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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2010; B07

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."

'Guilt' over atomic bomb

Joan Chase Hinton was born Oct. 20, 1921, in Chicago and was the daughter of Carmelita Hinton, who founded the progressive Putney School in Putney, Vt. The coeducational prep school became known for its emphasis on manual labor, arts education and community involvement.

While attending Putney, Ms. Hinton grew interested in science, led kayaking trips and became a standout skier and ski instructor. She graduated from Bennington College in Vermont in three years and was a graduate student in physics at the University of Wisconsin when she joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., in 1944.

In April 1949, after trekking through war-torn China, Ms. Hinton married Engst, who was from Upstate New York. They endured great privation in their early years, living in caves and surviving on bowls of gruel before settling on a communal dairy farm near the interior city of Xi'an. Ms. Hinton said she had one set of underwear, which she washed every day.

At a forum in Beijing in 1952, Ms. Hinton spoke of her experience on the Manhattan Project "as one who touched with my own hands the very bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki." She expressed "a deep sense of guilt and shame" and called the bomb a "crime against humanity."

The Atomic Energy Commission said that she had a low-level job at Los Alamos and that her claim to have handled the atomic bomb was "baseless."

In 1960, a Taiwanese official said Ms. Hinton was working at a Chinese nuclear plant. Her son Bill Engst, an engineer in Marlboro, N.J., this week called the spying accusations against his mother "totally untrue."

Instead, Ms. Hinton said, she used her scientific knowledge to design automated milking and pasteurizing machines and other agricultural equipment.

"My 200 cows are my best friends and my greatest concern," she said last year. She was never charged with espionage.

She and her husband, who died in 2003, had three children and tried to teach them English, but as Bill Engst put it, "None of us wanted to learn." They grew up speaking Chinese and learned English only as adults.

In addition to Bill Engst, survivors include two other children, Fred Engst of Beijing and Karen Engst of Pau, France, and four grandchildren.

To her dying day, Ms. Hinton had detractors who accused her of being a traitor or, at the very least, of willfully ignoring the murderous practices of the Maoist revolution. Others saw her as a naive idealist, a "granola-eating innocent from Vermont," as a diplomat told Newsweek in 1999.

She said she never regretted her move to China, saying in a 2002 interview with NPR:

"I've taken part in two of the greatest things of the 20th century -- the development of the atom bomb and the Chinese revolution. Who could ask for anything more than that?"

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