Every time I visit the U.S. State Department and proceed to the west side elevators from the main lobby, I take a glance at a name on the wall. It reads:
This inscription is on the American Foreign Service Association’s Memorial Plaque, which honors “diplomatic and consular officers of the United States who while on active duty lost their lives under heroic or tragic circumstances.” It is notable for a couple of reasons:
Mackiernan has been acknowledged as the first Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer to die in the line of duty; and
He is the only U.S. official recorded at having died in Tibet.
In 1949, Douglas Mackiernan was stationed in the U.S. consulate in Urumchi, in what was called Sinkiang Province in the Republic of China (now Xinjiang or East Turkestan). When Chinese officials in Urumchi switched sides to the Communists, the U.S. closed its consulate. In order avoid arrest by Chinese Communists, Mackiernan, an American anthropologist named Frank Bessac, and three White (anti-Communist) Russians chose a path southwards through Tibet on the way to India.
After spending time with Kazakhs, in the spring of 1950, the party crossed into the desolate Changtang desert. On April 29, the group encountered a Tibetan outpost. Mackiernan and two of the Russians were shot and killed. This was at a time when Tibetan border guards were under general direction to oppose any foreigners attempting to cross into Tibet.
Mackiernan was called a State Department official death was reported in 1950. It wasn’t until 2001 that it was revealed that he was working for the CIA, in a book by author Ted Gup. Two years later, a book by Thomas Laird made public the fact that Mackiernan was conducting intelligence work on the Soviet atomic program. In 2006, the CIA placed his name in the Book of Honor at the Memorial wall in the CIA headquarters, and in 2008, publicly acknowledged his atomic intelligence role.
(In fact, Mackiernan and his story are the subject of Laird’s book, Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa.)
The tragic twist in this tale is that, two days after Mackiernan and companions were shot, a letter from the Dalai Lama’s government arrived, informing the outpost that the Americans were to be welcomed (the Tibetans were trying to gain U.S. help against a Chinese invasion). Bessac and the surviving Russian were then escorted to Lhasa. Bessac (who lived until 2010) successfully sought leniency for the border guards who shot his companions, who were to be subject to severe punishment by Tibetan authorities.
The Mackiernan/Bessac journey is one of the few penetrations by Americans of insular, pre-invasion Tibet. Author Ken Knaus places the episode under the heading “Washington rediscovers Tibet” in his book, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. In the 1940s, U.S. strategic interest in Tibet was as an alternate route of supply for Chinese forces battling the Japanese (as commemorated by President Obama in his 2010 gift to the Dalai Lama of an exchange of letters between President Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama.
By 1950, U.S. interest in Tibet had rotated to its potential as a bulwark against Communist expansion following the victory of Mao’s forces the previous year. Thus, Mackiernan’s death marks, albeit unintentionally, the beginning of the CIA’s secret engagement in Tibet, now documented by Mr. Knaus, documentarian Lisa Cathey and others, and now publicly acknowledged by a plaque at the Camp Hale, Colorado, site, where Tibetan freedom fighters were trained.
I glance at the plaque in the State Department lobby in part because it observes that Mackiernan died in “Tibet.” Of course, the U.S. officially considers the Tibet Autonomous Region (and adjacent Tibetan jurisdictions) as part of the People’s Republic of China. But the Mackiernan episode happened before the People’s Liberation Army had reached Lhasa, and before the 1951 17-point agreement between Chinese Communist officials and the local Tibetan government. The U.S. position is appropriately (and consciously) agnostic on the status of Tibet before the 1950s – evidenced by the formula that it considers Tibet a part of the PRC, not “China.” This formula is important to the Tibetans’ standing with regard to dialogue with the Chinese, and should be understood and replicated by other governments.
P.S. In researching this blog, I came upon another Tibet reference. Stephen Karsada was another CIA employee who was killed in May 1960, while on temporary duty in Southeast Asia in support of a CIA air supply mission to Tibet. When his name was added to the Book of Honor, it represented a small but important recognition by the CIA of its role in Tibet’s history.