At Johns Hopkins
Before Lattimore left China in 1937, he wrote Isaiah Bowman, then president of the Johns Hopkins University, inquiring if Bowman knew of a university that needed a China specialist. Bowman wrote back that Lattimore "must not think of any place except the Hopkins" and offered him a job. Lattimore took up residence in September 1938 as a lecturer in the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations. This was a half-time appointment, allowing him to continue editing Pacific Affairs . Within a year he was made director of the Page School.
Taking the appointment at Johns Hopkins had one unfortunate consequence. Robert LeMoyne Barrett, who had helped the Lattimores financially during their Asian travels, was dead set against the new allegiance. Lattimore called Barrett's attitude "crankiness" and said, "He despised the Hopkins only a little less than he despised Harvard. He thought I was betraying my true role as the free-roaming traveler." Relations became so strained that Lattimore felt he had to decline any more help from Barrett. The estrangement lasted until 1950.
Settling down in Baltimore was not easy for Lattimore. He had spent little of his life in the United States and now had to learn a whole new culture. Baltimore was not the easiest place to begin his education, for strangers were not welcomed with open arms. Here Eleanor's gift for friendship was of great value to him, as was her superior knowledge of American folkways. Still, the Lattimores made few close friends outside the Johns Hopkins community.
Lattimore attended meetings of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia during his first year at Hopkins and there met a fellow adventurer who was perhaps his most intimate friend for twenty-four years:
the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. "Stef," as he was commonly known, soon married Evelyn Baird, and the Lattimores and Stefanssons spent many holidays together. In her introduction to Silks, Spices, and Empire , which the Lattimores edited, Evelyn Stefansson Nef (her name after her second marriage) describes the
special kind of dialogue that Owen and Stef engaged in when conditions were right. Quiet was required—it didn't matter how many other people were present if they were good listeners—and something to hold in the hand, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Then these two exceptional men, each expert in his chosen field and interested in everything that related to it directly or peripherally, would begin. In comparing Eskimo and Mongol ways, no detail was too small to be recited and followed by evaluation, comparison, and speculation. Both brought marvelous but different linguistic accomplishments to the discussion. Each could stir the other intellectually and bring out his best. Humor was not omitted, a satiric, tart sort in Stef's case and an earthier, more boisterous, punning kind in Owen's. Throughout 20 years we spent many evenings in this kind of exchange.
Mongols and Eskimos, however, were not topics of academic concern at Johns Hopkins when Lattimore started teaching there. By the fall of 1938 Hitler had annexed Austria, and Chamberlain had capitulated at Munich. Even American undergraduates were beginning to sense the menace of the Fascist powers, and Lattimore's geopolitical approach to politics made sense to many of them. But he had the wrong hemisphere; they were Eurocentric, and his pleas for support of China against Japan made little impression.
Lattimore's opinions on European events were somewhat heretical. He thought that England and France had "precipitated an era of dirty politics by the attempt to appease Hitler and turn him against Russia." There was therefore some justification for Stalin's pact with Hitler, even for the Soviet attack on Finland. But on the Russo-Finnish War he equivocated. The Russians had no "moral justification" for the attack; hence he supported a Baltimore group called Fighting Funds for Finland. But he rejected the right-wing position that the United States should declare war on the Soviet Union because of the Finnish invasion.
It was during his first year at Johns Hopkins that Lattimore made the most serious error of his career. A manuscript was submitted to Pacific Affairs by Mary van Kleeck, a pro-Soviet writer whom Lattimore did not know, praising Stalin's purge trials because they strengthened the Soviet Union for the coming battle against Germany and Japan. In reaching this
conclusion van Kleeck tossed a bouquet to the Russian masses: "It was the masses who made the revolution. It is the masses who have developed and saved the Soviet Union. It is the Soviet Union today, made strong because of its firm base among the same masses, that alone among all the great nations has been able to check any of Hitler's declared plans. The Soviet Union has won a victory for the democratic nations."
Lattimore had heard similar comments on the purge trials from journalists in Moscow, especially his friend Demaree Bess. Since Lattimore identified with the masses of China, or any other country, against the bureaucrats who bedevil them, he decided to publish van Kleeck's article, which appeared in the June 1938 Pacific Affairs .
Now Pacific Affairs had a tiger by the tail. Among protesters, the ferocious anti-Stanlinist William Henry Chamberlin, who had been Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor , was the most insistent. His comment on the van Kleeck analysis reached Lattimore soon after the June issue was off the press. Here indeed was the kind of public airing of controversial issues to which Lattimore was committed. Chamberlain noted the absence of documentary evidence in the Moscow trials, ridiculed the Soviet claim that the conspiracies against Stalin could have been so important and yet produced such meager results, noted discrepancies in the confessions, and claimed that the behavior of the defendants did not ring true. Lattimore printed Chamberlain's rebuttal in September.
He also added an editorial comment. On his 1936 trip to Moscow, he had met Radek and Rakovsky, two purge victims. He found their trial testimony to be in character and psychologically convincing. In addition, overbearing Soviet bureaucrats were getting their comeuppance: "The accounts of the most widely read Moscow correspondents all emphasize that since the close scrutiny of every person in a responsible position, following the trials, a great many abuses have been discovered and rectified . A lot depends on whether you emphasize the discovery of the abuse or the rectification of it; but habitual rectification can hardly do anything but give the ordinary citizen more courage to protest, loudly, whenever he finds himself being victimized by 'someone in the Party' or 'someone in the Government.' That sounds to me like democracy." It was a statement he lived to regret. The purges merely strengthened Stalin's control, consolidated the bureaucracy, and, as Lattimore later learned, wiped out the China specialists for whom Lattimore had great respect.
Lattimore's misjudgment of the purge trials was undoubtedly influenced by his generally favorable evaluation of Soviet foreign policy, which
emphasized collective action against the Fascist powers, and his knowledge that Soviet minority policies in Asia had been far more enlightened than those of other nations. He was nonetheless wrong.
Far more important to Lattimore than argument about Stalin's purges was what he thought to be the craven British-French appeasement of Hitler at Munich. He was convinced of the interrelationship of European events with the scene developing in Asia. In the December 1938 Pacific Affairs he wrote a brief comment, "Can the Soviet Union Be Isolated?" It concerned the possibility that Britain and France would continue appeasing Hitler "as a necessary preliminary to the isolation and encirclement of the Soviet Union." Should this isolation happen, and should Hitler line up with Japan against the Soviet, Soviet aid to China, which was the most important source of war material used by Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese, might dry up. But Lattimore did not think this eventuality likely. Stalin had shown no disposition to back down from engagement in Asia and had already tangled with Japan in Siberia. In fact, as Lattimore saw it,
The Soviet Union holds a stronger strategic position than ever. Against Germany, the Red Army no longer has to plan for the defense of the awkward salient of Czechoslovakia, but can dig in on its own territory. To attack the Ukraine, Hitler's "pure" Germans will have to cross a belt of Slavic populations, who may for the moment be subservient, but have already been taught that the Germans will always despise and abuse them. Against Japan, the Soviet position is even better. The Japanese have been thrown back from Siberia with great loss of prestige, and forced to involve themselves more inextricably than ever in a war with China which is more hopeless than ever.
Most pundits at that time believed that the Soviet army had been "demoralized by purges"; Lattimore's position was heretical.
Sensing the coming war, Lattimore spent a six-week vacation in Europe during the late summer of 1939. He tried again to get clearance from Moscow to visit the Mongolian People's Republic, but without success. Most of his time he spent in Sweden, paradoxically in the company of Sven Hedin, a celebrated Asian explorer but also, so Lattimore heard, an honorary member of the Nazi party. Lattimore said that his affinity with Hedin was based on professional interests; on other matters they vigorously disagreed, as they did about the Soviet Union.
Hedin foresaw the Hitler-Stalin pact, which astounded Lattimore. He soon realized, however, that it made sense geopolitically. Sworn enemies
could make a deal when each stood to gain something, and Stalin did gain something from the pact. Lattimore shared his view of the nonaggression pact with that British master geopolitician, Winston Churchill. In The Gathering Storm Churchill writes, "It is a question whether Hitler or Stalin loathed it most. Both were aware that it could only be a temporary expedient. The antagonisms between the two empires and systems were mortal." Churchill goes on to note that the Russians had "burnt into their minds" the disasters of 1914, when their frontiers were more favorable than in 1939. They had to "be in occupation of the Baltic States and a large part of Poland by force or fraud before they were attacked. If their policy was coldblooded, it was also at the moment realistic in a high degree."
But Japanese aggression, not the Hitler-Stalin pact, was uppermost in Lattimore's mind, and no issue of Pacific Affairs failed to touch on that topic. However, Lattimore did not confine discussion of Japan to those in sympathy with his views; for instance, the September 1939 issue carried an apology for Japan by one of its foremost supporters, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter. Her eighteen-page article, "The Problem of Sanctions in the Far East," capitalized on her work with three other economists at Harvard on the recent economic development of Japan. Concerned with heading off strict economic sanctions, Schumpeter argued that Japan was only securing in China the same raw materials that the colonial powers had secured "in the past by methods which now shock us." An embargo on what little the United States still exported to Japan would be a hostile act: "once you deny countries access to food or raw materials on any scale, you are warring on civilian populations; you are employing the very tactics you deplore."
In his editorial comment Lattimore refrained from direct attack on Schumpeter's argument, instead suggesting that Pacific Affairs readers who had opinions should send letters for inclusion in the December issue. Seven of his readers responded, and he quoted from their letters in December. One agreed with Schumpeter, five disagreed, and one waffled. Lattimore again stayed out of the argument.
The Institute of Pacific Relations had scheduled its seventh major conference for Victoria, British Columbia, in late November 1939. The outbreak of war caused some changes. Instead of the usual full-scale conference, IPR held a more modest "study meeting" at Virginia Beach. Only six countries managed to send official delegates: Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United States. Great Britain and France sent observers only. Japan refused to send anyone, as did the So-
viet Union. William L. Holland, who edited the study meeting report, attributed the Soviet absence to transportation difficulties. The truth was that the Soviet's seven-year flirtation with the IPR had simply come to an end. In the Soviet view, the bourgeois imperialists who dominated the IPR had finally shown their true colors, retreating and compromising when confronted with Fascist aggression. Collective security had finally and disastrously failed. The Soviets, who had been willing to support France and Britain had those countries defended Czechoslovakia against Hitler, now knew they were on their own. To add insult to injury, the British and French, in an agreement signed at Tientsin on June 19, 1939, gave in to Japanese demands that Japan's occupation currency be accepted as legal tender in British and French concessions, on a par with Chinese currency. This agreement was appeasement in Asia, and the Russians fumed. Carter's continued letters to Soviet officials begging their participation in the IPR went unanswered.
The talk at the Virginia Beach meeting, in which Lattimore participated, was all of the war in the Pacific. Every conceivable point of view was presented. Perhaps the most amazing speech was given by "a leading member of the Chinese group" who said that Japanese warnings to China about "the Communist bogey" from which Japan could save them were nonsense. The Chinese Communist party was no threat to the Chinese Nationalists, "for neither the political nor economic structure of China as a whole reveals any trace of inclination toward Marxism, and, in the strict sense of the term, China has no Communists. What groups there are under this name certainly cannot be regarded as such as understood in Europe, or elsewhere."
Lattimore cringed at this statement: he knew Mao and his followers to be genuine Communists. Other Chinese delegates were more realistic, but the uttering of such fantasy by a high-ranking Nationalist was not a sign of candor at the top.