant. Kalugin later claimed he'd been misunderstood,
only to offer other, equally vague insinuations that still provide
fodder for Stone throwers to this day.
The more interesting question raised in American Radical, however,
has less to do with Stone's patriotism than with his inspiration.
Guttenplan holds that, shorn of his radical roots and inclinations,
Stone's masterful investigative swordplay would amount to little more
than a reporter with a high batting average. Maybe so. But Stone was
always more independent than radical. That streak was on display in
his post-Weekly career, when he wrote a devastating 1972 series for
The New York Review of Books about the perverted use of Soviet
psychiatry to suppress dissent. In the end, his sober skepticism and
relentless drive for truth-telling were far more useful and reliable
guides than any ideology. And those lighthouses usually shine a path
straight to the downtrodden and the underdogs anyway. You don't even
need a map.