In response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charge that former State Department consultant and university professor Owen Lattimore was a top Soviet spy in the United States, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and three former secretaries of state deny that Lattimore had any influence on U.S. foreign policy. The Lattimore case was one of the most famous episodes of the “red scare” in the United States.
In February 1950, Senator McCarthy gave a speech in which he charged that there were over 200 “known communists” in the Department of State. McCarthy was asked to appear before a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to provide details about his accusation. During the course of the hearing, the senator charged that Owen Lattimore was a top spy for the Soviet Union and had been “the principal architect of our Far Eastern policy.” The implication of McCarthy’s testimony was clear: Lattimore, acting as a virtual Soviet agent, had helped design a policy that resulted in the loss of China to the communists in 1949. In fact, Lattimore, a well-known specialist in the field of Chinese history, had merely served as a consultant to the Department of State during and after World War II. Like many others, he had come to the conclusion that the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek was hopelessly inefficient and corrupt, and that continued U.S. support of such a government was useless. In the harsh Cold War atmosphere of America, though, the “loss” of China to the communists encouraged suspicion that spies and sympathizers were to blame.
In response to McCarthy’s charge, the chair of the subcommittee, Senator Millard Tydings, wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson and three former secretaries of state, Cordell Hull, James Byrnes, and George C. Marshall, asking whether the accusations were true. The men answered that Lattimore had absolutely no impact on U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. Indeed, each of them went to great lengths to make clear that they had never even met Lattimore. Byrnes and Marshall went further, declaring McCarthy’s charges were particularly harmful to America’s foreign relations. Lattimore was cleared by a congressional investigation in 1950, but in 1951-1952 the attacks against the professor were renewed and he was charged with perjury in connection with his 1950 testimony. These charges were eventually dismissed, but not before Lattimore’s academic career in the United States had been destroyed.