4 August 2009 **** Front Page

Four pages that shook Washington

By Tapani Lausti

D. D. Guttenplan, American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2009.

Who was I. F. Stone? you may ask. He was not as famous as, say, Walter Lippmann or James Reston, but his work has stood the test of time better than that of many contemporary journalists. D. D. Guttenplan sums up the career of this amazing American dissident like this: "Popular Front columnist and New Deal propagandist. Fearless opponent of McCarthy and radical pamphleteer. Scourge of official liars and elder statesman to the New Left." Guttenplan adds that to think for yourself is the hardest thing for a journalist: "Yet I. F. Stone managed to do it, day after day and week after week, for fifty years." (p. xii)

I. F. Stone was a radical who hated orthodoxy, a journalist who doubted the merits of objectivity and above all had a deeply ingrained scepticism about the claims of power. He was an independent writer who believed that the way a society treated its dissenting intellectuals was an index of freedom.

To gain absolute journalistic freedom Stone launched his own paper in 1953. I. F. Stone's Weekly had only four pages. By the time he stopped publishing it in 1971 he had written 3.5 million words, in Guttenplan's words "the longest essay in single-handed journalism in American history". (p. 441) Stone showed how to identify essential facts from a huge amount of information. He didn't have many friends in high places in Washington, D.C. but he knew how to study official documents. He could put questionable politics in historical context and reveal the true motivations behind the fog of self-serving propaganda. Stone often said: "Establishment reporters undoubtedly know a lot of things I don't. But a lot of what they know isn't true." (p. 475)

Stone's probably most important piece of investigative journalism appeared on 8 March 1965, two days after the first US ground troops landed in Vietnam. There are still a lot of people who believe that the U.S. went to Vietnam to stop aggression by North Vietnamese Communist regime. Stone proved immediately the falseness of such claims. Simply using statistics supplied by the Pentagon press office Stone was able to conclude: "The rebellion in the South may owe some men and materiel to the North but is largely dependent on popular indigenous support for its manpower, as it is on captured U.S. weapons for its supply." Indeed, using Pentagon figures, Stone showed that 95 per cent of the arms in the hands of the National Liberation Front came from South Vietnam. (p. 396)

Young radicals admired Stone's ability to dig up facts that contradicted official lies. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) members have said that they depended on Stone to interpret all the events of the world for them. Although Stone spoke to admiring student audiences, there was also some tension. He understood the roots of the youth radicalism of the late 1960s but he was weary of some aspects of radical action. D.D. Guttenplan writes that Stone distrusted radical activists' optimism.

Stone himself wrote: "Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat. It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into a dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party lines. Those who set out nobly to be their brother's keeper sometimes end up by becoming his jailer. Every emancipation has in it the seeds of a new slavery, and every truth easily becomes a lie." (p. 431)

Stone did not believe in objective journalism. He once said: "What they call 'objectivity' usually is seeing things the way everybody else sees them." Guttenplan writes: "This is about honesty. And credibility. The attacks on Stone help to remind us not just of what he was, but of what he represented — an independent radical who kept hold of his ideals, and kept faith with his comrades, without renouncing his freedom to speak his mind. Destroy that credibility and you have destroyed more than a man, more than a reputation. But grant his credibility — grant him the compatibility of his beloved Jefferson, and his equally beloved Marx — and I. F. Stone remains, even in death, a dangerous man." (pp. 473-474)

Indeed, twenty years after his death, I. F. Stone's warnings are as topical as ever. He warned Americans about the delusions of empire. He would have certainly been alarmed by Barack Obama's recent declaration: "Now make no mistake, this nation will maintain our military dominance. We will have the strongest armed forces in the history of the world." (Quote in Three Good Reasons To Liquidate Our Empire by Chalmers Johnson, TomDispatch.com, 30 July 2009)


See also:

Visit the archive: Media, US policies, Gabriel Kolko, Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Howard Zinn; Alexander Cockburn


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