Architects of Capitulation: Assessing McCarthyism’s Charges Against University China Experts

[Lecture delivered at Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Conference in Washington, D.C. on June 27, 2015. Provisional paper, NOT FOR CITATION OR CIRCULATION without permission of author. Please contact for permissions.]

On March 25, 1950 a messenger rushed into the United Nations Technical Assistance Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan with a telegram for Johns Hopkins University China scholar Owen Lattimore. The cable read in part, “Senator McCarthy says off record you top Russian espionage agent in United States and that his whole case rests on you.” Upset, Lattimore drafted a hasty reply: “McCarthy’s off record rantings pure moonshine STOP delighted his whole case rests on me as this means he will fall flat on face.”[i] With this initial exchange, the struggle began between Congressional anticommunists and Lattimore that would last the better part of the next decade. The charges and Lattimore’s response are representative of a pattern of dialogue that developed between Congressional anticommunists and university China experts during the Second Red Scare. Anticommunists would make brash, unsupported accusations about academic complicity in “losing” China to communism in 1949. Angered and fearful, China scholars would categorically deny all charges and bemoan political polarization. In the early 1950s’ politically charged climate, there was little room for discussion, reflection, or analysis.

Until now, the historiography has largely recapitulated this emotional divide. Students and friends of accused China scholars like Lattimore and Harvard’s John K. Fairbank have reiterated their subjects’ incredulousness at Congressional anticommunist investigations.[ii] They have been joined by politically left-leaning historians who have enveloped the story of China scholars’ investigation into a larger narrative about the unjustified purge of radicals during the Second Red Scare.[iii] These historians have been opposed by a cohort of conservative and anticommunist scholars who have argued that the Second Red Scare was the justified response to the threat domestic subversion posed to American national security during the early Cold War.[iv] They have emphasized the connections between accused China scholars and known communists in organizations like the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). These accusations have reemerged in recent years because of greater access to archives in the former Soviet Union and in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which have established new connections between American China organizations and foreign communists.[v]

Still, what has been obscured by this discussion has been a thorough inventory of the accusations leveled against China scholars by Congressional Committees during the Second Red Scare and, with over fifty years of historical distance, whether they had any merit. This paper will begin by taking stock of the charges leveled against China experts by the two major Congressional Committees – the Tydings Committee which lasted from March 8 through July 17, 1950 with the aim of investigating charges made by Senator McCarthy against communist subversion in the State Department and the McCarran Committee, which lasted from 1952 through 1955 (when McCarran was replaced) and had the broader mandate of investigating and enforcing the 1950 Internal Security Act preventing domestic threats to US national security. It will examine how these accusations were forwarded by Congressional anticommunists and their friendly witnesses – some of whom were China experts in their own right. It will close with a brief evaluation of the charges.


  1. The Case Against China Studies


Senator McCarthy’s first charges against Owen Lattimore in March 1950 that he was a top Russian agent were so obviously erroneous as to alienate most reasonable anticommunists. To his colleague George Taylor, anticommunist University of Washington China expert Karl A. Wittfogel wrote, “He [McCarthy] is obviously unable to uphold this extraordinary charge, and I am delighted to see him publicly taken to task for a procedure, which profoundly violates the duties inherent in his prominent position.”[vi] McCarthy readjusted his charges accordingly. In a March 30, 1950 speech before the US Senate he said, “I fear in the case of Lattimore, I may have perhaps placed too much stress on the question of whether or not he has been an espionage agent.” Espionage was not the primary concern, instead “the more important aspect of his case deals with his aims and what he advocates…what this man himself advocates and what he believes in.” Lattimore was “the ‘architect’ of our far eastern policy” and had “tremendous power” in the State Department where he could disseminate pro-communist views.[vii] The first and primary charge against the China studies field was that it promulgated and popularized subversive ideas. By shifting his case against Lattimore from narrowly attacking him as a Soviet agent to accusing him of disseminating pro-communist ideas, McCarthy set the stage for an assault, not only on Lattimore’s character and associations, but all recently published China specialists.

While the Tydings Committee case against Lattimore revolved around potential subversive scholarship, the larger case against China studies as a field occurred through the Senate investigation, led by Patrick McCarran of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). IPR was an internationalist organization formed in the 1920s to facilitate better relations between peoples bordering the Pacific Ocean and an early hub of American scholarship on modern East Asia. The case against IPR was not only about ideas, but also was about association.[viii] As a prominent internationalist organization, IPR attracted radical leftists of all stripes, including Chinese and American communists, One Worlders, and trade unionists. It was also an important organization in the professionalization of modern China scholarship and published articles by most prominent university China experts. The McCarran Committee investigation into the IPR sought to tie China scholars, most of whom were political liberals, to more radical wings of the IPR’s American and International Councils.

The final accusation was that China scholars, radicalized either through their experiences in China or through IPR, used their specialized knowledge to mislead policymakers. The stated raison d’etre of the McCarran Committee was “the extent to which subversive forces may have influenced or sought to influence the formulation and execution of our Far Eastern policy.”[ix] Tying China experts to political subversion meant demonstrating at least one of the prior two charges – that scholars possessed pro-communist or at least sympathetic views and/or they associated with known communists – and that they then sought to convince policymakers to support communist ideas. In particular, Congressional investigators would look to connect China scholars to the State Department and the Executive Branch of government, since they were both Congress’s rivals for political power and the branches most responsible for US foreign policy.

Investigators harbored no illusions about the difficulty proving their charges. Subversion assumed secrecy or as investigators put it, “Successful conspirators are usually consummate dissemblers.”[x] Their investigation also dealt in the abstract world of motivation, influence, and beliefs. To overcome these difficulties investigators relied on documents and friendly witnesses. The documents came from an unofficial IPR archive kept by executive secretary Edward C. Carter in his barn in Lee, Massachusetts, which was seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in late1949. This archive included financial documents as well as correspondence between members. The friendly witnesses were a motley crew of former communists, anticommunist Asia specialists, and conservatives. Former communists were the most important witnesses to the Committees because they understood secret communist networks as well as the communist argot. Asia specialists were also important because their expertise allowed them to comment on the scientificity or reasonableness of accused China scholars from a position of knowledge. Furthermore, they were responsible for determining the boundary between acceptable scholarly disagreement and subversion.


  1. Pressing the Case


With the core charges against China scholars established, the Congressional Committees pressed their case. One important distinction to keep in mind is the political differences between the Tydings and McCarran Committees. Whereas Tydings was chaired by a liberal and staffed with political moderates, the McCarran Committee was chaired by a noted anticommunist and the Committee’s other members were anticommunists despite their even split between Democrat and Republican.[xi] It is unsurprising then that the Tydings Committee was less vigorous in pursuing its case against Lattimore than the McCarran Committee was in investigating the IPR. Regardless of their political differences, both committees used the same operating procedure and rhetorical tactics to root out perceived communist subversion. Since Lattimore was an IPR member and many of the accusations against him stemmed from his work at IPR, I will examine the two cases together.

Both committees began by trying to establish association. This was not difficult since admitted domestic radicals and foreign communists had been IPR members. IPR trustee Frederick Vanderbilt Field (nicknamed “The Millionaire Communist”) for example, admitted to joining the American Peace Mobilization at the invitation of CPUSA head Earl Browder and spent two months in prison for refusing to cooperate with the Tydings hearing. Foreign communists were also active in the IPR. The Soviet Union had a council, albeit a fairly inactive one, represented at the international body. Chinese communists were also active in the organization. Chen Han-seng for example wrote articles on the Chinese peasantry for IPR publications and was an important sociological theorist for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).[xii]

Association with known communists was easy to prove, but not particularly meaningful in proving China scholars intentionally helped “lose” China to the CCP. Part of the Committees’ problem was bound up with their own understanding of communist subversion. If communists were consummate dissemblers, as the McCarran Committee alleged, it was possible that China scholars unfamiliar with communist dogma could associate with communists without knowing their politics. This defense was employed repeatedly by China experts accused during both the Tydings and McCarran hearings.

Even if they admitted to knowing the politics of their communist associates however, China specialists could still claim that this association did not impact their own politics. This defensive strategy was employed most successfully by Harvard China specialist John Fairbank. Accused of associating with known communist journalist Agnes Smedley, Fairbank admitted that he knew she was sympathetic to communism, but that he did not take her political views seriously.[xiii] Furthermore, he argued that it was his academic responsibility to associate and discuss scholarly issues with other experts even if he did not agree with their politics.[xiv] “Only by examining all sides can we keep that intellectual grasp on our [academic] problems which will keep us intellectually better-based and more flexible, adaptable and powerful than our totalitarian Communist enemy”, Fairbank concluded.[xv]

Since proof of association could not establish the slippery categories of beliefs, influence, and ideas, the Committees sought to pair proof of association with an analysis of accused scholars’ published writings and speeches. Investigators would interrogate the writings of accused scholars for positions either sympathetic to the aims of foreign communists or that followed the official Soviet communist ‘line’. China specialists friendly to the Committees played a crucial role in interpreting their colleagues’ scholarly production. Karl Wittfogel was the most important friendly expert witness for both the Tydings and McCarran Committees because he was both a former communist and university-employed China expert. With these two qualifications, Wittfogel could assess whether a scholar’s work fit within the boundaries of normal academic discourse on China and whether it fit communist aims or the official communist line. Wittfogel used his influence to settle old scores and promote his own ideas about Chinese history and contemporary politics. He claimed Owen Lattimore’s writings toed the communist line, for example, because Lattimore used the word feudal to describe early modern Chinese society instead of Wittfogel’s preferred hydraulic or bureaucratic despotism.[xvi] In fact, this question of terminology remained a live debate within the field and Wittfogel’s attempt to win in through resorting to political accusations fell well outside the bounds of normal or acceptable academic discourse. To his friend John Fairbank, journalist and later MIT international relations expert Harold Isaacs called Wittfogel the “commissar out of power” and expressed relief that Wittfogel confided that he would not accuse him of communist subversion.

While scholars like Wittfogel were interested in using the investigation to impugn the reputations of their academic rivals, the Committees were primarily interested in how these ‘Red’ and ‘pink’ scholars influenced China policymaking. The Committees focused on two events where accused China scholars like Lattimore and Fairbank advised the State Department: the formulation of the China White Paper and the 1949 State Department Conference on China. John Fairbank had consulted on the creation of the China White Paper, which was a catalog of important Sino-American policymaking documents with an introduction by Dean Acheson defending the US decision not to intervene in the ongoing Chinese Civil War, and had publicly defended it in academic journals.[xvii] Yale University political scientist David N. Rowe, who also consulted on the White Paper, first argued unequivocally that “there is unquestioned sympathy on the part of Fairbank for the Chinese Communists.”[xviii] He also mentioned that Fairbank had circulated a letter to China experts defending Lattimore and called into question the authority of the McCarran Committee. Rowe claimed that he attempted to convince George Kennan, John Paton Davies, and John Carter Vincent about the wrongheadedness of the White Paper and the dangers of Chinese communists, but “I [Rowe] couldn’t get any place with the people in the State Department on this.”[xix] It appeared to Rowe that the State Department, with Fairbank’s consultation, had decided to cede China to the Communists in 1948 and, if his later conversations with Kennan and Lattimore were borne out, a similar defeatism was operating regarding Korea.[xx]

The Rowe Row, as it was then called, over the China White Paper was damning, but less significant than the 1949 State Department conference. The White Paper may have embodied defeatism, but it was fundamentally an accounting for past (1944-1948) US China policy and not a blueprint for future policy. The China Conference from October 6-8, 1949, by contrast, asked respected Asia experts to advise the State Department about future directions in East Asia policy after the imminent victory of the CCP in the Chinese Civil War. The State Department set the stage for political controversy from the outset by declining to invite prominent academic critics of US China policymaking like Rowe and Wittfogel to the Conference. Outnumbered by scholars supportive of US China policy under the Truman administration, those critics invited like Kenneth Colegrove, William M. McGovern, George E. Taylor, and Harold Stassen believed they were under siege. Colegrove believed a faction of pro-communist scholars including Fairbank, Lattimore, Rosinger, Edwin Reischauer, and Nathaniel Peffer monopolized the conference with the support of sympathetic government officials like Kennan, Cora DuBois, and Philip Jessup that presided over the conference. This clique and their allies urged the US to immediately recognize the CCP as the legitimate government for all of China. Furthermore, they argued that communism in Asia was an expression of nationalism that the US needed to accommodate themselves to.[xxi] The US had to ally itself with the forces of revolutionary change in Asia or else be driven from the continent like the European colonial powers. To the horror of Truman’s critics, it appeared that leading China experts and major State Department policymakers had already ceded China – including Taiwan – to the CCP and thought it would be necessary to accommodate radical movements elsewhere in Asia.

The State Department China Conference appeared to represent the perfect case for McCarran Committee anticommunists to tie academic radicalism to foreign policy malpractice. The Conference saw frank discussion between academics and policymakers about Chinese Communism with a sizable group of academics with established connections to communism and leftist published scholarship urging the US government to recognize a communist state and potentially collaborate with other radical movements in Asia. On the surface this seems damning. Yet, the reasons these academics gave for their leftist positions as well as the actual political influence of the Conference complicated the picture. Fairbank and Lattimore both argued that they believed the purpose of the Conference was to give their honest assessment of the situation in Asia, not expound on future American policy. This claim is substantiated in the Conference transcript where Kennan tells conference attendees that the Conference’s purpose was discussion and not the creation of a consensus leading to “any dramatic announcement” about the formulation of American China policymaking.[xxii] Furthermore, the call by the Lattimore/Fairbank group to recognize Communist China was not heeded by US policymakers casting further doubt on the Conference’s influence. None of the State Department representatives investigated by the McCarran Committee claimed academic China experts changed the way they thought about Sino-American policy. Furthermore, as the newspaper columnist Marquis Childs noted in The Washington Post scholars like Lattimore and Fairbank argued for a non-aligned or third world nationalism that ran counter to the binary Cold War thinking of the US foreign policy establishment.[xxiii]

In the end the arguments made by friendly China experts said more about their status as outsiders than it did the political beliefs or influence of their better connected colleagues. Those collaborators were émigrés (like Wittfogel and Poppe), older scholars struggling to acclimate to changes in the field (Colegrove and McGovern), or enemies of the field’s professionalization (Rowe). From their perspectives on the fringes, the vital center of the discipline appeared singular despite important differences in aims and vision between scholars and between scholars and policymakers. They shared this outsider viewpoint with their political interlocutors like Senators McCarthy and McCarran who aimed to use anticommunist investigations to bolster their own marginal power in Washington.


  1. Conclusions


The McCarran Committee final report presented a mixed verdict on the guilt of the China studies field. It claimed that, “The Institute of Pacific Relations had not maintained the character of an objective, scholarly, and research organization.”[xxiv] It singled out two China scholars, Owen Lattimore and Lawrence Rosinger, as disseminating pro-communist information and indicted Lattimore on perjury charges. Still, it found most scholars affiliated with IPR did not support it “for any reason except to advance the professed research and scholarly purposes of the organization.”[xxv] This included important figures in the China studies establishment like Fairbank who were cleared of all charges and faced no future Congressional investigation.

The final report’s mixed verdict allowed Congressional anticommunists to present the investigation as necessary without pushing for further investigation into the field. Ultimately, this was because none of the investigations into academic China specialists were able to prove that they meaningfully influenced or shaped US China policymaking. It was true that even the discipline’s luminaries associated with communists and some compared the Nationalists unfavorably to the CCP. These same figures associated with State Department officials and even opined on China policy at government events like the 1949 Conference on China. Still, there was scant evidence to suggest these conversations or opinions shaped US China policy. Ultimately, the truth lies between the two dominant historiographic positions. As conservative and anticommunist historians have charged, accused China specialists did know foreign and domestic communists and some believed the CCP provided a desirable alternative to the Nationalists. Yet, left-leaning historians are also correct in arguing that the Committees failed to meaningfully connect China experts to Sino-American policymaking. In the end, the China studies field was innocent of ‘losing’ China to communism – not only because China was not America’s to lose – but also because China scholars lacked the political influence to guide policymakers. The field was innocent, but it was an innocence born from lack of influence not necessarily ideological purity.

[i] Owen Lattimore, Ordeal by Slander (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1950): 3-5.

[ii] See, John M. Evans, John Fairbank and the American Understanding (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) and Robert P. Newman, Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). Memoirs written by China specialists targeted during the Second Red Scare contribute to this literature. See, John K. Fairbank, Chinabound: A Fifty-year Memoir (New York City: Harper and Row, 1982); Lattimore, Ordeal by Slander, 1950; and Edwin O. Reischauer, My Life Between Japan and America (New York City: Harper and Row, 1986).

[iii] The two most notable books in this large literature are, David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge under Truman and Eisenhower (New York City: Simon and Shuster, 1978); and Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[iv] Biographies in this field include, Joseph Keely, The China Lobby Man: The Story of Alfred Kohlberg (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1969); and G.L. Ulmen, The Science of Society: Toward an Understanding of the Life and Work of Karl August Wittfogel (The Hague: Mouton, 1978). Important recent historical works, which have taken into account new archival documents in the former Soviet Union – notably the famous Verona cables – include, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, Early Cold War Spies: The Espionage Trials that Shaped American Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006);

[v] The new work on Soviet materials has primarily focused on the Venona documents and the Hiss Case. See, Robert Louis Benson, Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 (New York City: Aegean Press, 1996); John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000); and Haynes, Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). For a criticism of their approach and method see, Ellen Schrecker, Cold War Triumphalism: The Misuse of History After the Fall of Communism (New York City: The New Press, 2006). There is less on the China case. One useful exception is, Maochun Yu, “Chen Hansheng’s Memoirs and Chinese Communist Espionage”, Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6-7 (Winter, 1995-1996): 273-275.

[vi] Letter from Karl A. Wittfogel to George E. Taylor, April 9, 1950, George E. Taylor Papers, Box 12, Folder 24, University of Washington Archives and Special Collections, Seattle, WA. Hereafter UW Archives.

[vii] Newman, Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China, 222.

[viii] The best history of IPR remains, John N. Thomas, The Institute of Pacific Relations: Asian Scholars and American Politics (Seattle: University of Washington Press,

[ix] “Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary”, United States Senate, Eighty-Second Congress, First Session on the Institute of Pacific Relations, July 25, 1951: 2-3. Hereafter McCarran Committee Hearing.

[x] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3.

[xi] For an account of the blasé attitude of the Tydings Committee representatives see, Lattimore, Ordeal by Slander, 91-108. For a contrasting account of the McCarran Committee see, Michael J. Ybarra, Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great Communist Hunt (Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 2004).

[xii] For Chen’s work see, Chen Han-seng, Frontier Land Systems in Southernmost China (New York City: Institute of Pacific Relations, 1949). Chen’s work as a communist spy is confirmed in his memoir. For an English evaluation of Chen’s claims see, Maochun Yu, “Chen Hansheng’s Memoirs and Chinese Communist Espionage”, Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6-7 (Winter, 1995-1996): 273-275.

[xiii] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3766-3768.

[xiv] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3725.

[xv] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3725.

[xvi] For this debate see Letters between Owen Lattimore and Karl Wittfogel, January 24-February 20, 1947, George E. Taylor Papers, Box 12, Folder 22, UW Archives. Also Newman, Owen Lattimore and the “Loss” of China, 334-335.

[xvii] Wilson D. Miscamble, George F. Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1960 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992): 224; “Publication of the China White Paper”, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, Vol. IX: 1365-1409; John K. Fairbank, “Toward a Dynamic Far Eastern Policy”, Far Eastern Survey 18, No. 18 (Sep. 7, 1949): 209-212.

[xviii] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3980.

[xix] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3986.

[xx] McCarran Committee Hearing, 3987.

[xxi] This is a paraphrasing of John Fairbank’s statement on day one of the conference. McCarran Committee Hearing, 1587.

[xxii] McCarran Committee Hearing, 1555-1556.

[xxiii] Marquis Childs, “Lattimore’s Views: Differences With State Department”, The Washington Post (April 20, 1950): 11.

[xxiv] Internal Security Subcommittee, “Institute of Pacific Relations Report of the Committee on the Judiciary” Eighty-Second Congress, Second Session (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1952): 223. Hereafter cited as “McCarran Committee Final Report.

[xxv] McCarran Committee Final Report, 224.

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