Owen Lattimore

Owen Lattimore

Owen Lattimore (July 29, 1900 – May 31, 1989) was an American author, educator, and influential scholar of Central Asia, especially Mongolia. In the 1930s he was editor of Pacific Affairs, a journal published by the Institute of Pacific Relations, and then taught at Johns Hopkins University from 1938 to 1963. During World War II he was advisor to Chiang Kai-shek and the American government and contributed extensively to the public debate.[1] In the early post-war period of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, American wartime China Hands were accused of being agents of the Soviet Union or under the influence of Marxism. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Lattimore in particular of being "the top Russian espionage agent in the United States."[1] The accusations led to years of Congressional hearings which did not substantiate the charge that Lattimore had been one (nor did wartime intercepted Venona cables refer to him as one). The hearings did document Lattimore's sympathetic statements about Stalin and the Soviet Union, however. Although charges of perjury were dismissed, the controversy put an end to Lattimore's role as a consultant of the United States State Department and eventually to his career in American academic life.

From 1963 to 1975, Lattimore was the first professor of Chinese studies at the University of Leeds in England, where he taught Chinese History, richly flavoured with personal reminiscences. He died in 1989 in Providence, Rhode Island.[1]

Lattimore's "lifetime intellectual project," notes one recent scholar, was to "develop a ‘scientific’ model of the way human societies form, evolve, grow, decline, mutate and interact with one another along ‘frontiers.’” He eclectically absorbed and often abandoned influential theories of his day which dealt with the great themes of history. These included the ecological determinism of Ellsworth Huntington; biological racism, though only to the extent of seeing characteristics which grew out of ecology; the economic geography and location theory; and some aspects of Marxist modes of production and stages of history, especially through the influence of Karl August Wittfogel. The most important and lasting theorist, however, was Arnold J. Toynbee and his treatment of the great civilizations as organic wholes which were born, matured, grew old, and died.[2] Lattimore's most influential book, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China (1940), used these theories to explain the history of East Asia not as the history of China and its influence, but as the interaction between two types of civilizations, settled farming and pastoral, each of which had its role.


Early life

"A halt on the march": Owen Lattimore in late 1926, on his first journey across Inner Asia (his diary from this journey on the "desert road to Turkestan" enabled him to write his first book, the start of his career as a scholar of the region)

Although born in the U.S., Lattimore was raised in Tianjin, China, where his parents, David and Margaret Lattimore, were teachers of English at a Chinese university. (His brother was the classics translator Richmond Lattimore. One of his sisters was the children's author Eleanor Frances Lattimore.) After being schooled at home by his mother, he left China at the age of twelve and attended schools in Switzerland and St Bees School, England (1915-1919), but returned in 1919 when it turned out that he would not have enough funds for attending university. He worked first for a newspaper and then for a British import/export related business. This gave him the opportunity to travel extensively in China and time to study Chinese with an old-fashioned Confucian scholar. His commercial travels also gave him a feel for the realities of life and the economy. A turning point was negotiating the passage of a trainload of wool through the lines of two battling warlords early in 1925, an experience which led him the next year to follow the caravans across Inner Mongolia to the end of the line in Xinjiang.[3]

The managers of his firm, however, saw no advantage in subsidizing his travels, though they did send him to spend a year in Beijing as government liaison. During the year he spent there before departing on his expedition, he met his wife, Eleanor Holgate. For their honeymoon they planned to travel from Beijing to India, he overland, she by rail across Siberia, a mammoth feat in the first half of the 20th century, but in the event the plans were disrupted and she had to travel alone by horse-drawn sled for four hundred miles in February to find him. She described her journey in Turkestan Reunion (1934), he in The Desert Road to Turkestan (1928) and High Tartary (1930). This trip laid the ground for his lifelong interest in all matters related to the Mongols and other peoples of the Silk Road.

Upon his return to America in 1928, he succeeded in receiving a fellowship from the Social Science Research Council for further travel in Manchuria, then for the academic year 1928/1929 as a student at Harvard University. He returned to China 1930-1933 with fellowships from the Harvard-Yenching Institute and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

In 1934, he became editor of Pacific Affairs, published by the Institute of Pacific Relations, which he edited from Beijing. Rather than have bland official statements, he made it his policy to make the journal a "forum of controversy." As he later recalled, he was "continually in hot water, especially with the Japan Council, which thought I was too anti-imperialist, and the Soviet Council, which thought that its own anti-imperialist line was the only permissible one...." As explained below, others later accused him of motives which were less scholarly than political. Lattimore sought articles from a wide range of perspectives and made the journal a forum for new ideas, especially from the social sciences and social philosophy. Scholars and writers of all persuasions were contributors, including Pearl S. Buck, some Chinese literary figures, and dedicated Marxists.

After sojourns in New York and London and a trip to the Soviet Union, the Lattimores returned to Beijing in 1937. Owen visited the Communist headquarters at Yan'an to act as translator for T. A. Bisson and Philip Jaffé, who were gathering material for Amerasia as an activist journal of political commentary. There he met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. He was impressed with their candor, but had a less favorable experience on his visit to the party school for national minorities. When he spoke to the Mongols in Mongolian, his Chinese hosts broke off the session.[4]

World War II and after

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Lattimore U.S. advisor to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. In 1944, Lattimore was placed in charge of the Pacific area for the Office of War Information. By this time, Lattimore's political activities and associations had been under scrutiny for the last two years by the FBI, which recommended that he be put under "Custodial Detention in case of National Emergency".[5] At President Roosevelt's request, he accompanied US Vice-President Henry Wallace on a mission to Siberia and to China and Mongolia in 1944, for the US Office of War Information.[6] The trip had been arranged by Lauchlin Currie, who recommended to FDR that Lattimore accompany Wallace.[7] During this visit, which overlapped the D-Day landings, Wallace and his delegation stayed 25 days in Siberia and were given a tour of the Soviet Union’s Magadan concentration camp at Kolyma. In a travelogue for National Geographic, Lattimore described what little he saw as a combination of the Hudson's Bay Company and the TVA, remarking on how strong and well-fed the inmates were and ascribing to camp commandant Ivan Nikishov 'a trained and sensitive interest in art and music and also a deep sense of civic responsibility'.[8] In a letter written to the New Statesman in 1968, Lattimore justified himself by arguing his role had not been that of 'snoop(ing) on his hosts.[9]

During the 1940s, Lattimore came into increasing conflict with another member of the IPR's board, Alfred Kohlberg, a manufacturer with long experience in the China trade whose visit to China in 1943 convinced him that stories of Chiang Kai-shek's corruption were false. He accused Lattimore of being hostile to Chiang and too sympathetic towards Chinese Communists. In 1944, relations between Kohlberg and Lattimore became so bad that Kohlberg left the I.P.R, and founded a journal Plain Talk intended to rebut the claims made in Pacific Affairs By the late 1940s, Lattimore had become a particular target of Kohlberg and other members of the China Lobby. Kohlberg was later to became an advisor to Senator Joseph McCarthy, and it is possible that McCarthy first learned of Lattimore through Kohlberg.[10]

Meanwhile, accusations were made which later became public. On 14 December 1948, Alexander Barmine, former chargé d'affaires at the Soviet Embassy in Athens, Greece, advised Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that Soviet GRU Director Janis Berzin had informed him prior to Barmine's 1937 defection that Lattimore was a Soviet agent, an allegation Barmine would repeat under oath before the Senate McCarran Committee in 1951.[11][12][13]

Confrontation with Congressional Committees

In March 1950, in executive session of the Tydings Committee, Joseph McCarthy accused Lattimore of being the top Soviet agent, either in the US, in the State Department, or both.[14] The committee, chaired by Senator Millard Tydings, was investigating McCarthy's claims of widespread Soviet infiltration of the State Department. When the accusation was leaked to the press, McCarthy backed off from the charge that Lattimore was a spy, but continued the attack in public session of the committee and in speeches. Lattimore, he said, "in view of his position of tremendous power at the State Department" was the "'architect' of our Far Eastern policy," and asked whether Lattimore's "aims are American aims or whether they coincide with the aims of Soviet Russia." At the time, Lattimore was in Kabul, Afghanistan, on a cultural mission for the United Nations. Lattimore dismissed the charges against him as "moonshine" and hurried back to the United States to testify before the Tydings Committee.[15]

McCarthy, who had no evidence of specific acts of espionage and only weak evidence that Lattimore was a concealed Communist, in April 1950 persuaded Louis F. Budenz, former editor of the Communist Party organ Daily Worker, to testify. Budenz had no first-hand knowledge of Lattimore’s Communist allegiance and had never previously identified him as a Communist in his extensive FBI interviews. In addition, Budenz had in 1947 told a State Department investigator that he "did not recall any instances" that suggested that Lattimore was a Communist, and had also told his editor at Collier's magazine in 1949 that Lattimore had never "acted as a Communist in any way."[16] Now, however, Budenz testified that Lattimore was a secret Communist, but not a Soviet agent, that is, he was a person of influence who often assisted Soviet foreign policy. Budenz said his Party superiors had told him that Lattimore's “great value lay in the fact that he could bring the emphasis in support of Soviet policy in non-Soviet language.”[17] The majority report of the Tydings committee cleared Lattimore of all charges against him; the minority report accepted Budenz's charges.

In February 1952, Lattimore was called to testify before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee (SISS), headed by McCarthy's ally, Senator Pat McCarran. Before Lattimore was called as witness, investigators for the SISS had seized all of the records of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR).[citation needed] The twelve days of testimony were marked by shouting matches, which pitted McCarran and McCarthy on one side against Lattimore on the other. Lattimore took three days to deliver his opening statement: the delays were caused by frequent interruptions as McCarran challenged Lattimore point by point. McCarran then used the records from the I.P.R. to ask questions that often taxed Lattimore's memory. Budenz again testified, but this time claimed that Lattimore was both a Communist and a Soviet agent.

The Subcommittee also summoned scholars. Nicholas Poppe, a Russian émigré and a scholar of Mongolia and Tibet, resisted the committee's invitation to label Lattimore a Communist, but found some of his writings superficial and uncritical.[citation needed] The most damaging testimony came from Karl August Wittfogel, supported by his colleague from the University of Washington, George Taylor. Wittfogel, a former Communist, said that at the time Lattimore edited the journal Pacific Affairs, Lattimore knew of his Communist background; even though they had not exchanged words on the matter, Lattimore had given Wittfogel a 'knowing smile'. Lattimore acknowledged that Wittfogel's thought had been tremendously influential, but said that if there had been a smile, it was a 'non-Communist smile'. Wittfogel and Taylor charged that Lattimore had done 'great harm to the free world' in disregarding the need to defeat world Communism as a first priority. John Fairbank, in his memoirs, suggests that Wittfogel may have said this because he had been pressured out of Germany for having views unacceptable to the powers that be, and he did not want to make the same mistake twice. They also asserted that the influence of Marxism on Lattimore was shown by his use of the word 'feudal'. Lattimore replied that he did not think that Marxists had a 'patent' on that word.[18]

In 1952, after 17 months of study and hearing, involving 66 witnesses and thousands of documents, the McCarran Committee issued its 226-page, unanimous final report. This report stated that 'Owen Lattimore was, from some time beginning in the 1930s, a conscious articulate instrument of the Soviet conspiracy', and that on 'at least five separate matters', Lattimore had not told the whole truth. One example: 'The evidence... shows conclusively that Lattimore knew Frederick V. Field to be a Communist; that he collaborated with Field after he possessed this knowledge; and that he did not tell the truth before the subcommittee about this association with Field....'[19]

In 1952, Lattimore was indicted for perjury on seven counts. Six of the counts related to various discrepancies between Lattimore's testimony and the IPR records; the seventh accused Lattimore of seeking to deliberately deceive the SISS. Lattimore's defenders, such as his lawyer Abe Fortas, claimed that the discrepancies were caused by McCarran deliberately asking questions about arcane and obscure matters that took place in the 1930s.

Within three years, federal judge Luther Youngdahl dismissed the charges. Four of the charges were dismissed as insubstantial and not judicable; denying that he was sympathetic to communism was too vague to be fairly answered; and the other counts were matters of little concern, those which a jury would be unlikely to convict on matters of political judgment.[20] In his book Ordeal by Slander, Lattimore gives his own account of these events up until 1950.


The American Center for Mongolian Studies, together with the International Association of Mongolian Studies and the National University of Mongolia School of Foreign Service organized a conference entitled, "Owen Lattimore: The Past, Present, and Future of Inner Asian Studies" in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on August 20 and 21, 2008.[21]

A Leeds student housing block is now named after him. While there, he also promoted the establishment of a Mongolian Studies Department. Lattimore had a lifelong dedication to establishing research centers to further the study of Mongolian history and culture. He is one of the few Westerners to have received recognition from the Mongolian state. The State Museum in Ulaanbaatar named a newly discovered dinosaur after him.

Lattimore's theory on the reciprocation between civilization and the environment

In An Inner Asian Approach to the Historical Geography of China (1947), Lattimore explored the system through which humanity affects the environment and is changed by it, and concluded that civilization is molded by its own impact on the environment. He lists the following pattern:

  1. A primitive society pursues some agricultural activities, but is aware that it has many limitations.
  2. Growing and evolving, the society begins to change the environment. For example, depleting its game supply and wild crops, it begins to domesticate animals and plants. It deforests land to create room for these activities.
  3. The environment changes, offering new opportunities. For example, it becomes grasslands.
  4. Society changes in response, and reacts to the new opportunities as a new society. For example, the once-nomads build permanent settlements and shift from a hunter-gatherer mentality to a farming society culture.
  5. The reciprocal process continues, offering new variations.


By Owen Lattimore
  • 1928: The Desert Road to Turkestan. London: Methuen, 1928. Reprinted:- Boston: Little Brown, 1929; New York: Kodansha International, 1995.
  • 1930: High Tartary. Boston: Little Brown, 1930. Reprinted:- New York: Kodansha International, 1994.
  • 1934: The Mongols of Manchuria: their tribal divisions, geographical distribution, historical relations with Manchus and Chinese, and present political problems; with maps. New York: John Day, 1934; reprint:- New York: H. Fertig, 1969.
  • 1940: Inner Asian Frontiers of China. New York: American Geographical Society, 1940. Reprinted:- Boston: Beacon, 1967.
  • 1941: Mongol Journeys. New York: Doubleday Doran, 1941.
  • 1942: "China Opens Her WIld West". Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, Vol 82:3, September, 1942
  • 1945: Solution in Asia. Boston: Little Brown, 1945.
  • 1950: Pivot of Asia: Sinkiang and the Inner Asian frontiers of China and Russia. Boston: Little Brown, 1950.
  • 1950: Ordeal by Slander. Boston: Little Brown, 1950. Reprinted: New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004; introduction by Blanche Wiessen Cook; preface by David Lattimore.
  • 1953 The New Political Geography of Inner Asia. Great Britain: The Geographical Journal, Vol. CXIX Part 1, March 1953. Reprinted:- London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited.
  • 1962: Nomads and Commissars: Mongolia revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • 1962: Studies in Frontier History: Collected Papers, 1928-1958. London; New York: Oxford University Press; Paris: Mouton, 1962.
  • 1964: From China Looking Outward: an inaugural lecture. [Leeds]: Leeds University Press, 1964.
  • 1970: History and Revolution in China. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 1970.
By others
  • 1944: Eleanor Holgate Lattimore, The Making of Modern China: a short history. New York: W.W. Norton, 1944. Reprinted:- Washington, DC: Infantry Journal, 1944.
    • 1947: Eleanor Holgate Lattimore, China: a short history. New York: W. W. Norton, New and rev., 1947.
  • 1955: Sh. Nachukdorgi, Nationalism and Revolution in Mongolia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.
  • 1968: Eleanor Holgate Lattimore, Silks, Spices, and Empire: Asia seen through the eyes of its discoverers. New York: Delacorte, 1968.
  • 1990: Fujiko Isono, China Memoirs: Chiang Kai-shek and the War against Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1990.


  1. ^ a b c Pace, Eric (June 1, 1989). "Owen Lattimore, Far East Scholar Accused by McCarthy, Dies at 88.". The New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DEFDA1E3FF932A35755C0A96F948260&scp=1&sq=Owen+Lattimore&st=nyt. Retrieved 2008-03-11. "Owen Lattimore, a Far East scholar who was a principal target of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in the 1950's, died in his sleep early yesterday at Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., relatives said. He was 88 years old and lived in Pawtucket, R.I." 
  2. ^ Rowe, William T. (2007) “Owen Lattimore, Asia, and Comparative History,” Journal of Asian Studies; 66.3 (2007): 758-760
  3. ^ Lattimore, Owen (1928) The Desert Road to Turkestan; Pp. 5-8. He euphemistically describes the experience as being "sent 'up-country' once to try to get hold of some wool".
  4. ^ Owen Lattimore, Studies in Frontier History, London 1962, p. 12-20
  5. ^ FBI Report, "Owen Lattimore, Internal Security - R, Espionage - R," September 8, 1949 (FBI file: Owen Lattimore), p. 7 (PDF p. 12): Six years prior to Barmine's 1948 FBI interview, the agency had already compiled a thick security dossier at the onset of World War II on Lattimore, recommending that he be put under "Custodial Detention in case of National Emergency."
  6. ^ http://content.cdlib.org:8088/xtf/view?docId=ft296nb15t&doc.view=content&chunk.id=d0e2411&toc.depth=1&anchor.id=0&brand=ucpress
  7. ^ Roger James Sandilands, The Life and Political Economy of Lauchlin Currie (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), ISBN 0822310309, p. 151
  8. ^ Paul Hollander, The Survival of the Adversary Culture:Social Criticism and Political Escapism in American Society (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, (1988) 1991 ISBN 1560005548, p. 180]
  9. ^ ‘Is it assumed that a visit of this kind affords an ideal opportunity to snoop on one’s hosts?”... He went so far as to imply that after all Nikishov, the camp commander, could not have been such a tyrant ('the unspeakable Nikishov... must have slipped up in his control') since Elinor Lipper survived to write her book. He seemed to suggest that being on a goodwill mission and allied to the Soviet Union were good enough explanations for the euphoric accounts he and Wallace produced'. Paul Hollander, The Survival of the Adversary Culture: ibid. p.181
  10. ^ John Thomas, Ch. 2, "Kohlberg and the China Lobby," The Institute of Pacific Relations, esp. pp 39-40.
  11. ^ FBI Report, Owen Lattimore, Internal Security - R, Espionage - R, September 8, 1949 (FBI File: Owen Lattimore, Part 1A), p. 2 (PDF p. 7)
  12. ^ Absent-Minded Professor?, Time Magazine, Monday, Mar. 10, 1952
  13. ^ Testimony of Alexander Barmine, July 31, 1951, U. S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Internal Security Subcommittee, Institute - of Pacific Relations, Hearings, 82nd Congress, First Session (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1951), Part 1, pp. 199-200
  14. ^ Evans, M. Stanton (May 30, 1997). "McCarthyism: Waging the Cold War in America". Human Events. http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=455. Retrieved 2009-12-16. "This was McCarthy’s showdown with Prof. Lattimore, of Johns Hopkins University, a long-time official of IPR, and noted authority on Far Eastern questions. Of all the internal security battles that McCarthy fought, this was by far the most explosive." 
  15. ^ Quotes from "Owen Lattimore, Espionage -- R," Ch 29 of M. Stanton Evans's Blacklisted by History: the untold story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his fight against America's enemies (New York: Crown Forum, 2007):- pp. 385-398. Further documentation of specifics charges is to be found in: FBI Report, "Owen Lattimore, Internal Security - R, Espionage - R," September 8, 1949 (FBI file: Owen Lattimore), p. 1 (PDF p. 2); Robert P. Newman, Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), ISBN 0-520-07388-6, p. 52; On December 14, 1948, Alexander Barmine, former Charge d'Affairs at the Soviet Embassy in Athens, Greece, advised FBI investigators that then-GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) chief General Berzin informed him prior to his 1937 defection that Owen Lattimore was a Soviet agent; FBI Report, "Owen Lattimore, Internal Security - R, Espionage - R," September 8, 1949 (FBI File: Owen Lattimore, Part 1A), p. 2 (PDF p. 7)
  16. ^ Navasky, Victor S., Naming Names, P.13. Viking Press, 1980.
  17. ^ "Haynes, John Earl; Klehr, Harvey (2006) Early Cold War Spies: the Espionage Trials That Shaped American Politics (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p 41.
  18. ^ Cotton, James (1989) Asian Frontier Nationalism. Manchester [UK]: Manchester University Press; pp. 91-95.
  19. ^ Report on the IPR," Time, July 14, 1952
  20. ^ Haynes & Klehr Early Cold War Spies; p. 47; US Senate, 82nd Congress, 2nd Session, Committee on the Judiciary, Institute of Pacific Relations, Report No. 2050, p. 224
  21. ^ The conference website includes links on the conference and Owen Lattimore: "Who was Owen Lattimore?"; Digital Books; Articles; Archives; Bibliography: Bookshop; Conference Presentations[1]

Further reading

  • David Buck, "Owen Lattimore," in John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, ed., American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 248-250.
  • James Cotton, Asian Frontier Nationalism: Owen Lattimore and the American Policy Debate (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989). ISBN 0391036513.
  • M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe Mccarthy and His Fight against America's Enemies (New York: Crown Forum, 2007), esp Ch 29, "Owen Lattimore."
  • Fried, Richard Nightmare In Red : the McCarthy Era in Perspective, New York ; Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1990 ISBN 019504360X.
  • John T. Flynn, The Lattimore Story (New York,: Devin-Adair, 1953).
  • Klingaman., William The Encyclopedia of the McCarthy Era, New York : Facts on File, 1996 ISBN 0816030979.
  • Newman, Robert P. Owen Lattimore And The "Loss" of China, Berkeley : University of California Press, 1992 ISBN 0520073886.
  • Oshinsky, David A Conspiracy So Immense : the World of Joe McCarthy, New York : Free Press ; London : Collier Macmillan, 1983 ISBN 0029234905.
  • Rowe, William T. "Owen, Lattimore, Asia, and Comparative History." Journal of Asian Studies 66, no. 3 (2007): 759-86.
  • Schrecker, Ellen No Ivory Tower : McCarthyism and the Universities, New York : Oxford University Press, 1986 ISBN 0195035577.
  • Schrecker, Ellen Many Are The Crimes : McCarthyism In America, Boston ; London : Little, Brown, 1998 ISBN 0316774707.

External links

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