The American journalist I. F. Stone (1907-1989) published the iconoclastic political newsletter I. F. Stone's Weekly from 1953 to 1971. A critic of the Cold War and McCarthyism, his opposition to the Vietnam War helped to change public opinion in the United States.
Born Isador Feinstein on December 24, 1907, in Philadelphia, I. F. Stone was the son of Bernard and Katherine Feinstein. His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who owned a dry goods store in Haddonfield, New Jersey. At age 14 Stone made his journalism debut by publishing a five-cent monthly paper called The Progress. As a journalist he became known for his outspoken but hopeful views.
During high school he covered Haddonfield as a correspondent for the Camden Evening-Courier. After graduating in 1924 he studied philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, but was more interested in the newsroom than in the classroom. While a student he worked full time as a copy editor and rewrite man for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He left school to take a job as a reporter and editor with the Camden Courier-Post. In 1929, Stone married Esther Roisman and together they had three children.
Stone was legendary among American journalists for his intense political commitments and his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs. Beginning with Jack London's novel Martin Eden, Stone's radical, utopian outlook emerged from his independent reading. In the 1930s he supported the Popular Front in its opposition to Adolf Hitler. Although his thinking was never dependent on any party or ideology, he later became isolated during the McCarthy period when his strong views collided with the prevailing consensus.
Following a move to New York City, he served as an editorial writer for the New York Post from 1933 to 1939. His first book, The Court Disposes (1937), defended President Roosevelt's attempts to expand the Supreme Court. In 1938 Stone became an associate editor of the liberal weekly The Nation and in 1940 he became its Washington editor. In Business as Usual (1941) he criticized the country's defense mobilization program.
Although he was not a religious man, Stone was concerned with the political and human rights situation in the Middle East. In 1945 he reported on the Jewish struggle to establish a homeland in Palestine. In 1946 he accompanied Jewish survivors of Nazi concentration camps as they secretly migrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine. His experience was first printed in the experimental newspaper PM, for which he had begun writing in 1942, and later as Underground to Palestine (1946). In 1948 he covered the Jewish-Arab War which led to the creation of Israel.
After World War II Stone became a relentless critic of the emerging Cold War. When PM folded in 1948, Stone wrote first for the New York Star and then for the Daily Compass. In the fall of 1950 he went to Paris as European correspondent for the Compass. He conducted an investigation into the origins of the Korean War which was published as The Hidden History of the Korean War (1952). Calling it "a case study in the Cold War," it questioned the official explanations for why America entered the Korean War.
While the book was largely ignored, its style became the model for a new publication that Stone started out of professional necessity. In the late fall of 1952 the Daily Compass collapsed and Stone was out of a job. Since many publications would not hire him due to his political convictions, he launched his own political newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. The first issue debuted on January 17, 1953.
To the original 5,300 subscribers of I. F. Stone's Weekly he wrote, "This weekly represents an attempt to keep alive through a difficult period the kind of independent radical journalism represented in various ways by PM, the New York Star, and the Daily Compass."
In its early days, Stone viewed I.F. Stone's Weekly as "the journalistic equivalent of the old-fashioned Jewish momma-and-poppa grocery store." While radical in viewpoint, the newsletter was conservative in format. Since he had no access to inside information, he was forced to rely on official documents for his sources. He quickly acquired a reputation for indicting the government with its own evidence.
Stone's style as a journalist was recognizable not only by his incisive criticism and ability to extract precious information out of material other journalists ignored, but also by his sense of historical perspective. In the 1950s the Weekly covered topics ranging from McCarthyism, defense spending, and the Soviet Union to the Supreme Court and civil rights.
Stone will be long remembered for his sustained criticism of America's involvement in Vietnam, which he began discussing as early as 1954. By 1963 he explained the failed efforts to impose stability on South Vietnam. "You can't go on pouring napalm on villages and poison on crops, uprooting the people and putting them in prison-like compounds and expect to be liked," he wrote.
In 1964, Stone was the only American journalist to challenge President Johnson's account of the fateful Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used to obtain the congressional authority to escalate the war in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he persisted in exposing the horrors and fallacies of America's Vietnam policies. While he relied on public records to support his case, he also took his own trip to South Vietnam in 1966. As public disapproval of the war mounted, the increasingly popular Stone found a growing audience for the Weekly.
Stone once told his wife, "I'm going to graduate from a pariah into a character, and then if I last long enough I'll be regarded as a national institution." By the last years of the Weekly he had over 70,000 subscribers. When a collection of his essays appeared in 1970 he was called one of "the finest fog-cutters in Washington," and he was even saluted by TIME magazine. In 1971 he received a George Polk Memorial award.
Stone closed the Weekly at the end of 1971 because of poor health and became a contributing editor for the New York Review of Books. He soon retired to become a classical scholar, studying the origins of freedom of thought in Athens at the time of Socrates. In 1981 he came out of retirement to write articles for The Nation and the New York Times Op-ed page in response to actions of the Reagan administration.
Stone died on June 18, 1989, at age 81, after he underwent surgery in a Boston Hospital and suffered a heart attack. In September 1994, the FBI released information stating he had been under close scrutiny for the past 30 years. This was not an easy task since the FBI's records listed Stone under many different names. The FBI's file on Stone, a 4 1/4-inch, 1,794-page stack of paper, was released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. Much information is blacked out and 332 pages were withheld. The file reveals as much about bureau operations in those days as about Stone. It also illustrates how difficult it was for the FBI to obtain incriminating evidence against this maverick who for six decades offered opinions on everything political.
Was Stone a Communist? From 1941 to 1971 the FBI tried to find an answer to this question. Stone traveled throughout the United States making speeches to leftist audiences. He began some of his speeches, "Fellow Communists and FBI agents … " He denounced the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Smith Act, which required the registration of foreigners, and the McCarran Act, which required Communists to register as foreign agents. On a passport application he refused, "as a matter of principle," to indicate whether or not he was a Communist. Ultimately, the FBI was never able to confirm that Stone was a committed Communist.
Since 1990, The Nation Institute/I.F. Stone Award has been presented to students who exhibit excellence in journalism. Candidates for the award must embody the same uniquely independent journalistic tendencies, investigative zeal, commitment to human rights, and desire to expose injustice that were I. F. Stone's trademark and legacy.
The best way to understand Stone's contribution as a journalist is to examine the many collections of his writings. They include The Truman Era (1953); The Haunted Fifties (1963); In a Time of Torment (1967); Polemics and Prophecies 1967-70 (1970); and the one-volume anthology The I. F. Stone's Weekly Reader (1973). The best account of his life and style as a journalist is contained in the documentary film "I. F. Stone's Weekly," produced by Gerry Bruck. Updated information can be gathered from the Los Angeles Times "FBI Surveillance of I. F Stone Proved One Thing: Agents Couldn't Spell," September 25, 1994. □