The Forgotten 'Spy' Case of a Rocket Scientist

By Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten 'Spy' Case of a Rocket Scientist


Peter Grier writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 American Scientists.

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. …

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