Stone Cold Untruths

It is with a great sense of foreboding that I feel compelled to address myself to Paul Berman's New York Times Book Review essay on Myra McPherson's biography of I.F. Stone and a collection of Izzy's best columns edited by Peter Osnos.

I don't think I have ever met McPherson, but I have been friends with Paul for over decade. For longer than that, I have been an admirer of his work and an informal student of his method. His Power and the Idealists -- originally an essay he tossed off on spec for The New Republic -- is as fine and concise a work of intellectual and political history as anyone has published anywhere in the past decade. And though Paul can be wrong as easily as anyone -- and has been most egregiously in his analysis of the likely consequences of a U.S. invasion of Iraq -- no one is wrong with a stronger commitment to the honor of the intellect; to doing the scholarship and going wherever it takes you, personal and political consequences be damned.

I am not quite this brave, alas. If I were, I would write a far angrier, more expansive takedown of Paul's review of McPherson's biography than I intend to. Paul gets points for his intellectual honesty as well as for being my friend. But Izzy was my friend, too, and to a considerable degree my mentor as well for almost a decade. It's an interesting conundrum to weigh one's moral obligations to the dead as well as to the living, so I will do my best to confine myself to matters of truth and falsehood, as best as I understand them.

First and foremost, Paul's review does an extreme disservice to the truth -- and a massive favor to its enemies -- with his faulty reading of the never-ending, but almost entirely bogus controversy over whether Stone ever willingly spied for the Russians or cooperated with the KGB in any way. He did not, and it is a damn shame that Paul implies otherwise because more people will read his review than MacPherson's book, this column, or any other corrective measure.

Paul writes in the crucial section of his review:

(C)arried away perhaps by her own polemical fury, [MacPherson] seems not to notice that in her ardor to rescue Stone from his enemies, she has yanked the rope a little too firmly and has accidentally hanged the man. MacPherson informs us that Kalugin, having specified that Stone was never on the Soviet payroll, described Stone as a "fellow traveler" -- meaning a friendly supporter of the Soviet cause, though not a disciplined member of any Communist organization. Kalugin explained (in words no admirer of I. F. Stone will want to read) that Stone "began his cooperation with the Soviet intelligence long before me, based entirely on his view of the world." Stone was "willing to perform tasks." He would "find out what the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue."

MacPherson beams a benign light on those remarks. She observes that, first, there is a world of difference between merely cooperating with the K.G.B. and actively serving as an espionage agent; and, second, any proper journalist would leap at the opportunity to chat with well-connected functionaries of a foreign power; and, third, many a Washington big shot has conducted back-channel conversations with foreign governments. And so forth, one exculpatory point after another, each of which seems reasonable enough, except that, when you add them up, the sundry points seem to have missed the point. Stone, after all, has been extolled as a god, or, at least, an inspiring model for the journalists of today, and while it is good to distinguish between cooperation and espionage, and excellent to learn that Stone sought out acquaintances in many a dark corner, something about his willingness "to perform tasks" as part of his longtime "cooperation with Soviet intelligence" is bound to make us wonder, What on earth was that about?

All of the above would be unfortunate but unavoidable if what Berman argues were true. Alas it is not. I wrote a Nation column about this issue just a few weeks ago, which I will recap just a little. Here is what actually happened: If ex-post facto anonymous FBI conclusions are correct, Stone, a working journalist, had lunch with the Tass correspondent in 1945, back when the United States was still nominally allied with the Soviet Union, having no way of knowing the man's secret identity as a KGB agent. Later, during the 1960s, he had occasional lunches with the Soviet press attaché, who, also unbeknownst to him, turned out to work for the KGB. Remember, it's a journalist's job to seek information and trade opinions with representatives of foreign governments. Remember, Izzy had no access to classified information whatever. Remember, the FBI hounded him for decades seeking to find something to pin on him and found nothing. They could not even connect him in any way to the Communist Party of either the United States or the Soviet Union, though they tried mightily. Remember, in having lunches with the Tass correspondent at the same time, Walter Lippmann, according to KGB files, offered much more useful information to the Soviets than Stone ever did. If MacPherson “hanged” Stone, then what of the sainted Lippmann?

What's more, in order to make it appear as if MacPherson has “hanged” Stone, Berman ignores the following, which appears in exactly the same paragraph in the book that he finds so damning: "Did he [Kalugin] have actual information that Stone had ever cooperated with Soviet intelligence? 'No.'" Kalugin said Stone “was just useful like dozens of other [journalistic] contacts.” When Paul writes that Stone would "perform tasks" -- that is, "find out what the views of someone in the government were or some senator on such and such an issue" -- he does not note that Kalugin cannot remember a single thing of importance that Stone might have said. Stone, said Kalugin, was merely "on the fringe" and "just useful, like dozens of other [media] contacts I had." In contrast, he averred to MacPherson, "I knew one guy from Time magazine, for instance. That was a big thing." Kalugin also offers up his opinion that Stone "was a true liberal and not a Communist ... He would not hurt or damage the United States."

So according to both the FBI and the KGB, Stone did nothing even remotely questionable during his lunches with either of the Soviets in question. He did nothing that, indeed, I have not done in lunches with press attachés of various governments during the course of my journalistic career. I give my honest opinions, and I let them pay for lunch. (Amazingly, to me anyway, Izzy sometimes picked up his own check.)

Come to think of it, I had one of these lunches with a representative of the Russian consulate just this summer. I told him I thought Russia was returning to autocracy and that Putin appeared to have little interest in freedom as I understood it. Was he a spy? I have no idea. I had another lunch in Paris with the press attaché for the French Defense Ministry, who as far as I know, could also have worked for French intelligence. Do these lunches make me a spy as well? If so, is it for France or Russia?

Really, this is too silly for words. I cannot imagine that there is any prominent writer on foreign affairs who thinks there can be anything questionable in having lunch with an embassy official, even it if it's theoretically possible, as with all U.S. embassy officials abroad, that they may also be working for that nation's intelligence agency. Isn't it the job of someone seeking to be well-informed about his topic to, um, talk to the people involved with it? (Kalugin says that Stone was not used to pass along any disinformation, by the way.)

Berman's review brings no new information to this issue, and so he ends up employing nothing but selective quotations of the information MacPherson provides to imply the exact opposite of what it clearly demonstrates. The idea that Robert Novak -- who happily exposed the identity of a working CIA agent for political purposes -- thinks he can cast stones at Stone would be comical were it not morally disgusting (his history of deliberate deceit regarding Stone is discussed at length in the above-referenced Nation column). The fact that Berman's misleading review will undoubtedly comfort the likes of McCarthyites like Novak and the crazed Ann Coulter in their efforts to smear Stone in particular and liberals in general saddens me beyond words.

Berman's review has other problems, but these are matters of interpretation rather than fact. I find his lengthy comparison of Stone to Jean Paul Sartre bizarre to say the least. Sartre openly embraced totalitarianism on many occasions, and just before he died, found himself on street corners handing out pamphlets advocating Maoist revolutionary violence. Stone was tragically wrong about the Soviet Union for much of his life, but after visiting it in 1956, he fundamentally reassessed his most deeply held beliefs and bravely reversed course, at great psychological, emotional, personal, and financial sacrifice. (He lost one third of the subscribers to his newsletter, and hence, one third of his family's livelihood.) In a near perfect contrast to Sartre, he ended his life writing about the horrific abuses of the Soviet psychiatric system and embarking on a history of the entire concept of freedom of thought.

Izzy died, literally, asking the visitors in his Boston hospital room about the fate of the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square -- which is a nice contrast to Sartre, when you think about it. And while Berman criticizes Stone's writings about the Vietnam War as being “only halfway prescient,” my question would be: Compared to whom? Certainly his analysis was superior both to that of the “Wise Men” who got us into Vietnam, as well as to most of the voices of the anti-war movement, many of whom embraced the Vietcong and North Vietnamese leadership in a way that Stone almost managed to avoid.

A “halfway prescient” analysis by our own leaders -- or even by the grand poobahs of the punditocracy at the time -- might have saved 58,000 American lives and millions of Indochinese ones. What's more, Stone never claimed to be a prophet. He merely claimed to reach conclusions that made sense to him. And in retrospect, they still make a great deal more sense than did almost anyone else's at the time. (On a personal aside, the very first thing Stone ever said to me -- when I called to ask him for an interview about his views on Vietnam for my college honors thesis -- was “Well, I said a lot of silly things about Vietnam, but come on over.” I did, and we met at the drugstore for tea and raisins.)

Berman is right that Stone made a massive, historically tragic mistake in embracing the pro- rather than anti-Communist left in the United States, and that the consequences of this embrace, multiplied many times over, have been horrible for the American left, for America, and for the world. Communism is the worst thing that ever happened to the democratic left in this country, including McCarthyism, which it helped cause. Indeed, I've learned a great deal on this topic from reading and listening to Paul himself.

MacPherson could have done more with this issue because it is central to Stone's intellectual biography as well as to his role in the history of the period. Since Izzy died, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand it myself. In doing so, however, I could not find a single shred of evidence for Berman's claim that “Stone, too, was, in his own fashion, willy-nilly a totalitarian -- at least, sometimes.” In the first place, the sentence so undercuts itself as to be nearly meaningless. Second, almost all the evidence Berman provides for it comes from Bernard Henri Levy's biography of Sartre, who lived, need I add, in a different country, practiced a different profession, and said a great many things to which Stone would have vociferously objected.

I do not draw conclusions about Berman's political beliefs based on the writings of his fellow liberal hawks like Christopher Hitchens or Jacob Weisberg, much less those of, say, Paul Wolfowitz or Douglas Feith. Why he expects the reader to judge Izzy on the basis of a discussion of Levy's reading of Sartre is literally beyond my comprehension.

Personally I think Stone was naïve about the USSR. He was so horrified by the corruption of a system of government he admired and the beliefs of the founders he held so dear -- Jefferson in particular -- that he failed to subject the claims of the Soviets to the scrutiny he gave Truman, Eisenhower, and the like, and willfully blinded himself. It looks rather foolish in retrospect. But given the secrecy of the Soviet system -- coupled with the open hypocrisy of so many American actions on behalf of fascist anti-Communists throughout the world -- it was understandable nevertheless.

Izzy Stone was large. He contained multitudes. Occasionally he contradicted himself. What's more, over the course of his nearly 60 years as an opinion journalist, he had a few opinions that turned out to be wrong for any number of reasons. (I discuss one of these, his assumption of the worst about Kennedy during the missile crisis, in When Presidents Lie. In fact, secretly, Kennedy did a much better job at ensuring a peaceful outcome to the crisis than he was willing to admit, though it would have been hard to know this at the time.)

Nevertheless, to employ the description "totalitarian" -- even modified all but out of existence by the phrase "in his own fashion, willy-nilly … at least sometimes" -- about Stone betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the man no less disturbing than falsely implying he was a Communist spy.

Amazingly, Berman gets Izzy right at the same time he misreads him, making his review about the most confounding I've ever read. Berman explains in the very same review, about a paragraph later, “But Stone was also not a totalitarian. He was a lover of freedom. …His charming and humorous prose style, his amiable personality on the page, his incontestable bravery, the quality in him that, in spite of everything, was never petty or contemptible -- all this is hugely attractive, or would be, if only you could separate out the other aspects.”

In context and properly understood, I'd say all those "other aspects" do not really amount to a hill of proverbial beans when compared to the man's life and work. What a shame the great Paul Berman somehow decided to make a mountain of them.

Nation media columnist and author Eric Alterman is also a Professor of English and Journalism at the City University of New York, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, where his popular blog, “Altercation,” can now be found.

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