A Fascination with Central Asia
On July 18, 1951, when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee under Patrick McCarran of Nevada was well into its investigation of Owen Lattimore, Robert Morris, special counsel to the subcommittee, went to the FBI with a hot tip. Lattimore, said Morris, "was a Russian orphan who was born in Russia and was adopted by his parents, although Lattimore claimed to have been born in Washington, D.C., in 1900."
Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's alter ego at the FBI, appreciating the implications of this startling item, sent an agent to check birth records. At the Bureau of Vital Statistics the agent obtained a copy of certificate number 105986, showing that one Owen Lattimore had been born in Sibley Hospital on July 29, 1900, to David and Margaret Lattimore, both native Americans.
Lattimore's father taught high school in the District of Columbia. Owen was the second child, and the family expected to have more. Teaching salaries then were not adequate even for a family of four. David Lattimore was open to a job with a better salary.
Such an offer came from the shaky Manchu Empire, suffering in 1900 from the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. Western armies had thoroughly defeated Chinese troops; it was clear to the Manchus that China had to bring its science and technology up to Western standards. This meant Western education: training young Chinese in Western languages, then sending them to foreign colleges. David Lattimore was a language teacher, skilled in English, French, Greek, and Latin. He took a job teaching English and French in Shanghai and moved the family there in 1901. He taught in China for twenty years, moving from Shanghai to Paoting-fu to Tientsin. Three more children were born in China.
In China, businessmen, diplomats, and secular teachers lived in compounds where the only Chinese were servants. The playmates of the Lattimore children were other foreigners. David did not encourage his offspring to learn Chinese from the servants, fearing that they would acquire a servant mentality. Owen and his brother Richmond were to be grounded in Western culture and languages; they could learn proper Chinese, as their father had done, when they were older.
Perhaps most dramatic of Lattimore's memories of these early years were those from 1911, when Sun Yat-sen started his revolution. The Lattimores were in Paoting-fu. Fearing another Boxer-type uprising, the American embassy ordered American citizens in outlying areas to come to Peking for safety. For several months the Lattimores lived as refugees in a small temple near the southern wall. No serious disturbances developed, however, and though the Nationalist general in charge of Peking ruled with a heavy hand, people were allowed to move about. Lattimore recalled, "When we went along the big streets we would see human heads nailed on telephone poles to intimidate the people of Peking. Seeing these heads did not bother us. It simply strengthened the idea that we were living in one world and the Chinese were living in another, and that this was the kind of thing that Chinese did to each other. It had nothing to do with us."
The Lattimore children were taught at home until 1912. Then, wanting them to be cosmopolitan, David Lattimore sent them to Switzerland with their mother. Owen was enrolled at the Collège Classique Cantonal near Lausanne, the beginning of a six-year separation from his family that forced him to develop an independence that stayed with him all his life. Had he finished his autobiography, it would have borne the title Happiness Is among Strangers . Living alone, in countries where the native language was not English, forced him to relate to strange people and to absorb unfamiliar cultures. Lattimore felt that under these conditions "you have to gain access; you have to work at it: and to work at a problem, get the feel of it and succeed—that is happiness."
Lattimore adjusted well to his Swiss school, despite initial concern that his French was not up to that of his fellows. He was the only English speaker in the school. Later he recalled surprisingly little about the school, but his adventures during vacations stuck in his memory. His Uncle Alec, his father's younger brother, was in Europe and took him on a tour of Italy in 1913. They went to Verona, where Aida was performed in the Roman amphitheater with elephants, camels, and horses "trampling across,
while all around the amphitheater people lit matches, their flames trembling in the still air."
When war broke out in 1914, Owen was sent to England with his Uncle Alec, while his mother and the other children returned to China. Owen and Uncle Alec stayed for a time in Oxford, where Owen temporarily attended school. He spent many nights pub-crawling with Alec, from which excursions he acquired a technique that was to serve him well. It was not wise, he learned, for an "ignorant youngster" to interrupt conversations among adults. But he could "put in a remark or even a question that helped to move the talk along in a direction in which I was interested. Developed into a technique, this became useful in later years, in Chinese inns or a peasant hut far up in the mountains, or around a campfire in Mongolia. The way to learn is to nudge people to talk about what they know (or, sometimes, what they think they know). Avoid the kind of question that gets the quick, simple answer. There is a difference between people supplementing each other's knowledge or opinions and when they are just fobbing off the outsider who 'wouldn't understand, anyway.'" Lattimore's ability to extract information from strangers later became legendary.
Uncle Alec left England before the end of 1914, and Owen was enrolled at St. Bees School in Cumberland. There, despite the troubled stirring of adolescence, he spent five happy years. St. Bees was a minor but sound public school, preparing its best literary students for Oxford and its prospective scientists for Cambridge. Lattimore was the literary type, fond of poetry; his favorite book was A. E. Housman's Shropshire Lad . In his fourth year at St. Bees he and several friends started a literary magazine, with Lattimore contributing much of the poetry. He liked G. K. Chester-ton and Hilaire Belloc, who romanticized the Middle Ages, and had desultory contact with social studies, reading Gibbon, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer. He also did scattered reading in anthropology, especially on primitive and ancient religions, later remembering Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough and Thomas Huxley's Science and Christian Tradition . Karl Marx did not penetrate the walls of St. Bees.
Lattimore's account of his years at St. Bees suggests that stories of youthful shenanigans at British public schools are not exaggerated. One of Lattimore's more revealing stories about St. Bees concerned his flirtation with the Catholic church. Uncle Alec, a Catholic, had sometimes taken him to hear mass. Owen's father was agnostic and strongly anti-Catholic, and part of Owen's religious adventure was simple rebellion. During his
first year at St. Bees, Owen started going to an Irish priest in a nearby village for religious instruction; he then "went the whole way and had myself baptized. My father was coldly angry. He stopped writing to me, so that for a couple of years I communicated only with my mother." At St. Bees, however, this deviance gave Lattimore a certain prestige, enabling him "to mark out an individual position. I enjoyed asking for permission to cycle from school to Whitehaven to attend Mass, and I enjoyed letting it be known, in a carefully unostentatious way, that I had a Latin Missal."
But the conversion did not take. In Owen's very first confession the priest "was only interested in whether I masturbated or was already going to bed with girls. . . . I cycled back bewildered, but by the time I got home the shock was wearing off. There had been no revelation, no glimpse of the divine, just the gross attempt to ferret out the sex life of a boy of fifteen. There followed very quickly, but probably not as quickly as I now think I remember, a counter-revelation: I was liberated. So that was all there was to it: not God, but a man telling me about God and commanding me to believe him." Lattimore later pursued religious matters with a local Scottish Presbyterian minister, whose humaneness and sympathetic understanding, along with his advice to read Ernest Renan, established a tolerant acceptance of religion, though not an active belief in a specific creed, for the rest of Lattimore's life. After several years Lattimore wrote his father about his new attitude toward religion; David responded immediately and warmly, and the religious crisis was over.
Lattimore flourished and grew at St. Bees. During his last year (1918-19) his major concern was getting into Oxford. His father could not afford to send him there without a scholarship, so Owen worked hard in preparation for the scholarship exams. He did well, but the superior background of his British competitors in classical languages was too great to overcome. He did not win. Bitterly disappointed, he returned to China at age nineteen to seek employment.
Years later he was glad that he had not attended Oxford. "It was the generation of Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and all those people. I would have come out an insufferable esthete, or perhaps have been influenced by one of the extremist ideologies of the day, fascism or Marxism."
Lattimore's father was then in Tientsin, the port serving Peking. The British firm Arnhold and Company had a branch office in Tientsin, and Owen secured a job there. Arnhold "imported into China everything that the West had to sell, and exported everything that the West would buy."
He worked first in the department that imported cotton textiles. This was a dying trade, and Lattimore found it boring. Several months after he began work, the chief of Arnhold's insurance department in Shanghai visited Tientsin, decided Lattimore was a promising young employee, and asked if he would like to transfer to Shanghai to work on insurance. Lattimore readily agreed.
Shanghai and the insurance business suited Lattimore better than his previous position. Because assessing insurance risks involved travel in the interior, where interpreters were scarce, he began serious study of Chinese. In 1921, after Owen had been in Shanghai a year, his father accepted an invitation to teach at Dartmouth College. Lattimore went to Tientsin to say good-bye to his family.
While in Tientsin on this visit, he met H. G. W. Woodhead, an Englishman who was editor of the Peking and Tientsin Times , the most influential English-language paper north of Shanghai. Woodhead offered him a job at the paper, and Lattimore accepted, thinking it would give him an opportunity to develop his literary interests. But the job was a disappointment. He had few opportunities to investigate and write stories of his own, spending most of his time proofreading.
After Lattimore had worked a year at the newspaper, Arnhold and Company lured him back with an offer to take charge of the insurance business at the Tientsin branch, with better pay and a chance for more travel. The travel especially attracted him. As a frustrated intellectual, he hated the Chinese port cities. The foreigners were hopeless philistines, with no interest in poetry, literature, or history. Peitaiho, the nearby summer resort, was no better: "There Ministers of Legation from Peking hoist their flags for the summer, and the Diplomatic body in partibus infidelium resting from the strict routine of dancing, scandal, and gambling, refreshed itself with swimming, gambling, and scandal."
The insurance business did not take all of Lattimore's time; he worked hard at learning Chinese and read widely in the one cultural resource available, the library of the Tientsin Club. Arnhold gradually delegated to him much of the traveling required in matters other than insurance, occasionally sending him to negotiate with corrupt officials demanding outrageous bribes to allow passage of a shipment of wool, peanuts, or some commodity already purchased by Arnhold but held up in the interior.
Lattimore was not, however, the typical foreign business traveler. Most foreigners entered the countryside armed with extensive supplies and staff. Not Lattimore:
I took a small suitcase with a few clothes in it, and carried it myself. No interpreter, no food, no cook, no servant. I fended for myself on the journey. When I got where I was going, I would Find an old-fashioned Chinese firm of the kind where the clerks and apprentices lived on the premises and all ate together, the food being supplied by the firm. There would be consternation when I arrived. "Where are your servants and your baggage?" I would explain that I hadn't any, but if they would make room for me on one of the big brick sleeping platforms (heated by flues in winter), and lend me a quilt, I would roll up in it to sleep. After the first astonishment, this would lead to great cordiality and hospitality.
Four years of navigating the countryside for Arnhold and Company taught Lattimore much about politics, economics, banditry, landlordism, and peasant unrest. At the time he viewed his early years in Tientsin as a kind of purgatory. Later he realized that his travels gave him the equivalent of a Ph.D. in economics. The bottom line was always profit or loss; for the rest of his life he measured economic theories against what he knew of business as Arnhold and Company practiced it. When orthodox Communists, the American New Left, or other ideologues presented what he called "the oversimplified picture of Wall Street's insatiable ambitions, I always say to them, 'Look, don't talk to me about American and Western imperialism in China. I was part of it. And I know what's propaganda and what's real.'" Lattimore believed the cliché had some validity: the trouble with the New Left was that "they haven't met a payroll."
There was more to his travels for Arnhold than just business. The mystery and excitement of the vast Chinese inland territory began to claim his spirit. One journey in particular he called a "turning point" in his life. Early in 1925 he was sent to the railhead at Kweihwa (now Hohhot) on the border of Inner Mongolia to negotiate the passage of a trainload of wool owned by Arnhold that had been stalled because of a fight between two warlords.
Kweihwa, a trading town founded by the Mongol Altan Khan in the sixteenth century, was the eastern terminus of camel caravans from Sinkiang (then called Chinese Turkestan) and the western terminus of the railroad from Peking. Lattimore was fascinated by the business of the railyard:
Here at the end of the last stage of journeys of 1200 or 1500 miles, sometimes more, the caravans filed into the dusty railway yard. In long lines the camels halted and one after another sagged to their knees and squatted, their lower lips drooping sarcastically and their heads turning
contemptuously on their swan-curved necks while the bales of wool or other goods were slipped from their backs and thudded to the ground. There lay the loads, between the lines of camels and the line of railway wagons: a distance of two paces, perhaps four paces, bridging a gap of two thousand years, between the age when the caravans had padded back and forth into the obscure distances dividing the Han Empire from the Roman Empire, and the age of steam, destroying the past and opening the future.
After seeing the caravans, Lattimore was determined to follow them out through the Mongolian plains and the Gobi to their point of origin. He returned to Tientsin and tried to persuade Arnhold and Company to stake him to such an exploration; surely it would yield information useful for future commerce. Lattimore's employers were skeptical of the commercial utility of such a venture, and they feared that he would be captured by bandits and held for ransom; nevertheless, they were sympathetic to his wanderlust. They suggested that he work another year for them, this time in their Peking office, dealing with government officials and transportation agents. This work would provide him both with additional savings so he could travel on his own and with contacts that might ease his entry into the turbulent western provinces. Moreover, Peking was appealingly cosmopolitan, with a vigorous intellectual and cultural life. He accepted.
During his year (1925) in Peking, Lattimore met Eleanor Holgate, daughter of a Northwestern University professor who had brought her to China on a year's sabbatical. Enamored of Peking, Eleanor later deserted Evanston and returned with another adventurous girl to work in the Institute of Art History. She was thirty (five years older than Lattimore), attractive, and vivacious. Both Lattimore and Eleanor Holgate participated in the social life of the young foreign community. They met on a camping trip to the Western Hills and after a brief courtship married on March 4, 1926.
They began to think of a honeymoon journey through the enticing lands of Central Asia. Lattimore was already committed to following the caravan route through Inner (Chinese) Mongolia to Sinkiang, but he could not take Eleanor on this trip. There was much antiforeign sentiment in the area, and most American missionaries had withdrawn from the interior to the safety of the Treaty Ports. Furthermore, the rigid customs of the caravan men would not allow a woman on the journey, and marauding soldiery made her presence exceedingly dangerous. But Eleanor could travel to Sinkiang by a relatively safe railroad journey, north from Peking
through Manchuria, and then west on the Trans-Siberian to the edge of Sinkiang. Owen would meet her at the terminus of the Russian railroad, and they could then travel together through the more stable areas of Sinkiang, through the Heavenly Mountains (Tien Shah), around the vast Taklamakan Desert, across the Karakorum Pass, and south into India. It would be a honeymoon for the ages.
So the plans were made. They would both go by train to Kweihwa, where he would arrange his caravan. When he left, she would return to Peking to await word that he had arrived in Sinkiang. They would then meet in Semipalatinsk, four hundred miles across the Soviet border from Sinkiang.
The Chinese civil wars of the mid-1920s, however, frustrated their plans. Lattimore was set to go, camels and camel puller ready, in March 1926, but his camels were commandeered by a warlord's army and he was left stranded in Kweihwa. Eleanor was still with him, and together they explored the area around Kweihwa, talking to caravan people and learning the ways of avoiding military conscription of one's camels. The trick was to assemble a caravan in one of the secluded valleys away from town, where provisions could be carried by modest cart trips that attracted no attention. By August 1926 Lattimore had digested caravan lore so thoroughly and honed his evasive skills so successfully that he was able to get a caravan of nine camels together and begin his westward journey on the twentieth. Eleanor entrained for Peking to await word of his progress.
As a lone Caucasian among the brawling, polyglot camel men of Central Asia, Lattimore could not afford to make a single false move. His ability to go native, acquired during his travels for Arnhold, his facility in Chinese, and the company of a devoted retainer inherited from his father enabled him to survive.
The trip, despite its rigors, was all he expected of it. Buried in the spare prose of Desert Road to Turkestan are lyrical phrases capturing the aesthetic heights of this adventure: "The camels and the long road, with glimpses, before the sun set, of rolling country and a world without end, were the fulfillment of an old ambition, but they became suddenly tinged with the emotion of a new dream." When he came to the Inner Mongolian uplands, he was "childishly thrilled to . . . be travelling with a caravan into that great plateau of depth and color, with mountains in sight; mountains on whose far side lay strange country, where I might travel but the one time in my life, living for a few score days the life of men in other ages." When he reached the Heavenly Mountains, "the sudden sight of them was like a prophecy fulfilled."
If traveling for Arnhold had provided an education in economics, the caravan trip to Sinkiang provided an education in sociology and grassroots geopolitics. Unlike earlier institutionally sponsored and elaborate expeditions by professional explorers through Central Asia, Lattimore's small group met and attached itself to regular caravans. From camel pullers, cooks, traders, and provisioners met en route Lattimore absorbed the mystique of the Inner Mongolian desert. He liked most of the caravan men and became especially fond of a camel puller with the large caravan of the House of Chou:
When he was not in my tent, I was usually in his, and both his men and those of the House of Liang were cheery fellows. They had at first a forced and wary politeness not natural to their own habits, but before long this wore off and they began to accept me without reserve as an understandable person of their own kind. This was in part because I had smoothed out my own awkwardnesses. I had fallen into the way of gossiping with them instead of asking questions point-blank about things I did not understand. There is nothing that shuts off the speech of simple men like the suspicion that they are being pumped for information; while if they get over the feeling of strangeness they will yarn as they do among themselves. Then in their talk there comes out the rich rough ore of what they themselves accept as the truth about their lives and beliefs, not spoiled in trying to refine it unskillfully by suiting the words to the listener.
Though he did not then speak Mongol, the occasional Mongols he met knew some Chinese, and he began to develop the empathy with that long-suffering people that dominated the rest of his life. Desert Road contains several outraged passages about the exploitation of Mongols by Han Chinese. One Mongol trader came from a well-watered district ten miles from the caravan route that had been taken over by the Chinese, who were to move in the next year. Lattimore grieved with him: "So the Mongols were to withdraw from the menace of fields and houses and a life they did not understand; the game would be scared from the pretty hills, and instead of ponies and sheep and white yurts there would be only a few squalid villages. To my way of thinking it was tragic."
Worse, Chinese expropriation of Mongol grazing lands was no solution to China's immemorial famines.
The prostration of the Chinese people is due to the almost superstitious veneration of the family, from the ancestral tomb to the newborn son, which is carried out in practice by reckless marrying and begetting. The
fine philosophy of the classic Chinese civilization, when interpreted in its lowest terms by the most ignorant and numerous part of the nation, is a fatal thing. In his haste to found a family, attached forever to family land, the Chinese peasant simply cannot comprehend the idea of a fertile leisure, cautious marriage, and the fostering of his sons by enlarging the measure of their opportunities. This vice in Chinese political economy might be corrected by saner marriage customs; certainly never by merely expanding the area of their breeding grounds and marriage grounds. . . . In the meantime, the Chinese are evicting the Mongols, as near as I can compute, at about the rate of ten miles a year, all along the edge [of the caravan route].
Toward the end of the caravan journey, Lattimore met a different group of Mongols, "driven out of their own country [the Mongolian People's Republic, or as it was earlier known, Outer Mongolia] by the crushing taxation under the new Russian- and Buriat-directed regime. As things go in that part of the world a man makes himself an outlaw by moving away from his tribal region—a grave crime in the eyes of the rulers who tax him." Ultimately Lattimore came to believe that the Soviet-sponsored Mongolian People's Republic, despite taxation and sometimes repression, offered the Mongols a far better life than either Chinese or Japanese hegemony.
The journey to Urumchi, Sinkiang's capital, was not all aesthetic delights and fascinating campfire talk. There were anxious moments. Reports of marauding soldiers were frequent, and several times the caravan's leaders prepared elaborate tales about their various sponsors and missions hoping to ward off severe robbery; other times they made detours around areas where soldiers were reported to be active. They came through unchallenged. Lattimore arrived in Urumchi in January 1927.
Urumchi had a primitive wireless station, and Lattimore ordered many messages sent to Eleanor in Peking. Some of them she received, and in early February she was off via the Trans-Siberian railway to Semipalatinsk. She had no trouble getting a Soviet transit visa. Lattimore, preparing to cross the border to meet her at railhead, had a quite different experience.
The Soviet Consul General at Urumchi was cordial and helpful, cabling Moscow to request permission for Lattimore to travel to Semipalatinsk. Lattimore noted in High Tartary that it was "easier" for bureaucrats to grant a woman permission to travel through "political" territory to join her husband than it was to grant the husband permission to cross cherished boundaries to fetch his wife. And he knew, "both from reading and
from my slight acquaintance with Russians of the old regime: in the Russia of the Tsars, if the reports on a traveler in Central Asia read innocently, the conclusion drawn was that either the officials on the spot were stupid or they had been bribed." Thus when Moscow denied his request, "It was the official attitude toward Central Asia that was at fault, not the personal attitude toward me of the Russian consular representatives in Chinese territory." He was stuck in the Chinese border town Chuguchak (now Tahcheng), hoping that Eleanor would know he was there and be able somehow to make the long sled journey by herself.
In the dead of the Siberian winter, speaking no Russian, Eleanor managed to obtain passage on a sled carrying matches from Novosibirsk to China. The journey, as she described it in Turkestan Reunion , was as frigid and uncomfortable as one could imagine. But she survived. She found Lattimore in Chuguchak late in March, and after a month for Eleanor's recuperation they began their six-month honeymoon through Central Asia. It was an idyllic journey. Travel now was by horse cart; there were no camel caravans. They went first to Urumchi, then on a side trip to the great Turfan Depression. Lattimore had met a Turki merchant in Urumchi who entertained them in his native Turfan; an all-day picnic he gave for them in a nearby vineyard, under a 150-year-old grapevine, took three pages for Lattimore to describe.
After Turfan the Lattimores traveled along the rim of the desert to Aksu, Kashgar (now Kashi), Yarkand, and finally over the Karakorum Pass to Srinigar in India. The intense heat of the summer months led them to travel mostly at night. By the end of the journey, in September, they were crossing 17,000-foot mountain passes covered by glaciers.
Lattimore recorded fewer geopolitical observations in his account of this journey than in the caravan saga. His travelogue dealt mostly with horses, mountains, nomadic customs, cities and ruins of cities, Kazakhs, Uighurs, and fascinating people. There was danger and hardship, but he and Eleanor arrived in Srinigar triumphant and healthy.
From India they went to Rome, reputed to be the least expensive European city at that time. They spent the winter of 1927-28 writing their respective books with the help of the Royal Italian Geographical Society. For a pittance they occupied the third floor of the house near the foot of the Spanish Steps where, a century before, John Keats had spent his last months.
From Woodhead and other acquaintances in China, Lattimore had learned that the prospect for publishing his book in England was very good. When he finished the manuscript of Desert Road , he and Eleanor went to England,
where he found a publisher who issued the book within the year. Lattimore also contacted Douglas Carruthers, a famous English naturalist whose Unknown Mongolia Lattimore had carried with him on his travels. Carruthers received him warmly, advised him about publishing, and introduced him to many of London's orientalists. While in London, at the age of twenty-eight, Lattimore was invited to lecture to the British Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Central Asian Society. He and Eleanor left for the United States in midsummer.
In the summer of 1928, for the first time since Lattimore had been taken to China in 1901, he was back on American soil—broke, married, with no job in sight. He wanted to continue to travel and study in the frontier regions of China. Quite by accident, he was put in touch with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), a dispenser of funds to promising scholars. Lattimore hardly fit the usual criteria. He had no Ph.D., no graduate study, no college work at all. But he had remarkable experience and the manuscript of Desert Road to prove it. Isaiah Bowman, head of the American Geographical Society and influential in the SSRC, liked Lattimore's proposals for the study of Inner Asia and pushed for approval of an unusual grant: a year of informal study at Harvard to gain some acquaintance with the methods and standards of social scientists, and then a year of subsidy to work in China.
One of the anthropologists Lattimore worked with at Harvard was Roland B. Dixon, who had traveled extensively in Central Asia. Dixon insisted that the Lattimores should meet Robert LeMoyne Barrett, also an Asian explorer, who was in Boston on a brief visit. The heir of a wealthy Chicago businessman, Barrett had rejected the business world to travel. Lattimore called Barrett "one of the last of the great eccentrics." Barrett and his wife found the Lattimores to be kindred spirits and began to subsidize Lattimore's travels, providing extras not covered by the SSRC grant when he got back to China. It was a relationship that lasted, with one interruption, until Barrett's death in 1969.
The eight months Lattimore spent at Harvard (1928-29) were rewarding, but Asia beckoned, and much was happening in China; the revolution begun by Sun Yat-sen was accelerating under Chiang Kai-shek. Lattimore returned to China, free to travel and study full-time.
During 1929-30 Owen and Eleanor traveled throughout Manchuria, seeking "surviving communities of the fast-vanishing Manchus who were once the principal inhabitants of Manchuria and the conquerors of China." The Manchus were but one of many non-Chinese races scattered around the central core of Han Chinese. Lattimore was interested in all the mi-
nority races, but he was most drawn to the Mongol communities. He knew that the Chinese were steadily displacing Mongol herders with Han farmers, and on a trip to a Chinese colonization project in western Liaoning Province he saw in detail the practices that had been described to him during his caravan trip:
This colonisation was brutally carried out: the Mongols were evicted at the point of the bayonet and Chinese colonists planted on their land. If any Mongols resisted, they were dealt with as "bandits.". . . Clearly, the military colonisation which my wife and I had seen was not strengthening the Chinese position but preparing the Mongols to accept (and in some cases to welcome) any Japanese aggression against the Chinese that would put an end to the Chinese aggression against the Mongols. Shocked by what we had seen, I tried to learn more about the policies of the various provincial governments dealing with different sectors of Inner Mongolia. I soon found that a great deal of money was being made. The families of generals accompanying the troops acquired expropriated Mongol land at nominal prices and colonised it with refugees from famine areas, imposing on them "sharecropping" rents that kept them poor and powerless.
To Western minds, "Mongol" was synonymous with the "barbarian hordes" of Genghis Khan. Lattimore, though, saw the Mongols as a fascinating, persecuted, intelligent people who suffered the fate of all minorities dominated by neighboring goliaths: in the Mongol case, Russia, China, and Japan. As Han Chinese steadily encroached on Inner Mongolian territory, many Mongols lost their native language and spoke only Chinese. This loss did not, Lattimore observed, eradicate Mongol nationalism: "This phenomenon of the national minority whose loss of the national language has only intensified its nationalism is easily overlooked. It is found among some Welshmen who speak only English, some Bretons who speak only French, and I daresay among some Basques who speak only Spanish or French."
Beyond his growing sympathy for Mongol nationalism, Lattimore began to appreciate the geopolitical significance of the Sino-Soviet border areas. In High Tartary (1930) he speculates on the turmoil that yet lay ahead before these much-fought-over territories were finally stabilized. It would, he predicts, be bitter: "The mountains and deserts of Inner Asia have now lain for several centuries like a buffer between Russia and China—one of the greatest nations of the West, and the greatest nation of the East. From both sides a flow has begun into these thinly-held lands. Russian and Chinese must in time come face to face. There is no meeting in
history to compare with it. . . . Already a thrust and counter-thrust is bearing on them (as in Manchuria and Mongolia). It is a play of primal forces, far more significant than superficial considerations of politics, which are only symptomatic, and will vary and be transformed, in the confounding way that symptoms have."
His prophecy was strikingly fulfilled in the 1960s, refuting the ignorant American belief of 1950 that Russia had made a satellite of China or, as the supporters of Chiang Kai-shek put it, had created a "Slavic Manchukuo." To many Americans, Marxism was the compelling force of the century in determining national policies. To Lattimore, geopolitics was more vital. His "primal forces," the expansionism of China and Russia, proved to be determining, and ideology to be merely incidental.
Also very early in his career Lattimore discerned that Russian policies toward the minorities of Central Asia were more enlightened than those of China. The Russian, he wrote, "has shown less race animosity than any other white race would ever have shown." And "the measure of autonomy granted to the native republics under Russian 'advisory' government appears like comparative freedom, especially the privileges of carrying arms and policing themselves." Thus "the advantages of Russian allegiance being vehemently borne in upon the tribes on the hither side of the border, who chafed under the Chinese restrictions on the bearing of arms," these peoples began to see that Russian hegemony was preferable to the only alternative, Chinese hegemony. Lattimore did not say, then or later, that the Soviet Union provided anything approximating Western-style democracy, which no one in that turbulent corner of the globe knew anything about. But his observation about the Soviet "power of attraction" was correct.
By the summer of 1930, when his SSRC fellowship expired, Lattimore had published not only Desert Road and High Tartary but also three articles in Asia magazine and two in Atlantic Monthly . These publications were sufficient to induce the Harvard-Yenching Institute to award him a fellowship for 1930-31. He moved to Peking and began systematic study of written Chinese and the Mongol language. During this period he wrote Manchuria: Cradle of Conflict and The Mongols of Manchuria , in which he espouses the cause of Mongol nationalism.
When these books were published in 1932 and 1934, they aroused immediate controversy. Since Lattimore condemned Chinese frontier policy, the Japanese praised his books, believing that they served Japanese purposes in Manchuria. Since the Japanese praised them, the Russians accused Lattimore of being an "imperial apologist." And, of course, nation-
alistic Chinese were offended. Lattimore was always to be controversial because of his outspoken views on the rights of the Mongols and other Inner Asian peoples; neither Japanese nor Chinese found his sympathy for the subject races tolerable.
Even though Peking was his headquarters from 1930 until the summer of 1933, Lattimore continued traveling in native fashion: "Going up to the Inner Mongolian frontier I bought some camels, a Mongol tent, and local provisions, and found as a guide and companion a Mongol who did not know any Chinese. By the end of my first journey of this kind, I had made a good start in the Mongol language. I had also become the first and only American with a combined experience of many months of travel in all three of the great northern frontier areas of China—Manchuria, Mongolia, and Sinkiang—and the ability to travel in those areas, and in North China, without an interpreter."
When the Harvard-Yenching fellowship expired, the Guggenheim Foundation awarded Lattimore grants for 1931 through 1933; he thus had foundation support for five full years of study and travel. During this period the Japanese seized Manchuria, then Jehol, and began to spread out in Inner Mongolia and North China. Lattimore did not approve of this development; he began the opposition to Japanese aggression that dominated his beliefs for a decade.
Also during his fellowship years he met the Dilowa Hutukhtu, one of the "living Buddhas" of the Lama Buddhist church, roughly equivalent to a cardinal in the Catholic church. The Dilowa's former monastery at Narobanchin in the Mongolian People's Republic had both civil and religious jurisdiction over a territory of approximately 1,250 square miles. In 1931 the Dilowa was arrested by the Communist government of the Mongolian People's Republic; he was convicted of antigovernment activities, given a suspended sentence of five years, and told to remain at the monastery. Knowing the Buddhist church had little future under the Communists, he fled to Chinese jurisdiction in Inner Mongolia, and then to Peking.
Lattimore found the Dilowa fascinating; he "was a man of the old order, deeply imbued with the ethos of Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhism, a system of ideas and beliefs that had not changed since the Middle Ages." The Japanese courted the Dilowa, trying to get him to sign on as one of their collaborators, proclaiming their intention of liberating the Mongolian People's Republic from Soviet domination. The Dilowa would have none of this collaboration. He told Lattimore that the Japanese would, "whatever they might say about 'alliance' with the Mongols, make Mon-
golia into a kind of colony. He did cling, as long as he could, to the hope that American policy might do something to restrain Japan's continuing expansion." Lattimore clung, also vainly, to the same hope.
In addition to the Dilowa and other refugees from the Mongolian People's Republic, Lattimore met and learned about Mongol life from the major Inner Mongolian leaders. One of these leaders was Merse, who headed a school that trained Mongol interpreters for service in the administration of Chang Hsueh-liang, the Nationalist warlord controlling the eastern part of Inner Mongolia. Chang ordered Merse killed in September 1931. Another, Te Wang, was the principal leader of the Inner Mongolian autonomy movement. Unable to secure backing for Mongol autonomy, Prince Te was wooed by the Japanese and eventually threw in his lot with them. Lattimore remarked of him, "As for Te Wang, he has not 'gone over' to Japan; he has been tied hand and foot and thrown to the Japanese. "
Lattimore not only absorbed the lore of Mongol culture during his trips into isolated Mongol communities but also read everything available in Peking about the great empires of the khans and their interaction with China. He was absorbed by a tantalizing question: How had such a noble people come to their twentieth-century subjection by the Han? This was the most salient inquiry in his lifelong pursuit of the mysteries of Central Asia. James Cotton summarizes the development of his scholarship:
He wished to determine how a nomadic society with many egalitarian characteristics had come to be dominated by an entrenched nobility and clergy; he also sought to understand why this entrenched elite had so signally failed to provide that leadership which the Mongols required in the crisis of the past two decades, an enquiry which led to speculation on what future course of action would preserve them as a people. And since the fate of the Mongols was related at every turn with developments in China, Lattimore was also led to contemplate the past and the present of the relationship between these two civilizations, and what failing in Chinese society had prevented that alliance which would have been so advantageous to both peoples.
No ideological system determined his search for answers, though he acknowledged the influence of Oswald Spengler. He took the first volume of The Decline of the West with him on his travels in 1929 and 1930.
The years traveling through North China also brought Lattimore into close contact with warfare, not just with the skirmishes between rival generals but with the tactics being developed by the Japanese army. To a great extent these tactics involved systematic "brutality and arrogance"
on the part of Japanese soldiers, equaling those of the Germans less than a decade later. Lattimore later found that isolationist sentiment in the United States was so strong that few wanted to hear about Japanese brutality in China. That was not our business.
Nor were Americans interested in field tactics, though they should have been. One of Lattimore's journeys provided him with insight that might have been salutary for many Western commanders a decade later:
In 1933 I went up to the province of Jehol as guide, interpreter, and ghostwriter to an Englishman who was reporting for an American news syndicate, and together with an American reporter and a couple of American military observers watched the Japanese overrun 100,000 square miles of territory in ten days. They did it by the use of motorized transport and by cutting through the Chinese forces and driving deep, paying no attention to their exposed flanks. This Japanese campaign in 1933 and not the German campaign in Poland in 1939, was the first tryout of the modern blitzkrieg. Only the Germans and the Russians seemed to have paid much attention. Other people thought it was just a lot of Japanese overrunning a lot of Chinese, and not worth study by professional soldiers.
There was an addition to the Lattimore family during these fellowship years in North China. Eleanor became pregnant in the summer of 1930 and on March 24, 1931, entered the hospital in Peking for what turned out to be a very difficult delivery. The son born to her on March 25 was named David, after his grandfather. The Dilowa Hutukhtu became David's godfather.
By the end of his second Guggenheim year, in the summer of 1933, Lattimore and his family were ready to return to the United States. Fellowship money had run out; it was time to look for a job. And there were more books and articles to be written from the experiences of his four years as a student in China.