Thread of the Silkworm

Thread of the Silkworm

Book - 1995
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This book tells the story of one of the most monumental blunders the United States committed during its shameful era of McCarthyism. It is the biography of a pioneer of the American space age who was mysteriously accused of being a Communist and deported to China, where he became -- to America's continuing chagrin -- the father of the Chinese missile program.
Publisher: New York, NY : Basic Books, ©1995
New York : Basic Books, 1995
ISBN: 9780465087167
Branch Call Number: Biography B Qia


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Dec 08, 2018

One of the greatest blunders committed by the United States during the anti-communist McCarthy hysteria of the early and mid-1950’s was the deportation to Red China in 1955 of talented rocket scientist Tsien Hsue-shen, who, had he been allowed to remain in the U.S., could have become another Werner von Braun and aided the United States greatly in its early satellite launches and in the manned space program. Instead, he became the driving force behind the Chinese missile program (his designs formed the basis for the Long March rocket) and also aided in the development of China’s nuclear weapons as well as many tactical weapons which China exported to other countries (including the Silkworm anti-ship missile used in the Iran-Iraq war and against the United States in the Gulf War in 1991). Tsien lived to be 98 years old, passing away in 2009; Chang’s book tells his story from its beginning in 1911 in Hangzhou, touching on his early education, his coming to the U.S. in 1935, his teaching careers at MIT and Caltech under Theodore von Karman, to his deportation on trumped-up charges; and shows how after he returned to China he managed to retain his position in the often-dangerous world of Chinese power and politics by at least giving lip service to Mao’s doctrines and support to his programs, including the catastrophic Great Leap Forward in 1958 (which caused the deaths of from 30 to 70 million Chinese from 1959-60, mainly due to famine in the countryside) and the chaotic Cultural Revolution in 1966; he also appeared to take the government side during the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989. He was granted membership in the Communist Party, but whether or not he really believed in Communist doctrine or merely pretended to (given his insistence on absolute truth and scientific accuracy during his career in the United States, and the apparent sea change in his thinking after his return to China) will remain forever unknown, since after he returned to China he refused to speak to any western journalists or writers; at least Chang’s fluency in Mandarin gave her access to many who knew Tsien and to documents which otherwise would have been out of reach to a western writer. It is likely that resentment against the United States was at least a partial motivation for his career in China, but again to what degree is another unknown.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Tsien came when Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel “2010: Odyssey Two” named a space probe which landed on Europa after him. This book, Chang’s first, is another tribute to a man whose name deserves to stand alongside those of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, Robert Goddard, and Werner von Braun. It also provides quite a bit of insight into how, in the People’s Republic, politics played a major and often unwelcome role in the efforts of scientists to do their research. Sometimes results were quashed or not publicized when they conflicted with the political goals of whatever group was in power. This ought to be a familiar refrain for those who follow the progress of science in the United States in 2018.

Iris Chang followed this book with "The Rape of Nanking", her best-known work, and "The Chinese in America." At the time of her suicide due to clinical depression in 2004 she was researching what would have been her fourth book, about the Bataan Death March. Her untimely death was a great loss to the Chinese-American community and to the entire world of historical scholarship, in which, at least for a brief time, she was a shining light.


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