My Day: I. F. Stone

The Harvard freshman class arrived a week or so before anyone else in 1960, so we could get to know one another, and get a kick start to our college career with a schedule of events to impress and educate us.  I moved into my freshman dorm, knowing only my roommate (from St. Louis); there were 24 of us in our entry in Houghton Hall.  There was a peg board, or its 1960 equivalent, in the first floor vestibule, which everyone had to pass.  They listed the events.  Like Robert Frost speaking in Memorial Hall (I remember that was one I didn’t want to miss – and didn’t).

During my first few days at Harvard, I hadn’t yet realized that most of the other freshmen (a) were smarter than I, (b) went to better schools than I, and (c) came from homes more steeped in intellectual ferment.  How was I to know?

But I soon found out, when I remarked about a poster that said that I.F. Stone was going to speak.  Having never heard of him, I made some smart-alecky remark (me?), and was immediately hooted down by the other two or three present, who knew all about I.F. Stone and couldn’t really believe that I didn’t.  Lesson learned.  Next time I opened my mouth – June 1964.

All this is preface to my finally, in 2018, reading a biography of Stone, American Radical: the Life and Times of I.F. Stone, by D.D. Guttenplan (2009).  Not only reading it, but slogging through it.  Not that this is necessarily a criticism; it’s just a fact.  This book is chock full of names, publications, disputes, triumphs, defeats, and everything else.  It requires slogging. I should have read the title more closely.  Not only a study of the life of I.F. Stone, but a study of his “times”.

Stone grew up primarily in and around Philadelphia, went to and dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania and became a journalist.  He was born in 1907, and died 81 years later.  During this time, he became part of the (primarily) Jewish intellectual ferment of New York City of the 1930s and 1940s where socialism and Communism and other left wing movements seemed the way of the future and a way to end the great discrepancy between the rich and the poor.  He was outspoken as a journalist and dogged, and identified by many as a no-good Communist, but he was never so accused and never even brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify, although he was the subject of detailed observance and scrutiny by J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  This is, presumably, because he was not un-American, not a card carrying member of anything and not a spy (as he was accused by the always present right wing) for the Soviet Union.  But as a journalist and a civil libertarian, he spoke up strongly and consistently for the rights of those being black listed or attacked by HUAC – so you can imagine how he was viewed.

The book includes a thorough examination of all of this intellectual ferment on the left – and I came across concluding (as I would probably conclude today) that nothing that happens in these New York intellectual circles is at all relevant to the majority of Americans living elsewhere.  Full of sound and fury, but……

There were two reasons why leftist thought dominated these New Yorkers.  As I mentioned, a belief in equality and a classless society (or so they thought) was one thing.  The other thing was Hitler:  the New York intellectuals, and certainly the Jewish ones, were anti-Hitler, and that gave them license to be pro-Soviet, because after all the Russians were our allies, and the concept of a popular front existed at many levels.  For those Americans who thought that the Soviets were more dangerous than the Fascists (and, yes, there were many), this attitude was simply un-American.  Period.

The 30s and 40s, the war years, are all interesting.  Also interesting are Stone’s views on Israel.  He was very supportive of Israel, visiting it about a dozen times, but he felt that the Israelis were making a big mistake in the way they were treating the Arabs and the occupied territories after the 1967 war.  So Stone, thinking he was pro-American but being called un-American, now thought he was pro-Israel, but was called by many, and especially by many Jews, as being anti-Israel.  Nothing ever changes, does it?

The last part of Stone’s journalism career, when his weekly I.F. Stone’s Weekly was at its zenith, came during the civil right movement and the Vietnam War.  You can imagine his position on both – here, for the first time, he seemed to move with the times.  As anti-war fervor grew in this country, I.F. Stone for the first time became, if not mainstream, at least respected.

He left journalism when he was about 60 and turned to studying classical Greek for the rest of his life, writing a book about Socrates, whom he declared to have orchestrated his own death (a la Jesus did his).  Right?  Wrong?  No one knows.  But it was an abrupt exit from his public world to a private world.  Unexpected.  And probably very rewarding.

Should you read the book?  Yes…….but it’s a slog.  I guess you know that.