Commentary Magazine


No Sense Denying I.F. Stone Was a Soviet Agent

In the grand sweep of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which tells the story of KGB activities and networks in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, I.F. Stone is a very minor player, with only a bit part. Most of the references to him are in passing, and the totality of his activities take up only six pages out of 548 pages of text.  Stone, however, is an icon in certain journalistic precincts, and to his devotees those six pages are the only ones that matter.  His acolytes have mounted a furious and deeply dishonest response to revelations in the book (excerpted in the May issue of COMMENTARY) that in the last half of the 1930s Stone assisted the KGB in several ways- serving as a talent scout for new sources, a courier linking the KGB with sources, and a source in his own right for insider journalism information.  We concluded that he “consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938—that is to say, he was a Soviet spy.

Stone did not steal classified documents to convey to Moscow or engage in any hair-raising activities. Yet that does not make him any less of an agent of Soviet intelligence, just not a particularly successful or significant one. An espionage network involves a great many more duties and players than is widely imagined, but the key distinction of an agent is a willingness to be “tasked” in intelligence parlance, that is, act on behalf of the intelligence service.

Much of the controversy has revolved around the label “spy,” which we used quite deliberately. Though in the popular imagination a “spy” immediately brings to mind someone who traffics in classified or secret information, we believe that anyone who wittingly participates in and empowers  an espionage network is, broadly speaking, a spy, and can be fairly labeled as such.

The most hysterical response so far, entitled "The Smearing of I.F. Stone, Continued" was written by Eric Alterman and appeared in The Nation on June 22. Alterman wrote, “Armed with generous funding from the ultra-right-wing Smith-Richardson Foundation, Haynes and Klehr publicized their ludicrous claims that Stone was a ‘Soviet spy’ who ‘worked closely with the KGB,’ at a conference co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and by the Cold War International History Project.” Alterman then added, “The campaign [emphasis added] to smear Stone bears the hallmarks of a foundation-funded campaign of right-wing media manipulation.

This is silly conspiracy-mongering. If I. F. Stone had not been mentioned on a single page of the Vassiliev notebooks, we would have proceeded in exactly the same manner, and we presume the Smith-Richardson Foundation would still have deemed the project a scholarly endeavor worth supporting. The foundation, which Alterman inaccurately labels as “ultra-right-wing,” provided a grant that allowed us to hire two skilled professionals to translate 1,115 pages of Vassiliev’s notebooks into English. The notebooks contain his verbatim transcriptions and summaries of thousands of KGB archival documents describing  Soviet espionage in the United States. They are the richest source of KGB archival material ever to appear in the West. Vassiliev gave (not sold) the original handwritten notebooks to the Library of Congress where they are open for review by any researcher. Scans of the notebooks along with the translations were put on the web in downloadable format by the Cold War International History Project to further facilitate scholarly use. The documentation of Stone’s 1936-1938 work as an agent of the KGB’s New York station is in those notebooks, but, just as Stone is a small part of Spies, he is a miniscule part of the 1,115 pages of the notebooks.  The notion that Smith-Richardson provided a grant to hire two professional translators to work for more than a year just to get the eight pages dealing with Stone is ludicrous. Nor did the foundation provide any assistance to Yale University Press for the publication of Spies.

Alterman seems obsessed with the supposed machinations of “conservative” and “right wing” foundations. For years he has complained that histories of Soviet espionage and communism that he disapproved of were subsidized by nefarious (in his view) organizations, with the smarmy implication that they are paying to have evidence manufactured. He has even cast aspersions on the entire Yale University Press “Annals of Communism” book series. Alterman, of course, has no evidence that such funding has led to distortions of the historical record. But he might look among his own colleagues for examples of historical malfeasance, since The Nation has for years subsidized research for articles offering ever more intellectually tortured defenses of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.

Equally ridiculous is Alterman’s description of the Wilson Center’s May conference about the Vassiliev notebooks. In Alterman’s telling (and he did not attend), the 1½ day conference was all about Stone. It was not. There were three panels, each with three papers. Of the nine papers given, only one was about I. F. Stone; the other papers dealt with Hiss, the Rosenberg apparatus, atomic espionage, FBI counter-intelligence, and the notebooks themselves (all the papers will appear in upcoming issues of the peer-reviewed Journal of Cold War Studies). Nor was the conference as one-sided as Alterman suggests: one of the commentators, R. Bruce Craig, disagrees with our views and is someone whose work we have harshly criticized in the past. Barton Bernstein, a well-known senior revisionist historian, commented on another panel.

Besides Alterman, the most energetic critic of Spies has been Don Guttenplan, not coincidentally because he is Stone’s third and latest biographer. Myra MacPherson, another Stone biographer, writing in the Huffington Post, has also vehemently criticized Spies. Although her article was titled as a “review,” it dealt entirely with Stone and nothing else. Hiss, the Rosenbergs, Oppenheimer, and atomic espionage, indeed, all other subjects dealt with in the book were entirely absent.  MacPherson’s charges essentially duplicate Guttenplan’s.) Guttenplan did attend the Wilson Center conference, and became nearly apoplectic about the proceedings well before a single negative word had been uttered about his special interest.

At one point Guttenplan attempted to monopolize the time set aside for audience participation by reading a lengthy statement, and the exasperated chair of that panel did cut him off so that others would have a chance to speak. Later, in a display of faux indignation, he reenacted the role of Robert Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings, pointing an accusing finger at us and loudly proclaiming, “At long last, have you no decency?”  It was a bizarre performance.

Guttenplan’s indignant attack on Spies appeared in The Nation on May 6. Red Harvest: the KGB in America, begins by belittling, literally, Alexander Vassiliev. He is described in the second sentence as a “small, fair-haired man,” and in addition to being short in stature, Guttenplan insinuates Vassiliev is not to be trusted because he was left angry and embittered by his unique experience. Vassiliev is more than 6’1” feet tall, however, and Guttenplan’s insinuations are equally off the mark. Vassiliev makes a positive impression on nearly everyone who hears him speak in the first person about his research. At the Wilson Center conference, he calmly answered questions that would rattle anyone’s composure.

Guttenplan goes on to cast doubt on Vassiliev’s ability to record so much material in his notebooks from early 1994 to early 1996, dramatically labeling it a “Stakhanovite feat.” This is childish. Vassiliev’s notebooks total 1,115 pages of hand-written notes, and any reasonably conscientious researcher could accumulate that many pages of notes in two years of archival work.

The full extent of Guttenplan’s ad hominem attack became evident at the Wilson Center conference, when he suggested that the notebooks were forgeries and charged that Vassiliev had, for financial reasons, written what right-wing conspirators wanted him to write. In this vein, he demanded that Vassiliev disclose all of his financial records. This last insinuation is easy to dispose of. As we pointed out, if financial gain were Vassiliev’s goal (or ours), taking the book to Yale University Press made no sense at all. YUP, like all academic presses, pays only modestly. Nor, if financial concerns were a priority, did it make sense for Vassiliev to give the notebooks to the Library of Congress without compensation.

Guttenplan’s insinuations of forgery are just as baseless. Scans of the original handwritten notebooks; transcriptions into word-processed Russian; and translations into English of the notebooks have all been posted on the web. The transcripts and the translations are paginated and formatted to match the original, so researchers can move easily between all three versions to check on a translation or study them as intensely as they wish. Successfully forging one or two historical documents is difficult but possible. Successfully forging 1,115 pages of documents when there are ample materials available from other sources to check against is impossible. Any forgery of that size would easily be exposed. Mistakes in chronology, in terminology, and in placement of people in places and times where they provably could not have been would have been inevitable.

Just as the irresponsible allegations of forgery made in 1995 about the release of the deciphered KGB cables of the Venona project vanished into the wind as countless researchers used the cables and found them reliable and authentic, Guttenplan’s forgery innuendo will disappear. Not surprisingly, the false assertions of forgery made against Venona came from the same circles that cheer on Guttenplan’s malicious charges.

Guttenplan has added other fatuous assertions, such as claiming that the notebooks show Julius Rosenberg and other Soviet sources were “careful to make clear their primary loyalty to the United States. This is poppycock. In Spies we noted the evidence of State Department official Laurence Duggan’s emotional difficulty with reconciling his loyalty to the Soviet cause, and years of assistance to Soviet espionage, with his status as an American citizen. But Duggan was a marked exception, and Julius Rosenberg emphatically was not: the latter’s loyalty was to the Soviet Union and the Communist cause. Alexander Feklisov, the KGB case officer who oversaw Rosenberg’s work, even noted in his memoir Rosenberg’s pleasure when Feklisov compared him to Soviet soldiers fighting Nazis behind the lines. Taking delighting in an image that likened the United States to Nazi-occupied territory does not suggest an American patriot.

Another strange passage makes one wonder if Guttenplan really pays attention to the logic of what he is writing. Attempting to exculpate Soviet spies, he notes:

The Haunted Wood [a previous book by Alan Weinstein and Vassiliev] cites a July 1941 report from Konstantine Umansky, the Soviet ambassador, on a conversation with Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who asked “on my personal behalf to give me and Roosevelt the heads of German agents in the U.S.” because the FBI was doing such a lousy job—letting Moscow know that Morgenthau and perhaps FDR didn’t have confidence in J. Edgar Hoover. Haynes and Klehr don’t mention this incident, yet they condemn Morgenthau’s deputy Harry Dexter White for his own back-channel diplomacy.

Guttenplan seems oblivious to the difference between Morgenthau openly asking the Soviets to give Soviet information to the United States and White covertly giving American information to the Soviets without authorization. Morgenthau was engaging in diplomacy, while White was a Soviet spy. He met clandestinely with a KGB officer and provided information on the American negotiating strategy at San Francisco in 1945, where the United Nations’ charter was being drawn up. White assured the Soviets that “[President] Truman and [Secretary of State] Stettinius want to achieve the success of the conference at any price,” and advised that if Soviet diplomats held firmly to their demand that the USSR get a veto over UN Security Council actions, the United States “will agree.” White offered other tactical advice on how the Soviets might defeat or water-down diplomatic positions being advanced by his own government. The KGB officer meeting with White even carried with him a questionnaire on a variety of issues that were bound to be the subject of intense negotiations; White handed over the American negotiating position each and every time. If Guttenplan thinks this is “back-channel diplomacy,” he is living in an alternate reality.

All these dubious tactics are but a prelude to Guttenplan’s main aim, which is to deny, dissemble and otherwise discredit the significant new archival information about I. F. Stone, the subject of Guttenplan’s new biography.

A point of contention for years has been whether Stone was the person code-named “Blin” (or “Pancake” in English) in the Venona intercepts released in the mid-1990s. The Vassiliev notebooks are unequivocal on this point, and settle the debate. A KGB New York station report of 13 April 1936 noted, “‘Pancake’ [is] Isidor Feinstein, a commentator for the New York Post.” (Isidor Feinstein changed his name to I. F. Stone in 1937.)  Guttenplan, however, still refuses to accept this plain vanilla corroboration, insisting that it still doesn’t prove that “Pancake” was Stone.  Perhaps he thinks there was another Isidor Feinstein working for the New York Post whom the KGB recruited.

Another Guttenplan aside demonstrates his ignorance of both the notebooks and Spies. He writes:

Farther down the same page is another handwritten Russian text, which claims (in May 1936) that “Relations with ‘Pancake’ [Stone] have entered ‘the channel of normal operational work.’ He went to Washington on assignment for his newspaper. Connections in the State Dep. and Congress.” (The single quotes around “normal operational work” are clearly meant as the historical equivalent of furious cello bowing on the soundtrack.)

If he had bothered to read Spies carefully, or to actually look at the original document, available on the web, presumably Guttenplan would have noticed that the quote marks are in the original notebooks and indicate when Vassiliev is quoting the underlying KGB archival document verbatim rather than just summarizing it in his own words. 

Having attempted to cast doubt on the authenticity of the notebooks, Guttenplan nonetheless feels compelled to discount the significance of the information lest the reader persist in thinking they are accurate, Stone’s relationship with the KGB in the 1936-38 was above board, claims Guttenplan: “I don’t find it at all hard to believe that in 1936 I. F. Stone would have happily traded information with a TASS correspondent, whether or not he suspected the man had other duties.” But this characterization is not compatible with the KGB document Vassiliev quoted that said its relationship with Stone had entered “the channel of normal operational work.” A benign overt relationship between an American journalist and Guttenplan’s imaginary TASS reporter would not be so described in a report from the New York KGB station to Moscow headquarters. The KGB was not a journalistic enterprise; it was an intelligence service and its operations were ultimately dedicated to ferreting out information.

Without any evidence, Guttenplan speculates that KGB officers were habitual frauds, reporting back to Moscow they had recruited as agents people who were, in fact, simply casual acquaintances. Is Guttenplan that ill-informed about how the KGB worked and the context of its operations in the 1930s? The KGB had elaborate mechanisms to ensure that no one officer could recruit and run a source. In the late 1930s, with a purge of its stations underway, KGB officers were frequently reporting on supposed mistakes and violations of proper tradecraft by their colleagues. In this atmosphere, any KGB officer creating a fictitious agent was signing his death warrant.

There is a KGB document in the notebooks that Guttenplan scrupulously avoids mentioning. It is a list of the American agents, including “Pancake” (Stone), run by the New York KGB station in the latter half of 1938.  The agent list reads:

Agents: (3rd qtr. of ’38)  S-1, S-2, Link, Eduard, Lever, Long and Vanguard, Toby, Talent, Yankee, Solid, Goose, Falcon, Emulsion, Emulsion’s brother, Octane and his sub-sources, Cheetah, Stanley, Film, El, Needle, Blue Tit, Charlie, Lord, Morris, Fairy, Zero, Bob, Buben, Button, Informer, Fred, Black, Pancake, Loach, Adam, Satyr, Crook, Yuzik.

There are some significant spies on this list, although the real identities of several remain unknown to this day. For example, “Goose” was Harry Gold, a long-serving KGB courier and agent handler Klaus Fuchs. “Satyr” was Sylvia Caldwell, used by the KGB to infiltrate the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party “Buben” was Louis Budenz, who also assisted the KGB with its anti-Trotsky work “El” was Alfred Slack, a long-term technical source. “Link” was William Weisband, a mere courier in 1938, but a decade later the most valuable American source the KGB possessed; it was Weisband who would inform the Soviets of the Army Security Agency’s success in breaking Soviet codes. “Morris” was Abraham Glasser, a Justice Department lawyer. “Informer” was Joseph Katz, one of the KGB’s longest-serving and senior American agent handlers who managed some of the most important sources in the U.S. government during World War II.

It is disingenuous to argue that Stone was included on this KGB list of active agents on the basis of casual chats with an imaginary TASS reporter. Some of these listed were couriers or agent handlers. Others were sources. Some performed different tasks at one time or another. Guttenplan (and Alterman for that matter) may wish to narrow down the definition of “spy” to mean only sources who steal secrets. But to the KGB, its couriers, agent handlers, talent spotters, and sources—including I. F. Stone—were “agents” assisting the KGB’s intelligence operations in the United States. As such, all of them participated in espionage and empowered Soviet intelligence operations in the United States.

Defenders of the Rosenbergs have surrendered.  Defenders of Alger Hiss continue to soldier on, but with more desperate and increasingly bizarre theories (the latest, published in The American Scholar  last year, accused an innocent man, Wilder Foote, of being the spy Ales rather than Hiss.)  It is only a matter of time before those who cannot bear to admit that a large number of Americans voluntarily worked for the KGB in the 1930s and 1940s will find themselves abandoning the defense of Izzy Stone.

(A longer version of this piece appears here.)

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