Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa
By Thomas Laird
Grove Press, 2002, 364 pp.
The CIA's Secret War in Tibet
By Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison
University Press of Kansas, 2002, 201 pp.
Laird has gone to great lengths to penetrate the walls of secrecy the CIA constructed to hide the identity and the activities of Douglas Mackiernan, the first of its agents to be killed on duty. Mackiernan started his CIA connection by building in Massachusetts a long-distance radio receiving system, which fronted as a collector of weather reports from around the world but in fact picked up the Soviets' coded signals about their nuclear work. He then moved to Asia, where he was posted to China's Xinjiang province under another cover: vice consul for the State Department. His skillful planting of detection devices within Soviet territory meant that the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb was not a surprise for the CIA. After the communist victory in China, Mackiernan sought to leave through neighboring Tibet, but at the border he was shot and killed by armed Tibetans. With his hero killed before getting to Tibet, Laird's story has less to do with Tibet than with the challenge of finding evidence about CIA operations, and he makes clear how the cruel imperatives of secrecy left Mackiernan's widow and twin daughters with only the pension of a vice consul.
The Conboy and Morrison study focuses on how the CIA decided to help the Tibetans oppose the Chinese Communists' occupation and what that assistance involved. Washington had great trouble over Tibet policy because the "China lobby," thanks to its strong identification with the Nationalists' views, ironically insisted that Tibet belonged to China even after the Communists' victory. Washington not only had to get over its ambivalence about the legitimacy of Tibetan independence but also work out arrangements for transit rights for shipments of arms to Tibet with New Delhi, which was anxious not to antagonize Beijing. Conboy and Morrison provide a complete and uncensored account of all aspects of many daring efforts, which came to a halt with Richard Nixon's opening to Beijing.