March 26

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 26, 1950:

McCarthy charges that Owen Lattimore is a Soviet spy

During a radio broadcast dealing with a Senate investigation into communists in the U.S. Department of State, news is leaked that Senator Joseph McCarthy has charged Professor Owen Lattimore with being a top spy for the Soviet Union. Lattimore soon became a central figure in the Red Scare hysteria created by McCarthy's reckless charges and accusations.

McCarthy had achieved instant fame in February 1950 when he stated in a speech that he had a list of over 200 "known communists" in the Department of State. When pressed for details, however, McCarthy was evasive. When the Senate demanded that he produce evidence to support his claim, McCarthy gave a rambling and nearly incoherent presentation. Nevertheless, the senator from Wisconsin maintained his claim and insisted that he had definitive evidence on at least one person who had worked for the State Department--it soon became clear that Lattimore was that person.

Lattimore was a scholar of Chinese history who taught at Johns Hopkins University. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him as a special representative to the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-Shek. Lattimore also served in the Office of War Information. His troubles began after the war, when it became apparent that Chiang's government would fall to the communist forces of Mao Zedong. When China fell to the communists in 1949, shocked Americans looked for scapegoats to blame for the debacle. Individuals such as Lattimore, who had been unremitting in their criticism of Chiang's regime, were easy targets.

In March 1950, Senator McCarthy was being pressed hard to produce the "known communists" he had spoken of in his February speech. He turned his attention to those in the Department of State who had been involved in Chinese affairs, and Lattimore's name naturally arose. Soon, McCarthy was charging that Lattimore was the top Soviet spy in the United States. Lattimore angrily denied it and hearings before a congressional committee cleared him of all charges. McCarthy did not give up, however. In 1951-1952, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee revisited the accusations against Lattimore. During his testimony, the scholar admitted that his 1950 testimony contained some minor inaccuracies. This was enough for the Subcommittee to charge Lattimore with perjury. These charges were also eventually dropped for lack of evidence, but Lattimore's career had already been severely damaged. In 1963, he left the United States to teach and write in Great Britain. He returned some years later and died in 1989. He was just one of the many victims of McCarthy's reckless witch-hunts--as with all of McCarthy's "communists," no evidence ever surfaced to support his charges against Lattimore.

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