American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone | By D. D. Guttenplan | Farrar, Straus, and Giroux | 224 pages, $24.95
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, millions of Americans succumbed to a shared sense of despair, but not I. F. Stone. The only radical commentator with a wide audience in the United States, Stone was then proprietor of I. F. Stone’s Bi-Weekly, a newsletter he and one assistant produced for about twenty thousand subscribers, each of whom paid $5 a year to get it in the mail.
Most of Stone’s subscribers were more liberal than radical, and it seems a fair presumption that most were devastated by Kennedy’s death. Soon after the weekend of national mourning that put JFK in his Arlington grave, Stone wrote: “Perhaps the truth is that in some ways John Fitzgerald Kennedy died just in time.” He saw Kennedy trapped on two fronts: by a Congress dominated by racist southerners (true enough), and by a foreign policy in thrall to cold war reflexes that were leading the county astray (Vietnam was just beginning). Assassination, in Stone’s view, was “the only satisfactory way out” of these traps.
Then he reminded his readers that their government, Kennedy’s government, routinely employed murder as a tool of statecraft. “How many of us—on the Left now—did not welcome the assassination of Diem and his brother Nhu in South Vietnam?” Diem was the South Vietnamese leader whom Kennedy had turned against; he and his brother were killed in an American-sponsored coup less than three weeks before the assassination in Dallas. “We all reach for the dagger, or the gun, in our thinking when it suits our political view to do so. We all believe the end justifies the means. We all favor murder, when it reaches our own hated opponents. In this sense we share the guilt with Oswald and Ruby and the rightist crackpots. When the right to kill is so universally accepted, we should not be surprised if our young President was slain. It is not just the ease in obtaining guns, it is the ease in obtaining excuses, that fosters assassination.”
These were the words of a most unusual man. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he has inspired four biographies over the past twenty years. (It seems worth noting that Walter Lippman and James Reston, arguably the two most famous journalists of Stone’s time, have each been the subject of just one biography during that same period.) Myra MacPherson published the excellent All Governments Lie! in 2006. Now comes D. D. Guttenplan’s thoroughly engaging and informative American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone, a labor of love that has occupied the author for nearly two decades.
As his startling commentary on Kennedy’s assassination suggests, I. F. Stone marched resolutely to the beat of his own drummer. No other influential twentieth-century journalist had such impeccable credentials as an independent man. Stone was a romantic, sometimes an idealist, sometimes a dreamy radical who refused to acknowledge the chinks in the armor of the causes and persons he embraced. But he was never in anyone’s pocket, and when he went astray—initially embracing Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution as a noble undertaking, for example—he usually managed to yank himself back to his unshakable values. By 1961 he was able to see that Cuba was falling into line behind the Soviet Union. “The Fidelistas are living in a dream world,” he wrote after a visit to the island.
Stone’s outlook on the world was profoundly skeptical, but almost never cynical. He was, as Guttenplan writes, “a troublemaker all his life.” Making trouble was his cause, and his fun. And he was good at it.
He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve in 1907. He renamed himself I. F. Stone thirty years later, by which time he had mastered his craft at various New Jersey papers as well as the New York Post. He went on to produce millions of words—for the short-lived PM in New York City, for The Nation and The New Republic magazines, and then in the McCarthy era, when J. Edgar Hoover investigated him as a possible Soviet spy and mainstream media shied away from him, for his own newsletter, which gave him total freedom. At the end of his career he wrote prolifically for The New York Review of Books. Stone was a crusader, but also a dogged pursuer of facts. He was the best reader of government budgets and reports that I have ever known. And he was never intimidated by an official line, no matter how popular.