History Wars World War II

The first CIA operative to die in the line of duty was killed by Tibetans

Douglas Mackiernan CIA

The United States didn’t have a real intelligence agency until the National Security Act of September 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency. The U.S. created the ad hoc Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, which performed most of the missions of an intelligence service, but the 1947 law put the service into permanent action. 

Though the OSS had lost officers during World War II, it wasn’t until 1950 that the CIA first lost one of their own. CIA Officer Douglas Mackiernan died at the hands of what we might think of today as a very unlikely adversary: Tibetans. 

Mackiernan’s life looked like one that anyone would think would make for an excellent spy story. He was born in Mexico to a father who was a lifelong explorer. He spoke four languages and spent his early years as a radio operator and adventurer in his own right. Mackiernan dropped out of MIT to serve the Army Air Forces during World War II, where he eventually became a cryptographer in China.

By 1947, he was doing espionage work for the newly-created CIA in what was then called the Second East Turkestan Republic, essentially an Asian satellite state of the Soviet Union. It’s located in what is today the Xinjiang Province of China. The rest of the province at the time was under the control of the Republic of China. Mackiernan was posted to the U.S. Consulate in the provincial capital of Ürümqi as a cover for his intelligence work there.

Douglas Mackiernan CIA officer
Douglas Mackiernan

Mackiernan’s mission was to monitor the Soviet Union, and in 1949, the reason for his mission became apparent: the USSR had detonated its first atomic bomb. It happened right across the Turkestan border with the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic. That same year, the State Department closed the U.S. Consulate in Ürümqi because the Chinese Communist Party was expanding its influence into Xinjiang, and it would no longer be friendly. Mackiernan stayed behind to continue his mission.

In September the Chinese republicans in Xinjiang switched sides without a fight, and Mackiernan feared he would be arrested by the Chinese communists. American Consuls across Communist-occupied China were being arrested. He had to leave Xinjiang and China as soon as humanly possible. He couldn’t pass through China, and he feared he might be arrested if he took a flight out because he was a known CIA operative, so he decided on an overland route through Tibet to India.

Tibet at this time was an independent country, but both Communist China and the Republic of China were anxious to seize it for themselves following the end of the Chinese Civil War. Tibet was well aware of the Chinese designs on their country and had made preparations to resist any kind of incursion or invasion – from anyone. They were armed to the teeth and jumpy about it.

In September 1949, he wired the CIA to tell them he was leaving and that the Communist Army would soon enter Ürümqi. Mackiernan left the city with another American, Frank Bessec, in a truck loaded with machine guns, radios, gold, and survival gear. They spent a month with the Kazakh-born Chinese warlord Osman Bator, then rode 1,000 miles through the Taklimakan desert on camel back toward the Himalayan Mountains. They spent the winter at the foot of the Kunlun Mountains. 

When spring came, they crossed the mountains into the Tibetan Plateau with three members of a White (anti-communist) Russian military force. When they came upon their first Tibetan outpost, they decided to make camp. Bessec went to talk to the Tibetan guards when he heard a number of shots ring out. Mackiernan and two of the Russians were dead. The third Russian was badly wounded. 

It turned out the Tibetan guards hadn’t yet received word from the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the country, that the Americans were supposed to be given safe passage. Though Mackiernan had radioed his positions and intentions throughout the journey, the CIA delayed sending a message to the Dalai Lama for so long that word hadn’t reached the border guards yet. 

Since the travelers were carrying substantial gear and the guards had no orders, the guard decided to take their provisions. Five days after Mackiernan’s death on April 29, 1950, the message from the Dalai Lama reached the outpost. The guards were punished for their actions, but Mackiernan was still dead, the first CIA operative to die in the line of duty.