Tireless on the Left, The Great I.F. Stone

Only live to a great age and you can become a hero. For much of his life, I.F. Stone was a marginal figure in American journalism, neither persecuted nor impoverished but sometimes harassed by the government and ignored by the respectable press. By the time he died in 1989 at the age of 81, he was a national treasure: “Iconoclast to Icon,” as Myra MacPherson puts it in her new biography of one of the most fascinating and controversial American journalists of the past century.

Always “Izzy” to those who knew him, he was born Isador Feinstein in Philadelphia in 1907, a child of the great immigration from the shtetl. In 1938, he changed his name to the snappier version by which he became famous. Maybe this reviewer should be gratified that he once wrote as “Geoffrey Stone,” though one can only share Ms. MacPherson’s relief that he didn’t formally adopt “Geoffrey Duprion” as his name. The change to Stone was for convenience rather than to conceal his origins, which would have been absurd: “Good God, I look like a Jewish bullfrog,” he said while watching himself on television.

Whatever else in Izzy’s blood, there was surely printer’s ink. He produced his first newspaper at 14, quoting from Antigone and cheering Gandhi. By the time he reached the University of Pennsylvania, he was already moonlighting many hours a day at a local paper’s office, and he soon dropped out of college. In the 1930’s, he worked at the Philadelphia Record as an editorial writer before moving to New York and the Post, then to Washington as correspondent for The Nation, and he spent the rest of his life in the capital.

He was always a passionate man of the left, and thereby hang several problems for his biographer. An ardent New Dealer and Popular Fronter in the 1930’s, he worked in the 1940’s for PM, the New York newspaper that lasted less than the duration of that decade, and he supported Henry Wallace in his Presidential campaign in 1948. Both paper and campaign were infested by open and covert Communists.

One newspaper after another folded until, having written a cranky book about the Korean War that put the blame on South Korea, Stone began his own newssheet and found his destiny. From an initial 5,000 subscribers in 1953, I.F. Stone’s Weekly reached 70,000 before his health forced him to cease publication in 1971, by which time he was writing longer essays elsewhere, notably for The New York Review of Books.

He might have inspired an outstanding biography, but this is not it. All Governments Lie! is, to put it very gently, less than neatly constructed or elegantly written. Ms. MacPherson forgets two basic principles: The reader does not want to know everything the author knows, and general history should not be written under the guise of biography. Very many pages are devoted to historical background that could have been dealt with much more succinctly.

A number of curious stylistic tics have infected American writing. There’s the Missing Article (“biographer Ron Steel”; “journalist Richard Rovere”), and there’s the Needless Inversion (“recalled Madeline Amgott”; “a watershed tragedy for Stone was the Spanish Civil war”). On occasion the two are combined (“wrote author James Wechsler”). And while she supposes that “flaunted” means “flouted,” Ms. MacPherson has an unhappy penchant for fine writing: “the whipped-cream emptiness of the twenties”; “His heart heavy, Stone wept at war’s end”; “the continuing train wreck of Nazism seemed unstoppable.” (Doesn’t a train stop when it’s wrecked?) One chapter ends portentously, “Stone’s personal future was as uncertain as that of the world,” and then another, “Stone’s future seemed as chilly as that cold November night.” But it’s a labor of love, so let it pass.

Was Izzy a nice guy? When I met him in Washington toward the end of his life, he seemed the epitome of charm, but colleagues had earlier found him cantankerous, humorless and, if they were women, sexist. Maybe the best verdict is his own: As a kid he was “a cocky son-of-a-bitch”—and he remained that in some measure all his life.

Was he a Communist? The accusation has been raised on the right, during his lifetime by James Wechsler, and since by Ann Coulter (what a babe) among others, who now flourish—flaunt? flout?—the Venona transcripts of Soviet intelligence traffic, in which Stone appears to be mentioned as an “agent of influence.”

His biographer cannot get this right. She thrashes about in a tizzy, protesting too much and muddying the waters. She admits in a strangulated way that Stone “waffled” about Soviet Russia (though that would be because of “his faith in socialism and the antifascist front”). As well as reheating endless stale old excuses, she cooks up some of her own: “One reason for resisting criticisms of Russia back then was because the often inaccurate and antirevolutionary American conservative press bred a sense of mistrust.” This might be thought disingenuous or—as I suspect much more likely—the work of an author out of her depth and unfamiliar with the complexities and nuances of the period, although she goes beyond naïveté when she says angrily about Venona that “hoarding these files did a disservice to justice and to history.”

Although Stone met people from the Russian embassy who doubtless exaggerated his importance, he was not, as far as one can judge, a Soviet agent or even, in any serious sense, a Marxist. But for far too long he was certainly one of those who, in Dwight Macdonald’s phrase, thought that Communism was no worse than a bad cold, and the most damning evidence comes from Stone himself. He admitted later that he’d been a fellow traveler, but even his condemnations of Russia were expressed foolishly. To say in 1958, “It is easier for a critic of capitalism and the cold war to live in this country than for a critic of communism to live in Russia,” is a little like saying 20 years earlier that it was easier to be a Jewish leftist in America than in Germany. None of that meant that he was a security risk: At the height of the Cold War, the F.B.I. devoted thousands of man-hours, and large quantities of the taxpayers’ money, to trailing Stone, and this book is another reminder that, as a threat to American liberty and democracy, Joseph McCarthy was trivial compared with J. Edgar Hoover.

Was I.F. Stone a great journalist? I think he was, in more ways than one. He was the best kind of squirrel-reporter. With characteristic élan, Ms. MacPherson says of Ralph Ingersoll, the rich left-winger who published PM, “He fished with Hemingway. Dined with presidents.” Stone did neither. He didn’t even drink with Congressmen, and although he had no need to refuse the “access” he was never offered, he understood the dangers of being spoon-fed by politicians or officials.

As a colleague said, Stone got his scoops in the library. He knew the great secret that there are no secrets, and that the most revealing or even devastating information about any government can usually be found if you know where to look, often in its own publications. In the great years of the Weekly, the grist to Stone’s mill was the vast quantities of clippings and documents he silted away and pored over, all despite his appalling eyesight.

He was also an excellent writer, and it’s a pleasure to turn to The Best of I.F. Stone, which ranges from fine libertarian philippics to vivid reporting on the first United Nations conference in San Francisco in 1945. If the question of Communism brought out the worst in Stone, the question of Zionism brought out the best. He cried out on behalf of the doomed Jews of Europe during their torment, and he traveled “Underground to Palestine” with some of the remnant.

But he understood as early as 1945 that the Palestinian Arabs “are also human beings and … also have historic rights here,” an insight which eludes some to this day. And it’s nearly 40 years since he wrote, “To denuclearize the Middle East, to defuse it, will require some kind of neutralization. Otherwise the Arab-Israeli conflict may some day set off a wider final solution.”

If that seems chillingly prescient, look at Izzy Stone on Vietnam. He saw through the use made of the Tonkin Gulf incident as a pretext for war—the W.M.D. of the time—and there are other eerie echoes besides. Most comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are inapt or misleading, but here is Stone in May 1967: The United States can win the war “ if it is prepared to put in a million men, or more, and then to slug it out patiently year after year until the guerillas are worn down. It can win if it deliberately de-escalates the firepower and meets the guerillas on their own terms, in close combat, instead of alienating the entire population with indiscriminate artillery and airpower.” A pity that The Best of I.F. Stone doesn’t appear to have been on President Bush’s summer reading list.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English author and journalist whose books include The Controversy of Zion (Perseus) and, most recently, The Strange Death of Tory England (Gardners).

Tireless on the Left, The Great I.F. Stone