Why Did I.F. Stone Sidestep the Hiss Case?


Mr. Holland is the editor of Washington Decoded and a contributing editor of The Nation magazine. The full version of this essay appears in the summer issue of Journal of Cold War Studies, and is available online here. The summer issue is devoted to essays on Soviet espionage.

Any reconsideration of I. F. Stone should specifically address how he viewed the Cold War spy and loyalty controversies—or chose not to—even if one accepts a minimalist interpretation of Stone’s brushes with Soviet intelligence. Stone often commented about the cases that rocked the country in the late 1940s and were responsible for the repression, fear, and culture of conformity that he repeatedly decried. Most frequently, Stone wrote in passionate defense of government officials, high and low, who had been unfair targets of smears and leaks, sometimes when their real crime was to have opposed a powerful congressman on a point of policy. One such occasion was the March 1948 attack by HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas on physicist Edward Condon. (Condon had been a prime mover in asserting postwar civilian control over nuclear energy, which Thomas had bitterly opposed.) In the summer of 1949, Stone wrote a stinging series of articles in defense of Condon, all of which roundly attacked J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for compiling the innuendo that Thomas had used in his blundering effort to destroy the outspoken physicist, who also happened to be Stone’s friend.

The case in which Stone became the most personally involved was the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—but not during their sensational trial, when he stayed uncharacteristically silent. Because he did not want to “play into the hands of reaction,” he eschewed the “shrill, hysterical and mendacious” propaganda campaign that insisted the Rosenbergs were completely innocent and victims of a heinous government frame-up. Instead, he attempted to sit on the fence: “we just don’t know” whether the Rosenbergs are guilty or innocent. When he did become fully engaged, it was to crusade against the great and unfair disparity between their death sentences and the limited prison terms meted out to others convicted of nuclear espionage.

Although Stone mainly railed against the injustices that occurred, he was also prone to discounting the significance of a given spy case and insisting that the truly bad actor was some element of the U.S. government. That was the line of argument he employed when the first spy case, involving a foreign policy journal called Amerasia, broke in June 1945. Stone was quick to suggest—falsely—that the prosecution was the work of a “reactionary clique” inside the State Department, which, among other things, was scheming to save Japan from decisive defeat so that it could be preserved as a bulwark against Soviet socialism. Four years later, in a similar vein, Stone hammered on the theme of FBI misconduct during the first trial in the Judith Coplon espionage case, until her own appearance on the witness stand proved disastrous to her credibility. Decades later, he disingenuously suggested that Victor Perlo, his former source at the War Production Board, had been unjustifiably “purged” from the federal government. “Now he would have been a sitting duck if he was passing any secrets,” Stone observed. “But the government never laid a finger on him.”

Stone also routinely denigrated the testimony and motives of former Communists-turned-informants. Whittaker Chambers, naturally, was an object of particular scorn. Stone was one of the “angriest” critics of Witness, Chambers’s confessional autobiography. Renegades and deserters such as Chambers, Stone claimed, were full of self-hate for abandoning their Communist faith—self-loathing that manifested itself as bitterness toward their former comrades. With such twisted feelings, informants were hardly equipped to supply reliable or objective observations about Communism in the United States. Other informants who were special targets of Stone’s disdain, despite the essential accuracy of their testimony, were Louis Budenz, the former managing editor of the Daily Worker, and Elizabeth Bentley, a KGB courier and go-between from 1939 to 1944. Budenz, who knew Stone’s brother, had the “glibness of a traveling evangelist describing the details of hell,” according to Stone. Stone likewise intimated that Bentley, whose 1948 revelations did so much to shape public attitudes toward Soviet espionage and the CPUSA’s complicity in those activities, was unreliable, cowardly, and prone to dramatic exaggerations—besides exemplifying another case of governmental misconduct.

Stone’s first and foremost concern was the meta-narrative—the political exploitation of and repercussions from the espionage cases, even decades after they had ceased dominating the news. In the mid-1980s, Stone was still arguing that the government’s attack on the CPUSA’s involvement in espionage was a concerted effort to scare liberals away from voting for Henry Wallace in 1948. Sometimes, Stone’s concern over how the espionage cases played out politically was exhibited in very curious ways. In 1983, for example, Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton were putting the finishing touches on The Rosenberg File. They wanted to open the book with a 1956 passage from Stone that seemed germane: “It will be a long time, if ever, before we know [the truth] for certain. . . . But I doubt whether we will ever find there was a deliberate frameup. Fanaticism had the same momentum on both sides.” The quote seemed appropriate because Radosh and Milton were confident that they had discerned the elusive truth. Indeed, Stone privately expressed agreement with their view of the case after a long personal briefing during which Radosh presented his and Milton’s findings.

When Stone received a copy of the galleys, however, and saw his words quoted in the front matter, he went “ballistic,” according to Radosh. Apparently, to agree privately with the book was one thing and to be associated with it publicly was quite another. Stone demanded that the quoted passage be removed because he insisted it was akin to a blurb: it implied an endorsement of the book. He threatened to sue the authors and the publisher unless it was taken out. Radosh replied that the quote reflected the authors’ approval of Stone for being one of the few on the left who had questioned the propaganda campaign of the 1950s and did not buy into the cult of the Rosenbergs. Eventually, Stone relented, though he also had no choice legally.

That episode might be written off, except that it was preceded six years earlier by another puzzling response to an old controversy. In 1976, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published a new book on the Alger Hiss case, Alger Hiss: The True Story, by John Chabot Smith, a former reporter for the defunct New York Herald Tribune who had covered both of Hiss’s trials. The New York Review of Books commissioned Allen Weinstein, who was working on his own lengthy study of the case, to review the book, which portrayed Hiss as the victim of a government frame-up. Weinstein by this point not only had come to a different conclusion but had also sued the FBI to gain access to 15,376 pages of documents on the Hiss case, records that Smith had never seen. Weinstein “lit into Hiss [and Smith’s book] with such enthusiasm and authority” that his six-page review became a front-page story in The New York Times and The Washington Post even before it appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Stone was among the first to respond to Weinstein, leaping to Hiss’s defense in a rare departure from his normal pose of agnosticism about that case. In a New York Times op-ed article, Stone presented a “new revelation,” which he claimed was a “tantalizing loose thread . . . [that if firmly pulled] might unravel the melodramatic web woven a quarter century ago around the notorious pumpkin papers.” Those papers, “as everyone knows, were the centerpiece and symbol of the postwar witch hunt. . . . [and] had distinct elements of stage-managed fraud,” asserted Stone. What Stone did privately was just as striking. He believed that The New York Review of Books had been grossly unfair to Smith: “Before [his] book had a chance to be evaluated, even read, it was really destroyed by Weinstein.” Stone was particularly upset because the right wing had taken great delight in having such an article about the Hiss case published in The New York Review of Books, the citadel of left/ liberal thought. Stone did not want to bear responsibility for an editorial decision he deeply disagreed with and had not been consulted about, so he resigned as a contributing editor of the Review.

Although this episode is interesting in and of itself, its most significant aspect is to underscore a blank space. Despite Stone’s prodigious output of books, articles, and essays, and his reputation as the outstanding investigative reporter of his generation, he wrote next to nothing about the government’s prosecution of Alger Hiss, the case that put a generation on trial. During the two-and-a-half years it took for the Hiss controversy to wend its way through Congress and all the way up to the Supreme Court, Stone was completely silent about the most potent and politically damaging case of them all. Writers are seldom criticized for what they do not write, and rightly so. But given the centrality of the Hiss case to the domestic Cold War, the omission is striking and Stone’s later explanation not credible when one thinks about it. Stone was seldom, if ever, at a loss for words or an opinion, and his curiosity was relentless. Stone’s answer for this lacuna—what he himself might have termed a “significant trifle”—seems to have been that he “was never able to make up [his] mind about Hiss,” although there are grounds to doubt even that. Given what is now known about Stone’s own dalliances with Soviet intelligence, a more accurate answer may be that Stone deliberately shied away from writing about the Hiss controversy at its height—except to disparage Chambers—because Stone had learned or suspected that the charges were likely true, and the case therefore cut too close to home. Stone, too, had consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence, even if he never came close to being the kind of agent Hiss was. Writing about the Hiss case would have been akin to writing about himself in a sense and would have necessarily involved revisiting decisions made in the context of the 1930s. In all likelihood, any effort by Stone to write honestly about the Hiss case would have been seized on and misused by what he saw as his lifelong foe, the forces of reaction. Stone was an authentic, muckraking radical in the best American tradition. Yet he also personified, perhaps uniquely, the tragic encounter between indigenous radicalism and Soviet Communism during the twentieth century, including the subordination of the former to the latter for decades, resulting in the enervation and long decline of the progressive impulse in American political life.

To paraphrase Orwell, Stone’s sin was being anti-fascist without being, for too long, anti-totalitarian.

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Elliott Aron Green - 7/13/2009

Stone was sometimes right and sometimes wrong. I recall back in about 1964, Stone responded to State Dept predictions of an upcoming Chinese atomic bomb test. Stone claimed that it was a fabrication because Communist China, with its ideology of guerrilla struggle, eschewed the A-bomb, that imperialist weapon. People's China, he wrote, had no need of the Bomb to bring about Revolution.

A week or two later, after China had indeed exploded its Bomb, Stone had nothing to say, no admission of having been wrong and no questioning or affirmation of why he had been wrong.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/7/2009

For more than a decade rumors have floated around that Izzy Stone spent several years on the KGB payroll, and now it has been proven irrefutably, according a Commentary Magazine article in the May 2009 issue, by Klehr, Haynes and Vassiliev--which is readily available online. Stone was hardly the fine example of American such-and-such that Mr. Holland alleges.

Lewis Hartshorn - 7/6/2009

As for Alger Hiss specifically, the New York Review of Books was never a friend. In Feb. 1967, Meyer Schapiro, distinguished art historian and very close friend of Whittaker Chambers throughout the 1920s and 30s, reviewed in the NYR Meyer Zeligs's Friendship and Fratricide, an analysis of Hiss and Chambers and the case itself. Never mind the Freudian slant of the book, it was soundly researched and everyone who knew the principals and would talk was interviewed. The review was extremely negative, largely because Schapiro had been emotionally involved with Chambers. Later in the NYR, in 1975, Lionel Trilling weighed in on the Hiss-Chambers case, coming down squarely for Chambers as a man of "honor." However, the NYR refused to publish a long letter to the editor by longtime Hiss researcher/writer William Reuben, exposing the dozens of errors of fact and supposition of Trilling's piece. Allen Weinstein's review of Smith's Hiss book set off the longest exchange of letters in the NYR's history, most all by Hiss-case scholars challenging Weinstein's review. As for Weinstein's subsequent books on the case, in 1978 with a reissue in 1997, they are replete with insupportable interpretations, distortions and suppressions of facts.
I.F. Stone skirted the Hiss case for the same reason journalism in general has skirted it. Because it was (and is) easier to default to the right than to do their job.