Commentary Magazine


All Governments Lie! by Myra MacPherson; The Best of I.F. Stone edited by Karl Weber

All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone
by Myra MacPherson
Scribner. 564 pp. $35.00

The Best of I.F. Stone
edited by Karl Weber
Public Affairs. 340 pp. $21.95

I.F. Stone died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one, but he is still an inescapable presence in the world of journalism. All Governments Lie!, Myra MacPerson’s detailed and readable account of his life, is the third major biography of the Left-leaning writer, who remains, to exaggerate only slightly, every liberal’s favorite radical and one of the journalistic heroes of the age. MacPherson, a veteran Washington Post reporter, notes that Stone continues to be memorialized on college campuses via I.F. Stone chairs, I.F. Stone fellowships, and I.F. Stone scholarships. In 1999, NYU’s journalism department published a list of the 100 “best works of 20th-century American journalism”; the I.F. Stone Weekly—a four-page newsletter self-published by its author over three decades—ranked sixteenth, ahead of assorted efforts by such media eminences as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Theodore White, Dorothy Thompson, and Walter Lippmann.

The Weekly (actually a bi-weekly in its last few years) was indeed a political and commercial success. Its subscriber list, which reached 70,000, included Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, both of whom identified themselves as huge fans of Stone’s reporting. The accolades reached a peak with a documentary film about Stone and the Weekly that was a sensation at the 1974 Cannes film festival, was screened on public television here, and also ran for weeks in art theaters, leaving its audience with the impression that Stone was not only a heroic figure but was uniquely qualified to interpret the political landscape of the 20th century.

Also testifying to Stone’s continuing ubiquity is The Best of I.F. Stone, a new collection of 64 of his articles from the 1940′s through the 60′s. Drawn mainly from the Weekly, they reflect his primary preoccupations. One section is about the loss of liberty attributable to the “witchhunt” and “inquisition” mounted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and anti-Communists generally. Another, about the civil-rights revolution of the 60′s, repeatedly attacks the “hypocrisy” of the white establishment, said to be secretly delighted by the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. A third section, on Vietnam, assails the U.S. for rejecting all sorts of “peace initiatives” credited to the North Vietnamese.

Reading over these and other passages today, one is struck by Stone’s authentic gifts as a polemicist. His arguments march ahead confidently, his logic is easy to follow, his rhetoric colorful. But none of this removes the invincible staleness that tends to emanate from 50-year-old columns, especially those in which the feasibility and desirability of socialism form a major premise. The legendary author himself produced fourteen books, about half of which are collections. It is not clear that the world needed another.

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The Stone legend has been sustained by several intertwined motifs. One, reflected in the title of MacPherson’s book, has to do with Stone’s implacable suspicion of all government insiders and his refusal to socialize with them. MacPherson cites his contempt for the New York Times correspondent in the early 1930′s who played medicine ball with Herbert Hoover at the White House. “That’s enough to kill off a good reporter,” Stone is quoted as saying. “You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence. . . . They’ll use you.”

A related theme is Stone’s vaunted objectivity, said to be manifested in his disdain for press conferences and his fierce commitment to combing the official record. And inevitably the legend also rests on Stone’s socialist politics. However murkily articulated—he called himself a Jeffersonian Marxist—this is taken as another sign of his independence, a badge of honor in the world of big-league journalism.

MacPherson’s account of Stone’s career is occasionally critical: at several points, she lands hard on some of his radical enthusiasms. But she obviously likes and admires her subject, and bemoans the scarcity of similar dissenters in today’s media. (Among welcome exceptions, she cites Frank Rich, Molly Ivins, and Bill Moyers.) What emerges especially from her account is that from an early age, and despite a fair number of pratfalls, Stone was a high-IQ performer.

While still a junior in high school, he wangled a correspondent’s job on the Camden Courier Post; within a few years, he was writing lead articles and editorials for the Philadelphia Record and, later, the New York Post. Perhaps even more impressive was his feat, much later in life, of teaching himself Greek in order to write an account of the trial and execution of Socrates. The book was a best-seller, although it fared poorly in evaluations by classical scholars. (“Vulgarly reductionist” was Donald Kagan’s verdict in the March 1988 COMMENTARY.)

During most of the 1930′s, Stone was in thrall to the Communist-inspired popular front, and his Post editorials often lambasted the New Deal from the Left, viewing FDR’s reforms as inadequate to an era in which the threat of fascism was the overriding concern. In the late 1930′s, he landed a second job, writing for the Nation as well as the Post.

By the late 1930′s, however, Stone was increasingly at odds with the proprietor of the Post, J. David Stern, a committed liberal and a fierce anti-Communist. Ultimately Stern kicked Stone off the editorial page, demoting him to mere reporter. This led to an absurd lawsuit in which Stone contended that the demotion was a “constructive discharge,” entitling him to severance pay under the Newspaper Guild contract. The suit was presented to an arbitrator: Francis Biddle, later attorney general of the United States. Biddle ruled in favor of Stern, observing that the Post‘s management had every right to decide the duties performed by its writers. At this point, Stone resigned.

Meanwhile, there were also woes at the Nation, culminating in one of Stone’s more spectacular pratfalls. His problems began with a manifesto drawn up in the spring of 1939 by the Committee for Cultural Freedom—an organization whose guiding spirit was the philosopher Sidney Hook—denouncing “the totalitarian idea [as] already enthroned in Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, and Spain.” The inclusion of Russia on this list set off a firestorm of protest. Four hundred self-identified progressives signed a long letter denouncing the “fantastic falsehood” that Russia had anything in common with Nazi Germany, and insisting that the USSR “continues to be a bulwark against war and aggression, and works unceasingly for a peaceful international order.”

The Nation‘s editors published the letter but distanced themselves from its argument. Only two of the magazine’s staff members—Stone and his friend Max Lerner—had been among the signatories. Unfortunately for them, however, and for all 400, the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced a scant two weeks after the letter was published. Stone’s signature on it, a huge embarrassment, diminished his reputation at a time when he needed a job.

Luckily for Stone, the market for left-wing writers suddenly expanded with the advent of PM, owned primarily by Marshall Field III. Here Stone was deployed mainly as an investigative reporter, and he seems to have had the time of his life until PM expired in 1948. He then moved over to the equally leftist Star and, when that folded a year later, to the Daily Compass, yet another dirigiste daily. In 1953, when the Compass had likewise shuttered its doors, he started up the Weekly, which would become the ultimate source of the I.F. Stone legend.

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A remarkable fact about this legend is that it has kept growing despite Stone’s lifelong habit of getting things wrong. It is not that he was wrong about the details. As a reporter, he was apparently quite meticulous about fact-checking. His problem resided elsewhere: in a distorted image of the world he inhabited. For much of his adult life, Stone believed both that the United States was threatened by fascism and that Soviet-style socialism was the wave of the future.

The worldview that spawned these beliefs led in turn to many other follies. Stone wrote a book on the 1950-1953 Korean war, arguing (in line with the Soviet view) that it had been instigated by South Korea, which he claimed had been encouraged by the U.S. military. In actuality, it was precipitated by North Korea, which had been encouraged by Moscow. Similarly, when Stalin died, Stone lauded him as a “giant figure” and protested the “merely official” condolences offered by the Eisenhower administration. He was obviously stunned by Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin at the Soviet Union’s 20th Communist party congress three years later.

It was soon thereafter that Stone visited the Soviet Union for the first time. This experience led him to a judgment that had long seemed rather obvious to most Americans, but came across as revelatory in Stone’s account of his trip. A crucial sentence in that account, italicized in the original, ran: “This is not a good society, and it is not led by honest men.” But even as he staked out this anti-Soviet position, he clung to his belief in Stalinist economics. The same essay included these words:

The point is that the Revolution has succeeded; socialism in Russia is there to stay; capitalism will never be restored. . . . Russian industrialism . . . has advanced on giant boots, thanks to economic planning.

Was Stone ever a member of the Communist party? It is conceivable that he was early in his career, but unlikely. It also seems doubtful, despite what some have alleged, that Stone ever functioned as a “Soviet agent,” though arguments about this tend to get bogged down in definitional issues. What is known is that for many years, he engaged in information-swapping sessions with a Soviet intelligence officer named Oleg Kalugin (who wrote a book about his experiences). MacPherson, who interviewed Kalugin, indicates that these meetings ended in 1968, after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. At their final meeting, Stone bitterly refused to let Kalugin pay for lunch.

If Stone gradually became ever more disillusioned with the USSR, he continued to exhibit a consistent fondness for other left-wing totalitarian regimes. During the Vietnam war, he argued that the North Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh was a “very human man” who planned a “democratic state.” He regarded Fidel Castro as a figure comparable to the American revolutionaries of 1776. He also clung stubbornly to the notion that Cubans would have enjoyed freedom but for American hostility, which pushed Fidel into the arms of the Russians.

MacPherson characterizes the man who adhered to such views as “the 20th century’s premier independent journalist.” Depending on one’s parsing of the term “independent,” this may or may not be a fair ranking. However Stone is properly rated, one comes away from her biography aware that he read a lot and knew a lot and wrote a lot. Whether he understood a lot is another proposition entirely.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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