By Max Holland
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 Representative J. Parnell Thomas (R-NJ), chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, on a government physicist named Edward U. 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, Stone wrote. 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 US 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.”