Joan Hinton, 88

Joan Hinton, worked on Manhattan Project and became devoted Mao follower, dies at 88

Joan Hinton
Joan Hinton (Special To The Washington Post - Special To The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010

Joan Hinton, a onetime prep school student and ski instructor who worked on the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb during World War II, then moved to China and spent the rest of her life as a devoted follower of Mao Zedong, died June 8 at a hospital in Beijing. Her son said she had an abdominal aneurysm. She was 88.

In 1948, Ms. Hinton took the dramatic step of following her brother to China just as the country was in the throes of the Communist revolution led by Mao. Ms. Hinton, who witnessed the first atomic bomb explosion in 1945, was upset when nuclear energy was used to annihilate much of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the waning days of World War II. She renounced the violent use of atomic energy and moved to China, where she thought an ideal socialist state would emerge based on Mao's teachings.

During the red-baiting era of the 1950s, Ms. Hinton was condemned in overheated magazine articles as a "a blond traitor," a "Cold War Mata Hari" and a "femme fatale with a vengeance" who divulged atomic secrets to the Chinese.

She laughed off the accusations as preposterous.

"What a silly fuss," she told The Washington Post in 1978. "When I arrived in the liberated area of China, they had nothing. We scoured the battlefields for old metal to make cooking pots. The last thing in anybody's mind was the development of an atom bomb."

Mao a 'terrific person'

Nonetheless, Ms. Hinton remained an ardent supporter of Mao, the Chinese Communist leader who controlled the country from 1949 until he died in 1976. Even after Mao's Cultural Revolution reshaped Chinese society by force, leaving tens of millions of people dead in ideological purges, Ms. Hinton's loyalty was undiminished.

"I was 100 percent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution," she said in 2008, long after most Chinese people had abandoned Maoist beliefs. "He was a terrific person, and he liberated all the people -- he was not a monster at all."

Despite living in China for more than six decades, Ms. Hinton remained a U.S. citizen throughout her life. For years, she and her husband, Erwin "Sid" Engst, a Cornell University-trained cattle expert, managed dairy farms deep in the country's interior and later near Beijing.

They were among a small group of American expatriates drawn to China in the 1940s and 1950s by revolutionary fervor and who stayed on as government-sanctioned "foreign experts." Engst had settled in China in 1946 to teach agriculture and manage dairy herds. One of his friends from Cornell was Ms. Hinton's brother, William Hinton, who first visited China during World War II as an official with the U.S. Office of War Information and returned to live in the country in 1947.

By then, Ms. Hinton had helped build a nuclear reactor as one of the few women on the Manhattan Project. She was not among the official party invited to watch the first testing of an atomic bomb, code named Trinity, but she managed to sneak away on the back of a motorcycle to a hilltop 25 miles from the blast site near Alamogordo, N.M. She later described the explosion on July 16, 1945, as "being at the bottom of an ocean of light."

The next month, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ms. Hinton began to have second thoughts. After the war, while studying at the University of Chicago with Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and one of the key figures on the Manhattan Project, she lobbied Congress for civilian control of nuclear might. In 1948, she gave up her studies and moved to China.

"I didn't have many thoughts about China when I left the States," she said in 1978. "I just knew that as an atomic scientist in America, I would be involved in further refining the instruments of destruction."

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