I had friendly relations with Stone in Washington in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was basking in his status as an elder statesman. In most obvious ways, it was the best period of his extraordinary life. By the time Jimmy Carter moved into the White House, Izzy Stone was a man of some means, living comfortably with his beloved, all-suffering wife Esther in a leafy neighborhood of northwest Washington, receiving guests and going out to dinner at the uptown branch of the Peking Restaurant, a mediocre Chinese joint to which he was partial.
Then in his seventies, Stone remained utterly devoted to the news of the day, though failing eyesight made him dependent on Esther, who read to him for hours, and on the newfangled devices called computers. With difficulty he could make out words in very big type on the green-on-gray computer screens of that era. Whenever I saw him, he wanted to talk about what was going on that day, that week.
In one sense, reading his life story after the fact has been a source of great frustration for me. Stone was an active observer of (and participant in) some of the great dramas of the twentieth century. When we met, he (and I) wanted to discuss the latest news, so I never talked to him about those earlier events. Guttenplan is particularly good on the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—he cares as much about Stone’s times as about his life. The rich historical context also makes his subject’s career all the more remarkable.
Stone’s perspective was not that of a typical journalist; he was too radical, and too committed to his causes, to simply report his findings. Sometimes, as Guttenplan makes painfully clear, Stone went way over the top. For example, he was much too willing to credit the Bolshevik revolution with a radical commitment to a new order. Throughout the 1930s he wrote syrupy, sympathetic accounts of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stone was also a staunch believer in and promoter of the Popular Front, a loose alliance of leftists who considered the struggle with Nazism the paramount cause of the decade. Indeed, he was personally terrified of the possibility of fascism in America, a fear that helped persuade him to exchange the transparently Jewish Feinstein for Stone.
He never wavered in his belief that people on “the left” had to stick together, even if the company wasn’t always the most savory. For him, the left was the force that could support African-American rights, freedom of speech, and economic fairness, and oppose militarism and war. These were Stone’s big causes. They were more important than the shortcomings and misdemeanors of various individuals. “I still believe,” he wrote in 1950, “that the Left will hang separately if it cannot hang together. I think the cold war is aimed much more at us [American radicals] here at home than at Russia . . . . I am content to find myself still with the unrespectable, red as well as pink.”
Yet when finally confronted by the realities of the U.S.S.R. on a visit in 1956, Stone finally overcame three decades of fuzzy thinking about Joseph Stalin and the system he created. In the Weekly, he confided: “The way home from Moscow has been an agony for me . . . . I feel like a swimmer underwater who must rise to the surface or his lungs will burst. Whatever the consequences, I have to say what I really feel after seeing the Soviet Union and carefully studying the statements of its leading officials. This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.” He put those last phrases in italics in his newsletter.
To this day, American conservatives try to discredit Stone by portraying him as a Soviet agent, though the only evidence they can produce are KGB cables suggesting that Stone shared information on occasion with actual spies. I have done the same many times, in Washington and in Moscow, as have countless other American reporters, none of them spies. The idea that Stone would ever subject himself to the discipline of an ideological force like Soviet communism is laughable, yet the anti-Stone campaign was revived again this spring. He would have loved the spectacle.
Guttenplan has written a wonderful book. I would pick just two nits with him. One is stylistic: at times he seems incapable of stopping himself from sharing every tidbit he has gathered about specific episodes, and some of his footnotes come off as pedantic.