Owen Lattimore, one of the more famous figures of the “Red Scare” in the United States during the 1950s, testifies before a Senate subcommittee that he might have been inaccurate in some of his previous testimony. Lattimore’s admissions resulted in his being charged with perjury and years of legal wrangling.
Lattimore was a well-known scholar of Chinese history and politics during the 1930s. He taught at Johns Hopkins University and also worked with the Institute of Pacific Relations, a research institute dedicated to the study of Asia and U.S.-Asian relations. During World War II, he served as an advisor to the Roosevelt administration on Chinese affairs. His research led him to conclude that the Nationalist leader in China, Chiang Kai-Shek, headed a corrupt and undemocratic government. He publicly aired these views in 1945 when he published his book, Solution in Asia, in which he called on Chiang to institute a major reform program in China.
In the highly charged Cold War atmosphere of the postwar period, anticommunist crusaders in the United States, such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, quickly construed Lattimore’s criticisms of the Chiang government as support for Mao Zedong’s communist revolution in China. McCarthy charged in 1950 that Lattimore was a “chief Soviet espionage agent,” and took testimony from two former U.S. Communist Party officials to that effect.
A bipartisan congressional committee held hearings on the matter and cleared Lattimore of all charges, but this did not end the persecution of Lattimore. In 1951-1952, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee reopened the case against the scholar. The subcommittee hearings focused on Lattimore’s work with the Institute of Pacific Relations, which had been identified by the FBI as a subversive organization. Zeroing in on minor inconsistencies in his 1950 testimony (such as whether he had ever “handled” another person’s mail during his time at the Institute), the subcommittee quickly decided that Lattimore had perjured himself and he was indicted by a grand jury. For the next few years, Lattimore fought a long and costly legal battle to clear himself of the charges. Eventually, all charges were dropped due to a lack of evidence and the waning of McCarthy’s power and public interest in his witchhunts.
Lattimore’s case was just one of many during the 1950s in which individuals were hounded and harassed because their views sometimes diverged from the Cold War consensus then taking shape. Other scholars, and a number of State Department officials, were persecuted merely for voicing criticism of the Chiang regime in China. Particularly after the fall of the Chiang government to Mao’s communist revolution in 1949, individuals such as Lattimore became handy scapegoats for people looking to place blame for the “loss” of China.