Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

by Thomas Laird
Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

by Thomas Laird


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A “fascinating” story of espionage that “fills a blank space in the hidden history of the Cold War” (Houston Chronicle).
Into Tibet is the incredible story of a 1949–1950 American undercover expedition led by America’s first atomic agent, Douglas S. Mackiernan—a covert attempt to arm the Tibetans and to recognize Tibet’s independence months before China invaded.
A Nepal-based American journalist reveals how the clash between the State Department and the CIA, as well as unguided actions by field agents, hastened the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A gripping narrative of survival, courage, and intrigue among the nomads, princes, and warring armies of inner Asia, Into Tibet rewrites the accepted history behind the Chinese invasion of Tibet.
“A gripping tale.” —The Washington Post

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802196620
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 09/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 384
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Into Tibet is the incredible story of a 1949-1950 American undercover expedition led by America's first atomic agent, Douglas S. Mackiernan -- a covert attempt to arm the Tibetans and to recognize Tibet's independence months before China invaded. Thomas Laird reveals how the clash between the State Department and the CIA, as well as unguided actions by field agents, hastened the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A gripping narrative of survival, courage, and intrigue among the nomads, princes, and warring armies of inner Asia, Into Tibet rewrites the accepted history behind the Chinese invasion of Tibet. 8 pages of black-and-white photographs are featured.

Read an Excerpt



"The only new thing in the world is the history you don't know."



The first gunshot was as loud inside the yak-wool tent as it was outside on the Tibetan Plateau. Frank Bessac spilled his wooden cup of salt and butter tea as he raced over to peer out of the tent flap. The two young Tibetan women busy serving tea only moments before crowded up behind him and looked over his shoulder toward his camp.

A hundred yards away a knot of horses and men circled Bessac's canvas tent. Puffs of smoke raced off on the wind as several shooters on their horses lowered their rifles. A dozen short-legged Tibetan ponies pranced around on the treeless plain, silhouetted against the vast sky. One horseman climbed off his horse and advanced on the tent, shouting, with his gun drawn. In the distance, Bessac could see two horsemen approaching his tent from behind. The expedition was surrounded, and apparently everyone was in the tent as someone shouted back at the Tibetans.

Bessac cursed softly to himself.

"Damn! Travel for eight months and the first Tibetans we see start shooting."

Bessac turned back to his hosts and for the fifth time tried his Mongolian and Chinese on the two Tibetan girls. In their fright, they clung to each other but looked at him just as blankly as they had before. The old man, who had slowly warmed to him as tea was made and served, now got up off his carpet by the dung-fueled fire and walked to the tent door.

Without ceremony, the old man started to push him out of the tent. Bessac grabbed the wool robe of the Tibetan, and tried to pull him toward his own tent, pleading. The old man quickly brushed off Bessac's hands, but he paused and listened, as Bessac shouted desperately in English.

"Look, you're Tibetan. You could talk to them. We're Americans. We're going to Lhasa! Meet the Dalai Lama. The government knows we are coming. Dalai Lama. Lhasa!"

When Bessac finished pleading, the eyes of the old man remained flat, seemingly devoid of any understanding. They could not understand him in English, Chinese, or Mongolian, and now clearly they were not even going to let him back inside their tent.

At sixteen thousand feet on the treeless Changthang Plateau, Bessac had only two options. Their tent or his. There was not even a rock to hide behind. The Tibetans were the first humans the expedition had met in two months. When Bessac turned back toward his camp and the swirling horses and men surrounding it, the rest of his party began to emerge from the canvas tent.

At a hundred yards, it was impossible to tell who was holding up the white flag. Doug Mackiernan and the three Russians were all dressed, like Bessac, in crudely sewn Kazak sheepskin robes. It was obvious to Frank that these were his friends, and not another party of Tibetans or Kazak, only because they had trekked together for so long.

When he saw them walk out of the tent, Frank started running back. He grabbed his glasses, trying to keep them on his head as he ran, because without them he would be virtually blind. The Tibetans gathered in front of the tent with their raised guns. Three men were in front, with the feeble- looking white flag advancing toward the guns. Behind them, someone crouched back, as if not sure he should advance unarmed on the Tibetans.

The Tibetans were startled — perhaps by the flag or by the fact that the foreigners walked confidently toward them with no weapons in their hands. Some of the Tibetans remained mounted, their horses shifting under them. Others stood on the ground. Yet they all kept their guns keenly focused on Bessac's friends. Suddenly, one of the Tibetans in the front rank of gunmen stepped back, and Bessac stopped running.

"Don't shoot," Bessac said softly.

The Tibetan, who had retreated a step, fired first. A puff of white smoke rose into the wind. Then almost at once, all the other Tibetans fired, and a wave of smoke rose above their heads. The sound of the volley reached Bessac as he started running again toward his friends.

When the guns fired, the man who had held back dropped low and began to dodge between the bullets. Bessac's heart leapt as he saw him make for the tent. Was it Mackiernan?

At the same moment, the other three men moved in an entirely different way. They twisted in midair, the way bodies do when bullets hit them. And then they went down hard, and at such unnatural angles.

Running as fast as he could at sixteen thousand feet, Bessac shouted at the gunmen in English.

"Don't shoot. Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!"

Bessac was now close enough to see the amazement on the Tibetans' faces. As they turned around and saw him running toward them, they began to fire at him. The earth six feet to his left burst in a small fountain of dust. Another blast of dust flared three feet to his right.

His instincts, drilled into him at the Outfit's camp on Catalina Island, took over — Bessac found himself kissing the earth behind a tiny hillock that he had not till now known was there. A bullet kicked up the dirt just above his hat. He waited, listening for the next bullet. The sweat that had broken out all over his body turned cold as he lay there. A minute passed, where he could hear only the wind.

He raised his head just enough so that his eyeglasses peeked over the earth at the gunmen. One of them pointed at Bessac, and then began to trace circles around his own eyes. Again, he pointed at Bessac and shouted at his friends. Seeing this, Bessac realized that he was the only person in his party wearing glasses and wondered what that meant to the Tibetans.

Shouting erupted among the Tibetans. Bessac listened, watched, and then stood up. No one pointed a gun at him. He held his ground and removed his glasses to wipe off the dirt, pondering his next move. The Tibetans watched intently as he cleaned his glasses. When he started walking slowly toward them, they were still watching him with their guns lowered.

At twenty yards, Bessac again started shouting in English, then Chinese, and then Mongolian, repeatedly.

"Lhasa! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!"

At five yards, the Tibetans raised their guns again. Bessac stopped walking, locked his eyes on them, and continued his mantra, softly now.

"Dalai Lama. Lhasa."

The doubt in the eyes of the Tibetans grew, and they looked back and forth at one another, the barrels of their guns sinking ever closer toward the earth. Then the man who had retreated and fired first raised his gun and shook it at Bessac as he shouted, "Kowtow! Kowtow!"

He pointed his gun at the earth and shook it again as he yelled once more, "Kowtow!"

A Chinese phrase that Frank knew well. Bow down. Get on your knees. Submit to me. Show me your subservience.

Frank didn't think; he spoke, in English, not loudly at first but his voice rose louder into the wind as his anger increased.

"I damn well won't kowtow to you. You come up here shooting people, people invited by the Dalai Lama to come to Lhasa — and you want me to kowtow? I will not kowtow. No goddamned kowtow! You are going to kowtow to me when the Dalai Lama finds out what you have done! Americans don't kowtow to anybody!"

The Tibetans watched blankly as Frank spoke. When he took off his glasses and waved them at the Tibetans, emphasizing his refusal to kowtow, some of the men smiled.

The grim-faced leader did not smile but only stared sternly at Bessac. When his men laughed, he leveled his gun barrel at Bessac, now at point- blank range. One of the laughing Tibetans behind the leader jerked up his head quickly to catch Bessac's eye. He then cocked his head toward the ground, and raised a free hand as if firing his gun.

Bessac saw the mimed gestures. He could see the look of almost mock concern on the one Tibetan's face as he again violently cocked his head toward the ground.

What the hell, he thought to himself as he let his pride go and sank to his knees.

A ripple of words erupted from the head Tibetan, his gun dropping back down toward the earth.

"La, la, la. Nyingje."

The Tibetan who had mimed for him slung his rifle over his shoulder, stepped out of the group, and walked toward Bessac, pulling a goat-hair rope out of his robe. Bessac kept his eyes locked on the ground and did not move. The mime pulled Bessac's hands behind his back and bound them. Bessac glanced up and saw the rest of the Tibetans rush over to the expedition's camel loads, which sat outside the tent on the ground. Then the man who had bound his hands took off Bessac's glasses, and his world three feet away immediately turned to a gray blur.

He listened to the Tibetans as they cracked open the crate with the machine guns. He could hear their startled shouts of surprise and glee when they found the gold bars. He heard the clicking of a Geiger counter as it was flicked on and off, and then what sounded like a rock smashing into Mackiernan's machine. Bessac only hoped they would not play with the grenades.

Those were all smaller, distant things. Most of his attention was focused on a human foot, which lay quite near him in the dirt. It belonged to one of his friends. A crudely sewn sheepskin covered the leg. Five feet away, the face that belonged to the foot was a complete blur. As his world shrank, Bessac knew he should try to get closer so he could see the face and check if he was alive. Instead, he looked at the foot and the robe and remembered when the Kazak sold them the sheepskins. He thought about how they measured one another and cut the skins. He remembered sitting in the Kazak yurt turning the fleece in and the leather out, stitching up the robes as the snow fell outside.

"Warm enough to get you to Tibet, doesn't matter what they look like. And I guess the Tibetans won't be expecting diplomats in tuxedos."

Who said that? Who was that lying in front of him, in such an odd and uncomfortable position, lying so still?


The Americans who walked into Tibet — and the resulting fatal shoot-out on the Tibetan border in 1950 — took the first steps of that journey by traveling to China during World War II, and by surviving the war. Neither Frank Bessac nor Douglas Mackiernan went to China as an average soldier. Both men worked with the Office of Strategic Services, in their own different ways. The OSS was disbanded at war's end, broken into different pieces. Many of these fragments were eventually reforged into America's first peacetime intelligence outfit: the Central Intelligence Agency. Both men began their time in China as, in common parlance, spies.

In 1945 atomic intelligence was the crown jewel of the American intelligence community. The astounding value of atomic bombs, and the consequential value of any intelligence about uranium, was personal for Bessac, though unlike Mackiernan he had no involvement with American atomic intelligence in China. In the final days of World War II Bessac was scheduled for what was billed as a suicidal intelligence mission behind Japanese lines, in southern China, when the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki abruptly ended the war. The value of the bomb for Bessac, as for so many American soldiers in the Pacific, was simple: "It saved my life." It is estimated that more than 250,000 American lives would have been lost in any invasion of Japan. Atomic bombs saved those lives — in seconds — just as surely as they vaporized hundreds of thousands of Japanese.

In 1946 no nation could ignore the fact that the United States was the sole possessor of atomic bombs, a monopoly that made America the world's first superpower. Nothing was of greater national concern to America than how long its atomic monopoly would last. President Truman, his generals, and his diplomats all assumed that it would last longer than it did. This assumption, based on a misleading interpretation of atomic intelligence, and a misguided faith in a particular covert operation, was one of the greatest policy, and intelligence, failures of the postwar period. Promises were made based on the assumption of invincibility; policy was created, particularly in Asia, as if America would forever be the world's sole atomic power. In fact, the period of America's atomic monopoly lasted only from the summer of 1945 to the summer of 1949. It took just these four short years for Russia to steal America's bomb design and find the scarce uranium with which to make one — despite a massive American effort to prevent it.

From 1945 to 1949 little else in the world was more feared, despised, desired, or more secret than atomic bombs and their key ingredient, uranium. An ounce of that dull gray metal was now worth ten thousand times an ounce of gold — but none was for sale. America had the bomb: that was no longer a secret in 1946. After Hiroshima the greatest atomic secret was that America was fighting to maintain a global monopoly on the supply of uranium. The chief aim of that secret battle was to keep uranium out of Russia's hands.

With Pearl Harbor as their defining moment, and Hiroshima still ringing in their ears, America's postwar leaders knew that they had to collect military intelligence from all over the world, more effectively and more thoroughly than ever before. Not only was an American monopoly on uranium essential, but it was just as important for America to know, in advance, if any nation were to secretly build an atomic bomb. Such goals demanded that intelligence material from around the world be collected, centralized, digested, and disseminated to all levels of the American government. The fear of failure for the U.S. intelligence community was unlike anything ever felt before the Atomic Age. Failure could mean annihilation of all Americans, and that driving fear was described by a simple phrase repeated many times: "An atomic Pearl Harbor." The newsreels of Hiroshima made it clear what an intelligence failure, which could allow an atomic Pearl Harbor in the United States, would mean.

As World War II turned into the Atomic Peace before the Cold War, individual Americans were thrust by an emerging global intelligence outfit into distant affairs in the most remote corners on earth. Americans were headed into places so remote that hardly any American had ever heard of them.

In this new era America needed intelligence about the Mongol, Kazak, and Tibetan peoples of Inner Asia. This was no longer an academic exercise — as remote as they are, these people were no longer unconnected to America. For a time, during the years of the American atomic monopoly, and just as it collapsed, some Americans wondered if the survival of America might not depend upon relations with these people, and intelligence about America's enemies that these people could supply.

America's emerging national security interests in Inner Asia were complicated by the Republic of China's insistence that all of these people, and all their land, where no Chinese lived, belonged to China. During the war the United States had blindly recognized and supported China's extravagant territorial claims, simply because China was America's only Asian ally. As the atomic peace settled over Asia, some Americans in China wondered at the wisdom of that course.


"Fragrant Comes the Night," a Chinese dance melody, played on the tinny gramophone inside the nineteenth-century Mandarin mansion, which served as HQ. The music drifted through the formal garden that surrounded the minor palace of an old Manchu bureaucrat not far from the Forbidden City. The family who owned the house was happy to have the Americans renting it in the hard spring just after World War II.

Peking's literary and social elite, and their young daughters, milled about at a dinner party in honor of the Americans who had helped China defeat the Japanese invaders and colonialists. The eviction of millions of Japanese from China — some of whom had been there for decades before the war — was nearly complete. The few American military men who had stayed on in Peking were guests at a party to honor those who had helped China free herself from Japanese colonialism.

Frank Bagnall Bessac, twenty-four years old and fluent in Chinese, would be a civilian in weeks, but that night he was still in the U.S. Army.

At the outbreak of the war, Bessac enlisted. He was a twenty-year-old private scrambling through his last year at the College of the Pacific. Eager for war, he was irritated when the U.S. Army selected him for Chinese- language training at Cornell University. He was still railing against army delays when he was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, for cavalry training — where the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) recruited him as a secret intelligence agent: OSS-SI. After training, he boarded a ship to India. From there he flew over the Himalayas and into the western sliver of China that Chiang Kai-shek had not lost to the invading Japanese.


Excerpted from "Into Tibet"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Thomas Laird.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note,
• Shegar-Hunglung, Tibet, April 29, 1950,
• An Atomic Monopoly, An Atomic Peace, 1945 to 1949,
• Strategic Services Unit, HQ, Peking, March 5, 1946,
• U.S. Embassy, Nanking, March 1946,
• Alphabet Soup, 1946-1947,
• The American Consulate, Tihwa, March 25, 1946,
• Murray Hill, 1943–1950,
• Koktogai, ETR, May 15, 1946,
• At the Chingil River Ford, April 10, 1947,
• The White House and the Potala, March 1947,
• Osman Bator, Douglas Mackiernan, and Uranium, May and June 1947,
• Pegge Lyons and Douglas Mackiernan, Tihwa, Sinkiang, July and August 1947,
• CIA Headquarters, Washington, D.C., July 1947,
• The AEC and AFSWP, July 1947,
• Pegge and Doug, Shanghai and Tihwa, September 1947,
• The U.S. Army Advisory Group HQ, Nanking, China, September 25, 1947,
• Shanghai to Peking, September 25-29, 1947,
• USS President Polk, off the China Coast, October 4, 1947,
• Bessac's Cover, Peking, China, October 15, 1947,
• The Crag Hotel, Penang, Malaysia, October 21, 1947,
• Frank Bessac and Prince De, Peking, China, October 1947,
• The Green Lantern, January to August 1948,
• Douglas Mackiernan and Atomic Explosions, 1948 to March 10, 1949,
• Department of State, Washington D.C., April 19, 1949,
• The Raid on the U-2 Mine, Sinkiang and the ETR, April or May 1949,
• Hawaii, June 1, 1996,
• The Russian Atomic Test Site, Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, August 29, 1949,
• Tibet, Summer of 1949,
• Dingyuanying, Inner Mongolia, August 1949,
• Hami to Tihwa, Sinkiang, September 9, 1949,
• Tihwa-Urumchi, the People's Republic of China, September 26, 1949,
• Leaving Tihwa, September 27, 1949,
• Lake Barkol, with the Kazak Horde of Osman Bator, October 29, 1949,
• The White House, October 31, 1949,
• Fairfax, California, November 1949,
• Around the Taklamakan Desert, October 30-November 29, 1949,
• Washington, D.C., November and December 1949,
• The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Dharamsala, India, December 1, 1994,
• Dean Acheson, January 12, 1950,
• Shanghai, the People's Republic of China, January 30, 1950,
• Fairfax, California, January 30 and 31, 1950,
• Peking and Washington, D.C., January 20, 1950,
• Senator McCarthy's Speech, Wheeling, West Virginia, February 9, 1950,
• Acheson Meets Lowell Thomas, February 17, 1950,
• Winter at Timurlik, November 29, 1949, to March 20, 1950,
• A Letter to Tibet, State-CIA Relations, March 30, 1950,
• McCarthy and Lattimore, Washington, D.C., April 1950,
• Across the Changthang, March and April 1950,
• Morning, April 29, 1950,
• Shegar-Hunglung, Tibet, April 29, 1950,
• When They Heard Mackiernan Was Dead,
• Nomads and Grenades, April 30 and May 1, 1950,
• The Arrow Letter, Tibet, May 1, 1950,
• The U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, India, May 2, 1950,
• Shentsa Dzong, Tibet, May 6, 1950,
• Shentsa Dzong, Tibet, May 11, 1950,
• Trip to Lhasa, May and June 1950,
• Tibet, Taiwan, and China, Spring 1950,
• Lhasa, Tibet, June 11, 1950,
• Mr. Latrash's Lhasa "Assets," Calcutta and Lhasa, Winter and Spring 1949-1950,
• The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, "A U.S. Agent Passing Through Lhasa," December 1, 1994,
• Fairfax, California, June 11, 1950,
• Meeting the Dalai Lama, Lhasa, Tibet, June 1950,
• Dinner at Tride Lingka, Lhasa, Tibet, June 15, 1950,
• The Tibetan Foreign Bureau, Lhasa, Tibet, June 16, 1950,
• Carving Crosses, Lhasa, Tibet, July 30, 1950,
• The Flogging, Lhasa, Tibet, July 1950,
• The Potala, Lhasa, Tibet, July 1950,
• Last Days in Lhasa, Late July 1950,
• Mackiernan's Death Announced, July 29, 1950,
• Minister Shakabpa Visits the U.S. Consulate, Calcutta, India, August 4, 1950,
• The Earthquake, August 15, 1950,
• Latrash and Bessac, Calcutta, India, August 29, 1950,
• The U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, India, August 30-September 22, 1950,
• Calcutta, India, September 15, 1950,
• Mrs. Douglas Mackiernan Goes to Washington, October 4, 1950,
• Bessac in Washington, D.C., October 1950,
• The State Department, Washington, D.C., October 18, 1950,
• Bethesda, Maryland, and Drukha Monastery, October 19, 1950,
• Washington, D.C., October 27 and 28, 1950,
• Pegge and John, First Meeting, Washington, D.C., November 8, 1950,
•Life Magazine, November 13, 1950,
• Pegge and John, Washington, D.C., November 24, 1950,
• Tibet, Winter 1950-1951,
• Winter of the Cold War, Washington, D.C., 1950-1951,
• Tihwa, Xinjiang, the People's Republic of China, April 29, 1951,
• Epilogue: Zvansov, Bessac, Mackiernan, and Tibet,

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