September 18, 1969, in the meeting room of the Academy of Sciences of the Mongolian People's Republic, Ulan Bator: Bagaryn Shirendyb, president of the Academy, calls the ten members and twenty or so associate members to order. The Academy, founded in 1961 on Russian lines to recognize scholarly achievement and to supervise the state library, the sixteen research institutes, the academic publishing house, the astronomical observatory, the seismic station, and similar enterprises, is about to invest its first foreign member.
The new member, surprisingly, is neither Russian nor Chinese. Until at least 1960 the Mongols had considered him an apologist for Western imperialism, a capitalist oppressor, and an enemy of all patriotic Mongols. But he read and spoke Mongol fluently, and beginning in the 1920s he had followed the ancient caravan routes across the Inner Mongolian Gobi to Turfan and Urumchi and Tahcheng. He had made himself an authority on the history and culture of the Mongol peoples. He was now the foremost proponent of Mongol nationalism and culture in the Western world. He was Owen Lattimore.
The ceremony was simple, as befitted such an establishment in a nation not yet numbering two million people. There were three speeches. Shirendyb began by announcing the occasion and calling on two assistants to robe Lattimore in a colorful gown, a traditional khadaq scarf, and a cap with a button on top. Academician Lobsanvandan then gave a five-minute biography, emphasizing that the honoree was not just a scholar but also a true friend of the Mongols. Then Lattimore spoke.
No text of his speech survives, but Lattimore says the first part was a challenge to the Mongols to intensify their fledgling studies of folklore, songs, and legends; to join these with rigorous study of the documentary remains of their once-powerful civilization; and to continue the scientific studies that had enabled them to move so swiftly from feudalism to a highly literate polity. He closed with an invocation to world peace, performed in the traditional alliterative rhapsodic style—a five-line stanza,
the only part of his speech he had memorized. The speech was acclaimed as a great success.
A success it should have been. Lattimore, ambivalent toward the Russians, grudgingly respectful of the Chinese, held an unbounded affection for the Mongols. These descendants of the great khans had fascinated and captivated him since he first met a Mongol camel puller on the Desert Road to Turkestan. Now, his tribulations over, he could savor the respect and attention the Mongols offered him in return.