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Who’s Afraid of I.F. Stone?

Response to this article by the Wilson Center

D.D. Guttenplan's Response to the Wilson Center

Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “McCarthyism.” At the invitation of the Woodrow Wilson Center I flew to Washington in late May to participate in a conference on Alexander Vassiliev’s notebooks.  Vassiliev is a former KGB officer who, back in the 1990s, was allowed access to secret Soviet archives as part of a deal between American publishers and the KGB pension fund. (Yeltsin was in power, Russia was broke, nobody had time to debate the morality of helping Rosa Klebb to a cushy retirement.)  I’d met Vassiliev in 2003, when he sued a critic of his first book, The Haunted Wood, for libel here in London. Although British libel laws heavily favor the plaintiff, Vassiliev lost his suit and promptly dropped out of sight without ever paying the winning side’s costs, only to reappear  as the co-author of a new book, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, also based on his notes. 

I didn’t expect a red carpet. The most headline-grabbing claim in the book is that I.F. Stone, the legendary investigative journalist, “consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938—that is to say he was a Soviet spy.” As Stone’s biographer I knew the charge to be nonsense—and had explained why, at great length, in a review published before the conference. Indeed the likelihood of fireworks prompted me to email the organizers beforehand to clarify the rules of engagement. In response I was promised “everybody, including you, will sit in around one big (horseshoe like) roundtable and will be part of the discussion.” When I pointed out that the featured speakers ran the gamut from conservative to far-right, I was assured that wouldn’t matter since they had been told “to keep their initial presentations to 10-15 minutes so that we can quickly get to discussion.”  Christian Ostermann, director of History and Public Policy Programs at the Wilson Center, offered to “alert the … chair” of any matter I was interested in “and make sure they call on you.”

The limits of this approach became apparent during the opening panel, when Vassiliev flatly refused to answer any questions about how he financed his research, how he’d supported himself since losing his libel case, or even how much he was being paid for access to his notebooks. One of his co-authors did say that the conservative Smith-Richardson Foundation, which financed the translation of Vassiliev’s notes, was also helping to defray the costs of the conference. And Amy Knight, an independent scholar who had obtained tapes of Vassliev’s trial testimony, pointed out that his account of note taking under oath in 2003 is very different from the process described in Spies. (See Amy Knight, “Leonard?” The TLS, June 26, 2009, pp. 8-9.) But with the audience almost as much of a stacked deck as the participants there was little interest in pursuing the matter. Instead we were all expected to take the notebooks’ authenticity on faith. For the Wilson Center, a publicly-funded, Congressionally founded institution, such partiality was surprising.

After all, even if genuine, all the notebooks really showed was that in 1936, when Stone was by his own admission an enthusiastic fellow-traveller, he was willing to talk to someone he might (or might not) have known was connected to Soviet intelligence as part of an effort to oppose Fascism. The notebooks record a total of two (2) conversations  supposedly involving Stone—one disclosing a potential economic motive for publisher William Randolph Hearst’s public embrace of Adolf Hitler; the other regarding a possible contact with the anti-Fascist underground for William A. Dodd, Jr., son of the American ambassador to Berlin. Neither involve the transmission of classified information—even Vassiliev admitted he thought the use of the word “spy” was a mistake. Nor, as I planned to say in my statement during the panel devoted to Stone, was either of these “disclosures” front page news.

Only I never got that far. Instead, after listening to a tedious resume of every charge ever made against Stone for well over half an hour—and sitting through four speakers who together spoke for 90 minutes--I raised my hand. The chair, G. Edward White, a law professor and author of a speculative book about Alger Hiss, called on me.  But I didn’t even get halfway into a five minute statement objecting to the way the authors of Spies collapsed the spectrum from unwitting source to witting source to unwitting agent to witting agent to spy when White told me to wrap it up. “I’m sorry,” I replied, “but I’ll need five minutes.”  Pointing out that I had been invited to speak, I tried to question the way the authors handled the evidence regarding Stone—omitting exculpatory facts, assuming that just because a KGB official in Moscow says something should be done, it was done, and leaving out any historical context that ran counter to their thesis—when White cut off my microphone. 

I can’t honestly remember whether it was at this point—or later in the afternoon, at the very end of the conference, when most of those with a particular interest in I.F. Stone had already left, and the organizers allowed me three minutes to race through my statement--that I resorted to the M-word. But if you’re interested, you can watch the whole sordid charade on the Wilson Center’s website. My bit comes on at 1:39.00 and ends at 1:40:58.

Twenty years after his death I.F. Stone still seems to provoke a curious frenzy in his opponents.  J. Edgar Hoover tapped Stone’s phone, read his mail, and had agents sift through his garbage in a vain effort to tar this independent radical as a Soviet stooge. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he remains a hate figure for the right—and a target for all of those threatened by a radicalism firmly rooted—as his was—in American soil.

I.F. Stone began his journalistic career in 1922 at the age of 14 with an article in a self-published newspaper praising the Woodrow Wilson Foundation as a fitting memorial to a great man, and though he changed his mind about many things, he remained an admirer of Wilson, whom he described as “one of my heroes,” to the end of his life. That the Wilson Center would lend its imprimatur to those who, for the sake of publicity, would make sensational charges without any corroborating evidence beyond the say-so of a washed-up former spy, even to the point of destroying a man’s reputation, strikes me as beyond irony. So although, with time to reflect, I might have come up with a better word to describe the atmosphere at the Wilson Center than McCarthyism, then again, maybe not.

Response of Christian Ostermann on behalf of the Wilson Center

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to some of the assertions made by Mr. Guttenplan. In May 2009, the Wilson Center held a conference  to mark the public release of Alexander Vassiliev's notebooks and to stimulate discussion of their significance for intelligence and Cold War historiography. For nearly two decades, the Center has run a special effort to make publicly accessible new sources, new documentation and new findings on the Cold War, particularly from formerly closed communist archives in Russia, East/Central Europe, and China, with the goal of enriching scholarship, allowing scholars and the public alike to scrutinize the new evidence, and facilitating initial scholarly discussion. 

In addition to publishing historical materials and disseminating them at no charge to the public, the Center provides an open and non-partisan forum for the discussion of important new evidence, findings and publications. In recent years the Center has held close to one hundred panels, book discussions, workshops and conferences on a broad range of subjects relating to international history and involving a diverse spectrum of speakers. A full listing of these events can be found on the Center's website, www.wilsoncenter.org .

The Center aims to be as broadly inclusive as possible and does not take a position on any of the new evidence or publications featured at our events. The Center receives funding for its activities from foundations and other donors across a broad political spectrum. A full list can be found in the Center's Annual Report.

As is the case with other significant sets of materials, the Vassiliev Notebooks require and deserve close scrutiny and vigorous, public discussion on questions related to their authenticity and implications for our understanding of the Cold War. As a public service, the Center posted the Vassiliev Notebooks online in their original form, in transcription and in translation. (It is our understanding that the original notebooks will be deposited at the Library of Congress and accessible for research.)

The online publication of the notebooks was done several weeks prior to the conference in order to allow conference participants to peruse the materials. Anyone interested in the matter now has the opportunity to review the original materials, rather than rely on citations or excerpts in new scholarship (or old) based on the notebooks, including the recent book by John Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America. We are pleased that the publication of the Vassiliev Notebooks has sparked immense interest and already generated discussion in a variety of scholarly and public fora.

The Center also invited the authors who contributed to a special issue of the respected peer reviewed Harvard Journal of Cold War Studies   on "Soviet Espionage in the United States during the Stalin Era"  (No 11:3, Summer 2009) to provide first assessments of the notebooks. (The papers are accessible here. The Journal's editor has invited readers to submit comments on the articles for publication.) 

In addition, the Center asked leading scholars from a broad range of backgrounds to comment on the presentations. Several of the commentators at the conference, including Bruce Craig, University of Prince Edward Island; Ronald Radosh, Emeritus, City University of New York; and Katherine A.S. Sibley, St. Joseph's University, are featured in an H-Diplo (H-Net) online discussion. It is worth noting that only one of the fifteen presentations dealt specifically with I.F. Stone.

Contrary to Mr Guttenplan's assertion that the audience was a "stacked deck," this conference (like the vast majority of Wilson Center events) was open to the public and well publicized via CWIHP's website and e-Newsletter, the Wilson Center's monthly Centerpoint newsletter, press releases, and other means. Invitations thus went out to thousands of people. The outreach efforts generated interest in the event from as far away as New Zealand. The Center made every effort to ensure that anyone with an interest in the topic knew that they were free to attend and participate in the discussion. There was no effort (and it would have been impossible) to handpick the audience of about 60-70 people.

We were delighted that Mr Guttenplan could join us for the conference, but I would like to correct the impression that he flew to Washington exclusively at the invitation of the Wilson Center. Mr. Guttenplan contacted the Center in early March to propose his participation in the conference, explaining “that I was planning to come to the US the following week in advance of the launch of my book,” and that “I can probably change my ticket without too much trouble” (March 9, 2009, Guttenplan email). He acknowledged shortly thereafter that he had “just invited myself.” To assure that Mr. Guttenplan felt welcome, we sent him a personal invitation to attend the meeting.

Mr. Guttenplan was also concerned about the “rules of engagement,” specifically a format consisting of  “a panel with a very limited opportunity for ‘audience participation,’ with the audience seated below a stage, and a very clear hierarchy of opinions and expertise, etc.” (April 30, 2009 Guttenplan email.)  We reassured him that in order to encourage discussion at the meeting, the audience would not be seated auditorium-style, but along with the panelists around a set of conference tables. We also urged speakers to limit their remarks so that additional perspectives could be included through questions and comments by the audience. While I encouraged Mr. Guttenplan to participate in the discussion, I also cautioned him that “We are really intent on making this as broad a discussion as possible, which means that everybody will have to be considerate and avoid monopolizing the microphone.” (April 30, 2009 response to Guttenplan.) In the spirit of including as many perspectives as possible, the organizers even assisted Mr. Guttenplan in making available his review of Spies to other conference participants.

The Center, as I emphasized in my remarks at the outset of the conference, does not take a position on any interpretation of the notebooks, or on the notebooks themselves. Through its various activities, the Center has provided a forum for their scholarly discussion. As an example, in addition to the conference, the Center's Wilson Quarterly published a rather critical review of Spies in its most recent issue.

In my opening remarks I went on to caution that the notebooks are a complex and difficult source, pointing out that as long as the KGB archives remain closed, caution is warranted as we look at these new sources, and we needed to keep their limitations very much in mind. 

Mr. Guttenplan himself is on record for commending the scholarly nature of discussion at the conference.  As a member of the audience, Mr. Guttenplan was recognized on at least three occasions by three different chairs to pose a question or comment—during session one between 1:42:45 and 1:50:06, during session two between 1:38:59 and 1:42:50, and finally, for six minutes, during session three from 2:18:29 to 2:24:43. At one point he was interrupted after reading for several minutes from a prepared statement, but he was given time at a later stage to complete his presentation.

Over the course of the conference, Mr. Guttenplan spoke for a total of more than 12 minutes -- more than many others in the packed conference room. 

The Wilson Center is committed to maintaining a neutral forum for free, open, and informed dialogue and it commemorates the ideals and concerns of Woodrow Wilson by providing a link between the world of ideas and the world of policy.

Response of D.D. Guttenplan

Let’s cut to the chase here.  The Wilson Center’s past record as a scholarly institution is not in dispute.  Nor are the “backgrounds” of the scholars invited to comment, though if Mr. Ostermann thinks that one white woman and fourteen white men represent “a broad range of backgrounds” perhaps he ought to get out more.

There is also no dispute about how I came to be invited to participate. On March 9, 2009  I emailed Mr. Ostermann as follows:

Dear Christian Ostermann,

I'm writing to suggest you invite me to the conference on Vassiliev's notebooks that the Wilson Center is organizing in May. For one thing, my biography of I.F. Stone, American Radical, will be published by Farrar Straus in June and contains an extensive discussion of the various allegations concerning Stone and the KGB. Indeed I think you will find that any historical discussion of this affair will rely, at least in part, on the reporting I did on this topic for the Nation beginning in 1992. (D.D. Guttenplan,  “Izzy an Agent?,” The Nation, August 3/10, 1992, pp. 124-125 and “Stone Unturned,” The Nation, September  28, 1992, pp. 312-313.)

It hasn't escaped my notice that your existing lineup of commentators is extremely skewed. Perhaps the Wilson Center prefers it that way. But if not I look forward to hearing from you. Apart from my interest in Stone, I also attended the whole of Vassiliev's 2003 libel trial here in London (I've written extensively on the British libel laws for Index on Censorship, the Nation, The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly) and could perhaps give your conferees an independent perspective on those proceedings.

with best wishes,

Don Guttenplan

Here is his reply:

Dear Don,

I would be delighted of you could join us for what is envisioned as a series of roundtable discussions involving all participants, and I would much appreciate having your perspective at the conference. We will not have major speeches but brief introductions that should allow plenty of time for discussion and interjections by everyone.  Also, by all means feel free to bring flyers of your book along, and if you'd like us to reproduce your Nation articles for the participants, feel free to send me copies. We want as broad a discussion as possible.

Christian Ostermann

I then received what looked like a boilerplate invitation, and wrote back:

Dear Christian,

Thanks so much for your kind invitation. I'd very much like to come. Do you need a definite commitment from me? If so, by what date?  And (pardon me for being so bold, having just invited myself) is there any provision for travel expenses for participants? I was planning to come to the US the following week in advance of the launch of my book, and while I can probably change my ticket without too much trouble it will mean staying nearly an extra week....

with best wishes,


To which I received the following response:

Dear Don,

We have next to now money for this event, so the only thing I could do is to have your partake in lunch and otherwise make it worth your while by helping spread the word about the book. If my assistant's tight budgeting is successful and we have any funds left, I will have it go your way. But I just can't promise.  When will copies of your book be available?