Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China

In March of 1950, John Foster Dulles allegedly paid a visit to fellow Republican Joseph R. McCarthy and asked the Wisconsin senator to refrain from bringing accusations against his friend Francis Sayre, who worked for the State Department. McCarthy, the story goes, laughingly agreed and said there were plenty of other names in his files. Supposedly without looking, he pulled out a folder on Johns Hopkins professor Owen Lattimore, an expert on Mongolian culture who did not even work for the government. Lattimore was dubbed the key man in a Soviet espionage ring and remained under suspicion until 1955, when the Justice Department dismissed a perjury indictment against him.

At most Lattimore was guilty of dubious judgment while editor of PACIFIC AFFAIRS. His sympathy for Mongolian nationalism put him at odds with both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. In fact, the chapters on Lattimore’s visit to Ulan Bator and his theories of Central Asian cultural cross-fertilization are much more interesting than the ones on the Senate Internal Security Committee’s compilation of evidence against Lattimore—evidence so chimerical that it is hardly worth taking seriously. Lattimore subsequently denied that he was a Red Scare victim since he held onto his job and ultimately won vindication. Nonetheless, the tawdry episode derailed his scholarly career, probably contributed to his becoming a heavy smoker and drinker, and denied his countrymen the benefit of his sage advice during the time he was a pariah. In 1970, Lattimore wrote Edgar Snow that the United States had a “bewitched belief that the incantation of words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ (accompanied by the spending of lots of money) could somehow conjure up an Ohio-like or New England-like regime capable of reversing a revolution already in being.” In other words, China (South Vietnam also) was not America’s to lose. Highly recommended.