I.F. Stone made significant contributions to investigative journalism
at a time in the U.S. when holding powerful institutions to account was
seen as unpatriotic and disloyal, writes Cecil Rosner in this review of D.D. Guttenplan’s new biography American Radical The Life and Times of I.F. Stone.
The Life and Times of I.F. Stone
By D.D. Guttenplan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009
“EVERY government is run by liars,” I.F. Stone once famously said. “And nothing they say should be believed.”
Isadore Feinstein Stone’s trademark skepticism served him well in an American journalistic career that spanned more than half a century. While many of his colleagues chased official sources and provided surface coverage of events, he laid bare the underlying realities of U.S. society and fearlessly held politicians of all stripes to account.
Guttenplan’s highly readable biography shows, it wasn’t hard to guess
what the career path would be for the son of an immigrant Philadelphia
peddler in the 1920s.
At 14, Stone began publishing his own
neighbourhood newspaper, filling it with editorials that provided
opinion on everything from the American economy to the Treaty of
Versailles. Before he turned 25, he was writing lead editorials for one
of New York’s most influential dailies.
While he might have
carved out a comfortable niche in the journalistic mainstream, Stone
had a penchant for independent thinking that didn’t often sit well with
his bosses or government officials.
At 19, when an editor turned
down his request to cover the murder trial of anarchists Sacco and
Vanzetti, he quit the paper to attend anyhow. And while he held
significant positions with major American publications over the years,
his greatest journalistic triumphs came as the one-man proprietor of
the independent I.F. Stone Weekly.
Stone himself would
have been impressed by the prodigious amount of material that
Guttenplan amassed to chronicle his life. It includes more than 100
interviews and mountains of archival documents, along with the fruits
of a 15-year battle to pry loose information under the U.S. Freedom of
What emerges is a story so rich in detail and
historical context that the reader derives an added benefit of learning
about key elements of U.S. political and intellectual history through
the decades. Stone’s support for New Deal ideas is chronicled against
the backdrop of the lead-up to the Second World War.
socialist and anti-fascist sentiments lead to his fierce critiques of
Senator Joseph McCarthy and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.
And his analysis of Vietnam made him a darling of the New Left in the
Even though his radical politics enraged his enemies, it
was his investigative journalism that critics found hard to assail. His
Hidden History of the Korean War questioned American tactics
and policies in triggering the conflict, while he was also one of the
first American journalists to wonder openly whether the Gulf of Tonkin
incident was a manufactured pretext for wider U.S. intervention in
Vietnam. The sweep of history has proven many of Stone’s insights and
exposés to be correct.
Stone succeeded by carefully examining the
public record, looking for clues to the truth. Guttenplan, an American
investigative journalist based in London, does the same. He unearthed
the FBI files that detailed a massive and paranoid undercover campaign
to follow Stone everywhere, open his mail, tap his telephone and
Even the doorman at his Park Avenue apartment building was on the bureau’s payroll.
the FBI failed to appreciate was that Stone’s independent nature meant
he would never be unquestioningly obedient to any single party or
cause. Despite his sympathies, he routinely criticized Communist
parties and governments.
While he passionately supported the
young state of Israel, he infuriated Zionists by calling for a
binational state and equal rights for Palestinians. And though he
called Richard Nixon a fascist in the 1950s, he saw much to admire in
After working on the biography for 18 years, Guttenplan has created a labour of love for a man he admires. It shows.