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Myra MacPherson

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Review: Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America and "Three Tales of I.F Stone and the KGB: Kalugin, Venona and the Notebooks"

Posted: 05/28/09 04:11 PM ET

Comments on Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. By Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Alexander Vasiliev. Also Max Holland paper, "Three Tales of I.F Stone and the KGB: Kalugin, Venona and the Notebooks."

The old saying that one cannot judge a book by its cover could be tweaked to observe that sometimes one cannot glean the truth by a book's title. This is especially so in the case of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America regarding the thin documentation of journalist I.F. Stone as a stellar spy in the 1930s. One has to hand it to authors Harvey Klehr and John Haynes who know a bit about huckstering and sloganeering. Nothing would scare off prospective book buyers so much as a title about agents or agents of influence or sources. But SPIES! Now that has the proper cloak and dagger ring to it.

Most people justly assume that "spy" means knowingly acting against the interests of one's country, obtaining vital secrets and passing them on to an enemy regime. No jury would convict Stone of being a spy and certainly not with the evidence that Klehr and Haynes provide. The authors go to great pains to provide their own elastic definition of spies: "...journalists rarely had direct access to technical secrets or classified documents, but the espionage enterprise encompasses more than the classic spy who actually steals a document." Thus a journalist spy could be an unwitting agent of influence or a witting one, a "trend spotter" who helps find other agents or a courier who passes non-classified information or even the most trivial gossip. In an interview with the New Haven Independent, Klehr even admits that "there was no indication with Stone that he's providing hot information. He's just another one of the sources they recruited."

The third author of this book is Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent who was allowed to examine thousands of formerly secret files detailing Soviet espionage. He could only take notes on the information and he tediously toiled for two years to copy the material. From these notes Harvey and Klehr glean that beginning in 1936 and "over the next several years" Stone "worked closely with the KGB" "assisted Soviet intelligence on a number of tasks, ranging from doing some talent spotting, acting as a courier by relaying information to other agents, and providing private journalistic tidbits and data."

After this build up, the evidence reveals much less -- not several years of cooperation, not working "closely with the KGB", but a total of two instances -- which implies that Stone had to be the laziest talent spotter in their stable.


Historical Time Lines

Before we discuss these notes, we should examine a major flaw when authors make "spy" claims with no attempt to describe actions in the context of the time. During the thirties, Stone was, as he said, a fellow traveler and "a strong popular fronter before there was a popular front." [All Governments Lie, p. 118]. He deeply feared the spread of Fascism and was the youngest editorial writer in the country to warn the world about Hitler when many pundits were silent. He embraced the popular front so wholeheartedly that unity against Fascism meant suspending or ignoring hard truths about Russia. No biographer has attempted to sugar coat his myopia when it comes to Russia. But being misled and naïve does not make one a spy. In this context it makes a great deal of sense to assume that fiercely anti-Fascist Stone willingly participated as an agent in dealings with the Russians in the belief, however misguided, that American democracy could forge an alliance with a totalitarian regime. At no time did Stone think he was doing something harmful to his own country. Stone, like Winston Churchill, saw a necessary alliance; Churchill harshly criticized Neville Chamberlain for his failure to respond to a Soviet offer of a French-Soviet-British alliance against Germany before the disastrous 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact. "I beg his Majesty's Government to get some brutal truths into their heads," said Churchill. "....without Russia there can be no effective Eastern front." [All Governments Lie, p. 175] During the '30s, Popular Front strange bedfellow alliances seemed everywhere. Republican politicians like Thomas E. Dewey, who would soon join the McCarthy attacks on leftists, happily posed for pictures with a CPUSA union organizer and friend of Earl Browder, the head of the CPUSA, because it was politically expedient.

Both Spies and Holland's paper state incorrectly that New York Post publisher J. David Stern, an anti-communist liberal, fired Stone because of his leftist leanings. Stern in his oral history explains that the two fought over Stone's editorials regarding a refinancing plan for the New York transit system. After a heated exchange Stern worried about Stone's "juvenile attitude towards this problem. I sent a note to Izzy and the managing editor that hereafter he would work with the news department." Stone induced the Newspaper Guild to bring charges against the management for unfair practices. Stone lost in arbitration and resigned". [All Governments Lie: p. 171-172].


Stone and the KGB during the Popular Front

With this history in mind, let us look at what Spies shows. The first reference, April 13, 1936: Pancake [Stone] was Liberals' lead [described as Frank Palmer a leftist journalist and a KGB agent who suggested that his bosses look at Isidor Feinstein (Izzy's name at the time) as a good prospect.] The next month "relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work. " The authors define this as meaning he was a "fully active agent." When Fair magazine tried to Google this phrase -- normal operational work -- the only reference was to the Spies use. It is obviously not found in previous spy lexicon. That month, May, 1936 a KGB New York station memo to Moscow said that Pancake had reported that "Karl Von Wiegand works in Berlin as a correspondent for the Hearst agency " and "had been ordered to maintain friendly relations with Hitler, which was supposedly dictated by the fact that the German press was buying the agency's information. Hearst is in a deal with German industry to supply the latter with a large consignment of copper." The next sentence has a "who could blame him?" ring to it for anyone opposed to Hitler: "Wiegand does not agree with Hearst's policy." Certainly Stone was looking for a red hot story here and sought information for his own purposes. If Stone could prove the copper connection he would have blasted it across the pages of the New York Post. Stone was already working on major exposes that would show that American cartels were doing business with Nazi Germany.

A second reference mentions Pancake's talent spotting: Pancake established contact with Dodd and said that Pancake "should tell Dodd that he has the means to connect him with an anti-Fascist organization in Berlin." Dodd was William Dodd Jr., son of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and a popular front activist. Pancake also passed on to the KGB Dodd's information "picked up from the American military attaché, about possible German military moves against the USSR." And a final memo from that era stated that Victor Perlo, a member of FDR's administration and a Russian agent, helped Stone with various materials for Stone's exposes. (See Footnote 1)

So that is it. Everything on Stone in the Notebook files. Then the focus shifts to the oft reviewed Venona files and the attempt of agent Pravdin to sign Izzy on as an agent in 1944 -- when, by the way, Russia was a crucial ally. Klehr and Haynes state that even with the Vassiliev Notebook it is "still not completely clear if this attempt was successful or not."

The rest of the Stone references in Spies rehashes the often discussed material found in Venona files, released in the mid nineties, and endless attempts to decipher the truth in Kalugin's many versions of his having had six lunches with Stone over a two year period in the sixties. This relationship was first revealed 17 years ago. It is gratifying to see that Haynes and Klehr now find two of the Venona references to Blin aka Pancake perfectly "benign." The other is the question of whether Stone had more than one meeting with Pravdin, the KGB agent cum press attaché during the World War II alliance.


Walter Lippmann and the KGB

A most interesting question is why Walter Lippmann, the establishment sage, continues to get a pass in all this discussion of spies, even though, as I noted in All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone, the Venona files show that Lippmann was far more revealing and talkative than Stone ever was with the same agent and press attaché.

In the new material, Klehr and Haynes deal with Lippmann once again with veneration. A Vassiliev note obtained for Spies states that in June 1945 Moscow Center told the New York KGB station that "the cultivation of Truman's inner circle becomes exceptionally important....To fulfill this task, the following agent capabilities need to be put to the most effective use." The four journalists code named as agent were "Ide" "Grin" "Pancake" and "Bumblebee." Since "Bumblebee" was Lippmann, how do Haynes and Klehr handle this collective inclusion? "Walter Lippman was not [the authors' emphasis] a KGB agent. He knew Pravdin only as a Soviet journalist with whom he traded insights and information." In other words, was Lippmann more gullible and less intelligent than Stone who, they claim, always knew that Pravdin was KGB? Haynes and Klehr are left with having to say that "with Lippmann's inclusion to the list, this message is ambiguous in regard to Stone's relationship to the KGB at that time and does not have enough detail to warrant a firm conclusion."

Max Holland in his paper "I.F. Stone: Encounters with Soviet Intelligence" is stuck with the same information. The journalists in the memo are lumped in with men in the government and military circles and all are referred to as "the above-mentioned probationers" who should be "directed" to get information on Truman's plans and thinking. . Holland writes "what is notable about this message is its reference to 'agents' and 'probationers', the latter term being KGB terminology for an active source or spy. Not taking care to distinguish Lippmann/Bumblebee [a non-agent in Holland's view] from the others listed in this message indicates either a range of meanings about how the term 'agent' was used or, more likely simple laziness on the part of the cable's author....Where this leaves Stone/Blin is unclear. Either Stone, like Lippmann was sloppily lumped in with the others, or else he had moved at least one degree beyond an overt contact." No explanation is given as to why Lippmann -- who figures more prominently than Stone in the Venona files, participating in conversations relaying far more information than Stone did about U.S. activities -- is not considered an agent. Like Klehr and Haynes, Holland states that the otherwise brilliant Lippmann was "unaware that he was actually talking with a skilled intelligence officer" as he chattered away. Whether he knew or not, everything he said about wartime maneuvers and so forth showed up in the KGB files.

Holland concludes that there is no question Stone was a "fully recruited and witting agent" from 1936 to 1938 but "was not a 'spy' in that he did not engage in espionage" and had no access to classified material. Says Holland, " ...Stone apparently acted out of ideological conviction like the vast number of U.S. citizens who agreed to help the Soviet Union covertly..." Unlike Haynes and Klehr, Holland places Stone in the context of his time. "By almost any objective standard, the world situation did appear as dire in the spring of 1936 as Stone believed it was. [Stone was later singled out by historians for his prescient and unrelenting editorials regarding Hitler's subjugation of Jews at that time.].He perceived fascism to be a clear and present danger. That was matched by his fervent believe--which some would label a self-delusion--that the New Deal state and the world's only socialist state were separated by just a few degrees, and could coexist amiably. Using this logic, it was a virtuous act to cooperate with the Soviet intelligence. Stone would actually be serving the best interests of his fellow citizens and the country."

As for the conflicting tales woven by former KGB agent Kalugin about his relationship with Stone from 1966 to 1968, Holland correctly notes that Kalugin "seemed incapable of telling the same story more than once." Still, this did not keep Holland from repeating the damaging and long refuted lie that Herbert Romerstein, former HUAC sleuth, developed after talking with Kalugin, that Moscow Gold subsidized Stone's weekly newspaper.

No where is there any evidence that Stone took money for anything except a possible lunch or two.. Nor is there any evidence, as Holland points out, that Kalugin was able to plant stories with Stone.


What Does it all Mean?

So, finally, what does the new meager material add to our knowledge of I.F. Stone and his life's work? Not much. We knew he was just short of being a Communist in the thirties and that he worked and talked freely with anyone on the left during the Popular Front. He thought of himself as a fellow traveler, even, he once said, "something of an apologist" and he took far too long to completely acknowledge Stalin's evils. However he was often critical of the USSR and the CPUSA and earned their loathing when he worked as a tireless interventionist, fighting for aid to Britain during the Stalin-Hitler pact when Americans of all stripes opposed such action. (Only 12% in one poll favored aiding Britain.) He supported Tito when Stalin broke with him. He warned America to "not go the way of Russia" during its Witch Hunts.


Korea

Stone's most tendentious work, "The Hidden History of the Korean War" was not "dictated" by Communists but by Stone's beliefs. He will always be criticized for raising the theory that the South might have begun the war -- with leading Americans in complicit accord -- and Klehr, Haynes and Holland hammer this home. However, they concentrate on blistering critiques of the time and neglect just how correct Stone was in many aspects of the war, bolstered by lately revealed long secret documents. At least Holland correctly notes that one lie promulgated by the far right -- that Stone spread the Communist propaganda that the United States was using germ warfare -- is completely false, as I pointed out in my biography. In addition, a thorough reading of Hidden History reveals an often concise examination of other Korean war facets, written on deadline. Stone quotes such bastions of communism as the Wall Street Journal editorials to bolster some of his arguments. And thanks to the Woodrow Wilson Cold War History project we know a lot more about the machinations of the other side all these years later. It is clear, as Holland says, "there is no evidence to indicate that Stone's conspiratorial thoughts about the Korean war's origins sprang from anything other than his own mind." However, an examination of the Wilson Cold War files is necessary in order to see how Stone fares in the light of new solid information. It shows that Stone shared thoughts similar to the CIA at the time! And Stone's then inflammatory position that Stalin did not mastermind this war and, in fact, initially refrained from backing North Korea, is true. As historians sifted through half century old documents from Korea and Russia, Stone sounded amazingly prescient on this point back in 1951: "I believe that in Korea the big powers were the victims, among other things, of head-strong satellites itching for a showdown which Washington, Moscow and Peking had long anticipated but were alike anxious to avoid." He was also one of the first to dispel the domino theory and the concept of a monolithic Communist bloc.

"On Korea, Izzy's book still stands up very well, as a book done by culling the fine print of newspaper articles. His 1952 inference (it was only a hypothesis) on the war perhaps being provoked by Seoul is backed by all kinds of other secret evidence that he could not have seen, for example that the South started most of the fighting throughout the summer of 1949--according to the American commander on the scene, in classified messages to Washington," says Korean War historian Bruce Cumings. "After that fighting, the CIA had assumed that if a war broke out, the South would have started it. It is now entirely clear that the North Koreans chose not to fight when provoked in the summer of 1950 because their best people were still fighting in the Chinese civil war. Also, both sides were being restrained by their big-power guarantors. Soviet documents show exactly the same restraint on Kim that American documents show on Rhee, in August 1949 when heavy fighting broke out and thereafter. Kim then decided on an invasion in June 1950, probably hoping to take advantage of a southern provocation... It is absurd on the face of it that Izzy as 'agent' would suggest on Moscow's orders that the South started the war, since Moscow had tried to sue for peace within weeks of the war's start, something that Pyongyang and Beijing opposed, and by 1951 China was much more important to the North Koreans than Moscow."

It seems that we end up with much ado about nothing or, at least, once again a lot of thunder about I.F. Stone and little substance. Haynes and Klehr suggest that defenders of Stone examine him anew in light of the Vassiliev notes. But there are already millions of words on what Stone wrote, said and perceived and he has been well analyzed in four biographies. What we have is Stone possibly being an agent -- not a spy -- during a time that Russia was an ally, World War II, and probably so during the Popular Front liaison with Russia against Fascism. In the sixties, he was merely a "source" according to one of the many versions of Kalugin. "We had no clandestine relationship. We had no secret arrangement. I was the press officer." [All Governments Lie p. 326].

The bottom line remains that Stone's leftist ideology when it came to Russia and communism indeed marred an esteemed career. Still, Stone was head of the pack on the most pivotal twentieth-century trends: the rise of Hitler and Fascism, disastrous Cold War foreign policies, covert actions of the FBI and CIA, the greatness of the Civil Rights movement, the horror of Vietnam, the strengths and weaknesses of the antiwar movement, the disgrace of Iran-contra and the class greed of Reagonomics. He fought tirelessly for First Amendment rights, constitutional freedoms and called that most American of men, Jefferson, his one true hero.


1-Stone's exposes in fact were so amazing that they shaped administrative policy, a success few journalists can claim. These are but a few: An expose of Standard Oil led to Truman's firing an official who had withheld vital information. After a Stone series revealed that a handful of big business firms monopolized defense orders, the administration set up a branch to help small businesses get contracts. Stone's work pushed the Economic Defense Board to halt U.S. shipments to Franco and revoked licenses for export of oil to fascist Spain. Stone exposed OPM bungling and revealed that plants ran at a fraction of capacity -- and FDR then scrapped OPM and sent up a new board to expedite wartime production. In 1943, Stone revealed that Secretary of State Hull had forced the United States to put frozen funds in pro-Vichy hands.