Arthur Balfour famously quipped that "history does not repeat itself, historians repeat each other," but the repetitiveness of historians' encounters with the state can descend to the depths of the surreal. At the outset of the Cold War the resounding cry of "who lost China?" convulsed U.S. politics. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's government to Taiwan was not deemed an internal Chinese affair, but a failure of U.S. policy. The search for the source of this failure quickly became intense, and suspicion fell squarely upon one of a tiny handful of accomplished scholars of Chinese history then working in the United States, Professor Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University.
Lattimore had spent his early life in China and was the author of the definitive history of China's relations with Inner Asia (Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 1940). In 1941, at the request of the Roosevelt administration he took up a post as advisor to Chiang Kai-shek at his wartime capital in Chungking. Lattimore was initially a great admirer of Chiang Kai-shek and was instrumental in negotiating China's parity as one of the "Big Four" in the Allied war effort.
Despite his distinguished record of scholarship and service, in 1950 Lattimore was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being the Soviet Union's "top spy" in the United States. Lattimore's crime? By 1950 he had become deeply disenchanted with Chiang's Nationalist regime, which he judged to be irredeemably autocratic and corrupt. He became an advocate of official recognition of the People's Republic of China, a step he viewed as indispensible to the rational conduct of the United States' foreign affairs in Asia. These ideas brought him to the attention of the FBI, who received anonymous reports that he was spreading "sedition" among his students at Johns Hopkins.
Even at the height of the McCarthy era no U.S. court ever convicted Lattimore of espionage. All evidence of his being a "spy" was purely circumstantial. Despite these facts and the publication of a comprehensive study exhonerating him (Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China by Robert P. Newman), Lattimore's "treason" remains a fetishistic myth among the pundits of the far right even today.
Lattimore's experience is not most affecting because of the injustice done to one man. Rather, its deepest sorrow lies in the crippling distortion it produced in the American discourse on Asia at a critical moment in the nation's history. Agree or disagree with his perspective, Lattimore was one of a very few knowledgeable American voices equipped to intelligently comment on the rapidly evolving situation in mainland Asia. His persecution guaranteed that U.S. policymakers would receive a one-dimensional perspective of Asian history and politics, a situation that contributed to tragic errors in policy theaters throughout East, Southeast, and Central Asia.
If there is a lesson to be derived from Owen Lattimore's experience, the United States have evidently not learned it. Today America is confronted with a new enemy in the form of radical Islamist terror. The roots of this phenomenon are excruciatingly complex, far more so than those of the multifarious forces of Communism that drove U.S. policy during the Cold War. During that era nuanced critics like Lattimore were sacrificed to the destructive fantasy that Communism was a global monolith and that local cultural and historical conditions could be ignored in the formulation of U.S. strategy. Despite the suffering this obstinate misguidedeness produced, today America seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past.
Today the New York Times reports that Tariq Ramadan, an internationally admired and intensely prolific scholar of Islamic Studies, has been refused entrance to the United States, where he has been offered a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. Though Ramadan is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful and incisive commentators on Islam and its relations with Europe and America, the U.S. government evidently suspects him of some links to terrorism. Why? Just as in the case of Owen Lattimore, much of the "case against" Tariq Ramadan is circumstantial. Ramadan's grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, was one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group established in Egypt in 1928. What is not circumstantial in the "evidence" concerning Ramadan is grounded in his scholarship. He does not hide his reverence for Islam as a living religion, nor does he refrain from criticiizing capitalism and globalization from an Islamic perspective. In the judgment of one European official who has (fruitlessly) investigated allegations against Ramadan, he has "dangerous ideas."
Like the persecution of Owen Lattimore, the rejection of Tariq Ramadan augurs an ill future for the United States. The polarization of the world into "us" and "them" camps on the basis of sympathies with or against Islam is even more destructively absurd than the Cold War red herring of "monolithic global Communism." An acknowledgment that the perpetrators of 9/11 were irredeemably malevolent does not necessitate the conclusion that their appeals to Islam may be safely discounted or ignored. President Bush is right that leaders like Osama bin Laden have "hijacked a great religion," but his bland assertion that those who find the teachings of Al Qaeda appealing "hate us for our freedom" is so simplistic as to be practically meaningless. The U.S. can not hope to effectively countervail the malice of Islamist extremists if we refuse to understand how their ideas might possibly resonate with the attitudes and experiences of at least some of the world's one billion+ Muslims. Now more than ever America desperately needs teachers and critics who can educate both policymakers and the public about the nature of Islam, its history, its diversity, and the values and aspirations of its adherents.
The fate of Owen Lattimore was a harbinger of destructive mistakes the U.S. would commit throughout East Asia. A half century later a similar tragedy of errors is being played out on the streets of Baghdad and Falluja. Is there hope that America will choose a different course today? The treatment of Tariq Ramadan will serve as a gauge of what we may expect moving forward into a dangerous century.