previous chapter
Chapter Thirty-Two Cambridge and Pawtucket
next section

Chapter Thirty-Two
Cambridge and Pawtucket

Lattimore's years with Cambridge as his base (1979-85) were the happiest of any after Eleanor's death. He already had friends there. One of the closest was Caroline Humphrey, formerly his student at Leeds. She had become head of the Mongolian and Inner Asia Studies Unit established at Cambridge in 1986 when Leeds was unable to sustain its Mongol program. Others he knew well included Joseph Needham, authority on Chinese science, ex-president of Gonville and Caius College, and Fellow of the Royal Society; Joan Robinson, frequent visitor to China and a prominent economist who specialized in the Third World; David's wife's sister, married to a don at Selwyn College; Edmund Leach, provost of King's College, who had started his career in China as Lattimore did, with an export-import firm; Sir Moses Finley, master of Darwin College, a great economic historian of classical times who had been hounded out of the United States by the splenetic Karl Wittfogel; and E. H. Carr, prominent historian at Trinity College.

Lattimore was made a member of High Table at King's College and dined there several times a term; the conversation was brilliant and the food superb. He was also made an honorary member of University Centre, "an endowed, club-like organization for visiting professors and the like. Rather good for me: no fees, better than average food." And he was "fast making new friends: many of them, which is cheering at my age, very young and promising." London was within commuting distance. He went there frequently for meetings of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Central Asian Society.[1]

He soon fell into a routine. Up at seven, when his "internal clock" always woke him. After breakfast he worked on his autobiography: "In


theory (and I must say, generally in practice), nothing else is done until several pages of that have been tapped out."[2] After lunch, chores, shopping, and exercise—at least half an hour of walking or cycling. Afternoon was also for "secondary productive work"—book reviews, articles, anything that would get into print. But there were troubles:

Theoretically, again, evening is for correspondence, and theoretically the structure is right. I have two typewriters: one in my study for the "primary" and one on a table in my bedroom for the "secondary" work. But the performance isn't up to the theory. In the first place, my filing is at least a year behind. . . . In the second place, there's the occasional visitor, or going out to dinner. Thirdly, I've developed an addictive vice: I read too many papers and weeklies (lucky I don't have television). That's because I'm fascinated by the American election, Iran, Afghanistan, China, Kampuchea, and what-all. Finally, by evening I am often just plain tired. (After all, I've just had my 80th birthday.)[3]

Almost as important as the sociability and structured routine of Cambridge was the "refuge with Rosemary" in Norfolk. She had a guest room with a typewriter, and he could take work with him if he felt like it. Rosemary was a fine cook, and his descriptions of special meals like Christmas dinner are glowing. The thing he mentioned most in his letters to friends, however, was his Norfolk exercise: splitting wood. When he started visiting Norfolk, Rosemary had a huge pile of sawed logs too wide for the fireplace. At first Lattimore worked on them with an axe. In April 1980 Gerry Piel sent him a splitting maul from L. L. Bean. It revolutionized his favorite sport. Most of his letters during 1980 and 1981 describe the glee with which he reduced Rosemary's woodpile to fireplace size. He bragged, "I've split two mountains of firewood."[4]

Toward the end of 1980 there were rumblings on the grapevine from China:

The Chinese are making noises—very discreet noises—bout inviting me again next year. They are doing it just the way they did in 1972; not a thing in writing, but messages passed by word of mouth along a relay chain. It would be interesting, but I don't have to go. As things stand, it looks as though they want me more than I need them. I've heard that under the new dispensation in China (that blessed word, pragmatism) even invited guests have to pay their own hotel and travel expenses inside China. So I've passed the message back that (a) I can't afford that much, and they'll have to pay my expenses inside the country; and (b) I'm getting too old to go racketing about all on my own, so I must have David with me. He's legitimate. He's a solid expert on


medieval Chinese poetry, which is now once more a respectable pursuit. . . . Like last time, I have to make it dear (but not vulgarly dear) to the Chinese that they are not capturing me from my Soviet and Mongol friends—any more than those friends have captured me from the Chinese.[5]

Nineteen eighty-one marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Mongolian revolution, and as the first foreign member of the Academy of Sciences Lattimore was to help the Mongols celebrate. He arranged his trip that year to provide a fortnight each in China, Mongolia, and the Soviet Union, leaving in late June. David was unable to accompany him, so Lattimore asked Maria, his twenty-seven-year-old granddaughter, to come along. She was a musician and published poet. Lattimore observed later, "It's interesting that in all three revolutionary countries qualities like that got her an instant, enthusiastic welcome. Also, in all three societies, the Soviet as well as the Chinese and Mongol, the idea of the faithful granddaughter accompanying and looking after the decrepit grandfather was cordially approved."[6]

Lattimore and Maria arrived in Peking on June 22, 1981, after a nine-teen-hour flight from London. He found the atmosphere much more relaxed than in 1972 in one way: people felt more free to talk. But the talk was often anti-Soviet diatribe. Maria recalls that all of their guides in China "were feeding us the line that the U.S. should supply them with nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet threat."[7] Lattimore and Maria argued against this position, but the Chinese were unyielding. Maria says, "No matter how many counter-arguments we offered, they simply reiterated their initial position: 'The U.S. must help China defend against Soviet hegemony.'" Lattimore and Maria speculated inconclusively as to Chinese motives for this stultifying rigidity.

Lattimore was quite clear that the Chinese expected him to report to his friends in the West that things had improved since the Cultural Revolution. Of course they had, and Lattimore was pleased at this. But it was a bittersweet pleasure. One of his old Peking friends, whom he had asked to see in 1972 but was told the man was "on vacation," was available in 1981. The man had been sent off to the country and tortured, yet Lattimore had not suspected this treatment in 1972. He was now disturbed by his earlier blindness to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and he told Maria it was a personal failure analogous to the "good Germans not knowing about the concentration camps." Here he was probably too hard on himself: Michael remembered that his grandfather had been distinctly aware of the repression in 1972.


Lattimore's Chinese itinerary had been arranged to accommodate David's interest in Tu Fu, the great eighth-century poet who had lived in Chengtu. This stop was still on his schedule. John Stewart Service had been born in Chengtu, and Lattimore sent him a postcard from there. He and Maria also visited Sian, one of the most fascinating areas for archaeologists in all China. At the Ch'in dynasty site near Sian, where a massive vault containing life-size terra-cotta armies had been excavated, Lattimore was delighted to discover that the six thousand buried warrior figures were of many races, not just Han Chinese. Even the horses and weapons of the buried armies showed great individual detail and tribal distinctions. At Sian's T'ang dynasty tombs he and Maria "happened" to meet one of China's chief archaeologists, also a victim of the Cultural Revolution, once again practicing his profession.

Back in Peking, Lattimore was interviewed by Bradley Martin of the Baltimore Sun . The lead of Martin's story captured the Lattimore ethos precisely: "He walks with a stoop now, and the wrinkles earned during a career that ranged from scholarly field work with nomads on China's borders to jousting with the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy are etched deeply as he squints through a cloud of smoke from Chinese Double Happiness brand cigarettes. But as he nears his 81st birthday, Owen Lattimore... retains the quick and effective way with words and the critical eye for American foreign policy that persuaded McCarthy wire-pullers that the professor was a dangerous man."[8]

Lattimore told Martin that Chinese intellectuals were indeed more relaxed than they had been in 1972 and reported a conversation with an official of the Chinese Nationalities Institute. This official acknowledged that the Cultural Revolution had purged thousands of competent men and installed "second-raters" whose main virtue was that they were conformists, just as happened in the United States during the McCarthy purges. Still heretical, Lattimore went on to observe that Mao Tse-tung once said the Chinese converted to communism because they "had the best teachers in the world—Japanese imperialists and Chiang Kai-shek. 'What worries me,' Mr. Lattimore said, 'is: aren't we, in El Salvador and elsewhere, becoming the best teachers of Communism? I've always said the government of a capitalist country not only has the right, it has the duty , to stop the spread of Communism. . .. but for God's sake let's try to stop resorting to methods that will recruit more new Communists.'"[9]

The Chinese spared no effort to make Lattimore's visit enjoyable, but at the end of two weeks he was ready for Mongolia. On July 4 he and Maria entrained for Ulan Bator. At the Sino-Mongolian border, where


the train carriages had to be refitted with Russian-gauge wheels, the passengers disembarked and went to the railyard restaurant for dinner. Maria describes it as "the Chinese equivalent of a truck stop; the food was superb." Here Lattimore was in his glory. At his table were a Frenchman, a Malay, and several other nationalities, none of whose Chinese was in working order. Lattimore translated the menu into five languages and ordered for all of them.

Lattimore was one of the highest-ranking guests as the MPR celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. Tsedenbal, the premier, received him and Maria for a full hour. The polemics were now reversed: Tsedenbal was worried about an infiltration of Chinese spies, mostly men who married Mongol women and moved to the MPR to gather defense secrets and carry out sabotage. Maria gave Tsedenbal a poem she had composed celebrating the anniversary. The poem, Lattimore said, delighted him. It included a reference to the Mongol cosmonaut who had recently gone on a Soviet space flight; this Russian-Mongol venture was a symbol for the celebration.

Lattimore's formal part in the proceedings was a speech (in Mongol) at the Academy. Maria says he practiced on her during the train ride and then spoke without notes. His theme was the significance of China's Great Wall. He did not see it as merely a barrier to keep out barbarians. Construction of the wall would have required either large numbers of resident workers or incredibly long supply lines. The Chinese aim must have been at least partly to extend the area inhabited by ethnic Chinese. This was a theme the Mongols appreciated.

There were the usual reunions with friends and former students, picnics in the countryside, attendance at the festival games, visits to the library and bookstores. Possibly the high point of the trip for Lattimore occurred the day he made his call on the British embassy. He and Maria walked to and from their hotel. His back was hurting on the return trip, and he stopped to rest on one of the benches lining Ulan Bator streets. At this bench an elderly Mongol, dressed in traditional robe and boots with turned-up toes, noticed Lattimore's coral and silver ring of Mongol design. The old man whispered almost inaudibly, "Where did you get the ring?" He was not sure whether he should pry into the affairs of this foreigner, was not sure the foreigner spoke Mongol, and did not fully expect an answer. Lattimore heard and responded, starting a long conversation. The Mongol knew that this was someone special; Lattimore knew that he was "one of them."

Two weeks in Ulan Bator were again too short; on July 18, 1981, Lat-


timore and Maria were on the Trans-Siberian railway en route to Novosibirsk. His old friend Okladnikov was seriously ill, hospitalized with advanced diabetes. During the three days Lattimore was in Novosibirsk, Okladnikov persuaded his doctors to allow him out of the hospital so he could entertain Lattimore for a last nostalgic visit. Okladnikov took Lattimore to the museum to see the latest of the stone markers from Central Asian archaeological digs and gave a magnificent banquet for him. The respect of the Novosibirsk academic community for Lattimore was shown at a meeting with the rector of the university; Maria says they served "vodka, expresso, and chocolates all at one time, the first two in exquisite containers which were never allowed to be empty." Okladnikov died within the year.

In Moscow the Lattimores were guests of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He was tired. A daylong journey to a monastery museum wore him out. His eighty-first birthday party on July 29, which the Academy gave at what Maria describes as a "very fashionable restaurant," revived his spirits, but anticipation of the work awaiting him in Cambridge soon bore down on him. He had planned to continue his journey by train, visiting several European cities where friends were expecting him, but decided to fly back instead. He and Maria caught a plane for England July 31.

Fujiko came over from Paris for a week soon after his return to Cambridge to work on the proofs of their book about the Dilowa. This work postponed his dealing with the "unbelievable mountain of correspondence" that had accumulated in his absence.[10] Maria stayed in England until the end of November, visiting friends and helping Lattimore with shopping and housekeeping. When he caught up on his correspondence and started on his memoirs, he got a writing block at the point where he first met Eleanor in Peking. Maria was visiting and got him to talk to her about it; the next day he was able to put it on paper. When she left, he spent several weekends and the Christmas season with Rosemary in Norfolk.

He learned in February 1982 that Shirendyb had been deposed as president of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Only the Chinese commented publicly on this event; the Chinese embassy in London sent Lattimore their "official news agency report on Shirendyb, which suggests that he was attacked for 'not being pro-Russian enough,' which doesn't convince me. I have known him for more than 20 years, and he always struck me as the most romantically, as well as politically, pro-Russian


(not just pro-Soviet) among my Mongol friends."[11] Eventually he learned that Shirendyb fell because the MPR thought he lived too well, and enabled his relatives to live too well, on the perquisites of his position.

Lattimore was still working fitfully on his autobiography, but his major interest now seemed to be a "big" article for Scientific American on ancient long-distance caravans. He previewed it this way:

Everybody knows there was a Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. (There wasn't; there was a network of alternative routes.) But who knows what was the day's march (in sand, over steppe, in hilly country); the weight carried by each camel; seasonal variations and so on. I do, and so do a number, a dwindling number, of old Mongol and Chinese caravan men (and their techniques were different in important ways). For all this, you don't get the real thing by reading the great travellers, the Aurel Steins or whoever; they hired their caravans, they didn't work their own animals as I did; or, when I travelled in company with Chinese trading caravans, sit around the camp fire and hobnob with the men.[12]

Despite his travel weariness the previous summer, when the fire bell rang, he was off again. The last week of August 1982 it was to the Fourth International Congress of Mongolists in Ulan Bator. He was "head" of the three-person English-speaking delegation; he appeared on Mongol television, translated documents, solicited the life histories of delegates he had not previously met, and visited friends. Surprisingly, in the one surviving letter written from Ulan Bator, he does not comment on Shirendyb's fall or his successor.[13]

In the fall of 1982 he was back in the United States to lecture and see David, the Piels, the Nefs, and the Rogers. Mark Spencer of the Kansas City Times , who caught up with Lattimore at the University of Kansas, noted that he was constantly smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. He told Spencer somewhat ruefully that he had been "knocking around loose" since he retired from Leeds. But he did not mind being out of the headlines now.[14]

This lecture trip was the last major excursion. Old age was overcoming wanderlust. In a letter to the Piels April 5, 1983, he described his aching back, caused by his "spine shrinking down on thinned-out discs."[15] Walking brought acute discomfort; cycling and swinging his splitting maul at Rosemary's seemed to loosen him up. And he had a serious infection of the inner ear, which took many months to heal.

By the time the ear was healed, he had reduced Rosemary's woodpile


"to a few gnarled chunks," and his favorite exercise was no longer available. It became a chore even to go to London. And he was again drinking heavily. Everything was slowing down, even the requests for information and advice that had previously descended in torrents. The mail was probably decreasing, he said, "because of my slowness in correspondence."[16]

There was one bright spot in 1984; he went to Leeds for an honorary degree, his third, on May 11.

David began to get letters from his father's friends in 1985, saying that it was no longer safe to leave him alone in Cambridge and that no live-in housekeeper or practical nurse would suffice. He needed the frequent attention and authority of a member of the family. David flew to England in July 1985 and agreed; the old man could no longer make it on his own. David called in the movers and packed up his father to come live near him in Pawtucket. It was a wrenching move. According to Lattimore, "I had to give in, though it was agony to leave Cambridge, where I'd been blissful."[17]

Two things had to be done in Pawtucket: find a house and get a complete physical examination. David's place was too small to add his father and his impedimenta. Within a month Lattimore found a beautiful eighteenth-century house three blocks from David, but modernization took almost a year. The medical exams went faster. He was basically sound, but teeth and eyes needed attention. The doctors forbade alcohol and caffeine and put him on a strict diet. Many of his teeth had to come out, and the dentures he got were agonizing: "The new teeth are an occupying army, and they never let me forget who's occupied and who's doing the occupying."[18] When he moved into his house, he had a full-time practical nurse, and in 1987 his grandson Evan and fiancée moved in upstairs.

Despite age and poor eyesight Lattimore continued to work away at his remaining projects. Fujiko was still his collaborator on a part of his memoirs, to be handled separately from the full-length autobiography: this was the story of his service with Chiang. She came every year from Paris or Tokyo, where she had moved in 1986, to visit him. They mailed the manuscript back and forth between visits. John DeFrancis, still living in Hawaii, also got it through the mail for editing.

The Association of American Geographers, very conservative and long uneasy about Lattimore, finally awarded him its "highest honors" at its convention in May 1986. The citation reviewed his career approvingly, concluding, "In his 86th year we, the Association of American Geographers, humbly add our formal recognition to the wide range of accolades


he has received both in his homeland and abroad. He has reminded us again that formal academic credentials do not necessarily equate with scholarly achievement and excellence."[19] In the summer of 1986 Lattimore learned that the State Museum in Ulan Bator had named a newly discovered dinosaur after him: Goyocethale lattimorei . The Mongolian embassy in London wished him a happy eighty-sixth birthday by telephone July 29.

Nothing could keep Lattimore from addressing the Mongolia Society's annual convention in New York November 8, 1986. His title, "Mongolia as a Leading State," reflected his long-held admiration and affection for the Mongols. Mongolia, he said, was a leader in industrial and social development, melding the new with the old in a fashion that was an example to others.[20] The address was subsequently published in the society's bulletin.

Now that Lattimore was back in the United States, I was able to visit him regularly. He had much to say about the various publications I had written based primarily on his FBI file. One of the things he argued about was my contention that the FBI, despite its hostility toward him, had behaved better than had the senatorial inquisitors and the politicized Justice Department and had shown a basic professionalism in evaluating the so-called evidence that he was a Communist. For him the FBI was and would remain a scurrilous part of the midcentury witch-hunt, and incompetent to boot. He constantly admonished me to acknowledge his errors and not to "overjustify" him.[21]

Nineteen eighty-seven brought good news. The United States government, after sixty-six years, had extended diplomatic recognition to the Mongolian People's Republic. Invigorated by this belated sanity in American behavior, Lattimore made plans to attend the International Congress of Mongolists in Ulan Bator in September. David and granddaughter Clare, a nurse, would go with him. His health was holding steady, perhaps even improving, and he wanted to give a paper on "a Manchu folk-history legend that I garnered in Kirin in 1929."[22]

On June 2, 1987, Lattimore wrote the Piels bubbling over with plans for publishing.[23] This was one of his last letters. On July 17 he suffered a stroke, with substantial loss of his ability to speak. The Mongol trip was canceled. Now it was necessary to bring in a full-time practical nurse. Lattimore's ability to walk, eat, read, and understand others was unimpaired. He could start a sentence orally, but his aphasia prevented its completion.

One can imagine the agony for a man who had always been quick with


a response. Now the "opium" (David's word) of reading endless newspapers and magazines and his interest in world affairs sustained his spirit. He was cut off from the world, but the world was not cut off from him.

The world missed much in the contributions Lattimore could have made had he not lost his indispensable wife and partner in 1970. "China in History" was never finished, nor were the major article on long-haul caravans, the autobiography, or the Sambuu translation. Only the fragment of a memoir, centering on his service with Chiang, was finished through the efforts of Fujiko Isono. Gerard Piel particularly regretted that Lattimore "never put together a comprehensive picture of his field." But as late as February 1987, commenting on my account of his service with Chiang, he was still sharp and articulate. He commented on the enormous enigma of Western relations with the Soviet Union:

Chiang did tell me, early on [1941] that after the war China's Communists would have to be dealt with militarily. No use trying to negotiate. 1 discounted this, knowing that powerful warlords like Chang Ch'un in Szechuan, Yen Hsi-shan in Shensi, the Ma family Muslims in Kansu would manoeuvre to prevent total power from falling into Chiang's hands. He told me also that he could trust Stalin and work with him. I discounted this, too, thinking that Stalin would walk in if there were a vacuum--yet Stalin never gave Mao a pistol or a cartridge during the war and after the war he delayed the Soviet withdrawal from Manchuria--at Chiang's request, because Chiang was afraid that Mao would get there ahead of him. It was only after Chiang's collapse, with the Communists already triumphant in the field, that Stalin moved info the "vacuum." Mao never forgot or forgave this. It is a very tricky, delicate problem of analysis to determine when the Soviets make decisions because they claim to be the senior communists of the world, and when they act as the rulers of a Great Power. They have a number of times acted in restraint of what they regard as "revolutionary excess" in neighboring countries. I have never been able to get a clear discussion of this with a Soviet (or any other) Marxist, because their briefcases are always stuffed with old slogans, cliches, and long-ago doctrinal rulings--and so, all too often, are ours. (Lattimore's italics)[24]

One way to gauge a scholar's worth is to examine with hindsight the wisdom of that scholar's judgments. Lattimore's track record is remarkable. Of course, there was some bad advice from his pen. He said in 1940 that Japan was no danger to the United States. He was wrong about Stalin's purge trials. He thought too highly of Chiang's ability as a politician


and statesman. He thought the Czechs would be able to maintain their independence of the Soviet Union, as Finland had. James Cotton faults Lattimore's interpretation of the role of Buddhism in Mongolia.[25] But in far more judgment calls, his heresies now look very good.

When the Japanese launched their major offensive against North China in 1937, Lattimore was all but alone in saying that Japan would not win, that the Chinese would stem the Japanese advance and hold their heartland. Going against the common opinion of journalists, he saw dearly that the Chinese Communist support of coalition with Chiang was only a tactical maneuver and that Mao was a dedicated Marxist. His prescriptions for the Chinese Nationalist government to recover the areas lost to Japan in such fashion as to win peasant allegiance and roll back Communist gains can now be seen as enlightened. His constant early warnings that colonialism was doomed in Asia were right on the mark, however offensive they were to conservatives and the European powers. He knew, and said, that the United States could not prop up the Nationalist government after it had lost the mandate of heaven, that foreign intervention would be the kiss of death, and that we should cut our losses and come to terms with Peking.

He was right about Marshall Plan aid being wasted in futile colonial wars in Southeast Asia; about Ho Chi Minh being strong in 1949, and about United States backing of Bao Dai being a mistake; and about the inapplicability of the domino theory in that area. He knew the ill-fated China White Paper would be counterproductive. He knew Chinese control of Tibet would be destructive and unpopular, and he tried to rescue the Tibetan monastery manuscripts. He foresaw the rigidity and excesses of the Chinese Communists and predicted a repression in China such as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He anticipated long in advance Japan edging out the United States in international commerce. He constantly warned of serious consequences of great power arrogance and hegemonism, both from the United States and from Russia. Russian arrogance, he held, would eventually alienate Soviet minorities. He knew, and said, that the Vietnamese were no more puppets of the Chinese than the Chinese were of the Russians.

As to the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee of 1950-54, he was right to hold it in contempt. As to the most visible inquisitor, McCarthy, Lattimore's judgment was ultimately upheld by that most conservative senator, Arthur V. Watkins of Utah, who said that McCarthy took the nation to "depths as dark and fetid as ever stirred on this continent."[26]


Mongol text of poem read by Urgunge Onon at Lattimore's memorial service, 1989.


Even the State Department finally came around to recognizing the MPR in 1987; Lattimore had pushed recognition with Bullitt in 1936.

It is a record to admire.

We also owe to Lattimore clear proof that it is possible for a single individual to prevail against a powerful committee of the U.S. Senate, a committee that was accumulating perhaps the greatest mass of lies and perjuries ever assembled in the halls of Congress. We cannot know how much Lattimore's refusal to knuckle under, confess imagined sins, or run away stiffened the spines of others under attack; we do know that his courage was applauded throughout the world.

Owen Lattimore died of pneumonia May 31, 1989, in Providence, twenty-nine days short of his eighty-ninth birthday. At a memorial service on the Brown University campus three of his oldest friends, Evelyn Stefansson Nef, Urgunge Onon, and Gerard Piel, came to pay their respects. Were Lattimore to select a eulogy to grace his memory, it would undoubtedly be the poem written by Urgunge Onon and read by him at the memorial service.

When the spring wind blows in Khangqai,

When the summer mirage appears in the Gobi,
When the five kinds of livestock make sounds in the golden autumn,
When the joyful music sounds on the winter snow
La bagshi, rest peacefully on the sunlit side of Gurban Saikhan Khangqai.

Thinking and gazing from afar,
You have given your love to the Mongols
Who have all become your brothers.
The blue sky is now your quilt,
The green grass your blanket;
As long as Gurban Saikhan Khangqai stands,
The Mongols will remember you.


previous chapter
Chapter Thirty-Two Cambridge and Pawtucket
next section