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The First Atomic Spy

Douglas Mackiernan gathered intelligence information on the Soviets’ first atomic bomb.
December 1, 2002

When Douglas S. Mackiernan ‘36 dropped out of MIT, his last words, “I don’t want to waste time studying what I already know,” might have been seen as the failing freshman’s parting shot. Unless you knew Mackiernan, his professor’s assessment-that he needed remedial work to be able to continue his studies-might have promoted a jaundiced view of his abilities as a scientist. But that would have been wrong. His research on long-range radio-wave propagation in the upper atmosphere and his scientific intelligence work in atomic detection ultimately provided President Harry S. Truman with information regarding the location and size of Joseph Stalin’s first atomic test, an achievement comparable to that of Mackiernan’s MIT cohort, who helped build radar and the atomic bomb.

Like many other MIT alumni, Mackiernan helped establish the United States as the world’s first superpower through superior technical means. Radar and the atomic bomb are the most famous aspects of this scientific effort. Less well known is the early growth of the field of “national technical means,” which developed the technical abilities to detect atomic bombs and other threats to the security of the United States at great distance-spying without spies as these techniques have been so aptly described. It was a new era, and Douglas Mackiernan shines as a U.S. hero in these efforts.

The Foundations of a Spy

From his youth, Mackiernan’s scientific interests were wide ranging. By the time he was 10 years old, he was an avid ham-radio operator, and by the age of 15 he was building his own radios. After meetings with Robert H. Goddard, father of the modern rocket, Mackiernan tested rocket engines as a hobby in a converted chicken shed behind his family’s home in Stoughton, MA. By the time his classmates were graduating from MIT, Mackiernan had already been hired as a research assistant at the Institute and was serving on a joint MIT-U.S. Weather Bureau team in Cuba that was studying hurricanes with “radio beacons” on balloons sent into the path of storms.

The lack of degree was no barrier for this technically talented man. His fieldwork in Cuba brought Mackiernan to the attention of H. T. Stetson of MIT’s Cosmic Terrestrial Research Laboratory, which focused on advanced radio research. Stetson hired Mackiernan as an assistant in his lab, the second MIT position for the young scientist. By 1942 Stetson and Mackiernan had coauthored a groundbreaking article for Transactions of the American Geophysical Radio Union on the long-range propagation of radio waves and the impact of weather conditions on those signals. That same year, Mackiernan intercepted encoded Russian weather broadcasts using his own gear, and he single-handedly decoded the transmissions. When he brought the resulting intelligence to the attention of the U.S. Army Air Force, he was recruited for its cryptanalysis section in Washington, DC. By 1943 he had become chief of the section, which was responsible for deciphering encoded intelligence messages from around the world.

Spying on the Soviet Union

The following year Mackiernan was manning a critical radio weather outpost in China’s far northwest province of Sinkiang, and his technical skills had combined with his growing involvement in U.S. intelligence and national security issues. By 1947 he was an agent with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. From Sinkiang, Mackiernan worked on two early atomic intelligence operations. In 1947 and 1948 he participated in a broad effort to maintain the U.S. monopoly on access to all supplies  of uranium-235, which was necessary to build an atomic bomb. With the Kazak leader Osman Bator, Mackiernan acquired samples of uranium that the Soviet Union was mining inside Sinkiang and verified it was U-235. He then initiated operations to shut down the mine, but despite Mackiernan’s efforts and others by the United States all over the world, Stalin acquired enough uranium to build a bomb.

As Stalin moved toward that goal, the United States developed a global scientific intelligence operation to detect atomic explosions anywhere on earth, no matter how far they might be from U.S. detection devices. As part of a U.S. Army Air Force effort code named AFOAT-1, Mackiernan installed these detectors in Sinkiang and possibly inside the Soviet Union, only a few hundred kilometers from the atomic test site. Although there is some question as to whether Mackiernan’s detection network succeeded, there is no doubt that his scientific-data collectors were closer to Stalin’s first bomb than was any other U.S. intelligence source.
At about the same time, he and his brothers set up World Weather as a private contractor in their family home in Stoughton. World Weather acted as a long-range receiving station for the AFOAT-1 detectors and collected many types of encoded-data transmissions from Russia and inner Asia. Some were simply weather transmissions, but there’s evidence that World Weather’s most important task was to receive transmissions from AFOAT-1 detectors. However, Mackiernan’s brothers probably never knew that their work was a cover for U.S. atomic intelligence work.

The Mackiernan brothers (Malcolm, Stuart, Angus, Douglas, and Duncan) prepare to ski, circa 1940. (Photograph courtesy of the Duncan Mackiernan Family)

The Tibetan Connection

Mackiernan’s intelligence gathering brought him into close contact with Kazak elements who hated the Chinese efforts to colonize their homeland. When communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Kazaks, led by Bator, were determined to resist the arrival of Communist Chinese troops, and the Kazaks declared their independence. It’s unclear to what degree Mackiernan prompted them to declare independence, but it is certain that he provided them with gold and radios, courtesy of the CIA. The Kazaks intended to buy some weapons on the black market with the gold and use the radios to maintain contact with U.S. aircraft that were dropping additional arms to them. Mackiernan’s work then shifted from atomic espionage to a broad effort to arm the non-Chinese people of inner Asia, including the Tibetans, who wanted to resist China’s invasion.

As armies of Mao Tse-tung swept into Sinkiang, Mackiernan was ordered on to Tibet to set up a pipeline that would funnel intelligence through agents in Sinkiang to U.S. agents in India. Once in Tibet, Mackiernan was to work with the Tibetans to initiate U.S. military aid for them. Unfortunately, Chinese Communist spies discovered the plans even before Mackiernan left Sinkiang. At about the same time, the Chinese spies learned of Mackiernan’s work with the Kazaks as well as the gold and radios he had supplied. That proved to be the kiss of death. In April 1950 Chinese troops massacred 15,000 of the 25,000 Kazaks who had gathered around Osman.

That same month Tibetan border guards, who were fearful of all foreigners due to the imminent Chinese invasion, shot and killed Mackiernan as he attempted to enter the country. The official U.S. request to allow Mackiernan to enter Tibet had been delayed by bureaucratic infighting between the Department of State and the CIA. But after his death, Mackiernan’s mission was carried out by his partner, Frank Bessac. Although Bessac claims to have retired from the CIA in 1948, he went to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1950, where he urged the Tibetan National Assembly to submit a request to the United States for covert military aid. Chinese spies detected this plan as well, but Bessac immediately began working with the CIA to drop weapons into Tibet. The United States hoped to arm the Tibetans so they could resist a Chinese invasion and allow U.S. recognition of Tibet as an independent state.

Though U.S. policy did not precipitate the inevitable Chinese invasion of Tibet, actions by Mackiernan and others appear to have inadvertently accelerated the invasion plans. China has always said that it invaded Tibet to prevent U.S. “imperialist plots” and a “U.S. invasion.” Until now the United States has denied it had any agents in Lhasa in the summer of 1950 and that it was working to provide military aid to the Tibetans. So why has this chapter of U.S. history been kept secret even though the Chinese knew about these events as they transpired? Why is this history still classified “top secret”? Perhaps the CIA remains loath to declassify anything about the efforts of its first atomic spy. But outside observers are convinced that the CIA continues to hide the Mackiernan chapter of history simply because it exposes the agency’s bumbling at the dawn of the Cold War.

“The First Atomic Spy” is adapted from Thomas Laird’s Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, New York: Grove, 2002.

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