This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. As we just heard, the space race helped define the Cold War for a generation in the 1960s. The Red Scare and its brand of domestic anti-Communism did the same a decade earlier. As the scare gave way to all-out paranoia over enemies in our midst, it wasn't only State Department officials and Hollywood directors who were victimized in the panic. Journalists, too, were identified as traitors and prevented from plying their trade, most notably, Izzy Stone, who, after he was blacklisted, created his own newsletter, called I.F. Stone’s Weekly. It was, to be sure, investigative left-leaning journalism, often critical of the government and, at times, sympathetic to the Soviet Union. But the exact nature of Stone’s relationship with Communism and the Kremlin remains a topic of debate, even today. Jackson Lears, a professor of history at Rutgers University, discussed newly-published claims about Stone in The New York Times Book Review recently. Lears says that Stone’s great genius as a reporter lay in his ability to ferret out simple damning facts. Case in point, the Gulf of Tonkin, where the Johnson administration claimed the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. Naval forces on two separate occasions, thereby justifying a vast escalation of the previously slow-burning Vietnam War.
JACKSON LEARS: And what Stone did within days after Congress passed this war resolution, basically, is to suggest strongly in his newsletter that the first attack had been provoked by counter-insurgency operations that had been underway in the country, jointly conducted by the U.S. and the South Vietnamese.
BOB GARFIELD: And the second attack never happened at all.
JACKSON LEARS: Precisely, the second attack never happened at all. So Stone couldn't prove this for sure right at the moment, but he pieced together enough evidence from fragments, including congressional testimony, to call the government claim seriously into question. And all of his suspicions were confirmed a few years later with the publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean, that’s the astonishing thing about this. His supposition was borne out later by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and Morley Safer and The Pentagon Papers, and he came up with it within a matter of days after the incident that turned Vietnam from a dust-up into a full-fledged war.
JACKSON LEARS: That’s absolutely right. It was one of the most remarkable accomplishments in the history of investigative journalism, I think you could say, given his physical condition. He was practically stone deaf at this point in his life, so he couldn't go to cocktail parties, he couldn't chat it up with inside dopesters. He could only look in the public record. But, at the same time, he did have a larger critique in mind, and that was that the Vietnam War was sparked by anti-colonial nationalism and not by Moscow.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that’s I.F. Stone, circa 1964. But let’s go back about 30 years earlier. He was, I guess, a leftist firebrand, sympathetic to Stalin’s Soviet Russia, as many, many, many thousands of Americans were, in believing somehow that Soviet Communism was not only anti-Fascist but promised a kind of social justice not obtainable in the capitalist West. But there were signs that early on he began to have misgivings about Stalin, no?
JACKSON LEARS: Well yes, it’s very interesting. I think he’s very conflicted on Stalin, in particular. And Don Guttenplan, in his new biography, provides a lot of valuable information on the twists and turns of Stone’s ideological development. He is skeptical enough of what are the first purge trials, the trials that Stalin used to justify the murder of his opponents. When news begins to filter back, as early as late 1934, Stone is already comparing Stalin, albeit briefly and glancingly, to Hitler in his New York Post editorials. Nevertheless, a lot of Americans believed that Fascism was a much greater menace, especially if they were Jews, as I.F. Stone was.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned D. D. Guttenplan’s biography of I.F. Stone.
JACKSON LEARS: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: But there’s a second book out that asserts that Stone was not merely a fellow traveler but actually a Soviet agent, if not on the payroll, necessarily, at least on the roster, and was supplying information to the Soviets. What do you make of that allegation?
JACKSON LEARS: Well, I think that the charge that Stone was a Soviet spy or a Soviet agent is pretty close to being posthumous character assassination. I mean, I really think it’s unconscionably overblown, and here’s why: The evidence, such as I understand it, that’s been adduced by Harvey Klehr and his colleagues in the book Spies: The History of the KGB in America, shows that Stone met with a KGB journalist for a couple of times in 1936, and he told the Soviet agent about a couple of Americans who were going to be in Berlin - one was a journalist and the other was a diplomat – and who were anti-Fascists and, therefore, potentially pro-Soviets. Well, this was not a state secret. There was no war going on with the Soviet Union [LAUGHS] at the time, so Stone may have allowed his fear of Fascism to lead him to fraternize improperly a couple of times with the KGB. That is about the worst you can say, in my opinion.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I guess, really, the ultimate question, at least as far as this conversation is concerned, was there anything that Stone may have done with respect to a KGB undercover agent that forces us today to question the quality or the credibility of any of his five decades of journalism?
JACKSON LEARS: He was a man who started out as a fairly garden-variety popular front journalist with all the sentimentalities and blind spots that that involved, especially sentimentality toward the Soviet Union and blind spots about some of its transgressions and abuses. But what I see in Stone is an intellectual growth as he comes to terms with the realities of the Soviet Union, so that by 1948 he sees that Stalin has unleashed what he calls “an old-fashioned Russian orgy of suspicion of foreigners, intellectuals and any kind of dissent.” He comes back from the Soviet Union in 1956 and he says, “I feel like a swimmer underwater who must rise to the surface or his lungs will burst. Whatever the consequences, I have to say what I really feel after seeing the Soviet Union and carefully studying the statements of its leading officials. This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.” He italicized those last words in his newsletter, and then he went on to say that the evil was not just in Stalin, but in Communism itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Jackson, thank you so much.
JACKSON LEARS: It’s been my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jackson Lears is a professor of history at Rutgers University.