For years, the right has tried to tar I.F. Stone, one of left journalism’s greatest heroes and an icon of independent reporting, as a spy for the Soviet Union (Nation, 8/31/06). Now two right-wing historians and an ex-KGB officer are back with more assertions that Stone secretly worked for the Soviet intelligence service.
Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev published an article on Commentary’s website (5/09), adapted from a new book, headlined “I.F. Stone, Soviet Agent—Case Closed.” “Until now,” they wrote, “the evidence was equivocal and subject to different interpretations. No longer.”
What is this case-closing, unequivocal evidence? It’s the notes Vassiliev says he took when the former spy was allowed to examine Soviet intelligence files in the early 1990s, in notebooks he left behind in Moscow and retrieved in 2002. Now, in 2009, he notices that they contain a handful of references to a famous radical hated by the right.
Aside from the inherent dubiousness of evidence that no one else can see, such information should be approached with skepticism. Vassiliev and his co-authors give no acknowledgment of something you don’t need to be a KGB veteran to understand: that the reports sent back by intelligence officers to headquarters are the statements of employees who have every interest in impressing their bosses. When those employees and bosses are Stalinist apparatchiks, that should be doubly obvious.
So bearing in mind the limitations of the evidence, what do the files show? Not much, actually. You can sort it into three categories: how the files refer to Stone, what they say he did and what they say he told them.
First, there’s a note from April 1936 describing Stone as a “lead” and giving him the codename “Blin” (Russian for “Pancake”). A month later, the files report that “relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work.” Then the Commentary writers report “a note listing him as one of the New York station’s agents in late 1938,” and finally, in 1945, he’s described as one of Soviet intelligence’s “agent capabilities.”
Case closed, right? Except an “agent” in spy-speak is not someone formally working for an intelligence agency—those are “officers”—but rather a contact whom an officer thinks can be in some way useful, even if they don’t know the ultimate purpose of the favors they’re doing. Vassiliev and co. acknowledge this late in their piece, when they note that the 1945 memo also mentions columnist Walter Lippmann as an “agent capability,” but admit that Lippman knew his intelligence contact “only as a Soviet journalist with whom he traded insights and information.” The article says that “Lippmann’s inclusion in the list…makes it impossible to determine the nature of Stone’s relationship to the KGB in 1945”*; more accurately, Lippman’s absence from the list would have allowed Commentary to claim that the list proved something that it obviously doesn’t.
That’s what the writers do with the phrase “normal operational work”—which they gloss as meaning “Stone had become a fully active agent.” An agent like Lippmann was an agent? Your guess is as good as theirs—or maybe better, if you don’t have an obvious axe to grind.
Speaking of work, what kind of work do the files have Stone doing? The article takes a digression into the kinds of things that journalists might do for spy agencies—planting false stories, slanting the news, helping to find people who will steal documents and so on—and then says that “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of such tasks.” But the “tasks” the writers say they actually have evidence of are a lot less sexy.
“Pancake established contact with Dodd,” they quote one memo—referring to William E. Dodd, Jr., the left-leaning son of the U.S. ambassador to Germany. They also paraphrase another memo describing Stone as “providing [Dodd] with a contact in Berlin when he went to join his father at the embassy.” That’s it—those are all the “tasks” they have Stone performing. Needless to say, one can meet up with someone at another person’s suggestion, or introduce two acquaintances, without knowing that you’re doing so on behalf of an intelligence agency.
Then there’s the information that the Soviet spies said that they got from Stone. In the memo that reported that Stone had begun “normal operational work,” all the spy said he found out was that Stone “went to Washington on assignment for his newspaper” (i.e., the New York Post, then a pro-FDR, anti-Communist paper). Not a lot to show for “operational work.”
A later dispatch finds Stone more talkative:
Put aside the fact that in a sensible world, allegations that a major news outlet had been pushing a pro-Hitler editorial line in order to protect its parent company’s economic relationship with Nazi Germany would be bigger news than any alternative journalist’s supposed Communist ties. Is there really anything in that paragraph that seems surprising in the context of a conversation between a reporter and a foreign government source? Should Stone have treated what he had heard about Hearst’s Nazi sympathies as some kind of state secret? If so, why?
Likewise with the only other substantive information Commentary describes the Soviets getting from “Pancake”: “Stone also passed on to the KGB some information Dodd picked up from the American military attaché in Berlin about possible German military moves against the USSR and the name of a suspected pro-Nazi embassy employee.” This is supposed to be seen as inherently incriminating behavior, telling someone you heard Hitler was going to attack their country, or identifying a Third Reich sympathizer in the U.S. government. Yet journalists do often talk to intelligence sources, with both sides hoping to gain information; you have to prove that more than that was happening to show that Stone was not acting as a journalist in these conversations.
Discovering the truth about I.F. Stone in the Soviets’ spy files is about as likely as finding it in J. Edgar Hoover’s. In the latter you can learn that “he is of Jewish descent and…very arrogant, very loud spoken, wears thick, heavy glasses and is most obnoxious personally”—though you can also read a pro-Moscow acquaintance complaining in 1945 on an FBI wiretap: “Stone doesn’t get that sense of defending the Soviet Union all the time. How can a real radical, or liberal even, not have that?”
These quotes come from D.D. Guttenplan’s new biography of Stone, American Radical, which unlike Commentary recognizes that if you want to understand Stone’s feelings about Soviet Communism, or anything else, the best place to start is with Stone’s writings, published and unpublished, which were voluminous on virtually every subject of the writer’s extended era.
In the 1930s, Stone tended to defend the U.S. Communist Party as a legitimate part of the American left, and presented the Soviet Union as an important if flawed ally against fascism. “The Russia of 1937, though still in many respects absolutist, as all Russian governments have been for centuries, is nevertheless the scene of the greatest social experiment of our time,” he wrote in the Nation (11/6/37)—though he criticized Stalin’s “hunt for and extermination of suspected dissident elements that has left the outside world bewildered.”
His attitudes were jolted by the Hitler/Stalin pact in August 1939. “No more fellow traveling,” he wrote to a more CP-oriented friend. “I’m off the Moscow axis.” When Stone repeated his famous maxim, “All governments lie,” he no doubt had the memory of this betrayal in the back of his mind.
But whether you find Stone’s positions in the ’30s admirable, understandable or reprehensible, there’s no doubt that they were his positions. He was never a card-carrying Communist, seemingly less for ideological than for temperamental reasons: “The idea of being subject to party discipline and told what to do, or what to think, or what to write was absolutely repugnant to me,” he said decades later. Nothing that Commentary claims to have seen in the Moscow files casts doubt on this assertion.
* Commentary uses the acronym KGB to mean Soviet intelligence, though the KGB was not founded until 1954; in the 1930s, the Soviet spy agency was the OGPU. It’s a bit like the relationship between the U.S.’s OSS and CIA, but you wouldn’t call someone who helped the OSS a “CIA agent.”