In the dark McCarthy years I.F. Stone said, “Well, I may be just a Red Jew son-of-a-bitch to them, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive.” Stone remains one of the most famous, effective, and witty American muckrakers, a label he considered both a compliment and a restraint. He obtained scoops any one of which would secure the reputation of an ordinary reporter for life. In his early days as a reporter in New York he revealed that the police regarded Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia as a Red. The police commissioner soon resigned. Decades later, when he became a nationally admired and feared adversary of the Washington establishment, he proved, for example, that the government was lying when it claimed underground nuclear tests could not be sensed from far away. Later, he established that the alleged attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, which allowed Lyndon Johnson to bomb North Vietnam, were either insignificant or nonexistent, and in any event seemed to be a response to American provocation.
There are now three biographies of Stone, who for much of his life worked either alone or as if he were alone, and this enormous latest one is a magnificent achievement, comprehensive, well written, and while admiring also scrupulously fair. (To “declare an interest,” the Stones were close friends of my family and for several years during the anti–Vietnam War movement I spoke on platforms with Izzy.)
D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for The Nation, makes no bones about the moments in Stone’s life when he ducked or kept silent on issues that collided with his deeply held beliefs. He kept silent on loyalist outrages in Spain and on the Israeli massacre of Arabs at Deir Yassin, although he conceded later this was shameful. He was silent on the shameful internment during World War II of 110,000 American citizens of Japanese descent. Easily charmed, he said good things about Cuba, failing to criticize the repression under Castro’s dictatorship. (Part of the attraction was Che Guevara, “the first man I had ever met whom I thought not just handsome but beautiful.”) He fell for John F. Kennedy too, but only briefly. Stone had been hopeful about the Soviet Union, but as with Cuba and Kennedy he changed his mind and admitted he had been mistaken. “I have no inhibitions about changing my mind,” he said. Always a radical, he was critical of liberals, who he often found were trimmers, weaklings, and liars, although he never hesitated to praise them when he thought they had done the right thing. Throughout his life, his view was, in one of Guttenplan’s deft phrases, “Never turn your back on a liberal in a tight corner.”
I learned a great deal from Guttenplan’s book, not least about some aspects of Stone’s character that I only partially understood. Like many radicals he could be fearless when some group, even a small one, or principle came under attack. But in personal matters he could be insensitive…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.