Stone, I. F.

views updated May 29 2018


(b. 24 December 1907 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; d. 18 June 1989 in Boston, Massachusetts), radical journalist and publisher of I. F. Stone's Weekly from 1953 to 1971.

Born Isidor Feinstein, Stone in 1937 changed his name, arguing that he would influence more readers if he seemed "less Jewish"; thereafter he was known as I. F. Stone. He was the eldest of four children born to Bernard Feinstein, a dry goods merchant, and Katherine ("Katy") Novack. The parents, immigrants from Russia, had settled in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where at age fourteen Stone started his first publication, The Progress.

In high school Stone worked as the local correspondent for the Camden Evening Courier. After graduating in 1924 he enrolled as a philosophy major at the University of Pennsylvania while supporting himself by working part-time for local papers. In his junior year Stone dropped out of school to become a full-time journalist. He married Esther Roisman, with whom he had three children, on 7 July 1929, and in 1933 they moved to New York City. In the years that followed he published his first books and wrote editorials for the New York Post until 1938, at which point he resigned to protest the paper's increasingly anticommunist tone.

Drawn from an early age to socialism, Stone developed politics that relegated him to working mostly for left-wing publications such as the Nation, where he served as associate editor (1938–1940) and Washington editor (1940–1946). He also worked for PM, a small radical newspaper that sent him in 1946 to report on the status of Jewish refugees. He joined a group that dodged a British blockade and landed in Palestine, where he remained for a time, sending out further dispatches. These experiences led to the books Underground to Palestine (1946; revised edition, 1979) and This Is Israel (1948). During the period from 1942 to 1952 Stone worked variously for PM, the Post, the New York Star, and the Daily Compass. The latter had been founded in 1949 after PM folded, but when it, too, closed its doors in 1952, he found himself with few prospects for work.

In postwar America, charged as it was with anticommunist sentiment, Stone, whose Hidden History of the Korean War (1952) questioned the motivation behind U.S. involvement in the Korean War, found himself more marginalized than ever. Therefore, he decided to start his own independent publication. Using the mailing lists of PM and the Daily Compass, Stone signed up some 5,300 advance subscribers, including Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, for five dollars a year. This helped him offset the initial cost of $6,500, and with help from his wife, he launched I. F. Stone's Weekly on 17 January 1953. From the beginning the paper, a four-page newsletter, was as conservative in appearance as its content was radical. Because he had chosen a place for himself far outside the mainstream, Stone could not undertake the ordinary journalistic practice of developing sources and contacts. This was especially the case inasmuch as I. F. Stone's Weekly concerned itself with the activities of the federal government, and the latter took an extremely dim view of Stone. In 1994 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would reveal that for a period of thirty years, from 1941 to 1971, Stone was under investigation at the behest of the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Although Stone had no direct knowledge of the FBI probe, he was certainly aware that Washington viewed him as persona non grata, and therefore, instead of cultivating contacts in the government, he simply used official documents as his sources.

By that point the Stones had moved to Washington, D.C., from New York City, and this location would prove essential to the work that occupied Stone for the next eighteen years. To do the type of research he needed to do, in that era long before the advent of the Internet, it was necessary to obtain bulky paper documents from the U.S. Government Printing Office and pore over thousands of pages of text. Putting to work his great capacity for remembering details, Stone read over this often quite dull material, and he managed to catch the government in errors, contradictions, and outright lies. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Stone used the Weekly, which he referred to affectionately as a "little flea-bitten publication" and "the journalistic equivalent of the old-fashioned Jewish momma-and-poppa grocery store," to spread his views on everything from segregation to the cold war. Using the government's own material against it, he set out to show that Washington was not being forthright with its own citizens and to make a case for radical changes in racial and economic policy at home as well as military efforts overseas.

From the beginnings of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1954, Stone had been an outspoken critic of the war, and as the conflict escalated, so did his attacks on it in the Weekly. "You can't go on pouring napalm on villages and poison on crops," he wrote in 1963, "uprooting the people and putting them in prison-like compounds, and expect to be liked." He became one of the only American journalists to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson's account of events in the Gulf of Tonkin in early August 1964, an incident in which the North Vietnamese torpedoed an American craft on a spy mission. In addition to investigating public records on the war, Stone visited South Vietnam in 1966. His positions on Vietnam and other issues won him a new generation of admirers, and Stone soon became a counterculture icon on the nation's campuses. He thus fulfilled a prediction he had made once to his wife: "I'm going to graduate from a pariah into a character, and then if I last long enough, I'll be regarded as a national institution." By the end of the 1960s his subscriber base had climbed to more than seventy thousand, and, for the first time, Stone had a measure of economic security and freedom.

By the mid-1960s Stone was reaching a vastly larger audience with articles in the New York Review of Books, pieces that collectively reveal much about both their author and the time. In discussing conservatives or military leaders, naturally, Stone tended to strike a note somewhere between derisive and disgusted, but closer to the former. He called the conservative Republican senator Barry Goldwater, for instance, "Arizona's leading political scientist" and referred to the cowritten memoirs of General Curtis E. LeMay, the former air force chief of staff and an outspoken "hawk" on Vietnam, as "the account [LeMay] helped prepare of his life." As a radical, however, Stone reserved his sharpest criticism for liberals and Democrats. Reviewing two books by Hubert Humphrey in September 1964, he wrote that "during the Democratic convention, they could be read in rolling chairs on Atlantic City's boardwalk, by big business men, without their suffering the slightest ill-effect."

At least as telling as Stone's writing on domestic affairs in the New York Review of Books is his work on international affairs in the same publication. He joined with a host of intellectual celebrities in July 1967 to call for the release of Regis Debray, a wealthy French radical and proponent of violent revolution being held by the government of Bolivia for his activities in their country. The list of signatories was much shorter, just six names, including Stone's, on a January 1969 letter condemning the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, much of which was taken up by caveats making clear the authors' condemnation of U.S. imperialism and undimmed admiration for Communism. With those disclaimers established, they let it be known that "the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is a severe setback for world socialism. It gravely impedes the anti-imperialist struggle … [and] dishonor[s] the Soviet Union."

Some of the old intellectual fashions were changing, and it was now possible for a dedicated leftist to criticize the Soviets, at least for the right reasons. Stone also exemplified the shift in the wind taking place with regard to the Middle East when he reviewed a record of an Arab-Israeli symposium in 1967. For the preceding twenty years, when Israel looked more to the Soviet Union than to the United States for assistance, Stone's and other leftists' support of Israel had still been strong. Things had begun to change, however, after the Six-Day War in 1967 (the third of the wars fought between the Arabs and Israelis over territorial and strategic issues related to the creation of the Israeli state). Stone, who had once strongly identified with Israel, now referred to Israel's "supra-nationalist dream" while condemning "Zionist propaganda."

Stone rounded out his successes of the 1960s with a series of widely read essay collections: The Haunted Fifties (1963), In a Time of Torment (1967), Polemics and Prophecies, 1967–70 (1970), and The Truman Era. It was indicative of Stone's changing fortunes that the last of these volumes, published originally in 1952 to limited response, was reissued in 1972 by Random House, publisher of all his books from 1963 to 1973. In addition, Stone published The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished (1971) and The I. F. Stone's Weekly Reader (1973). By the time of the last book, an anthology of his best work from the Weekly, Stone had closed down his newsletter. Although he had long suffered from poor eyesight and deafness, he had continued to work, but heart trouble in the late 1960s forced him to go to a biweekly schedule; then, in 1971 he ceased publication of the Weekly altogether. In 1971 Stone received the George Polk Memorial Award.

Stone did not remain idle in the last two decades of his life. Long fascinated with ancient Greece, he taught himself Greek in his seventies and applied this knowledge in the research and writing of The Trial of Socrates (1988), a New York Times best-seller. Also during the 1980s he published opinion pieces criticizing the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the Nation and New York Times. Stone died after suffering a heart attack and undergoing surgery in a Boston hospital.

Ignored in the 1950s, Stone lived long enough to become a highly admired grandfatherly figure, affectionately known as "Izzy," in the 1960s and thereafter. To a greater extent than almost any other American intellectual, he served as a bridge between the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s, and he managed to do so without endorsing the sexual and pharmaceutical adventurism of the latter. He exerted an enormous influence on a rising generation of liberals and radicals, many of whom would later take important positions in government, media, and education.

The ultimate impact of Stone's ideas is open to interpretation. Of particular concern is the revelation, which emerged in the late 1990s, that he accepted money from the Soviet government. The information comes from the Venona intercepts of the National Security Agency, which published information gathered and deciphered some fifty years earlier. Communiqués by Soviet agents refer to Stone by the code name Blin ("Pancake"), and one such dispatch, dated 23 October 1944, indicates that "he would not be averse to having a supplementary income." Certainly, the Soviets had reason to believe he would be sympathetic, because he had defended the Stalinist show trials a few years earlier. Records indicate that Stone refused to receive further monies from the Soviets only after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

There are two notable biographies of Stone: Andrew Patner, I. F. Stone: A Portrait (1988), and Robert C. Cottrell, Izzy: A Biography of I. F. Stone (1992). Stone's own work, particularly Underground to Palestine (1946), provides numerous insights regarding his life and ideas. For information on FBI surveillance of Stone, see the Los Angeles Times (25 Sept. 1994). Stone's secret relationship with the Soviet government is discussed in Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, The Venona Secrets: Exposing Soviet Espionage and America's Traitors (2000). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 19 June 1989); The Progressive 53, no. 8 (Aug. 1989): 4; Mother Jones 14, no. 7 (Sept. 1989): 17; and the Utne Reader (Sept.–Oct. 1989).

Judson Knight

I. F. Stone

views updated May 14 2018

I. F. Stone

The American journalist I. F. Stone (1907-1989) published the iconoclastic political newsletter I. F. Stone's Weekly from 1953 to 1971. A critic of the Cold War and McCarthyism, his opposition to the Vietnam War helped to change public opinion in the United States.

Born Isador Feinstein on December 24, 1907, in Philadelphia, I. F. Stone was the son of Bernard and Katherine Feinstein. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who owned a dry goods store in Haddonfield, New Jersey. At age 14 Stone made his journalism debut by publishing a five-cent monthly paper called The Progress. As a journalist he became known for his outspoken but hopeful views.

During high school he covered Haddonfield as a correspondent for the Camden Evening-Courier. After graduating in 1924 he studied philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, but was more interested in the newsroom than in the classroom. While a student he worked full time as a copy editor and rewrite man for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He left school to take a job as a reporter and editor with the Camden Courier-Post. In 1929, Stone married Esther Roisman and together they had three children.

Stone was legendary among American journalists for his intense political commitments and his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs. Beginning with Jack London's novel Martin Eden, Stone's radical, utopian outlook emerged from his independent reading. In the 1930s he supported the Popular Front in its opposition to Adolf Hitler. Although his thinking was never dependent on any party or ideology, he later became isolated during the McCarthy period when his strong views collided with the prevailing consensus.

Following a move to New York City, he served as an editorial writer for the New York Post from 1933 to 1939. His first book, The Court Disposes (1937), defended President Roosevelt's attempts to expand the Supreme Court. In 1938 Stone became an associate editor of the liberal weekly The Nation and in 1940 he became its Washington editor. In Business as Usual (1941) he criticized the country's defense mobilization program.

Although he was not a religious man, Stone was concerned with the political and human rights situation in the Middle East. In 1945 he reported on the Jewish struggle to establish a homeland in Palestine. In 1946 he accompanied Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps as they secretly migrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine. His experience was first printed in the experimental newspaper PM, for which he had begun writing in 1942, and later as Underground to Palestine (1946). In 1948 he covered the Jewish-Arab War which led to the creation of Israel.

After World War II Stone became a relentless critic of the emerging Cold War. When PM folded in 1948, Stone wrote first for the New York Star and then for the Daily Compass. In the fall of 1950 he went to Paris as European correspondent for the Compass. He conducted an investigation into the origins of the Korean War which was published as The Hidden History of the Korean War (1952). Calling it "a case study in the Cold War," it questioned the official explanations for why America entered the Korean War.

While the book was largely ignored, its style became the model for a new publication that Stone started out of professional necessity. In the late fall of 1952 the Daily Compass collapsed and Stone was out of a job. Since many publications would not hire him due to his political convictions, he launched his own political newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. The first issue debuted on January 17, 1953.

To the original 5,300 subscribers of I. F. Stone's Weekly he wrote, "This weekly represents an attempt to keep alive through a difficult period the kind of independent radical journalism represented in various ways by PM, the New York Star, and the Daily Compass."

In its early days, Stone viewed I.F. Stone's Weekly as "the journalistic equivalent of the old-fashioned Jewish momma-and-poppa grocery store." While radical in viewpoint, the newsletter was conservative in format. Since he had no access to inside information, he was forced to rely on official documents for his sources. He quickly acquired a reputation for indicting the government with its own evidence.

Stone's style as a journalist was recognizable not only by his incisive criticism and ability to extract precious information out of material other journalists ignored, but also by his sense of historical perspective. In the 1950s the Weekly covered topics ranging from McCarthyism, defense spending, and the Soviet Union to the Supreme Court and civil rights.

Stone will be long remembered for his sustained criticism of America's involvement in Vietnam, which he began discussing as early as 1954. By 1963 he explained the failed efforts to impose stability on South Vietnam. "You can't go on pouring napalm on villages and poison on crops, uprooting the people and putting them in prison-like compounds and expect to be liked," he wrote.

In 1964, Stone was the only American journalist to challenge President Johnson's account of the fateful Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to obtain the congressional authority to escalate the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he persisted in exposing the horrors and fallacies of America's Vietnam policies. While he relied on public records to support his case, he also took his own trip to South Vietnam in 1966. As public disapproval of the war mounted, the increasingly popular Stone found a growing audience for the Weekly.

Stone once told his wife, "I'm going to graduate from a pariah into a character, and then if I last long enough I'll be regarded as a national institution." By the last years of the Weekly he had over 70,000 subscribers. When a collection of his essays appeared in 1970 he was called one of "the finest fog-cutters in Washington," and he was even saluted by TIME magazine. In 1971 he received a George Polk Memorial award.

Stone closed the Weekly at the end of 1971 because of poor health and became a contributing editor for the New York Review of Books. He soon retired to become a classical scholar, studying the origins of freedom of thought in Athens at the time of Socrates. In 1981 he came out of retirement to write articles for The Nation and the New York Times Op-ed page in response to actions of the Reagan administration.

Stone died on June 18, 1989, at age 81, after he underwent surgery in a Boston Hospital and suffered a heart attack. In September 1994, the FBI released information stating he had been under close scrutiny for the past 30 years. This was not an easy task since the FBI's records listed Stone under many different names. The FBI's file on Stone, a 4 1/4-inch, 1,794-page stack of paper, was released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. Much information is blacked out and 332 pages were withheld. The file reveals as much about bureau operations in those days as about Stone. It also illustrates how difficult it was for the FBI to obtain incriminating evidence against this maverick who for six decades offered opinions on everything political.

Was Stone a Communist? From 1941 to 1971 the FBI tried to find an answer to this question. Stone traveled throughout the United States making speeches to leftist audiences. He began some of his speeches, "Fellow Communists and FBI agents … " He denounced the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Smith Act, which required the registration of foreigners, and the McCarran Act, which required Communists to register as foreign agents. On a passport application he refused, "as a matter of principle," to indicate whether or not he was a Communist. Ultimately, the FBI was never able to confirm that Stone was a committed Communist.

Since 1990, The Nation Institute/I.F. Stone Award has been presented to students who exhibit excellence in journalism. Candidates for the award must embody the same uniquely independent journalistic tendencies, investigative zeal, commitment to human rights, and desire to expose injustice that were I. F. Stone's trademark and legacy.

Further Reading

The best way to understand Stone's contribution as a journalist is to examine the many collections of his writings. They include The Truman Era (1953); The Haunted Fifties (1963); In a Time of Torment (1967); Polemics and Prophecies 1967-70 (1970); and the one-volume anthology The I. F. Stone's Weekly Reader (1973). The best account of his life and style as a journalist is contained in the documentary film "I. F. Stone's Weekly," produced by Gerry Bruck. Updated information can be gathered from the Los Angeles Times "FBI Surveillance of I. F Stone Proved One Thing: Agents Couldn't Spell," September 25, 1994. □