Ordeal by Slander
by Owen Lattimore
Carroll and Graf, 304 pages, $14.
If Owen Lattimore is remembered today, it is as an adversary of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the spy-hunting Republican from Wisconsin who became an eponym for demagogy during the struggle against Soviet Communism. Although few serious commentators now defend McCarthy the man, it has become clear that what he was after — Soviet influence among the U.S. political elite — was no mirage. Nevertheless, judgment remains suspended about some of the individuals he sought to investigate.
In 1950 Lattimore, an expert on China and its relations with Mongolia and other Inner Asian countries, was named by McCarthy as “the top Soviet espionage agent” in the United States. This charge led to what could best be described as a procedural battle over how to define a Soviet agent between Lattimore, using this book as a platform, and his accusers in Congress.
Was such status determined by membership in the Communist Party, either public or clandestine? In this volume, which in its 1950 first edition became a bestseller, Lattimore strives mightily to demonstrate that he never held such membership. Or was something more subtle involved — that is, voluntary action to influence American policy in directions desired by the Stalinist dictatorship in Moscow? The latter was obviously a more difficult matter to prove.
The title of Lattimore’s book, for a discerning reader, seems unintentionally double-edged. For the authors (Lattimore, his wife, Eleanor, and Joseph Barnes, foreign editor of the old New York Herald-Tribune) used it as an occasion to engage in their own campaign of slander against any witnesses who might testify about Lattimore’s record.
In the Lattimore universe, for instance, Alfred Kohlberg, a prominent American supporter of Chiang Kai-shek, was single-handedly responsible for discrediting the Institute of Pacific Relations, an influential “think tank” (before that term was used) that had supported the Chinese Communists. So Kohlberg is labeled “a millionaire fanatic” and described as an importer of sweatshop products from China, dependent on child labor for his wealth. The “China Lobby,” with which he was associated, is a nest of fascists, including a “Christian Fronter” and a defendant in the U.S. trials of pro-Nazi seditionists.
Thus the cause of “Free China,” fighting for its life against Japan, becomes the cause of … Japanese sympathizers. Further waves of obloquy roll through this book, and nearly all anti- and ex-Communists are portrayed as confused, eccentric, and dishonest.
But Lattimore’s main weapon was always word-chopping. Rather than declare whether he is a supporter of the United States or forthrightly condemn Stalinism, he argues over the meaning of the words “leftist” and “Communist.” To explain his view that U.S.-Soviet collaboration in Asia after 1945 was a fine idea, he cites, among other utter drivel, a 1943 New York Times editorial with the happy if idiotic message, “We can do business with Stalin!” To support his benign view of Chinese Communists, soldiers of Mao and killers of dissident leftists, he quotes General Patrick J. Hurley’s 1945 howler, “The Communists are not in fact Communists, they are striving for democratic principles.”
It has become fashionable to hold Lattimore up as a complete innocent — above all because his name was never found in the Venona documentation. (Venona is an archive of decrypted Soviet message traffic originally sent from Moscow to Russian secret police and military intelligence agents around the world during the 1940s.) But the input of Joe Barnes in this volume offers a fascinating clue about the hidden side of the Lattimore universe.
That is because, while Lattimore is absent from the Venona decryptions, Barnes is not. In 1944 the spymasters in Moscow advised their New York underlings that while Barnes could not be “signed up” as a full-time agent, “it is desirable to use him without signing him up.” Lattimore certainly might have fallen into the same category.
Even setting aside all questions of spying, Lattimore had a quite public paper trail as a defender of the Stalin purge trials. In an infamous statement made in 1938, the expert on China, Mongolia, and Turkestan declared that the judicial massacres in Moscow “sound like democracy to me” Thus, it appeared to Lattimore that the arrest, beating, drugging, forced confessions, and summary executions of thousands of Soviet political and military leaders demonstrated that the political elite could be held accountable by their subjects.
As pointed out not long ago by the historian Ronald Radosh, none other than Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., among the most famous liberals of our time, commented acerbically on his endorsement of “Stalinist justice.” Mr. Schlesinger said it “sounds to me like fellow-traveling.”
Other observers of the Lattimore affair were even more severe. Irving Kristol stood out, then as in so many other controversies, for his clear-sighted understanding of the matter. Kristol rejected the claim that Lattimore was a spy in the pure sense and criticized McCarthy for rhetorical excess. But he and others, including Diana Trilling, considered Lattimore something much worse: a man who could mold American public awareness in ways Stalin wanted.
As Kristol pointed out, Lattimore’s claims about Soviet cooperativeness and Chinese Communist benevolence in Asia were based on “ingratiating pseudo-Marxist platitudes (that) became the stock-in-trade of all the ‘experts.’” Lattimore’s career was a harbinger of later developments in almost every area of foreign policy, from the claim that the Cuban and Vietnamese dictatorships were independent of Russian control to the canard identifying U.S. policy in Iraq with the needs of the oil industry. CUNY professor Blanche Wiesen Cook, a former student of Lattimore, contributes further to this genre of respectable disinformation with her preface to this edition, in which she rails against “the triumph of greed” in Central Asia and lumps Tibet with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chinese Turkestan as “pipelinestan.”
It is hard to imagine who will want to read a new edition of this book. Even those convinced that Lattimore was a martyr to McCarthyism will find it obtuse and anachronistic. Yet it will doubtless show up on college reading lists, perhaps for those very reasons, and students will be forced to plow through it. For that, I pity them.