When Baltimore was scourged by lies

Baltimore Glimpses

January 14, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLERE

THE RUSSIAN Revolution, and the Communist Party that both won and lost it, are history now. But the Marxist idea, nurtured by the revolution, caught fire around the world and helped to bring about what is now known as McCarthyism in the United States. That dreaded "ism" found its way to Baltimore via Washington, D.C., and Johns Hopkins University. Does anybody remember Owen Lattimore?

On the evening of Feb. 9, 1950, against a background of communism marching across Europe and Asia, Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin stood up at the McClure Hotel in Wheeling, W. Va., and said, "I have here in my hand a list of 205 names known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party."

In fact, there were no names at all; McCarthy held in his hand nothing more than a three-year-old letter from former Secretary of State James Byrnes stating that permanent tenure for 205 unnamed State employees might be denied on various grounds, including drunkenness.

Six months later a Senate subcommittee concluded that McCarthy had perpetrated a hoax. But by then it was too late. The nation was already off on a binge of name calling, witch hunting and character assassination -- all under the flag of


So it was that McCarthy began naming names. He called Secretary of State Dean Acheson "the Red Dean." He accused U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Philip Jessup of "preaching the Communist Party line." He described Johns Hopkins University professor and renowned Far East expert Owen Lattimore as "the top Russian espionage agent in the United States."

Lattimore was in Afghanistan at the time and rushed home to face his accuser, whom he called "base and malicious."

A Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee investigated the charges. In July 1950, the committee concluded the charges had no merit and exonerated Lattimore.

But a few years later, in 1952, a federal grand jury indicted Lattimore on seven counts of perjury in connection with his 1951 testimony before the Senate Internal Security Committee. The committee had been investigating the Institute of Pacific Relations, an agency which Lattimore headed. In 1955 the Justice Department dropped all charges against Lattimore.

To its credit, Johns Hopkins stayed steadfastly loyal to Lattimore; it kept him active in the university family. In 1963 he left to accept a position with Leeds University in England. He retired in 1975.

To its discredit, the Baltimore City Council, trimming its sails to catch the winds of hysteria, in 1951 passed a resolution requesting the Baltimore School Board to cancel a speech that Lattimore had been asked to give to students at Baltimore City College. The school board, under its president, Rozel Thomsen, turned down the request. Lattimore went on to speak before an overflow crowd in the school's auditorium.

Lattimore did not lose his fight with the McCarthy chapter of the Russian revolution; but he did not win it either. His death in 1989 only revived the bitter controversy that followed him to his grave.

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