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.
The second is more substantive. Stone, Guttenplan writes near the end of his book, “was a very great investigative reporter, probably the greatest solo practitioner ever. But there are limits to what one man can do, even a man as gifted and tenacious as I. F. Stone, especially when he can’t or won’t cultivate the insider sources who are ultimately essential for the most spectacular Washington scoops.”
Guttenplan, who is the London correspondent for The Nation, has never worked as a reporter in Washington, and he misunderstands the situation of those of us who do. I suspect that Stone’s work will look much better to our descendants than that of Seymour Hersh or Bob Woodward or any of the fine reporters who cultivated those human, insider sources. Their scoops have always tended to be ephemeral. Many of Stone’s were not. He figured out, among much else, that the Vietnam War was a hopeless cause before the first Marines landed in South Vietnam. And he wrote his conclusions bluntly, when the Washington press corps was dreaming of successful counterinsurgency warfare.
Lippman is assured a place in history because of his youthful brilliance, but his journalism from the end of World War II onward is likely to be forgotten. The same fate awaits Reston, I suspect—as well as Joseph Alsop, Joseph Kraft, Marquis Childs, or any of the bloviators of our own time. But Guttenplan (as well as MacPherson) persuades me that Stone will fare differently. He was smarter than nearly all of us who worked in his guild, knew more history, and was more open to unfashionable thinking. As for fashionable thinking, it was rarely a match for what went on inside his own extraordinary head.