• Email
  • Print

Common Sense

In a Time of Torment

by I.F. Stone
Random House, 448 pp., $1.95 (paper)

I.F. Stone is unfailingly contemporary, but he is a man of the Enlightenment. For he has faith in Reason, which most moderns do not, and he confesses to moral passion, which is unfashionable. Though he looks with distaste on most of what goes on in the United States today, he is outraged rather than desperate, and he has never lost confidence in the essential virtue and the ultimate good sense of his countrymen. He shares, too, something of the Enlightenment’s simplistic view of human nature and society, its tendency to see the world in terms of reason and folly, tyranny and liberty, virtue and vice. And he clings, somewhat wistfully, to an old-fashioned confidence in political solutions—a confidence always more pronounced in the New World than in the Old, but no longer very pronounced anywhere. He is, in short, a modern Tom Paine, celebrating Common Sense and the Rights of Man, hammering away at tyranny injustice, exploitation, deception, and chicanery with an eloquence that appeals even to the sophisticated who are most suspicious of eloquence. He shares, too, Paine’s impatience with the slow processes of history; his deep suspicion of men in power, or in office; his talent for invective and epigram. He is the last of that long succession of radical pamphleteers which includes Paine and Garrison and Theodore Parker, Henry George and E.A. Ross and Henry Demarest Lloyd, Upton Sinclair and Lincoln Steffens and the Rev. A. J. Muste—crusaders all, champions of lost causes, never happier than when they had a fight on their hands, never more effective than when the causes they championed were desperate.

Like Tom Paine again, I.F. Stone is very much a solitary man, not in the least embittered or cantankerous, certainly not “alienated,” to use that popular cant word, but distrustful of organizations and technology and bigness. It is of course absurd that he should not be on the editorial staff of one of the great national papers—The New York Times, perhaps, or the Washington Post or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (the only newspaper with an editorial page as good as that of Stone’s Weekly)—but it is probable that he would not function well as part of a large and impersonal organization. His own Weekly is a kind of running intellectual autobiography, and therein lies much of its merit, for it reflects one mind and that reflection is steady and harmonious. This is all to the good, for it restores our faith in the ability of the individual to make an impression on American life; like Walter Lippmann, like Ralph Nader, like Senator Eugene McCarthy, Mr. Stone demonstrates that the individual still counts.

For fifteen years now Mr. Stone has been publishing his own paper, a modest affair of four pages of editorial comment, and this little news sheet, with a circulation of forty or fifty thousand, has had over the years an influence among thinking people greater than that of those inflated weeklies whose circulation floats into the millions. For ten years Mr. Stone hammered away at whatever current injustice seemed most outrageous, whatever idiocy most titillating, but with only modest success. In the past five or six years—the period embraced in this collection of his essays, he has found an issue made to order for his special talents, and has perfected those talents to do justice to the issue: the Vietnam folly. Now he has achieved not only success but respectability—this book bears the imprint, after all, of a publisher of eminence who is connected with one of the most powerful of American corporations.

The center of gravity in this book, and in American life for the past five years, is of course the Vietnam war. There are other causes and campaigns—the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, the near-catastrophe of Cuban missiles, the frustration of the Alliance for Progress, the purblind folly of our China policy, or of our non-China non-policy, the American Dilemma which has now become the American Tragedy; there is room even for some unkind words about Senator Fulbright. A miscellaneous list, this, but all of the items on it are characterized by the same misunderstandings and misconceptions of the nature of American power; and all have this in common, that they defy solution so long as the energies and resources of the nation are monopolized by the war in Vietnam.

So it is Vietnam that dominates and permeates this book as it does our politics, our economy, our society, our morality. When Mr. Stone addresses himself to the war he is most himself, and therefore at his best. The War, and its sponsor and leader President Johnson, are to Mr. Stone what the Redcoats and George III were to Tom Paine, and he is as relentless, as implacable, and as unforgiving toward the President as Paine was toward “the royal brute of Britain.”

It is not the war as a military adventure that engages Mr. Stone’s almost convulsive interest, but what it represents in the American government and military, and what it is doing to the American character. Lord Bolingbroke defined history as philosophy teaching by examples; that is Mr. Stone’s idea of history, too: he provides the examples and formulates the philosophy. There is no need now merely to restate the errors, follies, deceptions, blunders, immoralities that attended the war in Vietnam from the very beginning; but there is need to explain them, fix responsibility for them, and draw lessons from them. This is what Mr. Stone is about, and there is no one better at the job than he is. For he is in the muckraker tradition—the best tradition of American journalism, and for detection, exposure, and surgery he has very special qualifications.

Perhaps the most engaging of these is that he is not easily fooled, nor easily put upon. He was not taken in by the Bay of Pigs or by the missile crisis, which he interprets, not incorrectly, as a contest in vanities. He was not taken in by Tonkin Gulf but saw almost at once that it was a put-up job. He was not taken in by LBJ or by his rapt biographers, like William S. White, who presented him as a mixture of Jackson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. He was not taken in by Secretary Rusk, but remembered that Rusk had supported MacArthur against Truman and had described China as a colony of Moscow. He was not taken in by Hubert Humphrey, but remarked acidly in 1964 that “Lyndon Johnson had picked a running mate almost his equal in the art of sweet-talking.” and that Johnson and Humphrey had turned into Siamese twins.

He is not overawed by authority nor intimidated by power nor seduced by social or diplomatic flattery, and he is seldom to be seen in the salons of Washington society. He has no respect for the military and only contempt for military or civilian intelligence—that is, for the dozen or so Intelligence agencies that have for years stumbled over each other in their eagerness to please their superiors and deceive the American people, and have ended by deceiving only themselves. He has the instinctive distrust of the eighteenth-century American for everything official and for almost everything big—the Presidency, the State Department, the Military, the Business Establishment, even the Academy, which has not rallied to him. How many honorary degrees does he have? How many libraries subscribe to his Weekly?

Memory is another of Mr. Stone’s special qualifications, a memory capacious and tenacious and often, it must be said, unforgiving; amiable enough in most matters, Mr. Stone is not prepared to let bygones be bygones, as Mr. Humphrey and Mr. Nixon asked, when the welfare of the nation, and of other nations, is at stake. With memory goes persistence; Mr. Stone does not mind worrying a subject until he has worn down opposition and battered it into agreement. He does not scatter his shot, but keeps his big guns trained on strategic spots: in this he is like Walter Lippmann. In one other quality, too, he resembles Lippmann: he is durable. He does not flag, he does not give up; as Justice Holmes said of John Marshall, one of his most important qualities is that he is there.

All this sounds almost portentously solemn. Mr. Stone is neither portentous nor solemn. He has something of Franklin’s sense of mischief, and something of Voltaire’s corrosive wit. When Robert McCloskey was assigned the task of announcing to the world that the United States was bombing North Vietnam, Mr. Stone announced that the president “had the office boy declare war”—an interesting amendment to the Constitution. After President Johnson’s almost hallucinatory report on the Manila Conference, Stone observed that “LBJ in the world’s most indefatigable pacifist Quoting Secretary Rusk’s fatuous statement that every small state had a right to be unmolested by its great neighbors Stone noted that “this will add to the Secretary’s fame as a humerist in Guatemala and Cuba.” Of the Laotian army which, under our tutelage burgeoned from five to 121 generals—the highest ratio of generals to soldiers in the world, Stone observed, “The one certain fact about this gravy train army is that he can’t fight.” And bemused by Thoedore White’s inability to say anything critical of anyone in power, he concluded that “a man who can be so unviversally admiring need never lunch alone.”

This is good fun, but Mr. Stone is in earnest. For he is, first and last,a moralist, and here, again, he is in the American grain from Paine to Upton Sinclair and beyond. He has an old-fashioned passion for justice, decency, integrity, and honor and, what is more, he insists on the same standards for men in public as in private life, just as he asks the same standards for the United States as for other nations. He was one of the first to see that the Vietnam war was the great corrupter, that, more than any other war in which we have been engaged, it corrupted all who were involved in it—the government, the military, business, labor, even the university. He denounced the war for its habitual immoralities—the flouting of international law, of the Geneva Convention, the ruthless and indiscriminate bombing and burning, the destruction of the civilian population—all the familiar things. But he saw beyond this to the deeper and more terrible corruption of the American character implicit in the violation of the great moral law that all men have equal worth in the sight of God. This is Kant’s categorical imperative, now all but universally flouted in America; it is what Albert Schweitzer warned against in his Philosophy of Civilization:

Whenever there is lost the consciousness that every man is an object or concern for us just because he is a man, civilization and morals are shaken, and the advance to fully developed inhumanity is only a question of time…. We have talked for decades with ever increasing lightmindedness about war and conquest, as if these were merely operations on a chessboard; how was this possible save as the result of a tone of mind which no longer pictured to itself the fate of individuals, but thought of them only as figures or objects belonging to the material world?

This was written before Dresden and Hiroshima, before the perfection of the hydrogen bomb and the emergence of the game theorists as advisers to Presidents. It was a prophecy of what the Vietnam war would bring. For we have, now, such a government as can act on the notion that American lives are the only lives that count. We have Congressmen who can say that the life of one American “boy” (it is always boys, in Vietnam, but if they are boys they ought to be home at school) is worth more than all of Vietnam; we have air force generals who think it good strategy to bomb a country “back to the stone-age”; we have a President and a President-elect who would rest the decision to stop bombing the North solely on the question whether such a decision would “cost the lives of American boys.”

Here, then, is a great journalist writing brilliantly and eloquently about a great theme. Yet his fame presents a paradox. He seems to win all the arguments, but to make converts only among those already prepared to agree with him. He enjoys not success, but only succes d’estime. His predecessors—Tom Paine, Theodore Parker, Lincoln Steffens—got not only fame but results, quite tangible results in national policies which we can, with some confidence, trace to them. I. F. Stone is every day vindicated in his insights and his judgments, but the vindication comes not in consequence of the force of his arguments, but for other reasons. We have now, at last, decided to stop all bombing of North Vietnam, but it is not to be supposed that the President or his military advisers were influenced by Mr. Stone, or by that public opinion which Mr. Stone represents. Mr. Bundy, just the other day, confessed his agreement with Mr. Stone’s conclusions—but not with his arguments: we should stop the bombing and end the war, but we were quite right to have bombed in the first place. Our present policy is not to re-examine our premises, but to cut our losses; and what is more we expect some kind of moral approval for this essentially vulgar conclusion. Doubtless that will be forthcoming; we can then conclude that we have “fulfilled our commitments” to Vietnam and can retire from the scene “with honor.” If that happens, the future will belong not to I. F. Stone but to Mr. Bundy. We will have learned from this tragic conflict a few practical lessons useful for the immediate present, but no moral lessons to guide our future.

  • Email
  • Print