December 10, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Comparative Legacies of Two Rocket Pioneers

Wernher von Braun developed rockets in Germany that were used by the Nazis, then came to America, became an American citizen, and pioneered the American space program, including landing man on the moon.  Qian Xuesen developed rockets in America then moved to China, where he joined the Communist Party and pioneered the Chinese space program for Mao Zedong.  Which one do you think gets more favorable treatment by the press?
    Von Braun (see bio here) still enjoys strong admiration among the rocket teams at Huntsville and Cape Canaveral, but was subjected to repeated allegations of Nazi collaboration during his life and after his death.  The most recent example is Wayne Biddle’s book The Dark Side of the Moon, reviewed favorably by Mike O’Hare, editor of New Scientist.  O’Hare “deconstructed” von Braun by accepting without question O’Hare’s claims that von Braun was a willing participant in Nazi atrocities.  (A very different view was presented in far more detail by long-time von Braun colleague Frank Ordway in Von Braun: Crusader for Space.)  Most historians view the American capture of the German rocket team as a strategic coup that had profound benefits for America, giving her a strong head start in the space race.  Von Braun received numerous honorary degrees and awards during his lifetime, was made an honorary member of the British Interplanetary Society (by a country victimized by Nazi rockets), developed the Apollo rockets, had the highest American security clearances, was trusted by Congress and American presidents, and even became a Christian, popularized space travel with Disney, and promoted the peaceful exploration of space till his death.  No amount of penance or display of personal integrity, though, seems able to shake continued allegations that he was secretly a Nazi at least when in Germany, or at best an opportunist who supported the highest bidder.  Those allegations most often come from those on the political left who subscribe to secular humanism.
    In Nature this week,1 Jane Qiu wrote an obituary for Qian Xuesen, who died Oct 31 in China.  The obituary is notable for its multiple attempts to exonerate Xuesen from any allegations of cooperation in communist ideology.  There is no question that Xuesen was instrumental in helping the American space program in its very early days, at Caltech and at the formation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he was appointed director.  By all accounts he was well liked and trusted in those days.  But Qiu paints a repeated pattern of victimhood: Xuesen became a victim of the “McCarthyism hysteria on dubious charges of being a communist” spy, which she says “have never been substantiated”.  Then he was a victim of “partial house arrest, enduring constant humiliation and harassment,” until he finally felt unwelcome in America and returned to China.  There he received a hero’s welcome.  “He joined the Communist Party in 1958 and became a trusted, high-ranking party official,” Qiu writes.  “With access to the top Chinese leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong, he was able to persuade officials to support whatever measures he felt China needed to progress.”  Even while millions fell victim to the the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Xuesen maintained his status. 

Despite the grave injustice Qian suffered in the United States, it is clear that his time at Caltech was one of the most enjoyable periods of his life.  He revelled in the great relationship he had with von K�rm�n, enjoying his mentor’s jokes and their often heated arguments.  He also reminisced, with great affection, about the intellectual ethos and creative spirit fostered at Caltech.  He contrasted these with China’s academic culture and science infrastructure, which he thought had not, and would not, lead to any real scientific innovation.

Qiu did not accuse Xuesen of any willing participation or collaboration with the goals of the communists, including the development of long-range thermonuclear weapons that out-threaten by orders of magnitude anything launched by Hitler.  Instead, she portrayed him as a simple scientist wishing he could have brought peaceful scientific blessings to his native country.  “Qian felt that the intellectual legacy he had brought from Caltech had largely failed to take root in the academic soil of his own country, and this saddened him deeply,” she ended.  “Despite his reservations, there is no doubt that he sowed the seeds of change for Chinese science.”  What kind of change, exactly?


1.  Jane Qiu, “Obituary: Qian Xuesen (1911�2009),” Nature, 462, 735 (10 December 2009) | doi:10.1038/462735a.

Nature takes openly leftist positions when discussing American politics (totally pro-Obama, pro-Copenhagen, pro-Darwin, pro-abortion, pro-embryo harvesting, pro-UN, pro-socialism, etc.), so it is not surprising they would publish a sanitized, sensitive portrait of a man who gave Mao Zedong the capacity to threaten the world with a communist takeover by means of weapons of mass destruction.  When was the last time they gave untainted honors to the father of the American space program, whose astronauts left a plaque on the moon saying, “We came in peace for all mankind”?  Did Mao ever do such a thing?
    We’re not here to argue the situation von Braun faced in the 1930s and 1940s before he willingly surrendered his whole team to America, nor are we going to defend the treatment Xuesen received in the McCarthy era.  But the end of a person’s life should provide some framework for evaluation.  Von Braun was accused of collaboration with the Nazis (though read our biography), but once on American soil, completely embraced American ideals and promoted the peaceful exploration of space.  Most to the chagrin of the liberal elitists, he became a Christian and spoke out for the freedom of students to hear evidence for creation.  Let’s remember what Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins said about von Braun’s achievement record in the Saturn rocket program:

Thirty-three Saturn flights, all successful, all without loss of life, all without weapons … Saturns sent twenty-seven Americans to the Moon, twelve of them to walk on it.  Saturns sent nine astronauts up to Skylab, which itself was a converted Saturn upper stage.  And, finally, the last Saturn sent an American crew up to join a Russian spacecraft in earth orbit.

Xuesen, by contrast, victimized or not, willingly embraced the Chinese Communist Party.  Why them?  If he felt he had been wronged by America, could he not have gone to one of the western democracies, and helped them?  Why did he go straight to Mao?  Why was he welcomed as a hero?  Did he already have a good relationship with him as a spy?  Maybe McCarthy and the CIA found out some things that were not made public.  Whatever unfair treatment he might have received in America, his true colors were shown when he went straight to work for the most evil dictator in history, the man in the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest mass murderer in history because he slaughtered upwards of 77 million people (11/30/2005).  Not only that, Xuesen stayed in good standing with Mao and with the subsequent communist dictators till Halloween of this year.  Xuesen must have known of all the American secrets that spies brought to China.  He must have used them.  He should have known that the rockets he was developing would be aimed at the country he used to call his home.  How can such a story be whitewashed?  Where are the exposes of this turncoat?
    For a moment, take the worst possible interpretation of von Braun.  Assert that despite his explanations and the research to the contrary, he was somehow a secret Nazi that did not do all he could to stop Hitler (though he would have been shot trying).  Even then, is there any room for redemption?  Look at his subsequent enthusiastic embrace of all the American ideals and his undying support for this country.  Look at his words and his impeccable record as an American citizen, and the awards showered on him by scientists and engineers (not just politicians).  Consider, too, all the things he did in Germany for peaceful rocketry before Hitler, and how he tried to negotiate his intolerable circumstances without being shot (read the list of 13 mitigating factors in our biography).  By contrast, look at Xuesen’s post-American life.  There is no redemption there.  He ran to Mao immediately, and stayed on good terms with him throughout the most horrific purges and famines the world has ever seen.  He remained a Communist Party member in good standing to the day of his death.  No opportunism there?  No willing collaboration with communist beliefs?  Just a pure love for science among his native people?
    The reporting these men receive is all consistent with the way liberals think about everything: blame America first, and make excuses for her enemies (e.g., by claiming America made them do it); worship Darwin and love those who love him (11/12/2009), but destroy the reputation of anyone who favors the freedom to hear evidence for creation.  This would be a good time to read Von Braun: In his own words.  See for yourself if his words sound duplicitous or ring true.

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