More on Diplomatic Betrayal and Duplicity

More on Diplomatic Betrayal and Duplicity

If this isn’t a story made for a screenplay to rival “Lawrence of Arabia,” I don’t know what is.

Douglas Mackiernan (1913-1950) was the first CIA officer to be killed in the line of duty, though he was not honored until 2000, and then in a secret ceremony. In 2002 a journalist began to break the story, which was largely acknowledged by the CIA in 2008.

Just the story of the effort to pierce the veil of secrecy and honor Mackiernan's service would make for a bestselling potboiler, but the story of the service itself makes the cover-up thriller look pedestrian. The brilliant MIT-dropout misfit born to a Scottish whaler/explorer in Mexico City, the dawn of the Cold War, the Westerner engulfed by the East, the nuclear secrets, the abandonment of the U.S. embassy/spy station in remote northwest China upon the surrender of Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949, the wife's last-minute escape overseas to bear twins, the husband's desperate 1,000-mile trek by camel and foot across the Taklamakan Desert and the Himalayas fleeing the ascendant Chinese Communists, the tragic death at the Tibetan border crossing resulting from bureaucratic sloth and duplicity, the U.S.’s later abrupt betrayal of Tibetan freedom fighters upon re-establishment of diplomatic ties to China in the 1970s – and believe me, I’ve barely touched on the high points of suspense and irony.

Thomas Laird’s 2002 book about Mackiernan, “Into Tibet,” is about to join a pile on my reading table that’s getting way out of hand. Despite the CIA’s belated confirmation of many parts of the story in 2008, there remains controversy about Laird’s accuracy and partisan bent. I can’t begin to judge that side of things yet, but what a yarn! This guy is T.E. Lawrence, James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan rolled into one. It’s a Le Carre novel as re-imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. Ridley Scott? Russell Crowe?

I stumbled across Mackiernan because I was surprised by reports in the morning paper that newly released information indicated the CIA was caught flat-footed by the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Wasn’t that common knowledge – the January 1950 Acheson flub and so on? I’m no Korea buff. Quickly reading the Wikipedia summary of the Korean War that's linked above, I saw Mackiernan mentioned as the source of advance intelligence of the North Korean invasion, which he was trying to get across the Tibetan border when he was killed. In reading other accounts of Mackiernan’s exploits I can’t be sure that’s right; if so, it’s such a minor part of the saga that it doesn’t rate a mention in other summaries. Either way, I’m motivated to read the Laird book now.

No comments: