The Life and Times of I. F. Stone
By D. D. Guttenplan
Farrar Straus Giroulx. 592 pp. $35
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Reviewed by Chris Hedges
American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone,
a masterfully written biography of the 20th century's greatest investigative journalist, is as much a chronicle of the American left as a biography of Stone.
It is a poignant reminder that moral autonomy and independence, traits Stone had in abundance, come with a cost. And it is a primer on what constitutes great reporting in an age when celebrity gossip and trivia are passed off as news.
Stone, born and raised by Russian immigrants in Philadelphia, was one of the most famous reporters in the nation by the end of World War II. He was a regular on television news programs and had easy access to those in power. He traveled with underground Jewish survivors from the Nazi Holocaust on leaky transports to British-occupied Palestine and wrote a series of reports that dramatically boosted the circulation of the New York newspaper PM. He covered the war for Israeli independence.
And then, challenging President Harry S. Truman's loyalty program and the establishment of NATO, he was swallowed up in the hysteria over communism. He became a nonperson. He began an address to a rally against the hydrogen bomb in February 1950 with the words "FBI agents and fellow subversives. . .." He was soon under daily surveillance. His passport was not renewed. And he was blacklisted as a reporter. Even the Nation would not give him a job. He was 44 and wrote that such actions made him "feel for the moment like a ghost."
Stone refused to be silenced. He gathered up a few stalwarts from his old magazine and newspaper audience - although not enough to cover expenses - and launched a newsletter in 1953 called I. F. Stone's Weekly. It was Stone who punctured the Johnson administration's assertion that U. S. ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin by pointing out that "one bullet embedded in one destroyer hull is the only proof we have been able to muster that the . . . attacks took place." He found in an appendix of a State Department white paper, meant to justify an expansion of the war, that in the months between June 1962 and January 1964, only 179 of approximately 7,500 weapons captured from the Viet Cong had come from the Soviet bloc. The remainder, 95 percent, came from U.S. arms provided to the South Vietnamese.
He did this reporting while shut out of the big news conferences and confidential background briefings given to well-placed Washington reporters. The establishment reporters, he conceded, knew things he did not, but "a lot of what they know isn't true." What those journalists called objectivity "usually is seeing things the way everybody else sees them," Stone said. By the time he closed the weekly nearly two decades later, it had 70,000 subscribers and he had become a journalistic icon.
Stone was that curious hybrid of intellectual and journalist. He was as conversant in theater, art, literature, poetry, and the classics - he knew Latin and mastered Greek at the end of his life to write a book on the trial of Socrates - as he was in the intricacies of the New Deal, the permanent war economy, and the labor movement. His fierce independence and razor-sharp clarity, like George Orwell's, often made him a scourge to the left as well as the right.
He detested the stench of orthodoxy. He consistently stood on the side of those who without him would have remained unheard. He may have been a supporter of Israel, but he had the courage to write in 1949 of Deir Yassin as a village "whose Arabs were massacred by Irgunists with biblical ferocity, a shameful page in the history of the Jewish war of liberation." American Jewish organizations offered to promote his book on the war if he deleted one sentence calling for a bi-national Arab-Jewish state made up of Palestine and Trans-Jordan. He refused. The book languished in obscurity.
Stone would not sell out. He never forgot, as he famously quipped, that "every government is run by liars." He was expelled from the National Press Club after he and a black former federal judge were refused luncheon service. He promptly joined the black newspapermen's club. He wrote of Malcolm X after his assassination, seeing perhaps a bit of himself in the brilliant black leader who read Paradise Lost and Herodotus in prison, that "no man has better expressed his people's trapped anguish." Yet as the American left became anarchic and began to embrace violence in the 1960s, he was as withering in his critique of its folly as he was of the government overlords it defied.
"Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat," Stone wrote. "It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party lines. Those who set out nobly to be their brother's keeper sometimes end up by becoming his jailer. Every emancipation has in it the seeds of a new slavery, and every truth easily becomes a lie."