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In Kipling’s rousing colonialist novel Kim, the eponymous hero and a host of characters participate avidly in the “Great Game”: the struggle between czarist Russia and Great Britain for ascendancy in the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent and Tibet. A version of the game continues today, with China claiming sovereignty over Tibet, having occupied it since its 1950 invasion. Douglas Mackiernan—a dashing 36-year-old CIA agent, MIT dropout, brilliant research scientist, and ladies’ man—had succeeded in burying detectors near the Soviet atomic test site at Kazakhstan in 1949, enabling the U.S. government (then the only atomic power) to monitor Soviet progress. With Mao Tse-tung’s Red Army triumphant over Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt Kuomintang, Mackiernan had to hightail it out of China with a small party of White Russians and 27-year-old Frank Bessac, an ex-army intelligence operative and China scholar.
The story of that flight forms the core of Thomas Laird’s Into Tibet, a scrupulously documented account of Cold War intrigue. Mackiernan and his party embarked on a grueling 10-month, 2000-mile hike, from desolate northwestern China, through the Taklamakan Desert, over the inhospitable Kunlun Mountains, and all the way to Lhasa—vast, forbidding territory where temperatures were extreme, food and water scarce, and death a constant presence. For some, the trek proved fatal—but for reasons political rather than natural.
Laird’s reportage is so lavishly devoted to facts, half the book reads like a compendium of news bulletins. However, when he lets go of his “just the facts, ma’am” approach, we get a grippingly good narrative, especially in the account of the torturous passage across the frozen Changthang Plateau, so high up that Mackiernan would stick his hand in boiling water “and it didn’t even burn.” The book does provide a detailed view into the CIA’s shadowy world and the havoc it wreaks on individual lives, as it did on Mackiernan’s family. Just as importantly, Into Tibet lays bare the pressures of domestic policies. McCarthyism and the paranoia it inspired—fed partly by the defeated Chiang and his allies in Congress—beclouded what could have been a lucid view of Communist China, Tibet, and, later, Vietnam. Into Tibet demonstrates clearly that while Washington may have the means to gather intelligence, it does not always have the intelligence to use those means well.