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Joan Hinton, American in China

Matt Schudel

Joan Hinton, one of the most fascinating people I've written about in a while, died June 8 in Beijing at the age of 88.

As of this writing on Friday, June 11, no other news source has the story of this remarkable (and, in the view of many, remarkably self-deluded) woman who grew up as a tomboyish, science-loving ski instructor in New England. She attended a progressive prep school (the Putney School in Vermont) founded by her mother and became one of the few women to work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, building the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M.

After the war, she grew disillusioned with the violence that could be unleased by nuclear energy and followed her brother to China in 1948, just as Mao Zedong was leading the Communist revolution that seized control of the country in 1949. She went because she believed in the socialist ideals promulgated by Mao and out of guilt over her involvement with the atomic bomb.

Ms. Hinton remained devoted to Maoist principles, in spite of millions of murders committed in his name, and lived in China for the rest of her life. Still, she never gave up her U.S. citizenship because, as she once said, it made travel much more convenient. She lived on a dairy farm with her American-born husband and was sometimes accused (with little or no evidence) of being a spy and traitor who gave nuclear secrets to the Chinese. She gave a number of interviews over the years (including one in 2002 with NPR) and returned to the United States several times throughout her life but was never charged with espionage and was content to live out the rest of her long life in China.

By Matt Schudel  |  June 11, 2010; 4:27 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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