He is remembered -- when he's remembered at all -- as a prominent victim of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But the real story of this explorer and scholar who found himself at the epicenter of American politics involves a kind of stubborn, principled courage that's rare in Washington today. (Part 1 of 2)

When Owen Lattimore picked up the phone in his Stockholm hotel room on June 28, 1955, and was told that U.S. Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. had dropped perjury charges against him, it was difficult for him to believe that what he called his "ordeal by slander" had at last come to an end. Having failed over the course of five years to make any accusations stick, the Department of Justice had finally requested that U.S. District Court Judge Luther Youngdahl grant a complete dismissal of the case. The good news found Lattimore and his wife, Eleanor, on a lecture tour of Europe, an escape from the acrimony of McCarthyism back home. "We went to a hotel balcony overlooking an arm of the harbor and ordered champagne and smoked salmon and smoked reindeer," Lattimore remembered in a letter to a friend, and "drank a toast to all the many people without whom we'd never have survived." For most Americans who have even heard of him, the name Owen Lattimore today conjures up little more than a vague association with the McCarthy era and its many victims. But Lattimore was a very singular man and his case an unusual one. A person of great resilience and adventuresome exuberance who grew up as far as one could get from Washington and its corrosive politics, Lattimore was a man of enormous moral rectitude. Unlike so many others who yielded to McCarthyist pressure, he refused on principle to give any ground to his accusers, even when confronted with a relentless onslaught of character assassination. In our present era of moral ambiguity, when compromise and deception have so defoliated the landscape of venerable political figures, Lattimore's steadfastness in the face of perverted and savage attacks, together with his stubborn commitment to open inquiry, offers a profile in a kind of political courage that seems increasingly rare on the American scene.

Lattimore's life was one of extremes and contradictions. He was born in Washington in 1900, but a year later, his father, David, took the family to Shanghai, where he was to work as a teacher of modern languages. It was just a year after the Boxer Rebellion and 10 years before the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Owen did not return to America again until he was 29. At age 12, after studying at home with his parents, he was sent to Switzerland to attend the College Classique Cantonal near Lausanne. He went on to St. Bees, a public school in England. When he failed to win a scholarship to Oxford, he returned to China, later claiming somewhat defensively to be glad he had escaped the generation of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh and the dangers of becoming an "insufferable esthete," "enamored of the extremist ideologies of the day."

A short time later he took a job working for the Tianjin office of the British import and export firm, Arnhold and Co. His experience in the world of business gave him a lifelong respect for the role that commerce plays in everyday life. "The trouble with the New Left is they haven't met a payroll," he was to complain many years later. One of the virtues of his new job was that it gave the young Lattimore a chance to travel on company business into the interior of China. It was this happenstance that began his transformation from an ordinary businessman into an explorer, ethnographer, linguist and scholar roaming remote Chinese border regions. He never guessed that this literally "un-American" development would someday place him at the epicenter of American politics.

In 1925 he was sent to Hohhot, now the capital of Inner Mongolia, to arrange for the release of a trainload of wool that had been held up by a feud between warlords. There he encountered the camel caravans that still navigated the Gobi Desert and was captivated by the romance and medieval atmosphere surrounding this ancient tradition.

That same year, after Arnhold moved Lattimore to Beijing, he met his future wife, Eleanor Holgate, the daughter of a Northwestern University professor on sabbatical in China. On March 4, 1926, they married and decided to spend their honeymoon trekking across northwest China, exploring the old caravan routes to India and the Middle East.

Since by then Lattimore had some knowledge of the rough-and-tumble world of camel caravans and the dangers along the route from inclement weather, bandits and marauding soldiers, the newlyweds decided that he should set off on the first leg of this honeymoon journey across Mongolia alone and telegraph when he arrived in Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, so that Eleanor could set out via the Trans-Siberian Railway and join him. Then, they planned to journey together by horseback and horse cart through "High Tartary," more commonly known at the time as Chinese Turkestan. This second and less dangerous leg of their journey would take them across Xinjiang through the Tianshan Mountains, around the Taklamakan Desert to Akesu, Kashi, Shache and then finally over the Karakoram Pass down to Ladakh, Kashmir and India.

Three books came out of this epic exploration. Lattimore's trek by camel across Mongolia produced The Desert Road to Turkestan, in which he describes his spellbinding journey into this "strange country where I might travel but the one time in my life, living for a few score days the life of men in other ages." It was this journey that sparked his lifelong interest in Mongol history, culture and language. Eleanor chronicled both her solo journey from Beijing via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Novosibirsk and Semipalatinsk and then via sled in the dead of winter to Chuguchak and the couple's subsequent travels in Turkestan Reunion. Their odyssey together across Xinjiang provided the framework for Lattimore's much broader cultural and historical observations in High Tartary. All three books are curious mixtures of travelogue, exploration and geopolitical analysis. But High Tartary is also an ethnographic adventure, the likes of which can no longer be undertaken because there are simply no longer unexplored places and peoples left on Earth. The Lattimores' trip came at the end of an era of great European explorations across central Asia. Beginning even before Marco Polo set out from Venice in the 13th century, this era concluded with a spate of 19th-century explorers, such as French Lazarist priest abbe Huc, czarist Russian army colonel Nikolai Prejevalsky, U.S. diplomat William Woodville Rockhill and Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who created a climate of mystique and romance about this remote part of the world. Indeed, one photo in High Tartary shows Lattimore in the best of this swashbuckling tradition -- as a bearded young man with pipe rakishly in mouth and arms akimbo, standing outside a tent, along with his faithful Chinese retainer, Moses, somewhere on his trek through these desert wastes. Another shows him standing out on the frigid Gobi Desert bundled up in a long Mongol-style sheepskin robe with a felt hat-cum-earmuffs pulled down over his head.

Despite the inhospitable nature of the region, Chinese Turkestan already had gained international strategic importance by the end of the last century. The contention grew not over caravan routes but out of the geopolitical rivalry between the Russian and the British empires, what came to be known as the "great game." Toward the end of the 19th century the buffer zone they provided began to be destabilized by British and Russian fears that each was seeking influence at the expense of the other.

By the 1920s another great rivalry was looming on the horizon -- that between the Soviet Union and China. "Nothing is more evident than that the vast tract of Asia, from Manchuria to the Pamirs, is destined to be one of the most pregnant frontiers of the future," Lattimore observed after his 1927 trip. Not only did the region "comprise something like half the territory of China," he wrote, but "from both sides a flow has begun into these thinly held lands. Russians and Chinese must in time come face to face. There is no meeting in history to compare with it. The open frontier of China has yet to be determined . . . Affairs in that remote intermediary land between Far East and Near East {are} unpredictable, what with the conflicting interests of many minor{ity} peoples and the inevitable pressure, as it were impersonal and foreordained, of the two major races, Russians and Chinese."

Reading these words from the vantage point of the post-Sino-Soviet rift -- particularly as the "flow" of Han Chinese into Xinjiang and other minority areas such as Mongolia and Tibet has accelerated -- makes Lattimore's warnings about the tension between central China and its "autonomous regions" seem particularly prescient today.

The publication of The Desert Road to Turkestan and High Tartary helped launch Lattimore on a career as both Sinologist and Mongolist. Sensitive to the fact that he had never gone to college -- much less graduate school -- and consequently had no network of old school relationships, he later wrote with a certain defensive pride, "My knowledge of China and Mongolia and Central Asia was not built up by having pull with the right people, but by traveling in the far interior, by studying Chinese and Mongol until I could read and speak and be completely independent of an interpreter, and by making my way in equal terms among merchants, caravan traders, soldiers, bandits, peasants, shepherds, landlords, grain dealers and others, who would be nameless to a visiting fireman' economist or political scientist or diplomat. Then, off this foundation of real life, I built a superstructure of geographical, historical and sociological study."

Despite his being a scholar manque, in 1928 the U.S. Social Science Research Council gave him a fellowship for a year in residence at Harvard to finish writing High Tartary. The following year the Harvard-Yenching Institute offered him a grant to return to China and work on his Chinese and Mongolian while continuing his peregrinations through Manchu and Mongol minority areas. IT WAS NOT UNTIL 1933 that Lattimore became the editor of Pacific Affairs, the journal of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), an organization dedicated to the study of the countries of the Pacific region and to improving relations among them. At the time, it was difficult to imagine anyone less likely to become a target of American political controversy than Owen Lattimore. After all, he had occupied himself with the study of one of the most obscure regions of the world. But upon returning to China in 1934, he quickly found himself drawn into such controversial questions as the Japanese occupation of China and the rise of Mao Zedong's peasant Communist movement. Both of these developments posed deep perils for Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government. "As the editor of the magazine that served as the international forum of the Institute, I was right in the middle, and no matter who was throwing a brickbat at whom, I was likely to get clipped," Lattimore complained, according to Robert P. Newman in his painstakingly researched biography, Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China. That did not stop him, however, from speaking out in his characteristic way: freely, openly and usually with impeccably balanced judgment.

By 1937, Lattimore later recalled, his home had become "a sort of headquarters" for Mongols coming down from Mongolia to Beijing. He reminisced, too, that " politics' had for me meant chiefly the relations between Mongols, Chinese and Japanese . . . The only connections we absolutely did not have were Communist connections." Nonetheless, it was at this time that he made a journey to the Communist redoubt in Yan'an where Mao's followers had just formed a united front with Chiang's Nationalists against the Japanese. As a result of this new alliance, the Communists had moderated many of their more radical social programs and political rhetoric. But their apparent new moderation did not deceive Lattimore into believing that their fundamental commitment to Marxist class revolution had changed. Although he was outspokenly opposed to Japanese aggression in China (which not a few scholars, businessmen and diplomats of the era were inclined to forgive) and thus vigorously supported the united front, he did not evince much overall sympathy for Mao's cause. As he wrote in a report on his Yan'an trip, he felt that Communist concessions to moderation were only made "temporarily" and left them with the kind of "advantage that terrorists would have used ruthlessly."

In 1938 Lattimore accepted a position at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His strong commitment to a diversity of opinion made him not only accept but search out articles for Pacific Affairs from the widest variety of sources, even from Soviet and pro-Soviet writers. In one instance, he published an article defending the purges and the political trials in Moscow as helping to strengthen the Soviet Union against Germany and Japan. When the article was attacked, he published an editorial claiming that in his view "a great many abuses have been discovered and rectified" in the U.S.S.R. This was one of the few erroneous political judgments of Lattimore's career, but one for which he would ultimately pay dearly.

For the moment, however, Lattimore's reputation remained unblemished. As the war heated up that same year, Lattimore was sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as an adviser to ally Chiang Kai-shek, to whom he gave strong support, even opposing the supply of Lend-Lease war material to communist guerrilla forces who were also fighting the Japanese. His hope, he said, was to "keep the Communists in a subordinate position."

In 1944, Lattimore accompanied Vice President Henry A. Wallace to the Soviet Union and China. During brief stops in Siberia, both Lattimore and Wallace were all too impressed by several Potemkinized labor camps in Joseph Stalin's gulag that they took for models of new voluntary settlements. As Newman writes, they were "entranced by their Siberian odyssey and published glowing accounts of what they saw and did." When it came to China and Mongolia, Lattimore's long experience and considerable linguistic abilities made him an astute observer. Whenever he strayed across the border where he had no such expertise, however, he had a tendency to lose his bearings.

Soon after the Wallace trip, Lattimore returned home to Maryland and Johns Hopkins to write and lecture. The theme he stressed above all was not new: the need to stem Japanese aggression. Although he was fearful about Chiang Kai-shek becoming too reliant on foreign aid, he continued to support him. But more vocally than ever, he urged Chiang to expand his base of support and deal with official corruption. He also called on the great powers to declare an intention to decolonialize the world after the war. As for Mao's Communists, he credited them with having won broad popular support and argued that they should not be viewed as simple puppets of Moscow, as a growing number of doctrinaire, U.S. anti-communists insisted. But far from supporting any socialist or collectivist solution to Asia's problems, he reiterated his conviction that "a policy of encouraging development of independent local capital and industry" would best assure its future.

Meanwhile a new political storm over China policy was gathering force. As a group of U.S. China specialists known as "old China hands" -- many of whom Lattimore knew -- working for the U.S. government put Chiang's regime under more and more pressure to reform itself and to cooperate with Mao's Communists against Japan, a countercurrent of American opposition sentiment began to gather strength. Not only did adherents of this countercurrent vigorously support Chiang but they viewed the "old China hands" as being "soft on communism" and began criticizing the IPR and the State Department. At first, they tended to be viewed as little more than an epiphenomenon -- pesky yet irrelevant cranks with a single-minded agenda. But as history soon proved, they represented the beginning of a powerful new political movement.

The first salvo was fired in 1944 by Alfred Kohlberg, a wealthy New York China trader who viewed any discussion about corruption in the Nationalist government as treason against the anti-Japan war effort. For reasons that are still mysterious, his attacks were aimed at the IPR, which he accused of "putting over a not-too-well-disguised camouflaged Communist line." This was followed with another attack in 1945 by ex-Trotskyite Max Eastman and journalist and editor J.B. Powell, who had formerly been based in Shanghai. They warned that a "flood of books, articles, reviews, news dispatches, lectures, and radio broadcast is pouring across our country dedicated to the sole purpose of confusing the American people about the situation in China." Reviling the "totalitarian infection spreading from Russia," in regard to China, they singled out Lattimore because of his prominent position in the IPR as "perhaps the most subtle evangelist of this erroneous conception."

Attacks against State Department China specialists such as John Stewart Service, John Carter Vincent and John Paton Davies Jr. also began to crescendo in 1950, especially after the "loss of China" to the communists allowed conservative Republicans to accuse the Democratic administrations of failing to provide sufficient support for Chiang's Nationalists. Lattimore, of course, had never been in the State Department nor had he even served as a consultant to it. Nonetheless, he became viewed as one of the main architects of postwar U.S. policy toward China and soon found himself preoccupied with defending his reputation against charges that he was a communist sympathizer. THE APOGEE of these attacks came in March 1950, while Lattimore was in Afghanistan on a United Nations technical-assistance mission. In a secret session of the Senate internal security subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Sen. Millard E. Tydings (hence known as the Tydings committee), Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy claimed that Lattimore was not only the man who "lost China" and "the top Russian spy . . . the key man in a Russian spy ring" but "one of the top Communist agents in this country."

When Lattimore first heard about McCarthy, he thought little about the dangers the Wisconsin Republican posed. "But like a dream that begins with something ridiculous and then branches and sprawls and crawls into horror and terror," as he put it in Ordeal by Slander, the book he and Eleanor wrote about their experience, "the nightmare began to grow." The charge was, he said, "the kind of lie that followed the Goebbels formula of the big lie: A lie so big that a lot of people would say: He {McCarthy} couldn't make an accusation like that with nothing to back it up. There must be something in it.' " And sure enough, it was not long before a bewildering array of what Robert Newman calls "charlatans clamoring for the spotlight and claiming knowledge about Lattimore" began injecting all manner of fantastic and spurious charges into the public debate.

It is still not known what made McCarthy choose Lattimore as a target, and his charge turned out to be based on completely unsubstantiated claims and hearsay evidence offered up by a welter of dubiously reliable informants. What bound members of this "China lobby" together was militant anti-communism (many were themselves self-confessed ex-communists) and uncompromising backing for Chiang's Nationalists. Many were convinced that almost everything Lattimore and his ilk had done with regard to China "was designed to subvert the Chinese Nationalist government and to facilitate the seizure of power by the Chinese Communist Party," as one FBI agent put it. In Lattimore's view, "the China lobby wanted a simplified propaganda picture of China with all-out supporters of Chiang Kai-shek lined up on one side, Communists on the other side, and nobody allowed in the middle. Independents like myself must be cleared out of the middle."

Lattimore was dumbfounded by the attacks. As Eleanor wrote in Ordeal by Slander, her husband had been "one of the most unpolitical persons you can imagine. When I first knew him, he was interested in trade and travel, and hunting and riding, and he took very little interest in anything political until the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. And even after that he was woefully ignorant of communism."

After first hearing the charges against him, Lattimore remembers being "boiling hot" with anger. But after digesting them for several days, he became "cold and sharp-edged." From that point on, he gave his accusers no quarter.

When Lattimore arrived back in the United States from Afghanistan to make a statement of rebuttal before a throng of waiting reporters, he minced no words. Making what he called a few "short and pithy" remarks, he unambiguously called McCarthy "base and despicable." Alas, McCarthy was conveniently protected from libel suits by congressional immunity. But what was worse for Lattimore was that McCarthy's attack now opened him up to numerous other unfounded charges.

When Lattimore was finally brought before the Tydings committee, he struck back against McCarthy defiantly, accusing him of "instituting a reign of terror among officials of the U.S. government" and of "making the U.S. government an object of suspicion in the eyes of the anti-communist world" and "the laughing stock of the communist governments."

After analyzing the options open to the United States with regard to China policy, Lattimore acknowledged that "my analysis may be partly or wholly wrong." But, he added, "if anyone says it is disloyal or un-American, he is a fool or a knave."

He concluded, first by affirming his belief that "both capitalism and political democracy have immense vitality and adaptability," and then warning that if these systems fail to survive in America "it will be because of dogmatic and uninformed men who insist on policies of coercion, repression and inequality . . . If the people of this country can differ with the so-called China lobby or with Senator McCarthy only at the risk of the abuse to which I have been subjected, freedom will not long survive." When Lattimore finished, he was greeted by a thunderous accolade of applause from the Senate hearing room.

Afterward, Lattimore recalled feeling "confident that the worst of the strain was over." Such optimism seemed all the more justified when at the end of the hearings Chairman Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, announced that he had seen Lattimore's FBI dossier and found "nothing in that file to show that you were a Communist or had ever been a Communist, or that you were in any way connected with espionage."

"Everything looked and felt like a smashing victory," remembered Lattimore. "It was a moment of exhilaration so great that for a moment I forgot that it was not a vindication." And when the subcommittee issued its 313-page report calling the proceedings against Lattimore "a fraud and a hoax perpetrated on the Senate of the United States and the American people" and declaring the proceedings "the most nefarious campaign of half-truths and untruth in the history of the Republic," Lattimore had all the more reason to be exhilarated.

But he could not have been more wrong in his assessment that victory had been won. As eloquent and as convincing as he had been before the Tydings committee, he was, after all, still only a single voice pitted against a growing cabal of hysterical anti-communists who were able to operate from within the protective embrace of the government.

Despite his momentary sense of relief and elation, the experience had been a brutally wounding one for Lattimore. "The whole idea of proving that you are not despicable by listing the people who despise you is deeply humiliating," he later wrote. Moreover, enormous legal expenses soon forced Lattimore to sell his interest in a Vermont farm. Completely unknown to him, his purchaser (who answered a classified ad in the paper) turned out to be a former member of the Communist Party. By the time this fact was discovered, it was too late for Lattimore to cancel the binding contract. When McCarthy caught wind of the sale, he sought to make immediate political hay out of it. "So," he crowed, "we find a well-known Communist giving Mr. Lattimore $3,000. The Communist Party often handles payoffs -- contributions -- by transfers of property."

Only when rumors began circulating that McCarthy did not intend to give up and, in fact, planned to produce new witnesses, did it become clear to Lattimore that victory was still far from at hand. Abe Fortas -- the eventual Supreme Court justice who served as Lattimore's counsel, largely on a pro bono basis -- warned that the danger he now faced "cannot possibly be exaggerated" and that new hearings did not preclude the possibility of "a frame-up with perjured witnesses and perhaps even forged documents."

Just as he had dealt with most problems in the past, Lattimore chose to confront new charges directly. "I want to meet this thing head-on and slug it out," he told Fortas. "I owe it to myself and the issues that are at stake." THE FIRST NEW WITNESS was Louis Budenz, whom Lattimore described as a "sensational ex-Communist author and lecturer." As he listened to Budenz testify against him, rehashing "old and long disproved allegations that had been circulated for years by the China lobby," even claiming that Lattimore had been a member of the Communist Party, Lattimore began having a sinking feeling. "A nightmare seemed to be closing in on me," he remembered. But committed to fighting until the end, he counterattacked vigorously, calling his accusers "a motley crew of crackpots, professional informers, hysterics and ex-Communists who, McCarthy would have you believe, represent sound Americanism. (Continued in Part 2)