Standing Or Falling: The Owen Lattimore Case

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“I am willing to stand or fall on this one.”

So said Senator Joseph McCarthy, 50 years ago, who was already embattled two months into his investigations, which began in February of 1950 when he waved a list numbering–depending on who you wish to believe, McCarthy or his foes–205 or 57 Communists currently employed in the State Department.

The case he was willing to risk his career on concerned Professor Owen Lattimore, a self-described China expert. When China fell to the Communists under Mao Tse Tung in 1949, Republicans–and even some Democrats, Senator John F.Kennedy among them–sought to answer the popular question at the time “Who Lost China?” Many found the answer in the State Department, once the haven of the recently convicted Soviet spy Alger Hiss. Lattimore seemed made to order for this accusation. Lattimore blamed the loss of China on Chiang Kai Shek’s corrupt government and that the Chinese Communists were not controlled by Moscow.

From this, McCarthy embellished his charges against Lattimore as “the top Russian agent,” the “boss of Alger Hiss” and hence the architect of the “treacherous” policies toward China. He even told reporter Jack Anderson that “four Soviet agents had landed in America by submarine and gone directly Lattimore’s house for their instructions.”

The tragedy of this case was that, for once, McCarthy might have been on to something had he not sought headlines with boilerplate rhetoric.

Lattimore immediately responded to the charges. Appearing before the Senate, he insisted that he was never an adviser or influenced State Department policy toward China. Billing himself as “a private citizen,” he asserted that he was the “least consulted man of all those who have a public reputation in this country as specialists in the Far East.” Moreover, he declared himself an anticommunist.

But a careful look at the record then and now shows that Lattimore was involved in government activities. On the recommendation of Roosevelt adviser and, according to declassified documents today, Lauchlin Currie, the President appointed Lattimore as the political adviser to Chiang Kai Shek in 1941. In 1942, he was appointed the director of Pacific Operations for the Office of War information. In 1944, FDR requested that Lattimore accompany Vice Present Henry Wallace on his infamous tour of the Magadan concentration camp in Kolyma, Siberia. On this trip, with the real prisoners locked away, and robust KGB agents masquerading as them, Wallace declared the camp a “model of democracy.”

Nor was Lattimore the anti-communist he declared himself to be. In 1942, while working in the Office of War Information, he tried to get known communist Frederick Vanderbilt Field a commission in military intelligence. A year later, on his orders non-Communist Chinese there were replaced with Communists. For an expert in China, he spent a great deal of time focusing on the Soviet Union. In the thirties, he praised Stalin’s murderous and rigged Purge Trials. He asserted that the Soviet Union was a democracy because it said so in their Constitution. During his testimony before the Senate in 1950, he assured them that the Chinese Communists were not controlled by Moscow. But during the war, he did not consider that a bad thing. In 1944, he stated that “the best solution” regarding Korea was “to let Russia take it over.” At Magadan, he praised the camp commandant Feliks Nikishov as having “a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and also a deep sense of civic responsibility.”

Nor were these enthusiasms confined to the war years when the Soviets were an ally against Hitler and even Republicans like Henry Luce praised Stalin. In 1960, he was taken on an extensive tour of the (Communist) Mongolian People’s Republic, toward which he adopted a “completely uncritical attitude.” In the late 60s, he labeled US policy toward the “progressive” Soviet Union to be imperialist.

The FDR administration could not claim it knew nothing of Lattimore’s communist activities. As far back as 1927, the FBI labeled him a Soviet agent. During the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, Lattimore was on FDR’s Custodial Index for detention in the event of a Soviet attack on the United States. He was listed on it as “Communist.”

Here was once again an example of Hiss-like naivety on the Roosevelt administration. As with Hiss, the administration gave Lattimore greater power. Even the Tydings Committee, a frankly partisan group tasked with discrediting McCarthy concluded that Lattimore was a conscious promoter of Soviet policy. Other decided foes of McCarthy concurred. The socialist literary critic Granville Hicks castigated Lattimore for defending “every item of Soviet justice.” Diana Trilling, while not concluding that Lattimore was a Soviet agent considered him” “something far more dangerous”—an ostensibly independent ‘idealist’ “whose idealism just happened to coincide with Russian realism.” No less a knee-jerk defender of the Roosevelt administration and foe of McCarthy than Arthur Schlesinger Jr., saw Lattimore as a fellow traveler.

The tragedy of the Lattimore investigation was that McCarthy had a provable case. But he sank it with his headline-grabbing rhetoric of Lattimore being the “top Soviet agent” in the United States, an assertion that even McCarthy’s chief witness against Lattimore, a former Communist who sat in on Soviet Politburo meetings Louis Bundenz refused to endorse Here was exhibit A in the folly of McCarthy and proof that his sincerity in the Communist fight was suspect, and he was more interested in publicity than actually exposing communists in the government. Although Lattimore was charged with perjury, it was thrown out in 1955 on a technicality. And he remains among many foes of McCarthy, a liberal victim.