Internationalist House of Pancakes: I.F. Stone and the KGB


Since historians John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev revealed that their forthcoming volume Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) would contain archival documentation linking journalist I.F. Stone to the Soviet intelligence apparatus (cover name: "Pancake"), many of Izzy's acolytes have intervened on behalf of their hero, arguing either that a) the evidence is inconclusive or that b) it really doesn't matter anyway, considering that the Soviets occasionally opposed Hitler. Writing at the Daily Beast, Eric Alterman argued that Stone couldn't have been a paid agent of the Russians because, during their friendship, "he never mentioned anything of this to me." FAIR, the lefty media watchdog website, offered the thinnest of gruel: There was no previous reference to the phrase "normal operational work"—which appeared in a KGB document related to Stone—in Nexis, a database that stores precious secret Russian documents.

Now along comes UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong to claim that, while he might have worked with the Soviets, Stone should be considered a "premature anti-fascist," and that "helping Stalin against Hitler is a mitzvah."

First, let's understand that Spies recounts that the years of Stone's known employment by the KGB—the Russian intelligence archives are enormous and difficult to penetrate, as Jonathan Brent's new book demonstrates, and Vassiliev's notebooks are just a sampling of material, not a full accounting—were the year's of Stalin's great purges, during which hundreds of thousands were murdered. Nor does DeLong know if the only secret work Stone engaged in was anti-Nazi and never against his own government. Besides, if one wanted to be anti-Nazi why sidle up with a dictatorship that, by 1939, would ally with the fascist Germany and provide military and logistical support in their war on Poland? Was the Roosevelt administration not good enough? The point of the Stone documents is not to suggest that he was the journalistic equivalent to Alger Hiss, but that the ex-Soviet agents that previously fingered Stone as "one of ours" were, broadly speaking, telling the truth.

Second, the idea that, in the case of Stone or any ideologically-motivated agent, one can simply separate support for Stalinism from a supposedly naive anti-fascism is absurd. Why is it so difficult for his hagiographers to believe that Stone was actually a true-believing Stalinist? Recall that this is a man who wrote a ridiculous book accusing South Korea of invading North Korea in 1950, or whose first reaction to the 1953 Soviet massacre of workers in East Berlin was to write that "It is too early to tell whether the East German disorders represent a spontaneous worker uprising—it is difficult to associate spontaneity with the German character—or coordinated action exploiting labor grievances but carefully prepared by a military underground for some crucial moment?"

No, no. Not Izzy. He was a tough anti-Soviet and genuine anti-fascist! Which goes a long way towards explaining this 1953 encomium to Stalin, written immediately following his death and published in his eponymous newsletter:

"If Stalin was the aggressive monster painted in official propaganda, his death should have cheered Washington. Actually the unspoken premise of American policy has been that Stalin was so anxious for peace he would do nothing unless Soviet soil itself were violated. With his death, the baiting of the Russian bear-the favorite sport of American politics-suddenly seemed dangerous…The cold war claque was critical of Nehru for calling Stalin a man of peace, but Washington's own instinctive reactions said the same thing…Stalin was one of the giant figures of our time, and will rank with Ivan, Peter, Catherine and Lenin among the builders of that huge edifice which is Russia. Magnanimous salute was called for on such an occasion…It is difficult to pursue dignified and rational policy when official propaganda has built up so distorted a picture of Russia. Many Americans fed constantly on the notion that the Soviet Union is a vast slave labor camp must have wondered why the masses did not rise now that the oppressor had vanished.

And then there is this quibble, again from DeLong:

Second, there is something wrong with historians who write about how Stone worked "closely with the KGB"—the Committee for State Security—when the KGB was not organized until 1954. In the late 1930s the sinister and murderous people who worked in Dzherzhinsky Square were part of the NKVD.

Pedantic DeLong's got their number! Imagine, two historians who have devoted their lives to the study of Soviet espionage—Haynes alone has written 10 books on the subject—not knowing the difference between the NKVD and the KGB. I read the Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev book in galleys and can confirm that these three experts on Soviet intelligence do indeed understand the distinction. Right there in the book's introduction, we get this note on nomenclature: "This agency, while having a continuous organizational history, went through a variety of title changes and was at times part of a larger entity. For reasons of simplicity and to avoid confusion, the agency in most instances will be referred to as the 'KGB,' the Committee of State Security, its title from 1954 until the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. But readers should keep in mind that its actual title prior to 1954 was as specified below."

And as the chart "specified below" shows, in the "late 1930s" the KGB forerunner was technically the GUGB, a section of the NKVD. But nevertheless, DeLong's point that working with Soviet intelligence (Stone, the KGB noted, had entered "normal operational work" in 1936 that consisted of, according to the authors, talent spotting and acting as a courier between agents) was simply premature anti-fascism that "not even Pat Buchanan" would object to is simply nonsense.