He worked as a cryptographer for the United States Army Air Forces and was then posted to China as an Air Force meteorologist during World War II. By 1947, he had quit the Air Force and was employed as a covert intelligence officer by the CIA. As a cover for that work he was assigned the position of Vice-Consul for the U.S. State Department at its consulate in Ürümqi (Tihwa) in East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang). There his scientific talents (he dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his freshman year) were employed in espionage. Until 2002, the CIA successfully hid the fact that Mackiernan was America's first atomic spy; Mackiernan's collection of atomic intelligence about the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb (tested just across the border at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan) was first revealed by the journalist Thomas Laird, but only confirmed by the CIA in 2008.
In the fall of 1949, Mackiernan led a party of five (including the two men who would survive the trip, Vasili Zvansov and Frank Bessac) out of Ürümqi. They first spent time with Osman Batur and his Kazakh warriors (who would be fighting against the Chinese invasion of East Turkestan) and then traveled on to Tibet by horseback and camel en route to India. Mackiernan was shot dead by Tibetan border guards while crossing East Turkestan into Tibet; the United States government had failed to request permission, in a timely fashion, from the Tibetan government for the Mackiernan party to enter Tibet. The Tibetan guards had standing orders, in the tense spring of 1950, to shoot all foreigners who attempted to enter Tibet. Mackiernan and his party were dressed as Kazakhs; the Kazakhs in China and Tibetans were traditional enemies who raided each other across the border.
Because he was the first CIA officer operating under diplomatic cover as a State Department employee to be killed, the CIA had not yet established procedures about pensions; ultimately his wife and children were denied a CIA pension. In 1950, Peggy Mackiernan was awarded a small pension by the State Department, much smaller than her pension would have been if she had received the CIA pension that was due to her. It was only in 2000 that the first star on the CIA's Wall of Honor was acknowledged to belong to Mackiernan in a secret memorial ceremony with Mackiernan's wife and family present at the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters. When Mackiernan's atomic intelligence work was revealed by a journalist in 2002, it was disputed by CIA employees; however, in 2006, his name was listed in the CIA's Book of Honor and in 2008 his employment by the CIA and his work in atomic intelligence was officially and publicly acknowledged by CIA Director Michael Hayden.
Early life and career
Mackiernan was born in Mexico City, Mexico, to an adventurous father who had been a whaler and explorer. As a child, the young Mackiernan learned English, Spanish, French, and German. He was the oldest of five brothers: Duncan, Angus, Malcolm, and Stuart. His family later moved to Stoughton, Massachusetts, where he worked at his father's filling station business and he and his brothers became amateur radio operators.
Mackiernan spent one year at MIT as a physics major in 1932, then dropped out and became a research assistant at the university. He served as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, first as a cryptanalysis officer in 1942 in Washington, DC, then as a meteorological officer in Alaska and from November 1943, until the end of the war in Tiwha (now Ürümqi), the capital of East Turkestan (now Xinjiang) Province. In February 1947, Mackiernan missed the adventure of the war and applied to the State Department for a position as a consular clerk at his former location in China. He was eagerly accepted, and by May he was on his way back. He soon found himself recruited for, and ideally suited to, espionage work.
Final CIA mission
The armies of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China were defeated by those of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party during the spring and summer of 1949. On July 29, 1949, Secretary of State Dean Acheson ordered the US consulate at Tihwa, East Turkestan Province, to be closed. Mackiernan was ordered to stay behind, officially to destroy consular records and equipment and covertly to continue atomic intelligence activities.
On August 10, 1949, Mackiernan sent a classified, coded message to Secretary of State Acheson where he acknowledged that he was operating the long range atomic explosion detection equipment. By the middle of September, the forces of Chiang Kai-shek had switched sides, without a fight, and Communist troops were due to enter Ürümqi at any point. Also the Soviets had just completed their first atomic test in nearby Kazakhstan, on August 29, 1949. Mackiernan's work was now finished. Though it was still possible for Mackiernan to have flown out of Ürümqi on a regularly scheduled flight; Mackiernan, and the CIA, chose a different path: through Tibet to India.
Mackiernan may have feared that he would be arrested if he had tried to travel through Communist China, as were other US Consuls during that period. By then Mackiernan's work as an espionage agent was known to the Chinese Communist Party. Whatever his motivation, on September 25, 1949, Mackiernan sent his last telegram, stating that provincial officials had accepted Chinese communist authority, and the communist army was about to enter the city.
Two days later Mackiernan and a Fulbright scholar, Frank Bessac (whom other CIA employees of the period have described as a CIA contract agent, though Bessac denies it), drove out of the main gates of Ürümqi with their gear, which included machine guns, grenades, radios, gold bullion, navigation equipment, and survival supplies. The guards checked Mackiernan's passport and let him through. They met up with three anti-communist White Russian allies, and then rode out to spend more than a month with the Kazakh leader Osman Bator. Mackiernan left gold and a radio with Osman, who was seen by the Chinese as a rebel taking US support; Osman saw himself as a man fighting for the independence of his people.
After a month with Osman Bator, the Mackiernan party embarked on a difficult journey by horseback and camel across 1,000 miles of Taklimakan desert, traveling south-southwest by night towards the Himalayas. Mackiernan carefully recorded positions and landmarks, and radioed their progress to Washington. Records of the radio transcripts have not been released by the CIA or State Department. Mackiernan's log, with additions by Bessac after Mackiernan's death, was declassified in the 1990s, though some alleged that the document had been heavily doctored. By late November, the party reached the 10,000 ft "foothills" of the Kunlun Mountains, where they spent the winter with Hussein Taiji of the Kazakhs.
In March, the small group struggled over the mountains, and then trekked across the vast uninhabited Changtang on the Tibetan plateau. They arrived at the first Tibetan outpost on April 29, 1950. Mackiernan sent Bessac over to talk with the Tibetans who were camped nearby. The rest of the party set up tents behind a slight hill. Bessac heard shots and running over the hill, he saw that Mackiernan and two White movement employees, Leonid and Stefan, were dead. Vasili Zvansov was badly wounded.
The Tibetan guards realized that they had made a mistake only five days later when they met a group of couriers from the Dalai Lama with a message of safe conduct for the group: the American government had delayed sending its request for permission for the Mackiernan party for so long that it was impossible for the Tibetan government to act in time. On June 11, 1950, Bessac and Zvansov finally reached Lhasa just weeks before the beginning of the Korean War. According to Heinrich Harrer, who later befriended Bessac in Lhasa, the Tibetan soldiers who attacked Mackiernan's caravan had hoped to plunder their provisions and were later punished for their callousness.
Mackiernan's death (as a State Department official) was subsequently reported by The New York Times on July 29, 1950. His work as a CIA agent was first written about in one chapter of a book by Ted Gup, in 2001—without any mention of his work as an atomic intelligence agent. In 2003, Thomas Laird wrote an entire book about Mackiernan's work, and revealed details of Mackiernan's atomic intelligence work for the first time. Mackiernan's CIA employment was not acknowledged by the CIA until 2006, when his name was revealed in the CIA's Book of Honor. However his work as an agent, and his atomic intelligence, was not fully recognized by the CIA until then-CIA Director Michael Hayden described Mackiernan's work during a speech in October 2008.
- James A. Millward (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang. Columbia University Press. pp. 179–. ISBN 978-0-231-13924-3.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-07-04. Retrieved 2008-10-04.
- "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-07-08. Retrieved 2009-06-08.
- http://images.library.wisc.edu/FRUS/EFacs/1947v07/reference/frus.frus1947v07.i0008.pdf p. 566-567.
- regarding this note to Acheson see National Archives RG 59, 125.937D/8-1049 as cited on pg 306 of Into Tibet
- Regarding Bessac's work as a CIA contract agent see pg 244 of Into Tibet
- Harrer, Heinrich (1953). Seven Years in Tibet. Putnam.
- Ted Gup, "The Book of Honor: The Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives" Anchor Books, 2001 hardcover: ISBN 0-385-49541-2, ISBN 978-0-385-49541-7
- Thomas Laird, Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, Grove Press 2002 hardcover: ISBN 0-8021-1714-7, 2003 paperback: ISBN 0-8021-3999-X
- Frank B. Bessac; Joan Orielle Bessac Steelquist; Susanne L. Bessac, "Death on the Chang Tang; Tibet, 1950: The Education of an Anthropologist", University of Montana Printing & Graphic Services 2006 Softcover:0977341828 / 0-9773418-2-8 (ISBN 9780977341825)
- Heinrich Harrer, "Seven Years in Tibet", E P Dutton, 1954 hardcover: ASIN: B0006ATJRY
- James A. Millward, "Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang", Columbia University Press, 2007, hardcover: ISBN 0-231-13924-1, ISBN 978-0-231-13924-3
- Frank B. Bessac as told to James Burke " These Tibetans Killed an American and Get the Last for It: This was the Perilous Trek to Safety" Life Magazine, November, 1950.
- Linda Benson and Ingvar Svanberg, "The Kazakhs of China: Essays on an Ethnic Minority", "Osman Batur: The Kazakh's Golden Legend", Upsala University Press, 1988.
- Charles Kraus, “To Die On the Steppe: Sino-Soviet-American Relations and the Cold War in Chinese Central Asia, 1944-1952,” Cold War History 14, no. 3 (August 2014): 293-313, doi: 10.1080/14682745.2013.871262.
- Website for the book Into Tibet with sample chapter
- "The First Atomic Spy" from MIT's Technology Review, January, 2001
- "Star Agents" by Ted Gup, from The Washington Post, September 7, 1997
- Miscellaneous collected information on Mackiernan