June 1988
By Eric Alterman
Photos by Mary Ellen Mark

211T-005-011 I.F.
Stone can barely find time for his afternoon nap.

Ever since I.F. Stone turned 80 on December 24 last year, he's been having the kind of day, every day, that Tom Sawyer had when he came back to town right smack in the middle of his own funeral. ("'He warn't bad so to say,' cried Aunt Polly, 'only mischeevous.") The Today show wants him. The New York Times and Washington Post have run reverent profiles, and People magazine sent John Reed's grandniece Susan to do an interview. After a life of political and professional ostracism, and virulent attacks in the mainstream press on both his character and loyalty, I.F. Stone, lifelong radical, has become a national landmark.

For 19 years, Izzy Stone was the sole writer, editor, and publisher of I.F. Stone's Weekly. His four‑page newsletter cut through Washington's official fog, combining tenacious investigative journalism with a respect for historical context. Izzy's wife, Esther, worked alongside him in their Washington home, and together they built the Weekly from its initial circulation of 5,300 in 1953, to a peak of more than 70,000 in 1971, when Izzy's doctors finally persuaded him to shut the paper down. During the McCarthy era, it was un‑American to subscribe to Izzy's newsletter. Today, it's un‑American not to love Izzy.

Esther and Izzy Stone: for 19 years, they put out the Weekly from their Washington home

Much of the current hoopla surrounds the publication of The Trial of Socrates, the product of a return to the classics that led Stone to begin studying ancient Greek at the age of 70. His original plan had been to write a history of freedom of thought, beginning with the English 17th‑century revolutions. But Stone kept moving his focus back in time, to get what he considered to be a proper intellectual handle on the problem. Finally, he landed in Athens, where he fell in love. The more he came to admire the Athenians, however, the more saddened he became by the execution of the city's most famous philosopher.

In The Trial, Stone reverses 2,400 years of historiographic trends by attempting to give the Athenian side of the story. Hurling himself against not only the most eloquent dialogues of Plato, but also the thrust of nearly all current Socratic and Platonic scholarship, Stone argues that Athens had cause to wonder about Socrates' loyalty to democratic principles, particularly since former students of his twice had overthrown the democracy to institute a brutal dictatorship. Socrates probably could have saved himself, writes Stone, if he had not behaved quite so arrogantly toward his fellow citizens, practically goading them into sentencing him to death. In the end, Stone explains the dreadful verdict, but he does not condone it. He goes so far as to write a speech with which Socrates might have won his case, by basing his defense on the city's own commitment to the principle of free speech.

Reaction to the book has not been uniformly positive. Some scholarly reviewers have balked at Stone's portrayal of Socrates as a boring old pedant, and a few neoconservatives have attacked the book as "cultural philistinism." What most upsets Stone, however, is that even the favorable reviews‑which constitute the majority­- have failed, in his opinion, to deal with the substance of the book. "They either dumped on me or buried me in flattery or flowers. The findings weren't even dismissed; they weren't discussed."

However upsetting, the flat­tery has boosted sales. The Trial, Stone's 12th book, is his first to make the New York Times best‑seller list; three book clubs have selected it. Now, Little, Brown is planning to release a series of six of Stone's past works under the title A Non‑Conformist History of Our Time, and Pantheon has just issued Andrew Patner's I.F. Stone: A Portrait, an admiring book of the kind that usually appears as a tribute to the recently deceased.

Stone appears to have become a victim of what Ben Bagdikian, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "the Norman Thomas phenomenon." When Thomas was head of the American Socialist Party, he was ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream press, Bagdikian recalls. "But toward the end of his life, he began to get these extremely well attended banquets that were quite well covered by the press."

There is something disturbing about Izzymania in 1988. The outpouring of praise for Stone is a celebration of gadflyism, of octogenarian scholarship, of intellectual jousting and moral introspection, and of the triumph of Macintosh technology over failing eyesight. In short, it is a celebration of everything about Izzy except the substance of his work as a journalist.

"Back during the height of the cold war," recalls Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, "everybody except Izzy accepted the government on faith. Myself included. We accepted their numbers. We accepted their explanations. We all agreed that the Russians were the bad guys. Izzy operated differently on two levels. First was his willingness to look doggedly at what people said and did and find the contradictions in the government's line. That is hard work and requires a fanatical dedication to the truth." The second of Stone's defining virtues, in Lewis's eyes, was his willingness, "pretty much alone among Washington journalists‑," to question universal assumptions. "He wasn't always right," says Lewis. "I myself differ with him on much about the Korean War. But looking into original premises‑that is a Madisonian, a Jeffersonian tradition of strengthening a democracy."

Izzy's doggedness, his vigilant search for contradictions in the official story, led to what he calls his "best scoop." It happened in June 1957, when President Dwight Eisenhower announced he would support a comprehensive nuclear weapons test‑ban agreement with the Soviets if it could be properly verified. The Russians agreed to allow the United States to place seismic listening posts at 1,000‑kilometer intervals inside the Soviet Union. Ike seemed ready to put a lid on the nuclear arms race, once and for all. But his own experts argued that underground tests were impossible to monitor and that the Soviets were certain to cheat. Stone, with his meager resources and the Weekly's tiny circulation at the time, was alone in trying to expose the experts' lies.

On September 19, 1957, the United States conducted its first underground nuclear test. The New York Times reported the next day that "the experiment seemed to have conformed with predictions of AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] scientists that the explosion would not be detectable more than a few hundred miles away." But the paper also carried wire reports noting that the shock of the test had been recorded in Rome and Toronto. Stone noticed the inconsistency, but he had neither the resources nor the contacts to cable Rome or Toronto to follow it up. He filed the clippings away in his basement.

On March 6, 1958, the AEC released its official report on the test. "The earth waves were recorded at seismological stations at Los Angeles about 250 miles" away, it noted. "This was the maximum distance at which the shot was recorded." If this were true, then the verification agreement with Moscow was clearly inadequate. A thousand kilometers is over 600 miles. The Soviets could indeed avoid detection.

Stone read the report, remembered the clippings, and got to work. He called the AEC and asked how its report squared with detections of the test as far away as Rome and Toronto. AEC officials said they didn't know, they'd get back to him. Not one to wait around for a phone call, Izzy hopped in his car and visited scientists at the Coast and Geodetic Survey at the Commerce Department. Without telling them why he was so interested ‑they hadn't seen a reporter since "Noah hit Mount Ararat," as he recalls‑he discovered that the Nevada test had been recorded by 19 separate U.S. and Canadian listening posts, including Fairbanks, Alaska, over 2,300 miles from the site, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1,240 miles away.

Seconds after Stone got home, he recalls, his phone rang. It was the press officer at the AEC. He said, "Izzy, we heard you were sniffing around at Coast and Geodetic. It's too late for us to get Nevada on the Teletype, but we'll call you tomorrow. Maybe there's a mistake." A few days later, the AEC issued a "note to editors" asking that the last two sentences of its March 6 press release be deleted and a sentence admitting that "seismological stations of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey as far away as College, Alaska, about 2,320 miles from the shot mesa recorded the earth waves." No explanations were offered. That was it. The next day's papers contained no mention of the correction. I.F. Stone, working alone from the clippings in his basement and the phone in his den, revealed the truth about the experiment to the 10,000 Weekly subscribers in the March 10, 17, and 24 issues.

In the days and months that followed, the true purpose of the discrepancies was revealed by a series of statements by U.S. officials. The AEC acting chair told a congressional hearing on March 6 that the test ban must be opposed because "if you stop testing them, you are stuck with…the present arsenal and that is just about it." The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Nathan Twining, told U. S. News & World Report that "only by continuous testing can the versatility of our nuclear weapons be increased." In April, Eisenhower went on record in favor of more tests. The window of opportunity for a complete test ban was nailed shut.

It's difficult to imagine a story more important than one that might have helped end the nuclear arms race, but the Nevada test story as it was covered by most newspapers is unfortunately more of a rule than an exception‑a rule that has not changed substantially in the past 30 years.

In the past year alone, the State Department has confirmed reporter Seymour Hersh's contention that the president and Secretary of State George Shultz misled the public about the Soviet Union's intentions when it downed the KAL 007 jetliner in 1983. The confirmation, however, comes five years after the belligerent U.S. reaction helped poison superpower relations. Another investigation, this one by Don Oberdorfer of the Washington Post, revealed that the so‑called Marine spy scandal at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow rested on sand. Over one year and $30 million later, reports of a major breach of security have been found to be so much official flimflam. And as the Iran‑contra hearings made clear, Elliott Abrams, Oliver North, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, and Ronald Reagan lied virtually every time they opened their mouths when discussing Central America. The press, with a few honorable exceptions, repeated those lies, and with the passage of time, they became regarded as truths, and gave birth to new lies.

Two journalists currently working in Washington who can be said to share Stone's fanatical dedication to unearthing the truth from beneath a pyramid of lies are Hersh, formerly of the New York Times, and William Greider, formerly of the Wash­ington Post. (Hersh and Greider, for different reasons, opted to leave the two most important journalistic institutions in America.) Both consider Stone their inspiration. "Izzy taught me that you've got to read before you write," says Hersh, "and he proved that the way to get the story is not to eat lunch with the cabinet secretary."

Greider, now national editor at Rolling Stone, concurs. "What made I.F. Stone so heroic, and what I try to imitate, is that he has never been in doubt about his position as an outsider. To not need acceptance takes a certain strength of character. But it can be very liberating to a reporter as well."

Greider and Hersh are rarities in Washington, where the tone of journalism is set by reporters and columnists who have trouble remembering what it is they are supposed to do for a living. There are reporters today‑Bob Woodward is one‑who are equally, if not more, skilled than Stone at getting out the facts of a covert operation, but Stone is still unique in combining investigative technique with historical memory and moral introspection. "You can't be a cynic and a good reporter," he says. "You have to believe, not in clichés, but essentially that people are sufficiently reasonable that they can be moved by argument, reason, and compassion."