Mother of the Bomb who recoiled at its power and rejoiced in Mao's China
The last time Joan Hinton came to Japan, she never visited the two cities that she indirectly helped to destroy. Sixty-three years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the former Manhattan Project physicist says what happened to the two cities was 'terrible'.
'I went to the museums in both cities and saw all the destruction and terrible things that had happened,' the 86-year-old Ms Hinton says.
'But I noticed that both cities have been rebuilt and do not look as if they were bombed at all. It is incredible how they have been made into new cities.'
Hiroshima marks its unwanted anniversary on August 6 every year; Nagasaki follows suit three days later.
Ms Hinton was visiting Japan for the first time since a stopover in Yokohama in 1948, after leaving the United States to start a new life in China, at the invitation of the publisher of Command the Morning, by Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck. The book tells the tale of the Manhattan Project and the scientists who developed the atomic bombs.
It was Ms Hinton's shock at the destruction wrought by the two weapons that led her to leave her homeland for China, where she has adhered to a strictly Maoist doctrine ever since.
'I saw the first atomic bomb explode,' she says, recalling avoiding security close to the Los Alamos test site in the New Mexico desert and watching the Trinity test at Alamogordo from atop a low hillock 40km from Ground Zero.
'It took a long time for the sound to come,' she remembers. 'The light was much faster. We first felt the heat on our faces, then we saw what looked like a sea of light. It was gradually sucked into an awful purple glow that went up and up into a mushroom cloud. It looked beautiful as it lit up the morning sun.
'Suddenly the sound came, terribly loud. It was sharp and then a rumble that went back and forth.'
Ms Hinton says she and her colleagues on the bomb project did not believe the US military would actually use the weapon against a city or its people, instead expecting a demonstration of the vast destructive power of nuclear energy against an isolated target that would convince Tokyo to surrender. After watching newsreel footage of the impact of the bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she quickly became an anti-nuclear activist, sending small plastic cases of glassified desert sand to the mayor of every large city in the US and asking whether that was what they wanted for their metropolis.
'There was no reason to use the bombs,' she says. 'Germany had already surrendered. They said they were using the bombs to save American lives. We know perfectly well that it was not to save American lives, but to keep the Soviet Union from coming into Japan.'
Ms Hinton decided to move to China.
Mao Zedong may be regarded in some quarters as one of the most notorious tyrants of the 20th century - his critics pointing to the millions of Chinese who died in the Cultural Revolution - but she makes no effort to disguise her own feelings for a man whose sleeve she says she once touched.
Mao is a hero, she believes, and the Chinese people would be far better off today had he been able to continue his policies for longer.
'I was 100 per cent behind everything that happened in the Cultural Revolution,' Ms Hinton says, describing the period from 1966, when Mao's cadres prosecuted 'class enemies', schools were closed and urban intellectuals ordered to labour in the countryside, as 'a terrific experience'.
'Mao started the Cultural Revolution when China was surrounded by imperialists and he dared to open up the whole country so that everybody could get their ideas out. He asked them to criticise their leaders. Imagine that.'
The China that Ms Hinton lives in today - she manages a communal dairy farm on the outskirts of Beijing - is no longer true to its communist roots, she believes.
'It's an altogether capitalist country already,' she says. 'The difference between the rich and the poor is getting wider and there are some extremely rich people in China now.'
She also points to increasing discontent among the peasants, with disturbances throughout the country, although most go unreported in China.
So disappointed is Ms Hinton in this turn of events that she says she is glad not to be in Beijing for the Olympic Games.
China would have developed much faster with a leader like Mao, she says. 'He had all the people working to develop China. That's not true now. People just want to get rich.'