If I.F. Stone wasn't a spy, he was the next best thing.
Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By JUDY BACHRACH
The Best of I.F. Stone
All Governments Lie
Simultaneously, and with considerable fanfare, two books relating to the influential left-wing journalist I.F. "Izzy" Stone have recently appeared. Stone, who was until 1971 the sole and much-beloved proprietor of his small eponymous weekly, was by reputation a magnificent figure: Independent, irascible, fierce, a model for generations of journalists--and best of all, sometimes right.
The onetime Stone protégé Peter Osnos, founder of the publishing company that has just brought out 65 of Stone's essays, honors that reputation in two ways: first by pointing out in his introduction to The Best of I.F. Stone how much Stone admired him, Peter Osnos ("You sure are a pistol, Pete. I never should have let you go"). And then by recalling a 1989 postmortem cartoon by Pat Oliphant depicting Stone, notebook in hand, standing before a weary St. Peter, who complains to an unseen Deity: "He doesn't want to come in--he'd rather hang around out here and keep things honest."
Similarly, Myra MacPherson, in her Stone hagiography--essentially a companion volume; Osnos himself calls it "first-rate"--is equally vehement regarding Stone's gift for inspiration, perhaps with reason. Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller and Jules Feiffer, she points out, were all readers of Stone. In the '50s, Stone attacked Joseph McCarthy; in the '60s, he was embraced by college activists with whom he shared an active loathing of the Vietnam war: "Self-deception has been the characteristic of our leadership in this war from its beginning," he wrote.
It is easy to remember Izzy for these things alone. "The 20th century's premier independent journalist," MacPherson calls him. "His work helps evaluate the best and the worst in today's journalism. Although Stone inspired many, he was too much of an original to be fully emulated."
If MacPherson is adamant on the subject of Stone's honesty and inimitability, it is partly because of recent journalistic infractions, which the author enumerates bitterly and without many servile concessions to grammar or polish: "A compliant White House press corps, known to some in the trade as 'access whores,'" she writes; "'liars for hire' paid by the administration to tout its programs, deferential acceptance of administration fibs--all are disgraceful capitulations to power. . . . A miracle would be the day that the media did not show up for hollow photo-ops such as 'Mission Accomplished.'"
But let's set aside questions of style, clearly neither the book's strong suit nor its focus. As it happens, MacPherson has a point. Those writers who suspend critical judgment in return for access or (even worse) secret sums dispensed by governments are a disgrace to the profession, and there have been too many in recent times to dismiss them as aberrations. Unfortunately in this regard, too, Izzy was a pioneer, as I discovered.
For years, there had been rumors floating about Stone, suspicions that he might have had quiet dealings with emissaries from the Soviet Union--stories unmentioned by Osnos, and which MacPherson in her biography on every possible occasion calls "lies." The promulgators of these lies are, to her mind, alternately members of "the rabid right" or "neocons." And, of course, many of Stone's detractors do, in fact, belong to one or the other of these groups. "After Stone was safely dead," the author adds, these parties "displayed their estimable courage by slandering Stone as a Soviet spy."
But the use of the word "spy" is a red herring (in the same way it would be incorrect to say Stone was a Mafia don or a cat burglar. These were not his failings.). Nonetheless it is instructive, and perhaps revealing, to read Stone's 1953 description of America's reaction to Stalin's death, which he considered insufficiently elaborate and lacking in pomp: "The stress put by the White House on the fact that its condolences were merely 'official' was small-minded and unworthy of a great power," he wrote. "Magnanimous salute was called for on such an occasion." Why? Because "every great leader is the reflection of the people he leads and Stalin in this sense was Russia."
It is not the right alone that marvels these days at Izzy's call for magnanim ity on such an occasion. World War II had been won with Russia's help--eight years earlier. Who needed to honor the bastard now that he was dead?
As it turns out, maybe Izzy did feel that need just then to honor Stalin, and maybe we need to explore why. Three years later he would be far tougher on Nikita Khrushchev ("more crude and vulgar than Stalin") and also on Russia. And the question is, why? Why this flip-flopping? Was there an element of subterfuge in Stone's life? Could some of the old suspicions be true?
The problem here, and the difficulty MacPherson shrilly and desperately tries to shout down, is this: There is no reason for Stone's main accuser, the guy who knows, to lie. He is neither a rabid rightist nor a neoconservative. And he did not dislike Izzy Stone. To the contrary.
Thanks to a trusted mutual friend, I spoke extensively on two occasions (one very recent) to Oleg Kalugin, whom MacPherson describes in enchantingly minimalist fashion as a "former Soviet agent." Actually, after his stint in the Soviet Union's Washington embassy, Kalugin went on to become a KGB major-general and its chief of foreign counterintelligence--from which perch, of course, he had access to even more extensive information concerning agents abroad.
While he was posted in Washington, his cover was press attaché, and it was in this capacity, Kalugin tells me, that he accepted one of his early American assignments. In 1966, a cable arrived from Moscow ordering him to re-recruit, if possible, the journalist Stone, "WHO USED TO BE OUR SOURCE FOR MANY YEARS," read the instructions.
Stone, said Kalugin, had begun cooperating with the Soviet Union in 1936, but stopped, furious, after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. This, the former spy added, despite the fact that, until then, Izzy had been paid for his work by the Soviets. In our conversations, Kalugin was very specific about the limits of his knowledge: "I do not know how much money he took. But he took some money, I know that for sure," he said.
However, when Kalugin made it his business to charm Stone back into the fold three decades ago, there was no need for money to change hands. The KGB agent was deft and seductive in his methods, his pitch a striking combination of passion and disenchantment, tempered by optimism for the future (Kalugin, too, had been disgusted by the invasion of Hungary).
"I represent the new generation of Soviets," Kalugin told the journalist. "There have been changes in my country since Khrushchev's reforms, since Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin, since Hungary, and there's a desire on the part of many Soviets to move forward." Let's have lunch, said Kalugin, and according to his account, Stone readily assented. Regular lunches were enjoyed at Harvey's, now defunct but then in the Mayflower Hotel. (It was only later that the Soviet agent learned J. Edgar Hoover shared a fondness for the restaurant, a coincidence that tickled him.)
There was one vital communication made by Kalugin at his first lunch with Stone--by way of introduction, Kalugin tells me these days: "I told Stone, 'My good friends in Moscow send you their best regards.' Absolutely, he understood what I meant."
Moreover, says Kalugin, Stone wasn't simply some ordinary reporter exchanging items with a good source: "He was a Soviet agent, his code name was BLIN, which in English is pancake," Kalugin says.
And the results? "It was a fruitful relationship," is the oblique reply. (Even now, long after the fall of communism and his arrival in this country, Kalugin retreats into ambiguity whenever it suits him.) "I paid for lunches; he was happy to share with me what he had learned on Capitol Hill or the White House. He had a wide range of friends, and that was good because he would provide us with some tips or information."
These tips were not, however, randomly selected. "Oh, there was no classified information--but look, the Soviet intelligence network cared about information that would serve the political purpose of influencing operations," he explains. "Of manipulating public opinion, of misleading, weakening this country. Injuring it. We had a whole bunch of big names helping us."
Nor was that the end of Stone's compliance. "Look, his column would also be used for placing some disinformation, don't forget that," says Kalugin. "I would tell him something which I would like him to use, and he would oblige. That was normal procedure." Once again, no details are forthcoming. (I thought of that remark as I read Izzy on the subject of lazy mainstream reporters and their penchant for snuggling up to pols: "You can't just sit on their lap and ask them to feed you secrets--then they'll just give you a lot of crap," he said.)
Much mention is made by MacPherson of the Venona Files, decoded cables sent decades ago by Soviet spies to Moscow. In these files there are references to Stone (or, rather, "BLIN"), but every citation is used by her to refute any possible suspicion, however plausible, that might arise. In the first place, she argues, "critics automatically assume that the FBI identification of Stone as BLIN is accurate. But even this identification of Stone as BLIN is iffy." In the second, Stone didn't need money from the Soviets, thank you very much, as I.F. Stone's Weekly "was very profitable."
And finally, when in the 1940s a KGB agent reports back to Moscow that Stone "earns as much as $1,500 a month but it seems he would not be averse to having a supplemental income," the biographer concludes, astonishingly, that this proves "nothing more than that BLIN/PANCAKE was brushing off" the agent.
Most interesting to me, however, were the author's talks with Kalugin. These were less than fruitful, to judge by the results. "A useful contact," is how the former KGB general characterizes Stone. Kalugin "had absolutely no idea if Stone had ever been paid anything." Moreover, there seems to be some subliminal urging on the part of the author to leave Izzy's character intact: "The term AGENT OF INFLUENCE, Kalugin admitted, could fit any journalist who disseminated anything of consequence." Therefore, MacPherson concludes, "today's attempts to link Stone with spying are as tawdry as they are untruthful."
You seem to have held back big time with MacPherson, I tell Kalugin during our second conversation.
"Yes," he concedes. "Let's put it this way: There's a difference when I speak to some writer I don't know." On an earlier occasion, Kalugin had told me that in his conversation with yet another journalist--Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post--he also refrained from describing Stone as an agent; deploying instead the term "fellow traveler," which his listener found outrageous enough.
Kalugin was amazed and distressed at the reaction. "That was diplomatic talk," he protested at our meeting. "I could not say Stone was an agent to him." Agents were, after all, once the spy's friends, valuable and daring sources. More than a decade ago, Kalugin was called upon to testify in the espionage trial of a U.S. Army reserve colonel, and he loathed the experience. Even so, he insisted he had done nothing more than confirm what was already known. "I am morally against all these revelations of names," said Kalugin.
And besides, he added, even the little he has uttered publicly about Stone was treated with dismay and disbelief, in part because of the former KGB officer's reluctance to reveal all he knows. At our meeting, Kalugin smiled--ruefully, I thought. "I've had a lot of trouble with I.F. Stone. Yes, the icon of liberal independent thought."
I am not smiling, however. I was among those who considered Izzy just such an icon. It is for this reason that I accepted a friend's suggestion that I speak to Kalugin. I wanted to conclude that the old KGB general was a liar, although in this area I was far less successful than MacPherson ("All spies lie," she observes with asperity, although it's worth noting that she treasures every syllable from Kalugin's lips that might, at a stretch, exonerate her hero). In my college years and subsequently, Stone was considered practically the only journalist around who owed nobody anything. And maybe that's who he wanted to be. Maybe that's even who he thought he was, on occasion.
Kalugin says that, in 1968, when the Soviets invaded Prague, the two men had their last lunch. Stone, he recalls, began it inauspiciously: "We will never meet again. Never," he told the spy. "When I agreed to resume the relationship with you, I thought the past was over, that you had changed. But your rape of Czechoslovakia is just proof once again you haven't changed. No, I will not listen to a thing you say!"
Kalugin tried to pay for lunch, as he always did, but in this, too, he was rebuffed. "No more," said Stone. "I will never take money from your bloody government again."
"Tell me," says Kalugin these days, "if our relationship had been one of just a regular journalist meeting a press officer from the Soviet embassy--and I did, in fact, meet with so many ordinary journalists simply as a press officer. Well, the correspondent might be critical of what we did in Czechoslovakia and denounce it, yes. But would he cut off relations with me? No. Would he have gotten so emotional?
"It was because Stone was so personally involved with our government, a government that violated international law, that he got so upset, and cut off all contact with us."
He was betrayed, I say.
"Yes," says Kalugin. "He found it shocking. He was betrayed."
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.