I.F. Stone Was No Spy

Today's news cycle brings "proof" that legendary journalist I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy. Stone's friend and Daily Beast contributor Eric Alterman dissects a decades-old tale that won't go away.

04.22.09 1:16 PM ET

Well, here we go again.

Conservatives have been trying to pin the “spy” label on the legendary independent scholar/journalist—and proto-blogger— I.F. Stone for nearly two decades. They began not long after his June 1989 death, seizing on an ambiguous statement from a cagey former KGB agent named Oleg Kalugin to a British journalist about their conversations together. Back then, Herbert Romerstein, an ex-staffer of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, insisted that Stone had been on the KGB payroll "for more than two decades." Reed Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media—which is to actual accuracy in media what the Holy Roman Empire was to holiness, Roman-ness, and empires—added that Stone had been "paid with Kremlin gold" for "at least 15 years." These charges, Kalugin later qualified, to me and to several other journalists, were false. All that had happened was that Stone had had lunch a few times with a man whom he had not known was a KGB agent. Incredibly, for an American journalist, he actually insisted on picking up the tab.

So what do we have? A man of avowed anti-Fascist sympathies, still-foolishly naïve about Stalin and the Soviet Union, agreed on a couple of occasions to help those whom he believed to be actually fighting fascism, while his own country, still mired in childish isolationism, looked away.

When Myra McPherson published her biography of Stone two years ago, Paul Berman, the onetime leftist intellectual who was among the most prominent of “liberal” supporters of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, writing in The New York Times Book Review, seized on Kalugin’s remarks to the author to level the charge once more. It was an odd, almost fantastical reading of what McPherson had actually written, as she pointed out in a letter to the editor. She wrote “Your reviewer, Mr. Paul Berman, refers to Oleg Kalugin continually as a KGB agent—never once acknowledging, as the book repeatedly notes, that his cover was as the Russian press attache. This was the only capacity in which Stone and other American reporters—who also talked with him in the 1960s—knew him.” McPherson also pointed out that, according to the KGB’s own files, Walter Lippmann—whom no one at all considers a spy—“offered much more useful information to the Soviets than Stone ever did.” I criticized Berman’s errors here.

Now Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, working with ex-KGB agent, Alexander Vassiliev, have entered the fray with an article in Commentary magazine, drawn from their new book, Spies. They agree that until now, “There was no firm evidence that Stone had agreed to cooperate with the KGB.” Nevertheless, they insist that long before these events took place, “from 1936 to 1939, I.F. Stone was a Soviet spy.”

The authors do have some documents upon which to base their claim so let’s clarify a few matters. First off, definitions. defines “ spy” as follows (in its first definition): "a person employed by a government to obtain secret information or intelligence about another, usually hostile, country, esp. with reference to military or naval affairs."

Now, what according to the authors did Stone actually do during his period as a “spy?” Well—based on notes in the KGB archives taken by Vassiliev which are posted online here—no one else has claimed to see the originals—Stone is identified by Soviet agents as having “assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of such tasks: talent-spotting, acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data the KGB found interesting.”

First off, none of those activities comport with my—or’s definition of the word “spy.” Stone did not obtain any secret information of any kind, nor even any government information of any kind, much less that related to military or naval affairs. He had access to none during the course of his work as a well-known radical journalist and there is no indication whatsoever that he ever attempted to secure it surreptitiously. (In fact, Stone’s famous methodology—one that has inspired tens of thousands of bloggers today—was to find information about official malfeasance that was available on the record in published government documents, but that went largely ignored by the then-MSM.)

If Stone did not spy in our traditional understanding of the word, what did he actually do to inspire the authors’ charges? Well, given the way espionage-related archival research works, and the natural financial and bureaucratic incentives that spies have to exaggerate or even invent the appearance of recruitment where it does not actually take place—it’s hard to say exactly for sure. My reading of what the authors say they have—and remember, nobody else is in a position to verify the former KGB agent’s notes—is that Stone had a few conversations with Soviet agents who were working undercover in order to help them identify people in Berlin who might be helpful in opposing Hitler and the Nazis. In one case he offered his opinions on Hearst’s Berlin correspondent, and in another, he gave the name of the contact to the son of the American ambassador in Berlin who might be able to provide more information and may have passed on his information about possible German military moves against the USSR and the name of a suspected pro-Nazi embassy employee. That’s it. He is not recorded to have received any payments and there is no evidence that he knew he was speaking with intelligence agents. (He was, after all, a journalist; sharing information was actually his job.)

According to the authors.”There is only one other reference to I.F. Stone’s cooperation with the KGB in the 1930s, a note listing him as one of the New York station’s agents in late 1938….these 1944 and 1945 notes do not indicate that Stone was an active KGB agent or even in direct contact with it after 1938, and given Stone’s initial anger over the Nazi-Soviet Pact, it is likely that he broke relations with the KGB in late 1939.” They do not add that for literally decades after World War II, the FBI maintained a constant watch on Stone’s actions, and particularly during the height of the McCarthy-era hysteria, were never able to locate a single questionable action from the standpoint of his loyalty to his country or his principles.

So what do we have? I think the following: A man of avowed anti-Fascist sympathies, and to my mind, still-foolishly naïve about Stalin and the Soviet Union, agreed on a couple of occasions to help those whom he believed to be actually fighting fascism, while his own country, still mired in childish isolationism, preferred to look away. He stopped, however, immediately following the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, when he wrote to a friend that there would be “no more fellow traveling” and employed his column in The Nation—where I am also a columnist—to condemn Stalin as “the Moscow Machiavelli who suddenly found peace as divisible as the Polish plains and marshes.” Given what we now know about Stalin's horrific penchant for mass murder—every bit as bad as Hitler's—Stone's cooperation with whomever he thought he was cooperating with looks like a more significant moral misjudgment than it must have appeared at the time. But keep in mind that Stone’s decision to aid the Soviets against the Nazis was exactly the same one made by the United States government after Hitler’s Barbarossa invasion. Keep in mind, again, that before that, Stone, like many liberals of both the pro-and anti-Soviet variety, were in a panic about the march of Nazism across Europe and the unwillingness of Western governments to stand up to it. Think about how many lives would have been saved if more Americans had thought like Stone did, and made the deal-with-the-devil that we were eventually forced to make after Hitler had succeeded in slaughtering so many more millions under his rule.

I would not argue that what the authors have found—assuming it is both accurate and authentic—does not affect the historical record at all. Stone and I were close friends during the final decade or so of his life and he never mentioned anything of this to me. He knew I was a strong anti-Communist and I assume he would have expected me to disapprove. What’s more, he kept it secret from everyone, insofar as we are aware (and again, assuming it is accurate). I can understand and forgive this. Pre-World War II relations with the Soviets were an extremely complex and sensitive business for leftists of all persuasions, even before the Red Scare, and requires an understanding of the historical context to understand the various nuances his decisions implied. I cannot say for sure what I, personally, would have done in his place. But I do know that nothing the authors claim to have uncovered would be used by a careful historian, unmotivated by either anti-Stone or anti-liberal animus, to declare Izzy Stone to have been a “spy.”

They say, “case closed.” I say, lucky for them that it's impossible to libel a dead man.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.