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Contradictions Of Cold War Diplomacy: The United States And Tibet, 1942-1974

Contradictions Of Cold War Diplomacy: The United States And Tibet, 1942-1974

by Benjamin Austin

To Missy, Peaches, Zoie, and my parents


I have spent nearly a year of my life researching, analyzing, and writing this paper. Many people helped in this process. One of my greatest assets, not only for this paper but life in general, Dr. Susan Cottler's encouragement, enthusiasm, and assistance proved invaluable. I owe much to her humor, historiographical approach, genius, and friendship. Dr. Elree Harris has been a true friend the past three years - no words can describe how she's changed my life and inspired me to seek my dreams.

My fellow thesis-mates, Peter, Carly, Richelle, Jay, Adam, Cory, Stewart, and Dillon, listened to my paper at least a hundred times and gave many helpful suggestions. Thank you all for a great year. Thanks Ali, Katie, and Teresa, for making me laugh, and being so inspiring.

All the faculty of the History and English Departments at Westminster assisted me to this point in my education, especially Jeff Nichols, Emily Smith, Jeff McCarthy, Susan Gunter, Georgi Donivan, and Fatima Mujcinovic.

I'm grateful to my wonderful family. Mom and Pops, you're the best parents anyone could ask for. Special thanks to my wife, Missy, for putting up with the all-nighters, mood-swings, and caffeine-binges through out the year. You deserve a degree for your patience, willingness to help, and the number of times you read my drafts.

It may happen that here, in the center of Tibet, religion and government will be attacked both from without and from within. Unless we can guard our own country, it will now happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lama, the Father and the Son, and all the revered holders of the Faith, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed. The rule of law will be weakened. The lands and property of government officials will be seized. They themselves will be forced to serve their enemies or wander the country like beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and overpowering fear; the days and nights will drag on slowly in suffering.

-The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, August 1932[1]


As the Communist Chinese forces moved closer to the capital of Tibet in 1951, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, wrote in desperation to several countries (Great Britain, India, Nepal, and the United States) and the United Nations asking for assistance. This marked the second time he had made such a request. El Salvador made a last minute plea to place the Tibetan issue on the United Nations agenda, but the major powers rejected it; none of them supported an independent Tibet. The Dalai Lama did not understand why Britain and India would not help the Tibetans defend themselves against the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Army.

The United States government fervently supported Grate Britain's decision to deny the Tibetan issue an audience at the United Nations. Washington's official stance on Tibet outlined an understanding that the Tibetan territory belonged to China[2]. Yet, in the early 1950's, the US Government began covertly training Tibetan rebel forces in the Rocky Mountains and dropping them into Tibet to help fight a guerrilla war against Communist China. The CIA spent millions of dollars to track the progress of these Tibetan rebel forces and to provide them with weapons, ammunition, and radio equipment. In 1959, as the tensions between the spiritual leader of Tibet and the Chinese government peaked, His Holiness fled his home country and escaped to the Indian border with the help of several CIA-trained Tibetan rebels. After his flight, the United States continued to supply arms and other ordnance to the Tibetan fighters for another two decades. Abruptly, in the early 1970's, the US halted all assistance to Tibet.

The facts are very contradictory: on the one hand, the United States secretly trained Tibetan rebels on US soil, air-dropped them back into Tibet, supplied them with ammunition, weapons, radios, and other military equipment, followed every move of the Chinese Communist Army, supported the Dalai Lama's escape from Lhasa, and continued this aid for almost three decades. Yet, on the other hand, the United States gave no political or diplomatic action to support the Tibetan struggle for independence or to back the secret military missions and covert efforts the US itself developed and implemented. This paper will analyze this dichotomy discussing the actions of the United States with Tibet from 1942 through the early 1970's.

Topical Essay

In the earlier quote by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, he hinted at the threat posed by the Communists in China decades before their successful revolution. At the time, no one, particularly Tibetans, could believe such a claim. While the rest of the world transformed through industrialization, the Buddhist nation turned to meditation and prayer, isolating itself from all other countries.

Tibet's history led many to disregard the prophetic warning of the Dalai Lama. For centuries, the entire Asian continent had morphed because of the wars between Tibet, China, and Mongolia. Each nation battled to control the massive area and resources it offered; each empire ruled the continent at some point during the last five-hundred years. At its pinnacle, the Tibetan empire covered most of modern China, India, and their surrounding landscapes. Yet, with Tibet's conversion to Buddhism came the rejection of their imperialistic and warlike characteristics. No longer driven by greed or power, Tibet departed from its involvement in international affairs for a spiritual relationship with the Buddha and the quest for nirvana.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Tibet expelled the last foreigners from its lands, closed its borders, and embarked on four decades of self-imposed isolation from the world. This fact, along with many other examples of the past expansion of the Tibetan empire, represents the Tibetan claim to independence. Contrary to this point of view, China argues that Tibet has long been part of its empire, with brief periods of loose autonomy. When Mao Zedong took over China in the late nineteen-forties, one of his first orders was the unification of the Motherland, or, in his mind, reestablishing the borders of the Chinese Empire. Though most of its citizens and leaders seemed shocked to learn of the Chinese Communist plan, Tibet's actions cannot escape criticism. For decades it had little or no contact with any foreign nation, nor had it attempted to receive official recognition from the United Nations or any other world power.

Before WWII, the United States had no interest in Tibet. Little contact had been made between the two nations. The only information Washington had concerning Tibet came from British colonial reports written in the early nineteen hundreds and its own communications with China. Until the United States embarked on an imperialistic quest of its own, that of Cold War domination and nuclear superiority, America never questioned Tibet as part of the Chinese empire. But, when America focused on halting the spread of communism, Tibet suddenly appeared as a key element in US strategies, and Washington had to deal with the complicated issues surrounding Tibetan autonomy.

Literary Review

An analysis of the secondary sources used in this paper reveals four general subject groups: the Cold War, China, USA/ CIA, and Tibet.

S. Mahmud Ali's Cold War in the High Himalayas: The USA, China, and South Asia in the 1950's analyzes the socio-political relationships between the United States, Tibet, China, Pakistan, and India during the early nineteen-fifties and chronicles the United States involvement with Tibet asserting that the covert operations and secret CIA training and military drops in Tibet had more to do with the United States relations with the rest of South Asia than the Tibet resistance against the Communist Chinese. This methodology proves successful in providing facts and data that shed light on why the United States never officially supported Tibetan independence and why the support given to the Tibetan merely served as a means to "bleed Communist China." Overall, this text provides a great summary of Cold War situations between the United States and Asian countries, though it does not specifically accomplish an in depth analysis of Tibet.

Excluding Tibet altogether but providing a vivid description of the Cold War in the United States, David Halberstam's The Fifties is considered one of the best works written about the 1950's and the beginnings of the Cold War. This text analyzes the decade through social, cultural, economical and political means. Information from this book helped give me an overall idea of the situations in Washington during the fifties that may have influenced their decisions on Tibet issue.

A good work on the Cold War and Mao Zedong is Chen Jian's, Mao's China and the Cold War. Jian provides ample amounts of information concerning Mao and his actions and influence on the Cold War. Arguing that Mao's political and social policies deepened the fear of nuclear destruction, this work uses many Chinese sources and historical research to defend Jian's analysis. Little information concerning Tibet and the United States that could be useful to my paper were included in the work.

One of the several world leaders on the minds of the United States during the Cold War, Mao Zedong led the Communist revolution in China and ordered the peaceful liberation of Tibet during the late 1940's and early 1950's. In the lengthy biography, Mao: A Life, Philip Short strives to summarize one of the most influential men of the twentieth century. Using hundreds of documents, letters, memos, interviews, and Chinese sources, Short paints a detailed picture of Mao. Though the invasion of Tibet surprised many, few references within the work refer directly to actions taken in or concerning the invasion or the goals of the invasion other than restoring the old motherland.

Another work that overridingly supports the uniting of the Chinese motherland is A. Doak Barnet's Communist China and Asia. Barnet's overall point of view favors the actions of the Communists in Tibet. Though only a few short pages cover any information about what occurred in Tibet, the work gives a well rounded analysis of the Chinese Communists and their affect on the Asian continent.

Edmond O. Clubb's 20th Century China covers the development of the Communist Party in China and eventual takeover of the government. Discussing the many issues faced by the new government, Clubb offers helpful insights into the economic, social, and political arenas of Moa and his government. Again, little information is provided concerning the Tibetan invasion and the Chinese goal in occupying the territory.

Similar to the works by Clybb and Barnet, Edgar Snow's Red China Today covers the overall history of Communist China while almost blatantly avoiding any approach at analyzing the Tibetan invasion. Each of the previous works could be classified as pro-Chinese, or at least, pro-do whatever-you-want-with-Tibet. Though the works provided general information concerning Communist China, nothing more than a few sentences proved helpful from these texts in the analysis of the United States involvement in the Tibetan resistance or the reaction of the Communists to this involvement.

One work concerning China did present some helpful information concerning China and Tibet, Dawa Norbu's China's Tibet Policy. Through a mainly political and cultural analysis of the two countries, Norbu discusses the history of relations between Tibet and China and vice versa. Sources for this text include thousands of historical documents, letters, texts, both written in China and Tibet. This text helped most with understanding why the Chinese felt Tibet belonged to them and why Tibet felt it had no ties with China.

Coa Changching and James D. Seymour edited a short anthology of essays written by Chinese scholars and historians about Tibet. In the short anthology Tibet Through Dissident Chinese Eyes: Essays on Self Determination, essays from the viewpoint of sympathetic Chinese describe the actions of the Communist Chinese towards the Tibetan people and Tibetan autonomy. These Chinese historians assert that most all aspects of the Chinese Communists invasion and occupation of Tibet immorally and unjustly oppressed the Tibetan people. Each essay's viewpoint and methodology differ from one another but all are well written and contain sources and notes. This information, however, did not help much in analyzing the contradictions in the actions of the United States towards Tibet, but did show that there are at least a few Chinese scholars who support Tibetan autonomy.

Focusing more specifically on Tibet itself, John F. Avegon examines the social history of Tibet from the 1930's into the early 1990's in his work In Exile in the Land of Snows. Avegon tells this history of Tibet through the accounts of those who lived through the events of the Chinese Communist invasion. Great details into the friction caused by the invasion as well as the reaction of different Tibetans to the invasion precede the personal accounts of many rebel fighters, average citizens, and ex-prisoners of the Communist regime are all included in this work. Avedon, one of the leading historians on Tibet, shows his understanding of the Tibetan issue and the Untied States involvement with great prose, excellent notes, and an exhaustive bibliography of interviews, government documents, and hundreds of secondary sources; very helpful in proving my thesis.

Discussing the history of Tibet and its relationship with China for many centuries, Lee Feigon seeks to prove that Tibet has long been independent and autonomous from China in his work Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of Snows. He claims that the Chinese idea that Tibet has long been part of China not only is false but absurd. Through analyzing the relationships between China, Mongolia, and Tibet, Feigon discusses Tibetan history through a Marxist viewpoint with a few hints of military history.

A short anthology of essays concerning several mythologies and pedagogical interpretations of Tibet are found in Resistance and Reform in Tibet edited by Robert Barnett. These papers discuss economic, ideological, cultural, political, and diplomatic interpretations to the Tibetan resistance of Chinese Communism and the reforms forced upon the Tibetan people. Scholars from around the world, including several Tibetan and Chinese historians, all paint a very detailed picture of what has occurred in Tibet during the Chinese Communist rule. Each essay includes a bibliography as well as helpful notes.

Two excellent works on the history of modern Tibet, especially since the Chinese occupation, are Tome Grunfeld's The Making of Modern Tibet, and Tsering Shakya's Dragon in the Land of Snows. Grunfeld and Shakya both assert that too much propaganda has been added into the history of Tibet, for either the Tibet side or Chinese side. Each work examines Tibetan society, culture, and politics with a thorough discussion of the resistance movements against the Communist Chinese. Both texts base their research on hundreds of pages full of notes, interviews, government documents, journals, newspapers, and historical texts. Both works were invaluable as research tools for understanding the actions of the United States towards Tibet and the overall resistance movement.

The United States actions and involvement in Tibet are described in detail in Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison's The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. This work tries to lay out the situation of the Untied States and Central Intelligence Agency at the beginning of the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet and the reasons for America's covert support but official apathy. Conboy and Morrison talk greatly of the Tibetan rebels who were trained on United States soil, what type of training they obtained, and the fate of most of the CIA trained guerrillas. Though the text is very one sided towards the United States viewpoint, the information helps one to better understand the actions taken by the U.S. in Tibet.

John Kenneth Knaus, an ex-CIA officer and one of the men who trained the Tibetan rebels, provides a great summary of the United States involvement with Tibet during the first decade of the Chinese Communist occupation of Tibet in his article "Official Policies and Covert Programs: The U.S. State Department, the C.I.A., and the Tibetan Resistance." Though only a few pages in length, Knaus's article provides heaps of information regarding the covert operations of the C.I.A. in Tibet, the hesitancy of the State Department to officially support Tibetan independence. Written with social and political historiography, the article criticizes the actions of the United States. Knaus provides great notes and a lengthy bibliography.

Knaus's Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Independence places the ideas from his article into a complete and detailed text. Not only does his work expound the ideas from his article but it contains more personal accounts and historical background to his ideas. Discussing the history of America's relationship with Tibet, Knaus covers the "Great Game" of the early twentieth century, events preceding the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet, and the United States reaction to these actions. This work gives detailed accounts of the battles, skirmishes, training, and lives of the Tibetan guerrilla fighters. Accomplishing his goal of giving a detailed history of the long history of the U.S. government's involvement with Tibet, Knaus supplies excellent notes and an enormous bibliography.

Thomas Laird chronicles the experiences of the first CIA officers assigned to Tibet in his work, Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa. Using government documents, interviews, and newly released top secret files, Laird's account sheds light on the United States involvement in Tibet before Mao and his communist supporters took over China. Overall, Laird's research provided a great analysis of Cold War politics in Asia and a lot of information that I will use to show the United States faults in Tibet.

Discussing the actions of CIA trained Tibetan fighters a decade after the first atomic spies were sent into Lhasa, Roger McCarthy studies the actions of the Tibetan resistance fighters in his work, Tears of the Lotus: Accounts of Tibetan Resistance to the Chinese Invasion, 1950-1962. He himself assisting in the training of many rebels, McCarthy is quick to defend the actions of the United States and the effectiveness of the US trained rebels in Tibet. Some parts of McCarthy's work were helpful in describing the actions of those in charge of training the rebels as well as giving the orders to them once the rebels were back inside of Tibet. McCarthy uses interviews, personal experiences, and government documents as sources for his research.

On the other side of the political spectrum, James B. Roberts II's article, "The Secret War Over Tibet: A Story of Cold War Heroism  and Kennedy Administration Cowardice and Betrayal," does nothing but criticize the actions of the US government in Tibet. The article makes many claims about actions taken by US officials that lead to the deaths of thousands and thousands of Tibetan rebels and their families. The only problem with this article and information is there are no notes or bibliography; it could have been very useful if the claims were valid and documented.

The United States and Tibet, 1942-1974

"They pulled down on the rope, hoisting my arms up, wrenching them from their sockets. I screamed. I began to urinate uncontrollably and I could no longer hear anything beyond my own screaming and the thuds of the guards' fists landing on my body." [3] These words vividly portray the experiences and horrors of thousands of Tibetan monks, nuns, and citizens imprisoned by the Chinese Communist government beginning in 1949. Yet, by mid 1950, Tibet had been all but abandoned, not by the Chinese, who occupied it, but by the "free world." Owing to the complexities of Cold War politics and paranoia, Tibet became a symbol of the US Government's dualism. While paying lip service to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan loyalists, the United States never made a substantive diplomatic or military move to help Tibet fight off Chinese occupation. Analyzing this dichotomy as a Cold War phenomenon, this paper will show how the United States' involvement in Tibet served only to "bleed the Communist Chinese" while using Tibetans as "pawns" in its game of nuclear superiority over the Asian and Soviet continents.[4]

The United States took little notice of Tibet until Japanese forces invaded China during the Second World War. Washington considered China an ally and helped Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang Nationalist Government through supplying military ordnance to defend against the invading Japanese Army. The United States had an extremely difficult time providing supplies to the Nationalist forces because of the high altitude and uncharted terrain of South-western China and Tibet. Only one road connected South Asia to China, and in May 1942, the Japanese forces cut the route. Immediately, President Roosevelt approved an initial project into Tibet called FE-2.[5] The two OSS officers assigned the mission, Captain Ilya Tolstoy and Lt. Brooke Dolan II, were to "move across Tibet and make way to Chungking, China, observing attitudes of the people of Tibet; to seek allies and discover enemies; to locate strategic targets and survey the territory as a possible field for future activity."[6] After spending several months in "Land of Snows," the two men returned with a suggested layout of a new supply road and heaps of information regarding the people, culture, and land of Tibet.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS  later the Central Intelligence Agency) and US representatives in New Delhi, India, both wanted to keep a good relationship with China. They did not want to stray from US recognition of the Nationalist Government's declared sovereignty over Tibet.[7] In a telegram sent to the British Foreign Office in the fall of 1942, the State Department claimed that "Tibet must have autonomy under Chinese suzerainty."[8] Earlier that same year, Secretary of the State Cordell Hull said, "[The] US does not question Chinese claims of suzerainty over Tibet."[9] Over the next few decades, the ideology of Chinese suzerainty and Tibetan autonomy represented a thorn in the side of the United States that it could never remove, at least, not with Tibetan rights as a priority. The plans for a road through Tibet never solidified. The Japanese Army surrendered to American forces in August 1945, and the need for the road vanished. The United States, however, recognized the strategic importance of Tibet's location within the Asian continent.

America celebrated the end of the Second World War and the glory of its new invention - the atom bomb. Soon after the war ended, scientist discovered that igniting hydrogen in a precise environment would produce an explosion five-hundred times that of the atom bomb.[10] The genesis of the H-bomb forced many Americans to end their celebration and to ponder the reality that other countries, even the Communist Soviet Union, would soon learn to develop this catastrophic weapon.

Because of this paranoia, the United States Government focused its attention on the Soviet Union, sending countless intelligence officers around the world to monitor its nuclear activity and military strength. Washington felt that any action or threat of any kind against the United States came directly from the influence Communist Russia. Intelligence reports poured into Washington describing the atomic research of the Soviet Union. Communism became a by-word, an evil equal to the most awful deeds of Hitler, the most un-American ideology in the world. Fear and hatred of communism spread across America as rumors of Soviet infiltration consumed the lives of the population. These nightmares became a reality in the late 1940's when the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon. Though the Second World War had ended, a new war formed between the two most powerful nations in the world. The Cold War erupted, and with it the conspicuous gaze of McCarthy-ism, the threat of nuclear destruction, and the fear of the apocalypse.

America wanted to hold its place in the world as the only nuclear power. Intelligence programs developed and spies flew around the world to stop others from acquiring uranium, the key element in the atom bomb. Amid Cold War intelligence gathering, the State Department kept a close eye on the civil war in China. Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, led a revolution against Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party. Even though Chiang controlled the largest army of any Chinese ruler in history, Mao's forces quickly shattered the Nationalist's strongholds and took over parts of China. Most of the ordnance given to the Nationalist government by the United States during the World War Two fell into the control of the Communist regime. By 1948, nearly eighty-percent of the military paraphernalia provided by the US to the Nationalist Army was used against them by the Communist forces in the civil war.[11]

The State Department watched with amazement as the Nationalist Government deteriorated under the weight of Mao's regime. Officials in Washington did not believe Mao could accomplish such a feat without help, and they quickly asserted that the Soviet Union contributed to Mao's success. Washington's paranoia with Russia prevented them from giving credit to Mao's regime. The potency of Communism in China went ignored until its threat of expansion seemed inevitable.

Aware of the growing threat from the north, Tibet sought to increase its military to 100,000. It requested assistance from India and the United States to help supply the new soldiers. India accepted the request and gave small weapons and ammunition to the Tibetans. The US supported India's actions as it debated over what to do if the Communists were to take over China. Washington knew the Chinese Nationalists would fall soon and wanted to halt the spread of communism to the rest of Asia. After several suggestions from the U.S. ambassador to India to help the Tibetans, the State Department agreed to discuss the matter further.

Before the Communist victory in China, the State Department received suggestions that if Mao and the communists defeated the Nationalist Government, the United States should think about changing its policy towards Tibet, and should officially announce support for the autonomy of Tibet. Though many agreed with this suggestion, official recognition of Tibetan independence never happened. Washington felt that if it acted too strongly in support of Tibetan autonomy, China and Russia would retaliate through dropping nuclear weapons on American soil.

Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists surrendered to Mao Zedong's Communist regime in January 1949. Soon after, Mao declared his goal of "peacefully liberating Tibet" from imperialistic forces.[12] Two American spies were sent to Tibet after Mao's successful revolution to monitor the nuclear activity of the Soviet Union in China. The Chinese Communists discovered that two American intelligence officers were in Tibet and published this information in their national newspaper. Though the United States tried desperately to deny its involvement, millions of people around the world learned of the covert operation after a Tibetan guard killed one of the American spies. China later used this event as evidence of the imperialist forces corrupting Tibet. The United States never admitted to sending spies into Tibet and promised China that no U.S. intelligence agents went to Tibet before the Communist invasion.

When the Dalai Lama requested an audience for the Tibetan issue in the United Nations, the United States, along with Britain and India, encouraged the dismissal of the request. Soon thereafter, a Tibetan delegation sent to the United States by His Holiness to discuss the Chinese occupation and invasion of their country, received instruction not to come to America. Washington felt that any attempt to secure recognition for Tibet in the UN or the US would further agitate the Communist army giving them more reason to hasten their invasion. India wanted to keep a good relationship with the new Chinese government. Only a few years earlier had India obtained its independence from Britain and did not have the means to defend its borders against an attack.

Tibet's leaders were very confused about the dual aspect of the United States involvement. While denying a Tibetan delegation to visit America and helping to thwart any UN involvement, Washington supported the small arms assistance given to Tibet by India. Not discouraged by these contradictions, three Tibetan officials met with Ambassador Henderson in New Delhi on June 9, 1950.[13] They asked whether the US would give assistance to Tibet. A response from Washington came in August. It said that "if Tibet intended to resist communist aggression and needed help, the US government was prepared to assist in procuring material and would finance such aid."[14] Washington's replies to Tibet's requests were written on unofficial paper and never signed. Washington feared that formal documents might fall into PLA hands and cause harsh actions against Tibet or the United States. Though such talks and un-official communications took place in 1950, Tibet did not received supplies from the United States for several years.

Early in 1951, the United States signed a treaty with India that solidified US-Indian cooperation against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.[15] Both India and the US recognized the threat of Chinese Communism and the possibility that it could spread throughout the entire Asian continent. Later that year, Washington agreed to provide material and military assistance to Tibet, as long as it did not break Indian law. It also stated it would officially support Tibetan autonomy as long as the Tibetans realized that the American assistance and official support "depended on the physical and political conditions in Tibet."[16] Of course, the word choice in this reply gave the Washington ample amount of room to decide exactly when, where, and how US military and political involvement would take place.

All tactics concerning Tibet evaporated as the conflict on the Korean peninsula ignited. Washington's center of attention turned to stopping the North Korean advance, which seemed much more aggressive than the communist Chinese. Fearing another World War, the United States focused on defeating the North Korean army. With the help of American forces, the South Korean army pushed the North Koreans near the Chinese/North Korean border. Soon after, Mao accepted the North Korean request for help in fighting against the Americans.

Mao ordered a duel attack, sending troops to the Tibetan border and others to North Korea simultaneously. This tactic, he hoped, would shield the world from his invasion of Tibet. The 40,000 troops of the People's Liberation Army reached Tibet nearly the same time as thousands of others hit the front lines in North Korea. The PLA's attack in Tibet swept through the northeastern parts of Kham and Amdo. The little resistance put up by the poorly armed Tibetans seemed futile in the face of the gigantic numbers and superior weaponry of the Communists.

Hearing of the attack, the Dalai Lama sent a delegation to China to negotiate peace. The representatives send by him no authority to act in his name or for behalf of the Tibetan people. Yet, Mao announced the formal signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement in May 1951.[17] Under threats of personal torture and national war, members of the delegation signed the treaty with forged Tibetan emblems made by the Communist Government. Many of the seventeen points outlined in the article seemed very arbitrary and inconsistent. For example, the first point asserted that all Tibetan people shall unite under the Chinese Motherland and drive out the imperialist aggressive forces. Most Tibetans did not know what the Chinese meant by imperialist forces since fewer than ten foreigners had lived in Lhasa the past few decades. Other points laid out the Communist plans for the Tibetan government, so-called autonomy, education, military, and other matters of social and economic reform.

When Washington learned of the agreement, many lost hope in the possibility of an independent Tibet. Those who lacked the motivation to support Tibetan autonomy before the seventeen point agreement now gave strong resistance to any public statements or diplomatic actions in favor of Tibetan independence. A schism arose between the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency concerning the future affairs in Tibet. The State Department wanted the Dalai Lama to discuss issues with the Chinese while the CIA insisted on covert military operations. In the end, both sides won. Covert actions in Tibet became the responsibility of the CIA, supervised by the State Department.

Though many in Washington opposed official statements supporting Tibet, others told the CIA that "the United States Government believes Tibet should not be compelled [...] to accept violation of its autonomy," and that "Tibetan people should enjoy rights of self-determination commensurate with the autonomy Tibet has had for many years. This has consistently been the position of the United States" and therefore the US will "indicate publicly its understanding of the position of the Dalai Lama as head of autonomous Tibet."[18] The position of the United States had never been in favor of autonomy in Tibet nor had it been consistent. The public indication or recognition of the Dalai Lama as head of autonomous Tibet never happened, though the State Department later claimed it lived up to all aspects of the commitments it made with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan officials.

At first, as the PLA moved further into Tibet, the Chinese soldiers treated the citizens with kindness and charity. They would help farmers till the land, assist women in carrying water, and rebuild many houses and old buildings. The Communist army sought to pacify the population through its compassionate actions and willingness to help modernize Tibet. Soon, however, this charitable behavior ended. When the native Tibetans did not accept the communist culture as their own, the soldiers turned into vicious oppressors. They no longer helped Tibetans with their daily chores, but forced the people to provide enough provisions for the army. With the number of soldiers flooding into Tibet, the amount of supplies needed to sustain so many took its toll on the people. The price of food and other goods increased ten fold and a harsh famine spread through the country.

Soon after the Chinese invasion began, hundreds of Tibetans rushed to inform the Dalai Lama of the atrocities committed by the invading army. Helpless people tortured to death, monks and nuns ordered to copulate in public, children forced to shoot their parents, countless monasteries destroyed, entire villages burned to the ground.[19] Daily accounts from fleeing Tibetans brought similar stories to His Holiness. With the Chinese Army rapidly approaching the capital city, the Dalai Lama's cabinet and officials suggested he flee to a safer location near the Indian border. On December 19, 1950, he left the Potala Palace and headed towards the Indian border. Accompanying him were forty nobles and two hundred of his body guards.[20]

Taking advantage of the situation, the CIA sent letters to the Dalai Lama encouraging him to disavow the seventeen point agreement and send a new appeal the United Nations, both actions Washington would officially support.[21] The letters also suggested that he seek asylum in India, Thailand, or Ceylon where he would "be able to organize resistance to the Chinese Communists." Further, the letters outlined that if the Dalai Lama would leave Tibet and organize a resistance to the Communists, the United States would "send...light arms through India, and discuss "plans and programmes of military assistance and loans of money with [his] representatives." These offers contained in the letters were surrounded by very ambiguous statements concerning the if's, and's, and but's of the US aid. Despite the vagueness of the CIA's communication with His Holiness, he expressed interest in US assistance through his representatives in India. Though he returned to Lhasa in 1952, the Dalai Lama wanted assistance from the CIA to halt the Chinese occupation.

During the first few years of the Chinese occupation, several groups comprised of Khampas, Amdoas and Goloks, had formed armed resistance groups, using the small ordnance provided by India. Though their attacks against the PLA did little to stop the advance of the communists, the intensity of the guerrilla's resistance increased dramatically as the population grew consistently upset towards their oppressors. The CIA sought to harness this resistance, and prepared plans for covert operations with the Tibetan rebels. These programs fit perfectly into the Joint Chiefs of Staff's (JCS) "recommended...military buildup to support the policy of containing Communism, plus propaganda, psychological warfare, and special operations against Kremlin-dominated communism everywhere."[22]

The CIA began to initiate secret programs in Tibet in 1956. Their first mission involved training six Tibetan rebels at a military base at Camp Hale, Colorado, then dropping them back into Tibet to lead the resistance against the PLA. Six rebels were chosen from the thousands of fighters, smuggled out of Tibet, escorted to American military bases in South Asia, and flown to Camp Hale in the fall of 1956. The CIA chose Camp Hale because the conditions at the top of the Colorado Rockies paralleled the climate of Tibet, with the high altitude and cooler temperatures.

The six Tibetans received instructions on guerrilla tactics, basic radio operations, weaponry, explosives, English, and parachuting. After training ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week, the CIA prepared to air-drop the six men back into Tibet in the spring of 1957. Their mission involved intelligence gathering only. Washington wanted to see how the Tibetans used their training before sending them to confront the PLA. Because of complications with the flight patterns, the drop did not occur until September. The six were divided into two groups of three. The first group parachuted into Tibet shortly before the second group flew over the next destination. Little resulted from the first missions into Tibet other than proof that the trained rebels could send radio transmissions back to the CIA in India; subsequent missions, with few exceptions, had the same fate.

From 1957 to 1961, ten teams of resistance fighters, comprising over one-hundred men, were trained on US soil and flown back into Tibet. On one successful mission,a group of Tibetan rebels ambushed a Communists convoy along the newly constructed highway connecting Lhasa and Peking. The fighters killed the PLA soldiers and captured a leather bag full of top secret documents.[23] These documents outlined the many weaknesses in the PLA's positions around Tibet, describing the lack of moral, supplies, and effective leadership in its army. Though this information proved helpful to boost moral among the fighters, the rebels were unable to take advantage of such knowledge or weakness in the PLA.

One reason for the rebels' lack of success came from the traditional Tibetan way of fighting. Soldiers and warriors brought along their families and herds to battle. The PLA easily spotted rebel forces because they fought in large numbers and rarely broke mass. Most of the CIA trained Tibetan rebels died shortly after returning to Tibet. Groups of fighters were easily slaughtered by the superior weapons of the Communist Army, and, in one instance, a group of rebels parachuted into a PLA encampment.

Though poor tactics of resistance groups led to many deaths, another key element contributed to their lack of success. Along with the training given to those fighters flown to the United States, the CIA dropped supplies for the fighters. Included in the drops were weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, money, and other supplies. Between 1958 and 1965, the US ordered twelve supply drops, most consisting of several plane loads of cargo. Many of the drops missed their designated targets and spread over several square miles. Some of them landed so close to PLA encampments the contents were never recovered. The Chinese Army became increasingly sufficient at locating the dropped supplies before the rebels could unload all the contents. The supplies themselves were very insufficient. Though there were at least a few hundred rebels in each group and several thousand in others, the CIA dropped enough supplies to arm less than a fourth of the available fighters.[24] The CIA did not want captured supplies traced to the United States, so the weapons and ammunition given to the Tibetans were old World War One Russian and German rifles that rarely shot accurately when they were new, let alone a half-century later. When skirmishes occurred, the resistance fighters quickly exhausted all their ammunition, leaving them helpless as the PLA surrounded their position. Thousands died in such massacres.

The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa again in 1959, as tensions between the Communists and the Tibetan people climaxed. Several CIA trained rebels assisted His Holiness on his flight to India.[25] A few days after his escape, the PLA launched mortars and open fire on a massive gathering of nearly 80,000 Tibetans. Varied accounts suggest that forty to fifty thousand civilians died in this attack.[26] After this event, US diplomats publicly discussed the idea of Tibetan self-determination.

Secretary of State Christian Herter proclaimed in November 1959, "It is the belief of the U.S. Government that Tibet...should have their voice in their own political destiny."[27] Two years later, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote in a letter to the Dalai Lama that, "the principle of self-determination should apply to the people of Tibet."[28] The term should became increasingly important as time passed and the United States' attention, once again, turned to other issues  this time, to the Vietnam conflict.

As Washington's involvement in Vietnam deepened in the early 1960's, the CIA admitted that its guerrilla support programs were "not especially productive."[29] These feelings came with the Chinese discovery of the covert assistance given to the Tibetans through the US Government, and the increased number of men and supplies needed to meet the demands of the military in South-East Asia. Programs covering objectives in Vietnam soon took precedence over the funding for the Tibetan resistance fighters.

Washington began to cut funds and supplies for the Tibetan rebels as the potential economic opportunities and profits from China became apparent. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon began to establish a warm relationship with Mao and his regime. Both visited China, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, to discuss Sino-US relations. Before Mao would discuss any improvements in the relationship, he asked that the US funding for Tibetan resistance fighters end immediately. It did. In early 1973, Kissinger told Nixon that "in plain terms we have become tacit allies with Mao."[30]

By the beginning of 1974 all US support and funding for Tibetan resistance fighters had stopped completely. Most of the Tibetan rebels felt betrayed at the actions of the United States. They did not understand how after giving decades of their lives serving and obeying US orders, the United States would turn around and support the Communist Chinese government.

From the onset of US-Tibetan relations during the Second World War, the Untied States only sought opportunities to protect its own interests and investments. When Communist China invaded Tibet, the US took action only to pester the Communists with small rebel activities that inflicted little damage and did nothing to further the Tibetans desires of autonomy. Though the CIA covertly assisted the rebels in their fight, diplomatically, the United States only sought to secure its stronghold on nuclear domination and did nothing to back its covert actions in Tibet. No public statement issued by the United States ever declared support for Tibetan autonomy. In fact, in 1978, the US Government stated "unequivocally for the first time that Tibet was a part" of the People's Republic of China, without mentioning the autonomy-suzerainty link.[31] Even after witnessing substantial evidence of the human atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Army in Tibet, it took the United States and other world powers a decade to raise support in the UN for the Tibetan cause. But little was done to stop these actions, many still occurring today. America remains the biggest importer of Chinese goods in the world.

Works Consulted

Primary Sources:

Agreement of the Central People's Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, May 23, 1951. Union Research Institute. Tibet, 1950-1967. Document 6, Hong Kong, 1968, 19-23.

Andrugtsang, Gomp Tashi. Four Rivers, Six Ranges: Reminiscences of the Resistance Movement in Tibet. Dharamsala, India: Information and Publicity Office of H.H. The Dalai Lama, 1973.

Dalai Lama, The Fourteenth. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.

--------. My Land and My People. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949-1974. Washington, D.C., USGPO.

Gyatso, Palden. Fire Under the Snow. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.

Kau, Michael Y. and John K. Leung, Eds. The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976. Vol. 1-2. New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1986.

Letter from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ministry of External Affairs Report 1953-1954, Delhi, Government of India, 1953-1954, 51-52. New York Times. 1950-1974.

Norbu, Jamyang. Warriors of Tibet: The Story of Aten and the Khampas Fight for the Freedom of Their Country. London: Wisdom Publications, 1986.

Pachen, Ani and Adelaide Donnelley. Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun. New York: Kodansha International, 2000.

Review of Tibetan Operations. CIA Memorandum, Washington, April 25, 1959, Eisenhower Library, Abiliene, Kansas, Whitman File, Intelligence Matters, 9.

Tsering, Tashi, Melvyn Goldstein and William Siebenschuh. The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

Zinner, Paul E., ed. Documents of American Foreign Relations. 1949-1962. Council for Foreign Relations. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Secondary Sources:

Ali, S. Mahmud. Cold War in the High Himalayas: The USA, China and South Asia in the 1950's. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Avedon, John F. In Exile from the Land of Snows. New York: Alfred A. Knof, 1984.

Barnet, A. Doak. Communist China and Asia. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1960.

Barnett, Robert ed. Resistance and Reform in Tibet. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Changching, Cao and James D. Seymour, Eds. Tibet Through Dissident Chinese Eyes: Essays on Self Determination. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Clubb, Edmond O. 20th Century China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

Conboy, Kenneth and James Morrison. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002.

Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet: Unlocking the Secrets of the Land of the Snows. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

Grunfeld, A. Tom. The Making of Modern Tibet. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Fowcett Columbine, 1993.

Jian, Chen. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Knaus, John Kenneth. "Official Policies and Covert Programs: The US State Department, the CIA, and the Tibetan resistance." Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2003), 54-79.

--------. Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. New York: Public Affairs, 1999.

Laird, Thomas. Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa. New York: Grove Press, 2002.

McCarthy, Roger E. Tears of the Lotus: Accounts of Tibetan Resistance to the Chinese Invasion, 1950-1962. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 1997.

Norbu, Dawa. China's Tibet Policy. Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001.

Roberts II, James B. "The Secret War Over Tibet: A Story of Cold War Heroism and

Kennedy Administration Cowardice and Betrayal." The American Spectator, Vol. 30, No. 12 (1997), 30-36.

Sangay, Lobsang. "Tibet: Exile's Journey." Journal of Democracy 14:3 (2003) 119-130.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern TibetSince 1947. New York: Penguin Compass, 2000.

Short, Philip. Mao: A Life. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.

Snow, Edgar. Red China Today. New York: Random House, 1970.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Norton, 1959.

Xu, Guangqui. "The United States and the Tibet Issue." Asian Survey, Vol. 37, No. 11 (Nov., 1997), 1062-1077.


[1] John F. Avedon. In Exile From the Land of Snows. (New York: Alfred A. Knof, 1984), 3.

[2] Lee Feigon. Demystifying Tibet. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996), 145.

[3] Palden Gyatso. Fire Under the Snow. (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 180. A monk imprisoned for 33 years for hanging posters supporting Tibetan independence, Palden frequently endured such tortures during his captivity.

[4] Muhmud S. Ali. Cold War in the High Himalayas: The USA, China and South Asia in the 1950's. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999), xxxiv.

[5] John Kenneth Knaus. Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. (New York: Grove Press, 2002), 5.

[6] Ibid., 6

[7] Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison. The CIA's Secret War in Tibet. (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2002), 7.

[8] Dawa Norbu. China's Tibet Policy. (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), 280.

[9] Ibid.

[10] David Halberstam. The Fifties. (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), 30.

[11] John Kenneth Knaus. "Official Policies and Covert Programs: The US State Department, the CIA, and the Tibetan Resistance." Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2003), 62.

[12] John Kenneth Knaus. Orphans, 53.

[13] Tsering Shakya. The Dragon in the Land of Snows. (New York: Penguin Compass, 2000), 21.

[14] Ibid, 22.

[15] Cold War in the High Himalayas, 25.

[16] Foreign Relations of the United States Vol. 2, No. 2 (1951) pp.1748-1749.

[17] Agreement of the Central People's Government, 20.

[18] Orphans, 94.

[19] John F. Avedon. In Exile From the Land of Snows. (New York: Alfred A. Knof, 1984), 54.

[20] A. Tom Grunfeld. The Making of Modern Tibet. (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1996), 108.

[21] Foreign Relations of the United States 1951, Vol. VII, Part II, Washington D.C., USGPO, 1984, 1745.

[22] "Official Policies," 58.

[23] Dragon, 201.

[24] In Exile, 204.

[25] Demystifying Tibet, 167.

[26] Ibid, 168; Orphans, 148.

[27] Guangqiu Xu. "The United States and the Tibetan Issue." Asian Survey, Vol. 37, No. 11, (Nov., 1997), 1065.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Orphans, 309.

[31] The United States and the Tibet Issue, 1066.