Who was Owen Lattimore?

Owen Lattimore, Kuei-Hua, 1926
Owen Lattimore is widely considered the father of Mongolian and Inner Asian Studies in the United States and United Kingdom. A gentleman scholar, Lattimore never received a formal degree from a university, yet he held prominent positions at Johns Hopkins University in the US and Leeds University in the UK. Recognized as one of the premier Sinologists in the United States during WWII and the Cold War, he acted as adviser to US officials on numerous occasions on the issues of Chinese-US, Mongolian-Chinese, and Mongolian-US relations. Lattimore was a prodigious writer and social theorist, producing nearly twenty books and hundreds of articles during his career.

Although deeply respected by many, Lattimore also courted controversy during his career and was viewed by some as an unabashedly naïve sympathizer of the Soviet Union and its satellite state Mongolia. Joseph McCarthy accused Lattimore of being the Soviet Union’s number one spy in the United States in 1950 during the “Red Scare.” Lattimore was one of the first academics to fight back against McCarthy’s accusations, and he seemingly made an effort to demonstrate that McCarthy was presiding over a kangaroo court of public opinion, showing what some detracters considered disrespect and contempt for the institution of the US Senate.1 Although Lattimore was exonerated of all charges put forth by the senate investigative committee, the consequences of the encounter continued to dog Lattimore throughout the remainder of his life.2

Lattimore was shown special reverence by Mongolia, if not occasional suspicion. In 1969 he was inducted into the Mongolian Academy of Sciences as the first foreign member. He was a fluent speaker of Mongolian, and he traveled to Mongolia numerous times, including with US Vice-president Wallace as special advisor during the vice-president’s official visit to China and Mongolia in 1944.

He was the editor of Pacific Affairs Journal, Director of the Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, and Professor of Chinese Studies at Leeds University.

Although most widely known as a Sinologist, Lattimore has a special place in Mongolian history and US-Mongolian relations. His career was long and storied, and this biography only scratches the surface of what kind of man and scholar he was. This section of the ACMS Library website should provide those interested in learning more enough information to understand the impact Lattimore’s work and scholarship had on Mongolian Studies and countless students of the subject.

For more about Lattimore visit the links below:


1. Cavanaugh-Simpson, Joanne. 2000. Seeing Red. Johns Hopkins Magazine, September 2000. http://www.jhu.edu/~jhumag/0900web/red.html. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
2. See National Review editorial: Why are the Liberals Whitewashing? - Owen Lattimore in the Liberal Press by William F. Buckley.