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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 745

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This is the grave of I.F. Stone.

Born in 1907 in Philadelphia, Isador Feinstein Stone grew up with Jewish immigrant parents who owned a dry goods store in New Jersey. Although a bad student, Stone was a committed writer from a young kid, founding a school newspaper. He went to the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out and just started writing. He worked for several newspapers in the Philadelphia area, including the Inquirer. After reading Jack London, Stone became a socialist, joined the Socialist Party of America, and became a key member of the Popular Front in the 1930s. For all his leftism, Stone was a pretty mainstream journalist in the heady days of the 1930s, appearing on key radio shows, including the early version of Meet the Press, and being widely seen as one of the bright young stars of the field. This was an era where left-wing politics were tolerated in mainstream America. Alas, it would not always remain this way, for Stone or anyone else.

In 1933, Stone took a job with the New York Post and was a huge supporter of the New Deal. His book The Court Disposes in 1937 was a key part of the pressure on the Supreme Court around Roosevelt’s courtpacking plan and that made the public realize that they needed to pressure the reactionaries on the Court. Stone fought constantly with his bosses at the Post, including openly criticizing the paper’s editorials in his own columns, so he left for The Nation in 1939 and became its lead columnist. In 1941, he lambasted both the military and private industry for its laxness in war preparation in his book The First Year of Defense. Stone was highly opposed to isolationism. He did respect those who were committed to isolationism as a principle, but he also believed rightfully that some of those who were highly committed isolationists in 1941 were also just flat out hoping the Nazis would win.

Stone also explored anti-Semitism in the FBI (shocking, I know) and these articles were a national sensation, infuriating the right, which was anti-Semitic to all getout anyway, and angering the left about just how awful Hoover’s institution was. None of this meant that Stone was making much money. The field of journalism wasn’t that much more stable than it is today. He was always scrambling for cash.

Stone broke with defending the Soviets after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, which too many socialists did not. In fact, as early as 1934, he had openly criticized Stalin in print, putting him on dangerous ground given the Stalinist state of the left at that time. For Stone, Stalin’s Soviet Union was the Thermidor of the Russian Revolution. He wasn’t much of a Trotskyite either, noting the bloodthirsty nature of Trotsky. In other words, here was a truly independent socialist at a time when the success of the Soviets had really shut off a lot of alternatives to the party in international circles. Later, some accused Stone of being a spy for the Soviets, but this doesn’t really hold water, both in terms of who he was in the early years of the Cold War and his longstanding critique of the Soviet Union. The speculation continues and much ink has been spilled over it. I really don’t care, but I also remain skeptical.

As World War II moved toward an end, Stone started writing more about the fate of surviving European Jews. For the newspaper PM, he started writing about what was happening. Actually, The Nation fired him for this, since he didn’t publish this stuff with them. And then he became a supporter of establishing Israel as a state. He was secular as can be, but he was also concerned about the oppression of the Palestinians. He did think even before this that the better solution would be for Jews to move to the U.S. instead and wrote a book about this called Underground to Palestine, published in 1948. But when he saw how Israel oppressed Palestine rather than make them equal citizens in a single state, he didn’t exactly turn against Israel but he did turn against Israeli policy. The closest comparison to Stone is an early version of Noam Chomsky. In fact, the two became allies as Chomsky rose into prominence as a young man.

The Cold War was rough for Stone. Because he was an open leftist, even in the 1950s, he faced the redbaiting that so many had to deal with in those awful years. He attacked the Korean War as American propaganda to get the U.S. people to accept our intervention between two pretty awful and undemocratic nations. The State Department denied him a passport to leave the country so he could do his job and report on international stories. Stone sued the government after that and the courts decided that any reporter could leave the country to do their job, which was an important decision. Just before the 1956 war, Stone traveled to Israel, where he was amazed at the progress it had made and said there would never be peace until the Palestinians were treated with respect. And so it has remained, as Israel has just chosen to lock them in concentration camps for the present, while the rage and resentment that engenders grows and grows, someone no doubt to explode in mass violence.

In the 1950s and 60s, Stone had his own newsletter. In it, he exposed the racism at the core of American society and attacked McCarthyism. He was the very first reporter to express skepticism over the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Johnson’s rush into the Vietnam War. He did this through carefully examining all the available documents. I only mention this because the close reading of documents had been Stone’s method for decades by this point because he was nearly deaf and so traditional ways of doing journalism were more difficult for him. This ironically made him the great investigative journalist of his day. As John Kenneth Galbraith observed, while conservatives hated Stone for his views, liberal politicians hated him for his methods, which included just calling people out on their bullshit, including Roosevelt officials back in the heyday of American liberalism. Galbraith went on, “He was relentless in exposing evasion and made no concession to the person who was improving on the truth. If you didn’t resort to phony explanations, you had no problem with Izzy and I very early on learned that.”

In 1971, Stone stepped away from reporting because of a bad heart. He actually decided to go back and get his college degree at Penn! He learned ancient Greek, majored in classical languages, and then wrote a book on Socrates. The Trial of Socrates was the best-selling book of his career and was translated into 11 languages. He died in 1989 of a heart attack, at the age of 81.

I.F. Stone is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other American journalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. H.L. Mencken is in Baltimore and Ernie Pyle is in Honolulu. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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