Born in China, he perfected his scientific skills in the United
States, working on secret military projects. Though a model figure
to his co-workers, the FBI was suspicious - agents thought him a
spy, threw him in jail, and tormented him by flicking on lights
throughout the night. Freed for lack of evidence, he complained
bitterly of harassment. He'd been targeted, he said, solely because
of his Asian ethnic heritage.
But he wasn't Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist whose arrest
roiled Washington this year. He was Tsien Hsue-shen, US Air Force
colonel and a pioneering jet-propulsion expert. Today he is alive
and well - and living in Beijing as the most lionized military
scientist Communist China has ever had.
Viewed from afar, the McCarthy-era case of Tsien Hsue-shen stands
as an eerie precursor to the Wen Ho Lee storm. Yet neither Dr.
Lee's proponents nor his prosecutors can draw easy lessons from
this chapter in history.
To this day, public evidence that Dr. Tsien had communist
leanings while in the US is, to put it charitably, thin. Co-
workers defended him, as have many of Lee's. Some fought for years
to clear Tsien's name.
But the fact remains that after a lengthy legal struggle Tsien
gave up and was deported. He eventually became what the FBI
suspected he already was: the father of China's ballistic-missile
program. Thus if there is any conclusion for today to be drawn from
the Tsien affair, it is perhaps that the greatest US security
losses can be self-inflicted.
"It's a fascinating parallel to the Lee case," says Steven
Aftergood of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of
Chapter 1: Missile wunderkind
Tsien Hsue-shen grew up in Hang-zhou, a provincial capital in
east China, in the early years of the 20th century. A precocious
student, he eventually won a scholarship to study engineering in
the US, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the
California Institute of Technology.
At Caltech in the 1930s, Tsien became a protege of the renowned
aeronautics professor Theodore Von Karman. He was part of the
"Suicide Squad," a group of students whose experiments with rockets
were dangerous enough to be banished to desert arroyos. Colleagues
remember him as formal, a touch elegant, and fond of classical
music (as is Wen Ho Lee).
Colleagues also remember Tsien as brilliant. Von Karman persuaded
authorities to grant him a security clearance, though he remained a
Chinese citizen. He developed into one of the most important rocket
scientists in the US, a founding member of what is now NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory. Commissioned a colonel in the US Army Air
Forces, he helped study Germany's V-2 ballistic-missile program
after the war.
Meanwhile, Tsien's native land was riven by civil war. In 1949,
as the Communists consolidated their victory over the Nationalists,
Tsien decided it was finally time to become a US citizen. "What he
had not counted on was that at this time the United States was
entering a period of cold-war hysteria. Many scientists would be
caught in its whirlwind," writes author Iris Chang in her biography
of Tsien, "The Thread of the Silkworm."
Chapter 2: A knock on the door
On June 6, 1950, FBI agents paid Tsien a surprise visit. They
charged that some grad-school parties he had attended decades ago
were in fact meetings of Unit 122 of the Pasadena Communist Party.
His security clearance was revoked. Never again would he work on a
US military project.
Two weeks later, to the astonishment of his friends, he decided
to return to China. Perhaps he really was a spy, fearful of
discovery. Colleagues had a different interpretation, Ms. Chang
writes. They saw the decision as a result of a mix of "pride,
anger, confusion, and fear, all emotions consistent with the person
Tsien had become. …