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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #17 (April 22-28, 2003), page 12.

Our Man in China

Into Tibet

By Thomas Laird

Grove Press, 2002

Hardcover, 364 pages, $26.00

By David Johnson

Into Tibet, by journalist and photographer Thomas Laird, is a startling revelation of a 50-year-old secret that reads like a spy novel.

The CIA begrudgingly admits that it set up an intelligence network to monitor Communist China’s military and political maneuvers after World War II. But the agency refuses to declassify the exploits of Douglas Mackiernan, a swashbuckling operative who trekked 2,000 miles across Inner Mongolia and Northern China.

After six years of thorough research, Laird claims that the agency, alarmed by Russia’s acceleration toward nuclear capability, sent Mackiernan and contract agent Frank Bessac into this desolate region to spy on Soviet uranium mining and atomic testing. It was one of the earliest salvos in what would become the Cold War.

The book is also an account of the agents’ foray into Tibet to deliver the mixed message that the U.S. State Department and CIA were considering support for the nation’s independence and, perhaps, a secret shipment of arms.

The most disturbing allegation in Laird’s book is that Mackiernan’s cover was blown as he neared Tibet, prompting China’s outrage at Western meddling in its "internal" affairs. Their assumption that the U.S. was preparing to go to war on behalf of the Tibetans may have precipitated the invasion of Tibet in 1950.

This tale of adventure and intrigue begins with an overview of China’s military, political, and diplomatic history. Then it phases into the amazing biography of America’s first atomic spy. In 1942, Mackiernan was a young scientist at MIT and a radio buff who, as a lark, broke the code used to forecast Russian weather reports. The Office of Strategic Services — a predecessor of the CIA — was impressed and recruited this clever fellow for covert missions in the Far East.

Wrenched to the far right by rabidly anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, Washington’s Brahmins had backed Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists in a shooting match with Mao and the People’s Liberation Army. After the U.S. had lost China, it was anxious to keep track of the newly minted regime. This geopolitical nervousness dovetailed nicely with concern over the looming prowess of China’s northern neighbor.

Under cover as vice consul, Mackiernan ambled through the far reaches of northern China as an enthusiastic spy. He also intercepted radio transmissions within the Soviet Union that proved that the Soviets were mining uranium in pursuit of building an atomic bomb. This information, along with reports of rebellious Mongols, was sent to the CIA and passed on to the State Department. From then on, Mackiernan was Our Man in China.

He helped Mongol chieftains recruit a ragtag army of nomads fiercely resistant to the notion that their land was a province of China. In return, they guided him to where he could plant listening devices to record early Russian atomic experiments. Mackiernan’s perilous escapades are reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence’s famous adventures as an advisor in Arabia during World War I.

Then it was on to Tibet. According to Laird, the CIA and State Department were in a constant state of confusion and divergence regarding Tibet. Should Foggy Bottom officially sanction the nation’s autonomy, or should the spooks use their renowned subterfuge to exploit a geopolitical hotspot?

Apparently, a compromise was reached and Mackiernan was ordered to deliver the news to Lhasa. During his harrowing journey through high mountain passes, he noted that the graves of earlier hikers were used as trail markers. It was an eerie premonition.

Tibetan border guards weren’t apprised of the U.S agents’ friendly mission and shot Mackiernan on sight. Grief-stricken Bessac was guided safely to Lhasa.

As a footnote to this disgraceful episode, His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, says that U.S. weapons finally reached Tibet a few weeks before China’s invasion. He adds that it was clear at the time that the United States wasn’t planning to officially recognize Tibet as a sovereign nation. "The courage was not there," he explains.

A half-century later, there is a worldwide effort to free Tibet and the legend of Douglas Mackiernan, the first agent to be killed in the line of duty, is kept alive if buried deep in the inner sanctum of the CIA.

Laird is an expatriate who has lived in Nepal for thirty years. He has written many articles and has been the author of two books of photography. Currently, he is co-authoring a history of Tibet with His Holiness The Dalai Lama.


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