(Part 2 of 2)
When it came his turn to testify, he reminded committee members that "the truth is . . . the Communist line has zigzagged all over the map, while I have held what I believe to be a steady course of my own." Describing his detractors as "embittered, ruthless and unprincipled . . . masters of the dark techniques of villainy" and "artists of conspiracy," Lattimore made an impassioned plea for freedom of scholarly inquiry. "Gentlemen, you cannot, you must not permit a psychology of fear to paralyze the scholars and writers of this nation . . . Attacks of this sort which have the effect of intimidating scholars and researchers are bound to affect the quality of their work, to circumscribe their sources of information, and to inhibit the freedom with which they state their facts and conclusions. Particularly is this a calamity with respect to the Far East, where our knowledge is pitifully inadequate and our qualified experts woefully few in number."
Although these new hearings only lasted a few months, when they were over, Lattimore lamented that his life was "a mess," and that it was "going to take a long time to get things straightened out." Indeed, it took a far longer time than he ever would have dared imagine at the moment.
When, in November 1950, Chinese "volunteers" joined the North Koreans in their war against U.N. forces in the South, and a new wave of Sinophobia and hysteria over the "loss of China" to the communists swept the United States, Lattimore and numerous other "old China hands" came under even more intense fire. This time the accusations came from the Senate internal security subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, known as the McCarran committee after its militantly anti-communist chairman, Sen. Patrick McCarran, a Democrat from Nevada. When in 1951 it, too, locked onto the IPR, Lattimore was dragged back into the line of fire, this time for 12 grueling days of public testimony, including the recitation of old and unsubstantiated accusations. Lattimore described himself as feeling like "a blind man running a gantlet."
The real object of such hearings was not only to make it appear as if he were responsible for a U.S. policy that abetted the communist takeover of the Chinese mainland but to trip him up on some detail or other that would allow prosecution. After all, because Lattimore was under oath, if it could be proven that he had testified untruthfully, he could be charged with perjury.
The transcript of the hearings reads like something out of Kafka's The Trial, in which K., the accused, is hectored and bullied without being given any means of defending himself against absurdly unintelligible charges. Lattimore was, for instance, repeatedly ordered to respond to complicated and potentially incriminating questions with a simple yes or no. Unlike many cooperative witnesses who testified with unctuous humility, Lattimore fought back, challenging committee members, sometimes with unalloyed disdain. He called McCarthy the "Wisconsin Whimperer," and at one point even dubbed him "a graduate witch burner." Not surprisingly, he provoked the committee's displeasure, and even wrath. So enraged did McCarran become that he threatened to "discipline" Lattimore for the "insolent, overbearing, arrogant" language with which he "scoffed at the committee's efforts," "impugned the committee's methods" and "slandered the committee's staff."
Despite his strength of character in refusing to submit, Lattimore suffered deeply from these "show trial" hearings. What upset him most was that, because the congressional-hearing format was not a court of law, it left him with no formal way of challenging the manifold accusers who had testified against him -- such as the Seattle travel agent who informed the CIA that Lattimore had just bought an air ticket to Paris and was about to defect to the Soviet Union! "One of the most shocking things that has happened in the proceedings," complained Lattimore, "is that not one of the witnesses against me has ever been asked in examination or cross-examination a question that would test his motives or his reliability."
Because so many others were cowed, Lattimore felt all the more compelled to confront the evil of this smear campaign. "People find it more and more easy to take refuge in rationalizing," he lamented in a letter to his old friend, diplomat John Carter Vincent. "Thus we have a new standard. Senators can hit below the belt and keep it up day after day; but if he hits back, straight from the shoulder, that is not becoming."
Although he still had not been formally accused of any crime, the hearings, financially, physically and psychologically, sapped both him and his family to the breaking point. Moreover, defending himself had become such a preoccupying task that he had no time or mental space left to do scholarly work. Even more distressing, the accusations had turned him into a pariah in the eyes of many American academics. One notable exception was Harvard historian John King Fairbank, who, despite resistance from his dean, faithfully invited Lattimore to lecture in Cambridge each year. EVEN AFTER 24 MONTHS of hearings, no substantial proof of disloyalty or subversion emerged. However, J. Edgar Hoover seemed determined to find grounds for indicting Lattimore. The city of Baltimore alone had assigned 25 FBI agents to the case. It was at this stage that Roy M. Cohn, the ambitious and reckless attorney who was McCarthy's legal adviser at the time, was summoned by the Justice Department to Washington to help the FBI work up grounds for a perjury charge to be submitted to the grand jury. And in December 1952, a seven-count grand jury perjury indictment was handed down by the Justice Department. It claimed that Lattimore had lied under oath when he denied that "he had been a promoter of communism and Communist interests."
Once again, Lattimore was dragged back into the political limelight. Although President Harry S. Truman was doubtless hoping to help him and his colleague John Paton Davies when he declared that they had been "shamefully persecuted" by the Senate internal security subcommittee, such support only served to place their cases more at the center of partisan politics.
Again, Lattimore stubbornly denied all charges. "What got Lattimore through was he had a backbone of steel, and his wife was absolutely courageous," wrote Yale Law School professor John P. Frank, one of Lattimore's defense lawyers. "Whatever McCarran could dish out, Lattimore could take and return."
In May 1953, Lattimore's determination seemed to have prevailed when U.S. District Court Judge Luther Youngdahl handed down an opinion calling the main count against him "fatally defective." The judge also threw out two of the other perjury counts and declared the remaining counts "so indefinite that the court feels the defendant is entitled to a bill of particulars to enable him to defend."
But as in some absurdist drama that heaps one catharsis on top of another, there were more acts to be played out. The FBI doggedly continued its investigation and in August 1953 finally filed an appeal. "This has been another one of those Alice in Wonderland performances, which seemed so unreal that it was difficult to believe it concerned us in any way," Eleanor later recalled.
"Until a decision is reached, my life as a teacher, a writer, a lecturer, and in many instances a friend is at a standstill, and my seriously damaged reputation cannot only not be repaired, but will continue to deteriorate," Lattimore despondently wrote to one of his lawyers. It was Lattimore's darkest hour, light-years away from the exuberant, freewheeling life he and Eleanor had enjoyed on the deserts of Mongolia and Xinjiang.
When the court of appeals finally issued its opinion in July 1954, eight of the nine judges ruled in favor of upholding Youngdahl's original decision to throw out the main count of perjury, the core of the indictment against Lattimore. But even then, the prosecution refused to relent. Still desperate to prove that there had been some substance to the original charges of espionage and disloyalty, the Justice Department decided to seek yet another grand jury indictment.
In October 1954, what biographer Robert Newman calls "one of the strangest documents ever to come down from a grand jury" indicted Lattimore with two new counts of having lied to Congress by denying he had followed the "Communist line" or promoted "Communist interests." The counts were justified by a 515-page "analysis" of Lattimore's extensive scholarly writings done by so-called outside experts who purported to show that "in approximately 97 percent of the cases, Lattimore agreed with the Communist line." It was guilt by association in the first degree.
The indictment was crushing news for the Lattimores. However, Washington political winds soon began to shift. Joseph McCarthy had made the fatal error of attacking the U.S. Army, and increasingly weary of the seemingly endless witch hunt against alleged subversives, the Senate voted 67 to 22 in December 1954 to condemn him. Then the following January, Judge Youngdahl ruled on Lattimore's second indictment by throwing out both perjury counts without reservation. Citing "its many vague charges," Youngdahl declared that "to require defendant to go to trial for perjury under charges so formless and obscure as those before the court would be unprecedented and would make sham of the Sixth Amendment and the Federal Rule requiring specificity of charges."
Although the government again decided to appeal, by the next spring even the hardest-line fanatic began to realize that the case against Lattimore was judicially insupportable. It was this belated and embarrassing recognition that after five years of wasted effort led Attorney General Herbert Brownell back to Judge Youngdahl's court seeking a complete dismissal of all charges. IN THE END, the enormous amount of government resources -- tens of thousands of man-hours expended collecting documents, wiretapping, shadowing, questioning and holding hearings -- produced no incriminating evidence against Lattimore. Even J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI alone accumulated an almost 40,000-page dossier on him, was finally forced to concede that "it does not appear that facts . . . depict Lattimore as a dangerous individual." It must have been a bitter admission for a man who had put so much stock in the idea of a "communist conspiracy" within the U.S. government and of Lattimore as one of the keystones in this supposed arch of Soviet subversion.
Searching the record, one is forced to ask why Lattimore, who had begun his career exploring the most obscure border regions of the world and whose views were usually extremely moderate and informed, was ever drawn so fatally into this debate over Sino-American relations and U.S. party politics. "Perhaps the reason is simply that Lattimore was there, a Far Eastern specialist who was raised in China, a man who had undertaken government and academic assignments, a person of robust opinions always prepared to give back as good as he was given, regardless of consequences," ventured veteran journalist Harrison Salisbury in the New York Times.
After five long years, Lattimore was finally able to restart his academic engines. Although chastened by all the attacks, his views on China and Mongolia continued to show all the acuity and independence of his earlier years. For example, in a 1958 book review he insightfully wrote about Mao's new China this way: "China's old Confucianism was, whenever it had the power to be, dogmatic and authoritarian . . . Confucian rule has been shattered by Marxist rule, but if, at the same time, the dogmatic tendencies fuse with the authoritarian heritage of Confucianism, the worst excesses of Byzantium, Moscow, and the Empress Dowager could be exceeded." It was prescient warning for a country that was just in the middle of a tectonic movement against "counterrevolutionary rightists" and was yet to plunge into the even more extreme Cultural Revolution.
But as Lattimore soon discovered, his career had been so indelibly tainted by all the negative publicity surrounding his hearings that it was almost impossible to regain his former status as an academic. Besides, there were some at Johns Hopkins (which had put him on paid leave and had dissolved the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations, which he had directed) who were not enthralled with the thought of having such a politically controversial figure reassociate himself with the university. Finally, Lattimore decided to go into a kind of self-imposed exile to Europe, where the academic community as a whole had been far more supportive of his scholarly work and admiring of his courage. In 1963 he accepted a position at the University of Leeds in Britain. His ambition was to build a new department of Chinese and Mongolian studies and to begin again to write and speak out on important foreign policy issues involving Asia.
The next 25 years of his life were full ones, with much scholarly writing, numerous lecture tours to both America and the Continent, several trips back to China and almost-annual journeys to Outer Mongolia. Although Lattimore did not care to dwell on his political persecution, he was never able to completely escape his notoriety as a victim of McCarthyism. Friends and supporters retained such a collective sense of guilt over what had happened that they periodically tried to expiate the country's sins with mea culpas that made Lattimore feel very uneasy. For instance, when historian Henry Steele Commager suggested in a 1972 letter to the New York Times that President Nixon (like presidents Kennedy and Johnson before him) should apologize to Lattimore in order to help him recover from the government's attacks against him, an unrepentant Lattimore scornfully replied that it was "misleading to say that I never recovered from the effects of official harassment.' " He went on to insist that "my record from the McCarthy period to the present does not need to be prettied up" and to note that "President Nixon's record of the same period could do with, and is getting, a lavish application of cosmetic art."
Eleanor's death in 1970 ended what Owen Lattimore called "a marriage of 44 years that was perfect from beginning to end." His answer to his bereavement was to throw himself into his work. After moving back to the United States from Cambridge, England, Lattimore suffered a stroke in 1987. He was 87 years old, but it was none the less an agonizing end for someone who had been as peripatetic, active and independent in mind and action as Lattimore. He died two years later, just before the bloody denouement of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in his beloved Beijing.
What was so ironic about Owen Lattimore's life and fate was that while it was the study of Mongolia and other border peoples in central Asia that were his first love, it was China that caused him most of his political trouble. But even though China was not his central scholarly concern, the balance sheet of his assessments on policy matters was still impressive and certainly did not merit the kinds of attacks that were unleashed on him.
Robert Newman calls Lattimore's track record "remarkable." To be sure, the biographer writes, "there was some bad advice from his pen. He said in 1940 that Japan was no danger to the United States. He was wrong about Stalin's purge trials. He thought too highly of Chiang's ability as a politician and statesman . . . But in far more judgment calls, his heresies now look very good . . . When the Japanese launched their major offensive against North China in 1937, Lattimore was all but alone in saying that Japan would not win, that the Chinese would stem the Japanese advance and hold their heartland. Going against the common opinion of journalism, he saw clearly that the Chinese Communist support of coalition with Chiang was only a tactical maneuver."
His constant early warnings that colonialism was doomed in Asia were right on the mark, however offensive they were to conservatives and the European powers. He knew, says Newman, that Chinese "control of Tibet would be destructive and unpopular . . . and predicted a repression in China such as the Cultural Revolution."
Unfortunately, all of these assessments had a way of becoming lost in the hysterical hubbub of accusation over "Who lost China?" so that when Owen Lattimore is now remembered, it is rarely for his insights, his scholarly work or his defense of free expression. Instead, he is remembered as a kind of phantom victim, born of the nightmarish period of American political persecution we now call McCarthyism that doomed him to involuntarily roam the political darkness thereafter like a headless horseman. The missing ingredients in this inchoate historical after-vision of Lattimore are his courage, clarity of thought and stubborn refusal to abandon principle even in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
In Lattimore's view, what was on trial during his long ordeal was not only his own integrity but the integrity of the democratic enterprise in America. "The sure way to destroy freedom of speech and the free expression of ideas and views is to attach to that freedom the penalty of abuse and vilification," he warned with a lucidity that was rare at the time. "It is only from diversity of views fully expressed and strongly advocated that sound policy is distilled."
In our present day and age, when "abuse and vilification" of political figures has seen an escalation into new and more mutant forms, when questions of principle are so regularly hazed over with the expedience of the moment and when freedom of expression is so often viewed as un-American, it is an admonition still worth heeding.
Orville Schell is a longtime observer of China and the author of Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China's Future. This article is adapted from an introduction to a new edition of Owen Lattimore's High Tartary, recently published by Kodansha America. CAPTION: Reporters interview Owen Lattimore in 1950 after Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused him of being a "top Russian spy." CAPTION: Owen Lattimore on Capitol Hill during the anti-communist hearings, which he said made "a mess" of his life. CAPTION: High Tartary Honeymoon After their wedding in 1926, Owen and Eleanor Lattimore embarked on an epic adventure into the rugged interior of China. She is shown in riding gear at left and in a pony caravan above. He is shown at upper left wrapped in the winter garb of the Mongolians, a sheepskin coat and hat. Along the way, the couple encountered nomads living in yurts, far left, and native people in trading villages, below. CAPTION: Ordeal by Slander. Owen Lattimore, above, in 1950 next to his accuser, Sen. Joseph McCarthy; right, testifying before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that same year with his wife behind him; and, top right, with Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek in 1942.