I.F. Stone was an infamous far-left journalist, certainly a fellow traveler who supported pro-Soviet Popular Front activity in the 1930’s. For decades, scholars of Soviet intelligence have pondered the extent of Stone’s direct ties to the KGB and its predecessors.
So how amusingly and disturbingly odd that the chief lobbyist for the 7.9 million United Methodist Church recently penned an ode to Stone in his weekly newsletter for church constituents, few of whom likely remember the radical old gadfly who died in 1989.
“To think for yourself is the hardest thing to do in a society that constantly feeds you myths, subterfuge, press releases, ‘official statements’ and, yes, lies,” cynically wrote Jim Winkler of the Capitol-Hill based United Methodist Board of Church and Society. “Yet Stone managed to think for himself day after day, week after week, for 50 years.”
Winkler fondly recalled, as a teenager, discovering the dazzling writings of the “legendary investigative journalist” in the parsonage basement among the books of his father, a liberal United Methodist minister. Stone’s blasts against McCarthyism and the Vietnam War “made him a hero to me,” Winkler gushed. Apparently Stone recently popped back into the church lobbyist’s mind because of the 20th anniversary of Stone’s death.
“Under surveillance by the FBI for most of his adult life,” Winkler recounted of his hero, Stone exposed war profiteering and “cozy cartel agreements” between Standard Oil and a wartime German firm. “Right-wingers tried repeatedly to prove Stone was a Soviet agent, but they overlooked that he had no inside information to give to the Communists,” Winkler insisted. Apparently quoting from Wikipedia, Winkler reported that after a 1956 visit to Moscow, Stone declared: “This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.” For Stone, this discovery about the Soviet Union was apparently a revelation.
Winkler’s citation of Stone’s negative reaction to the Soviet Union under Khrushchev is perhaps notable, in that the United Methodist Board of Church and Society that Winkler now heads, for decades, almost never criticized the Soviet Union. Like much of Stone’s career, the church lobby office naively and sincerely supported Soviet strategic initiatives around the world, such as the nuclear freeze of the 1980’s, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, ending support for anti-communist insurgent movements, and itself eagerly touting the causes of Marxist “liberation” movements such as Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and El Salvador’s FMLN, when both were Soviet armed and funded. Winkler’s agency, like most of the Religious Left, had little interest in human rights abuses in the old Soviet empire, despite the church’s lobby’s ostensible concern for social justice.
As to Winkler’s breezy dismissal of charges of espionage against Stone, the truth is more complicated. It’s true that Stone, as a journalist and not a government official, almost never would have had classified information of interest to Soviet intelligence. But the well reviewed new book Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press), by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, concludes that Stone did work for the Soviets 1936-1938 as a “talent scout for new sources, a courier linking the KGB with sources, and a source in his own right for insider journalism information.” They base their claims on the deciphered KGB cables of the Venona project and on KGB archival files provided by co-author Vassiliev, himself former KGB.
According to the book, there is no evidence that Stone specifically worked for the Soviets again after 1938, and he was disillusioned by the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact. But Stone, unlike Whitaker Chambers, never later revealed his work for Soviet intelligence, nor did he ever brake with his far-left politics, which included support for Soviet client states and insurgencies, if not directly for the Soviet Union itself. Winkler, citing Stone’s admiring biographer, prefers to liken Stone to Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison, Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass, and Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps Alger Hiss would be a better comparison. But Winkler insisted that Stone “could always be counted on for provocative, irreverent and persistent questioning.”
As supposed evidence, Winkler reverently recounted a l949 episode of Meet the Press, when Stone confronted an American Medical Association official who denounced socialized medicine as a signal of social “regimentation” and “socialistic.” Apparently Stone, employing his own reverse form of red-baiting, attacked the critic, demanding to know if he regarded President Truman, who supported “compulsory health insurance,’ as a “card-carrying Communist, or just a deluded fellow traveler?” Stone’s attack on his target now seems ironic, given Stone’s own likely history of fellow traveling and possible espionage.
Winkler concluded his paean to his hero by quoting Stone’s ostensibly inspiring warning to student journalists: “The search for meaning is very satisfying, it’s very pleasant, but it can be very far from the truth. You have to call attention to what doesn’t fit. You have a point of view, and you have a passionate belief, but you have an obligation to be fair.”
Lofty sentiments, no doubt. But Stone, as a gadfly commentator, crankily and somewhat incoherently retained his far-left convictions, even after his love affair with Stalinist Russia had largely ended. That the United Methodist lobbyist hails Stone as a paragon of journalistic integrity says more about the church lobby than about Stone.