An admiring look at a radical journalist

By Jason Warshof
September 26, 2009

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At times over the past century, the voice of the American left has been welcomed into the national dialogue; at times it has been muzzled. This is a central theme underlying D.D. Guttenplan’s well-researched biography of I.F. Stone (born Isadore Feinstein), the iconoclastic investigative journalist who founded his own publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, in the early 1950s, when even typically outspoken outlets like The Nation shied away from publishing his work.

For today’s reader, “American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone’’ may have particular resonance. Stone came of age as a journalist, editorial writer, and public intellectual during the 1930s amid the transition from President Herbert Hoover to Franklin Roosevelt and the nation’s shift from a laissez-faire to a more active federal government as a response to the Great Depression. The economic themes will feel familiar, while the era’s thriving newspaper industry may prompt nostalgia. Many of the issues he confronts will feel familiar.

Stone, whose brash yet indefatigable character this book intimates but never fully captures, was born to immigrant Jewish parents in Philadelphia in 1907 and spent his adolescent years in small-town Haddonfield, N.J. Graduating 49th out of 54 students in his high school class, he still gained admission to the University of Pennsylvania, where he found that “the few islands of greatness seemed to be washed by pettiness and mediocrity.’’ Scholarly ambivalence ultimately compelled Stone to drop out, a move facilitated by his success as a news writer for papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Camden Courier.

The war years were mind-bending for Stone and his compatriots on the political left, many of whom had seen the Soviet Union as a benevolent force until the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. Stone, who identified as a socialist, responded to the alliance by railing against Stalin as “the Moscow Machiavelli.’’ But a certain naïveté may have persisted: Only in 1956, after visiting the Soviet Union, did Stone offer a full-throated condemnation. “This is not a good society,’’ he wrote, “and it is not led by honest men.’’

One factor contributing to Stone’s eventual loss of access to both government officials and the media was the 1952 publication of his “The Hidden History of the Korean War’’ (one of more than a dozen books he would publish in his lifetime), which pressed the heretical view that domestic politics, rather than national security, had dictated US involvement in the war.

Yet Stone found opportunity in his exile from the mainstream. From 1953 to 1971, aided by his wife, Esther, who served faithfully as administrator, he produced in his Weekly critiques on subjects ranging from revolutionary Cuba to antinuclear proliferation to the civil rights movement. But it was the Vietnam War, and the rise of vigorous protests on a national scale, that allowed Stone to meet and exceed his former prominence. Subscriptions soared, and he was featured on the “Today’’ show and other national programs.

Too often, Guttenplan’s book bogs down in names, parsing of left-wing factions, and historical footnotes. And the author, who is London correspondent for The Nation and has also written a book about Holocaust denial, is an unapologetic admirer, as embodied in statements like “Izzy’s prose was a blistering indictment of official indifference.’’

All the same, “American Radical’’ offers a broad window into the progressive narrative of the 20th century. And while Stone, who died in 1989, surely would have found a fat target in George W. Bush’s “war begun on dubious grounds,’’ we are left to imagine how he might have responded to today’s leadership, which, among other things, has rekindled faith among left-leaners in America’s ability to surprise.

Jason Warshof is a writer living in Jamaica Plain.

AMERICAN RADICAL: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone By D.D. Guttenplan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 570 pp., illustrated, $35

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