Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In 1960, Communist China successfully tested its first ballistic missile. In 1964, it detonated its first atomic bomb. In 1967, it had a thermonuclear bomb. In 1970, China launched its first artificial satellite. Not too bad for an impoverished nation that, from 1959 to 1961, had gone through a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
And none of it would have happened but for an MIT- and Caltech-educated scientist who returned to China in 1956.
Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien, as his name was spelled when he first arrived in the U.S., was born in Shanghai in 1911 right when the first Chinese Republic overthrew the imperial regime. Ten years before he was born, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the imperial court had agreed to pay reparations to numerous Western powers including the United States. Unlike the other recipients, the U.S., in an earlier and wiser time, had used the money to establish a scholarship to help talented Chinese students pursue advanced studies in America.
In 1934 Qian became one of only twenty to won the scholarship. The following year he arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts. After receiving a master’s degree from MIT, he went to Caltech for his doctorate, where his advisor deemed him an “undisputed genius.” He would later teach at both of his alma maters.
When the U.S. entered WWII, in which Republican China was an ally, Qian joined the American war effort, working on developing missiles for the Army and then on the Manhattan Project itself. By war’s end, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel. His work formed part of the basis of the later U.S. ICBM and space programs.
In 1949 Caltech named him the first director of the Jet Propulsion Lab. But in that same year, Mao and his Communist forces took over China. In the wake of events back home, Qian applied for U.S. citizenship. But Senator Joseph McCarthy was going around spreading the “Red Scare,” and the FBI now accused Qian of Communist involvement. Not only was Qian’s naturalization denied, but he also lost his security clearance. In 1950 he was even briefly imprisoned. He spent the next five years litigating against immigration authorities before finally being deported.
Dan Kimball, U.S. Secretary of the Navy from 1951 to 1953, said this about Qian’s deportation: “It was the stupidest thing this country ever did. He was no more a Communist than I was, and we forced him to go.”
Beijing welcomed him with open arms. Presumably resentful of the way the Americans treated him, Qian became precisely what they had falsely accused him of being — a Communist collaborator. With the aid of his intellect and knowledge, the Chinese weapons program leapt forward by a generation. The weapons that the Chinese military now has trained against U.S. targets in the Pacific would not exist but for him. The missiles that Saddam's Iraq fired at U.S. forces in the Gulf War and the 2003 war were of his design.
How many Qian Xuesens of our age is the Trump immigration Executive Order creating? Of all the people America is turning away, how many will end up taking their talents to the other side? Over 60 years after Qian’s deportation, America is still paying the price of that decision. For how long will it be paying the price of Trump’s?
Scholarships, not deportations, are the way.
For more on Qian, read Iris Chang’s biography of him, Thread of the Silkworm, and articles in the New Yorker and Popular Mechanics.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."