I.F. Stone, journalist hero – and KGB spy

I. F. Stone

On this site we’ve discussed Oliver Stone and Sharon Stone, but one Stone we haven’t yet gotten around to is the journalist I.F. Stone (1907-89). Which is odd, because this particular Stone could very well have been the mascot of this website, a dubious honor we awarded at the outset to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent who systematically whitewashed Stalin’s crimes and sang his praises in America’s newspaper of record.

It is no exaggeration to say that Stone was revered. In 1999, New York University’s journalism department named his newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which he published from 1953 to 1971, the second most important American journalistic periodical of the twentieth century. In 2008, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University began awarding the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Independence: that was the word they invariably used when describing Stone. That, and words like “rectitude” and “probity.” His New York Times obituary began as follows: “I. F. Stone, the independent, radical pamphleteer of American journalism….” It went on to call him a “maverick” and praise his “integrity.” The London Times entitled its obituary “I.F. Stone: Spirit of America’s Independent Journalism”; the headline in the Los Angeles Times obit called him “The Conscience of Investigative Journalism.” A posthumous editorial in the Boston Globe began with this statement: “For thousands of American journalists, I.F. Stone represented an ideal.”

In fact, he was a KGB spy.

A brief bio: the son of Russian immigrants (his birth name was Isidor Feinstein), Stone quit college to become a journalist. He served for a time as editor of the New York Post, then worked as a staffer and/or contributor to The Nation, New Republic, PM, and other left-wing political journals before starting his own weekly. Throughout his long career, he was known for his strong leftist leanings.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, he was an ardent supporter of the newly born State of Israel, but later became one of its fiercest critics and an outspoken champion of the Palestinian cause. He was also a vocal opponent of the Korean War and Vietnam War. Nobody who read his work could mistake him for anything but a far leftist with (usually) an obvious soft spot for the Soviet Union.

John Earl Haynes

All along, a few canny observers suspected that Stone was working for the Kremlin. In 1992, not long after the fall of the Soviet Union, credible-sounding reports began circulating to the effect that Stone had been a KGB man. John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev finally coughed up the goods in their 2009 book Spies, about KGB operatives in America. Stone, it turned out, had been on the Kremlin’s payroll as a full-fledged spy beginning in 1936 and ending perhaps in 1938, perhaps several years later. (On this question the records have yet to yield a definitive answer.) “Stone assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of tasks,” wrote Haynes and his co-authors, “ranging from doing some talent spotting acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.”

In other words, this widely venerated pillar of integrity and personification of independence was in fact a secret Kremlin operative. Spies established this fact beyond question in 2009. It is interesting to note that this information has not made much of a dent in Stone’s reputation among true believers on the left. Harvard did not change the name of its medal for journalistic independence, and none of the people who have won the award since 2009 have declined to accept it.

Then again, many of those winners – including Putin apologist Robert Parry, socialist radio host Amy Goodman, and Nation editor and publisher Victor Navasky – are precisely the sort of “journalists” who wouldn’t much mind having their name associated with that of a Soviet spy. Which is precisely why we’re here at this website, writing about these unpleasant people and their unpleasant antics day after day.  

Not traitors, but “idealists”: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

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Ethel and Julius Rosenberg

We’ve been looking at the story of Soviet atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – and at the decades of posthumous apologetics and admiration in which their memory was swathed by the American left.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, as we’ve seen, documents were released proving beyond all doubt that – their passionate defenders to the contrary – the Rosenbergs were, indeed, spies for Stalin. Both of them. Dedicated, ruthless, rabid. More devoted to the most bloodthirsty murderer in history than to their two young sons.

The mass media, to a remarkable degree, ignored this evidence.

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Josef Stalin

But not everybody did. In the 2009 book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which drew heavily on them, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vasseliev established beyond question that, in the words of Ron Radosh, author of The Rosenberg Files and an expert on all things Rosenberg, “the Rosenbergs were indeed atomic spies; that the military data their network stole seriously compromised America’s security, that Ethel Rosenberg was involved with her husband from the start and worked to recruit others to the network; that Julius recruited a previously unknown atomic spy, Russell McNutt, and that their primary loyalty was to the Soviet Union and not to their own country.” In the couple of years that followed, more and more material was made public, and more and more books were published, that documented in greater and greater detail the Rosenbergs’ actions on behalf of the Kremlin.

How did the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, react to this tsunami of revelation? In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Robert finally admitted his father’s guilt – kind of. Meanwhile, he reasserted his mother’s innocence. “Strangely,” wrote Radosh, “after having said that his father was guilty, Robert Meeropol makes a statement that is not only a backtracking to his own admission, but is flatly wrong.” Robert Meeropol’s statement read as follows:

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Ron Radosh

Ethel was not a spy and Julius was ignorant of the atomic bomb project. They were innocent of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and they were fighting for their lives. It would have been next to impossible for them to explain to their children and supporters the subtle distinction between not being guilty of stealing atomic secrets and blanket innocence. Given that, I can understand the course of action they took from a political standpoint.

As Radosh put it, this desperate effort to exculpate the Rosenbergs, and to find some way of making their last-minute declaration to their children of their total innocence seem anything other than an outright lie, “makes no sense whatsoever….the secrets they stole were many, they helped serve the Soviet military machine, and they were classified and not meant to be given to any power, especially to the Soviets. Hence Meeropol’s so-called distinction is a distinction without a difference.”

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A Cuban stamp marking the 25th anniversary of the “murder” of the Rosenbergs

Meeropol claimed in his statement that he remained proud of his parents, maintaining that they had “acted with integrity, courage and in furtherance of righteous ideals, and passed their passion for social justice on to me and my brother.” Radosh’s response: “Their would-be integrity and courage consisted of lying about what they were doing, sacrificing their own children for Stalin’s cause, [and] betraying their own country” in the name of such ideals as “forced collectivization of the land, the murder of hundreds of thousands, the establishment of the Gulag, [and] the path to aggressive war in the new post-war period.”

Bingo. And yet the institutionalized far left continued to line up behind the Meeropols, agreeing that Julius was guilty and Ethel innocent and joining in Robert Meeropol’s insistence that, guilt or innocence aside, his parents deserved respect for their “ideals.”

More tomorrow.