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