The book’s sub-title is not just an add-on. Surrounding I.F. Stone’s life are some very remarkable times. The 1930s depression, fascism, the New Deal, World War II., hijacking of government by anti-new dealers – true witch hunts, this time of “communists” and “fellow travelers,” completely ignoring the bill of rights for a time (not for the first time Eugene Debs fans will remember), the development and open-air testing of nuclear weapons, the use of same, the cold war, Dien Bien Phu, Algeria, … and, as they say, more.
I.F. Stone’s youth was marked by a precociousness (first news sheet at age 14) that, by age 40, had brought him journalistic renown. His most visible gig was as an occasional panelist on Meet the Press but he was also known as an investigative journalist on several daily newspapers.
By 1953 he was persona non grata, unemployable in his profession and hardly spoken to by friends. This was not the product of criminality or a sex scandal nor ethical breech. Stone became the victim of anti-communist hysteria conducted by opportunistic or ideological fanatics every bit as scary as the crop hovering currently around our White House. People were jailed, slandered, careers ruined by an inquisition of small-minded, self-promoting cads in congress, law enforcement and media.
Stone wrote for The Nation, a weekly, still honorably illuminating hypocrisy among our esteemed leaders to this day, and PM, a progressive daily long defunct. The author of American Radical in fact is the new editor of The Nation.
Like the immature species we are, it seems that all attempts to seek some kind of order in the world, whether of the social justice flavor or of the fascist, are undermined by internecine brawling, sectarian dogma, ego forever steering the ship. Consistency and reason, claimed as guide by all factions, are routinely set aside whenever circumstances and loyalty, punishment or reward, demand.
Witness the tRump administration as it blithely embraces outrageous, anti-democratic polices while White House staff conduct back-stabbing media-leaking as they jockey for position.
Witness also the shameful democratic party attack and misrepresentation of dissenters from slavish subservience to Israel. Stone had a special fondness for Israel but his clear sightedness was not clouded by infatuation. He recognized early that justice for Palestinians was a prerequisite for a stable and peaceful Israel.
In the thirties and forties the Communist Party and “fellow travelers, liberals and various progressives, were gaining ground, given the calamitous impact of the capitalist depression on so many working people and the then apparent success of Communism. Thanks to ego again, the hijacking of the Russian revolution by the psychopathic Joseph Stalin, and the masking of his crimes thwarted the dream of ending poverty and inequality.
Those who most profited from the capitalist order also intervened, putting significant resources behind efforts to demonize communism and socialism. It has been said that the left always arranges its firing squad in a circle. But this holds true for most movements and helps explain why the Machiavellian path so often plows under the altruist.
Stone, or Izzy as he was affectionately known, eventually gave up on the hopeless factionalism and sectarianism of the communist party, unhesitatingly critiquing it, though its ideal is where his sympathies lay – the right, more often in power though, held most of his journalistic and editorial attention, whether in The Nation, PM or his books.
As a prominent journalist Stone used his platform, indeed built his reputation on, exposing corruption in business and government. This of course made enemies but the writer was uncompromising in his search for a story. With the start of World War II he became “respectable” given his connections in the New Deal administration and his intense anti-fascist stance. He was quick to notice but also to forgive Roosevelt’s lapses – U.S. tardiness in acknowledging violent Nazi antisemitism was a great frustration. U.S., British and French support or indifference to the fascist coup in Spain was also a trial.
Love of Democracy among (elitist) western rulers, mostly rhetorical, tends to become inconvenient when the “wrong” parties come to power, especially those with low enthusiasm for the preferred economic system which so benefits them. Vietnam would soon come around to prove this thesis for those who didn’t quite get it yet.
Prior to Stone’s fall from grace he was intimate with high officials in the Roosevelt administration. His admiration of Vice-President Wallace, and outrage at his ouster in favor of Truman, did not prejudice him against the new president. In fact, he was quite optimistic. Truman, as a senator, was quite accessible and Stone thought him trustworthy. By the end of the decade he was unequivocally appraised of his error in judgment. His dogged criticism of J. Edgar Hoover and the congressional investigations eviscerating the constitution ignited those forces against him.
An agent finally approached demanding his passport. Many others had this experience – all as innocent as he of illegal acts, but all guilty of insufficient subservience to power.
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) was, at this time, grazing among the sheep, refusing to vigorously challenge government oppression.
Stone and a handful of progressives formed the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (ECLC) to take their case to the Supreme Court. Izzy was the only board member not wealthy or safely pensioned and soon found himself unemployable, even by The Nation. From the fall of 1951 Izzy was daily and ridiculously surveilled by the FBI. His mail was opened, neighbors questioned, doorkeeper recruited to spy on him. All this while the FBI director denied the existence of the U.S. Mafia, that organization allegedly having compromising photographs of Hoover to insure his investigations excluded them.
This is where Izzy’s famous newsletter saved him from destitution. He was able to build a following of subscribers that left him free to pursue his hard-boiled investigative journalism without limitations imposed by advertisers, owners and editors. His targets were the usual congressional and business shenanigans in business, congress and the administration. He managed also to write a book, The Hidden History of the Korean War, a story in itself. Turned down by more than two dozen publishing houses, he was about to give it up when he ran into two old friends in the Central Park zoo cafeteria. The first thing to come up was that the former colleagues were publishing a new journal, Monthly Review, and asked Izzy if he knew anyone with something interesting to say about Korea. He sent them the manuscript and they were so impressed they decided to somehow raise the money to publish it. It’s reception was cool silence with a few deliberate establishment hatchet-job reviews. Over time the book would gain a respectability by serious historians but the mid-fifties religion of anti-communism was too pervasive to allow an objective reading.
I.F. Stone’s Weekly newsletter bridged the considerable gap where Izzy wandered outside the economic wilderness of mainstream journalism. Page five of the first issue, January 17, 1953, 15 cents, is included in the book and it displays the writer’s deft verbosity. In quoting President Truman’s prescient comments about the threat of nuclear war, Stone points out the president’s sound recognition of the danger is completely negated by his failure to acknowledge the necessity of the alternative – co-existence.
Truman favors the reckless strategy of demanding, in effect, Soviet surrender as the solution. Izzy comments, “To pursue such a policy with stubborn blindness while warning against its inevitable consequences is to give a drunken party and salve one’s conscience with a lecture on alcoholism.”
In this kind of madness Stone sought soul mates such as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, the latter who offered, “I see with a great deal of disquiet the far-reaching analogy between Germany of 1932 and the U.S.A. of 1954.”
It doesn’t take a renowned physicist to note the chilling relevance and applicability of such a statement to today’s world.
Stone went on to critique the Bay of Pigs, pentagon infatuation with counter-insurgency (to include torture), and the coming Vietnam disaster. Gradually he regained respectability, growing in demand as a speaker but still on the outlaw fringes of polite discourse.
Stone is one of those rare figures, a true radical, who pitilessly pierced the fog of conventional wisdom, a practice that our survival depends on being more widely adopted.