Was Izzy an Agent?

I've always had a soft spot for Ron Radosh. This may seem surprising, particularly since Radosh just penned an attack on me, my I.F. Stone biography, and my last post on this website. He even goes after The New York Times for running a positive review of American Radical. Yet out of the whole dreary cadre of New Left penitents switching chants from Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh! to Rah-Rah-Ronald Reagan!, Radosh is the only one who seemed capable of independent thought. Maybe it's because I still carry a torch for the brilliant young radical I first encountered on the pages of A New History of Leviathan, the collection he co-edited with the anarchist Murray Rothbard. Perhaps it's lingering sympathy for the underdog I saw at Town Hall in New York in 1983 trying to convince an extremely hostile audience that while Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's execution had indeed been a travesty, Julius was almost certainly guilty of spying for the Soviets. (Radosh was right about that, by the way. The Rosenberg File, Radosh and Nancy Milton's book on the case, cites Stone's prescient skepticism about the case -- a tribute which greatly annoyed the aging radical.) Or maybe I'm just susceptible to charm.

Back in 1996, when the National Security Agency finally released the VENONA materials -- cables between Soviet intelligence in Moscow and operatives in the United States, decoded in a top-secret program during the 1940s and 1950s -- Radosh wrote to me pointing out that one of the cables mentioned I.F. Stone, and that several others referred to an agent, codenamed BLIN, whom the FBI had identified as probably being Stone. At the time I had already spent 5 years working on Stone's biography, and had reported on retired KGB general Oleg Kalugin's effort to market his own memoirs, first by insinuating that he himself had maintained a covert relationship with Stone -- and then by issuing a "clarification" saying that any suggestion that Stone had ever been a Soviet intelligence operative was "just a malicious misinterpretation." But the VENONA materials were genuine documents. Though I'd never met Radosh, I'd followed his "second thoughts" career closely enough to know we weren't exactly ideological soulmates. So I was curious. What did he make of VENONA? At worst, he replied by email, the decrypts proved "merely that one agent in the States says he approached Izzy and that Izzy was interested but was worried about taking the money. Even that could be attributed to [the] agent's desire to impress his boss."

Clearly something has caused him to change his mind. According to Radosh, that something is Spies, a new book that purports to prove "that journalist I.F. Stone worked on behalf of the KGB in the 1930s." Though published by Yale University Press (who also published Radosh's book on the Spanish Civil War), Spies is a shabby piece of agit-prop masquerading as scholarship. But the "evidence" linking Stone to the KGB is flimsy enough to be easily summarized.

In the early years of the Yeltsin era Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB operative who'd resigned in 1989, convinced that Mikhail Gorbachev was soft on capitalism, was given exclusive access to selected Soviet archives as part of a book deal between an American publisher and the KGB pension fund. The deal eventually turned sour, but Vassiliev's notes formed the basis for The Haunted Wood, a history of Soviet espionage in America co-authored by Vassiliev and Allen Weinstein. The relationship was not a happy one. Vassiliev claimed Weinstein stole his work, and inserted misleading material into the text without his knowledge -- none of which prevented Weinstein from being nominated and confirmed as Archivist of the United States. Instead of suing Weinstein, in 2003 Vassiliev sued John Lowenthal, an American law professor who'd written a review of The Haunted Wood accusing the authors of "strategic omissions" which leave the book "demonstrably untrustworthy." Though the trial took place in England, where the laws are notoriously favorable to libel plaintiffs, Vassiliev failed to convince a jury of ordinary British men and women that he'd been unfairly defamed. How do I know? Because I was there.

This is the same man who is the sole source for every allegation in Spies. (Those who question whether Vassliev's chequered past is relevant might ask themselves how they'd respond, for example, if the late CIA renegade Philip Agee claimed to have made handwritten notes, before he left the agency, from a document showing that National Review founder William F. Buckley, during his brief service in the CIA, had worked on behalf of Franco's agents using the Catholic Church to help former Nazis find sanctuary in Latin America. Would they really accept Agee's word? And would the fact that Buckley actually did call Franco "an authentic national hero" render this plausible fiction any less of a lie?)

Even if genuine, all Vassiliev's notes show is that in 1936 Stone passed along gossip about William Randolph Hearst (who really was a Nazi sympathizer) to a Russian journalist whom he may or may not have known was Soviet spy. (The agent told his boss that relations with Stone had entered "the channel of normal operational work" -- a phrase that both Amy Knight and Svetlana Chervonnaya, two independent scholars with long experience of KGB archives, tell me is meaningless.) The second bombshell is that Stone was also in touch with William Dodd, Jr., whose father was FDR's ambassador to Berlin. Vassiliev's notebooks show Moscow telling their American operative to get Stone to put Dodd in touch with "an anti-Fascist organization in Berlin." But they don't record any evidence Stone did so -- although in 1936, when many Americans viewed the Soviet Union as a possible ally against Hitler (which, let's just remind ourselves, is what actually happened during World War Two), Stone might well have been happy to help. He was, as I say in my book, an enthusiastic fellow traveler in the 1930s right up until the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A political misjudgment maybe, a witting source for the Soviets, possibly, but still an awful long way from treason.

So what is this really about? One way to look at it is as the latest front in the battle to convince Americans that World War Two and the fight against Nazism were just annoying distractions from the much more important battle against Communism. This is an argument that really has been going on since the Cold War began -- but seems set to continue long after the Cold War ended. More usefully, we can look at what the smears against I.F. Stone are trying to destroy, namely the memory of an independent American radicalism, rooted in our native ground, informed by our country's history, and whose failings, and successes, were -- and are--determined on these shores. Radosh seems to find the whole idea too upsetting to contemplate. Perhaps its time for him and the rest of his bedfellows at PyjamasMedia to come out from under the covers.