Heart of Stone

A distinguished new biography of a career contrarian
July 13, 2009

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Robert G. Kaiser joined The Washington Post in 1963, and is now an associate editor of the paper. He has reported from London, Saigon, Moscow, and, for the last three decades, Washington. His most recent book is So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.