Starting in the 1950s, the United States, through the Central Intelligence Agency, began a nearly two decade long program of support (weapons, training, and money) for the Tibetan guerillas battling against the Chinese government. Though individual CIA agents did come to care about the cause and like and admire the men they were working with, the program, itself, was fully politically motivated and its goal was not intended to lead to Tibetan independence.
Postwar politics and China
Though this is about Tibet, it is also about the two "superpowers," China and the US. It was China and its communist government that was the real concern that prompted the aid.
During the second world war, the Communists, the Nationalists, and the allies (primarily the US) worked together to defeat the Japanese. The communists shared intelligence about troop movement and locations with the allies. On numerous occasions, American airmen that had been shot down were rescued, cared for, and promptly returned. This spirit of cooperation, however, ended with the Japanese surrender.
Shortly after the surrender, both the Nationalists and Communists moved to occupy territory that had been held by the Japanese. The US chose to back the Nationalists all the way. President Harry S. Truman, concerned that the Communists would take over the country, allowed Japanese soldiersthe defeated enemyto be used to guard areas until the US could airlift Nationalist troops to some areas. In his own words from his memoirs:
It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists. We therefore had to take the unusual step of using the enemy as a garrison....
It wasn't long before US marines were also dispatched to China. Early on, 50,000 (by 1946, over 100,000) were sent in to guard various sites of strategic importance and to help the Nationalist troops as the civil war was reigniting.
US soldiers did get involved with some of the fighting and there were casualties. Americans flew many reconnaissance missions over Communist areas (the Chinese claimed this including strafing by machine gun). A few were shot down. As during the war, these men were returned unmolested. The official story explaining why US troops were still there was given as the need to disarm the Japanese and repatriate them (which eventually was done), but it was really secondary. Not until 1947two years after the war was overthat troops started to be pulled out.
Massive support for the Nationalist army continued. The Flying Tigers squadron (renamed Civil Air Transport, or CAT, it later became the CIA's notorious Air America) was used to bring arms, ammunition, and supplies to Nationalist forces under siege and to aid wounded. By 1949, the Nationalists had received nearly $2 billion in money and $1 billion in military hardware. This was not enough to stop the Communists from gaining control of China (it was a popular movement, regardless of what happened after they came to power).
The US continued to support the Nationalists despite them having little popular backing, largely due to corruption, cruelty, and "decadence." There were even defections over to the Communists. The Nationalists planned to escape to Taiwan and regroup (a place where they massacred thousands a couple years earlier). Policy changed: Taiwan was not a part of China, it was China.
In the early 1950s, the CIA armed and trained Nationalists that had escaped to Burma (now Myanmar) and supported them while they made small incursions over the border. Airstrips were built, CAT continued to aid them and give support.1 They also launched attacks from offshore islands.
The US airdropped small units into China, as well, getting a number of planes shot down in the process and the airmen captured. In 1952, two CIA men were shot down and captured. The US claimed they did not know how they were captured and claimed that they were "civilian employees of the US Department of the Army in Japan who were presumed lost on a flight from Korea to Japan." It was also used for propaganda purposes, to "prove" the "Chinese regime's disregard for accepted practices of international conduct" (Blum, second quoted from the State Department). One was held until 1971, just before President Richard M. Nixon's visit to China. The second was released in 1973 after Nixon admitted he was a CIA officer.
The US plan was to maintain a level of attacks that would undermine support for the Communist government and create instability that would eventually topple it. Which brings us to Tibet.
Over the centuries, Tibet has held a sort of loose autonomy (to varying degrees), largely under some form of Chinese sovereignty or close partnership. In the twentieth century, the common international view was that it was part of China (with or without limited autonomy), regardless that most Tibetans felt they were independent. It was certainly considered part of China by the various governments (including the Nationalist government that the US supported). Holding the same view, in 1943, the US made its position clear:
The Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these two claims.
To further show the government's attitude, in 1942, then OSS (later Director of the CIA) chief William Donovan went on a mission to Tibet in consideration of using it as a means via which to help supply forces engaged in the war. It didn't pan out but the men were well-received and spent extra time there. Donovan sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter of appreciation from the Tibetan Kashag (their "Cabinet"). To this, FDR replied:
Thank you for sending me the letter from the Kashag. I never met a Kashag. I never want to see one. But this I know, and know full well, I would rather see than be one.
My best wishes to you,
As ever yours,
[signed] Franklin D. Roosevelt
[at the bottom of the letter he added] I find that Kashag is a Cabinet. The Above remarks still hold.
It shouldn't be difficult to guess what caused the change in attitude by the US government. It was the 1949 invasion of Tibet by the Communist Chinese army. Suddenly (at least by the following year) things changed for the Americans. A letter sent to the British Embassy from the State Department in 1950 reads:
The United States, which was one of the early supporters of the principle of self-determination of peoples, believes that the Tibetan people has the same inherent right as any other to have the determining voice in its political destiny. It is believed further that, should developments warrant, consideration could be given to recognition as an independent state.
While it is common in such "statements" and is certainly believed by the average American citizen and, perhaps, a great number of people in the government, the actions of the United States through its foreign policy suggest otherwiseas in the case of Guatemala four years later when the US decided that the nation and its people did not have a "determining voice" in choosing their "political destiny" (which at the time had been a successful and popular Democracyexcept to the elites and foreign corporations, particularly the US United Fruit Company).
And while there certainly was belief that Tibet may deserve to choose its "political destiny," the statement, policy, and later action were determined by the anticommunist agenda of the US and its desire to destabilize China. Also recall that 1950 saw the beginning of the Korean War, leading to the fear of Communist expansion in Asia (and by the dreaded Domino theory: everywhere). Supporting Tibet was a way to accomplish this objective (one should bear in mind that there was almost a continual effort at this, largely using the CIA, throughout the period, using other groups).
At the time of the initial invasion, the two other countries that might have shown the most interest (Britain and India) seemed to be somewhat indifferent as far as condemning the action. But with the specter of Communism looming and other Cold War fears shaping foreign policy, the US was prepared to intervenethough somewhat weakly at first.
By spring 1951, Chinese troops had occupied most of Tibet. Those in the Tibetan administration made attempts to negotiate with the Chinese government, which ended in signing a "17 Point Agreement" in May, which gave the army (the People's Liberation Army or PLA) precedence over any Tibetan forces which were to be assimilated into Chinese "national defense forces" as well as having to "assist in the purchases and transportation of food, fodder and other daily necessities" among other support (including providing funds). It allowed a certain autonomy under Chinese governance but all matters of "external affairs" would be handled by China. The agreement also called for agricultural reform and promised to allow religious autonomy.
But Tibet also had to capitulate to being one of the "nationalities" within the "big family of the People's Republic of China." In some ways, this was not entirely different from some of the arrangements of the past, though China went further than the agreement claimed (and reneged on most of the promises). The agricultural reforms were dreadful, leading to food shortages, and there wasn't as much autonomy over internal affairs as promised. Also, there was a good deal less freedom of religion as suggested by the document. Something that would become worse as the years went by.2
The Dalai Lama (who, one should point out, is the spiritual leader of the sect of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, not some kind of "Pope" over the religion) fled to the South where the PLA had not completely occupied the land. The US tried to get him to go into exile, where it could announce him to be the legitimate leader of an independent Tibet. He would also be well funded (evidence shows that he was more than a little wealthy and when he finally went into exile, much of the riches came with him). It also promised United Nations backing. He chose to return to the capital (Lhasa).
As China began imposing "reforms" and other things on Tibet (which apparently included repressing and even killing dissenters), there grew a movement for resisting the invaders. Refugees began to move to the capital and monasteries were destroyed (probably not the large number that is usually cited) and troops consolidated territory and rule. In 1956, while the Tibetan government maintained ties with Beijing, Gompo Tashi Andrugtsag (a well-respected patriarch), with the help of an emigre group from Indiaone member was the Dalai Lama's older brother, Gyalo Thondup, who long with another brother, had already been in contact with the CIAbegan to organize a group of guerillas intent on ousting the invading army. This was the beginning of what would later be called Operation ST Circus.
In 1957, six men were chosen to be trained and then reinserted into Tibetan territory. They were taken to Saipan where they spent several months training with a former US marine in a number of areas, including covert activity (weapons, espionage, explosives) and radio operation. When they finished, they were flown to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Using B-17 bombers and old British maps of the country, there was a parachute drop into Tibet with the hope that the men could reach the capital, link up with Gompo, and possibly meet with the Dalai Lama.
Two of the men were able to get through a signal to the US and meet up with Gompo (but not the Dalai Lama). Of the other four, one (who actually went overland rather then airdrop) was killed before he could link up with anyone, and the other three managed to connect with a guerilla group. The group came under heavy attack by the Chinese and the two were killed. The radio operators went south where a large number of the resistance were gathering. In a short while (July 1958), the US/CIA would begin supplying arms and materiel (the first drop was a number of old rifles that were untracable to the US). The resistance had some success, but independence was far away.
The same year, another six man group was trainedthis time in Virginia. After that, the CIA set up a training camp located at Camp Hale in Colorado, previously used as the headquarters of the 10th Mountain Division. Being in the Rocky Mountains, they were able to approximate many of the conditions in Tibet (enough for the purposes of training). In order to establish a cover, information that the base was to be used for atomic testing, thus necessitating high security, was given to the local media. They maintained the story until the base closed in 1964, having kept the area sealed off and patrolled by Military Police throughout.
To show the lengths that were gone to keep the operation a secret, one can look at an incident from 1961, when a group of Tibetans, who were supposed to arrive at a small Colorado Springs airport under cover of darkness, landed during the day. To avoid any information getting out, soldiers in jeeps were rushed to the scene and locked down the area, keeping all the employees (civilians) in their offices at gunpoint. The Tibetans were then transferred to an unmarked aircraft.
Employees related stories of being lined up and told to swear not to speak of what they had seen. They were also apparently threatened with legal consequences: "the army officer had a book with him and he read the law to us. He was telling us what would happen to us if we talked about it. He said we were under the highest security in the world" (www.naatanet.org). The local paper ran an article the next day and when a New York Times reporter called the Pentagon for information on the story, it was "killed" at the request of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera.
It is also interesting because according to the CIA charter and the usual interpretation of it by Congress, the CIA was supposedly limited to only collection of intelligence in domestic mattersactively training insurgents would be outside of the scope of its operations. Not that it ever really stopped the Agency before or since.
During that period, well over 200 Tibetans were secretly trained by the US.
The final decade
Meanwhile, it was 1959 and China was increasing its military presence in Tibet and forces were moving on the capital. A rumor (apparently true) circulated that the Chinese had invited the Dalai Lama to a theatrical performance at their military headquarters. The condition was that he show up without any bodyguards. That, of course, caused the fear that he was going to be kidnapped or worse, resulting in reportedly thousands of Tibetans gathering and surrounding his summer palace (partly as protection, largely to keep him from attending). It became clear to him that he would have to flee the country. He escaped, aided by the resistance.
With the escape of the Dalai Lama, China increased retaliatory response to any dissent and hammered at the resistance. The CIA, in turn, increased support for them, particularly those who had regrouped and were operating out of Nepal. More drops of supplies were made and there were either four or eight different groups of trained Tibetans parachuted into Tibet between 1957 and 1961. Despite training, weapons, and aid, the guerilla resistance was failing in its mission (one for which there was no real expectation of success from the US/CIA standpoint).
Most of the men sent in ended up being killed (a number of the trained Tibetans committed suicide with pills supplied by the CIAmost likely to keep its involvement a secret rather than concern about guerillas giving up strategic information about the resistance). But aid continued and the resistance fought on. By 1961, a secret base was built (completely financed by the CIA) in Nepal where some 2000 soldiers were trained and housed like a "real" army. Former Camp Hale trainees ran things.
And funding was no problem. According to the CIA chief of operations for China, there was "no...opposition to whatever the CIA proposed in support of the resistance" (www.tibet.ca, ellipsis in source). The guerillas continued attacking targets and convoys of trucks and engaging in combat with Chinese troops, regardless of the odds. But things were beginning to change. US foreign policy in regard to the whole situation was taking another turnone which was leading to a cutoff of support and requests to cease the attacks from Nepal.
All along the Tibetans were led to believe that they were fighting for their independence, the implication being that it might be possible. Gyalo Thondup said of the pullout: "The Americans had given me verbal assurances stating that if the Dalai Lama came to India, they would support Tibet's struggle for independence until Tibet regained independence." But another agent for the CIA (Sam Halpern) put the US agenda in focus:
I think basically the whole idea was to keep the Chinese occupied somehow...keep them annoyed...keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet, that's pretty clear. I would think that from the American point of view it wasn't going to cost us very much, either money or manpower. Anyway it wasn't our manpower involved, it was the Tibetan manpower, and we would be willing to help the Tibetans become a running sore and a nuisance to the Chinese.
Yet the resistance had only themselves and the CIA to depend on, making any possibility for success tied to that support. Sadly, even without it, they would probably have still tried, leading to them being wiped out. (As it was, the resistance, when it finally surrendered, was in poor shape).
Administration support was beginning to wane. John Kenneth Galbraith, Ambassador to India (appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1960) was particularly critical of the operation, taking an "instant dislike" for the "particularly insane enterprise" supporting the "dissident and unhygienic tribesmen" (www.tibet.ca). The final arms drop came in 1965. By then, they had been told to stop the incursions and stick to intelligence gathering. Support had already been cut back by 1968 and the guerillas were told the funding would be cut off (there would be some funding over a three year period to allow the resistance to regroup and relocate).
The main reason was that US-China relations were warming up. President Nixon's opening up of dialogue and the later visit made ties with the guerillas no longer practical (by the time of the visit, ties had been severed). While the whole Tibet operation had once been a part of the policy of isolation, containment, and destabilization, new policy required more "diplomatic" routes. What may have been the CIA's longest running operation was over.
In the words of Roger McCarthy, who helped set up the operation:
Unfortunately our history as a government has more sad stories and sad endings than it does have good stories with good endings. Generally speaking, I think the Agency looks at Tibet as having been one of the best operations that it has run. Well that's fine, that's very complementary, but however, look at the final results. That's a very sad commentary. If we look at what we did to Tibet as about the best that we could do, then I say that we have failed...miserably
The end of armed resistance
The resistance refused to give up even after being cut off from US supportthey had also ignore the request to cease and desist raids over the border. Most offensive actions had to be halted while the guerillas tried to regroup. Without much aid (there was a small amount from India, where the operation had been run in the later stageswith some help from Indian Intelligence), it was yet another losing proposition. Nepal, then allied with China to some extent and tired of having the forces based on its soil, sent troops in to make them surrender.
They chose to fight it out and prepared to battle the Nepalese. Before conflict broke out, an emissary of the Dalai Lama contacted them and brought an audio tape of the spiritual leader asking them to surrender, rather than continue the fighting and bloodshed. According to one of the men, "...when we heard his message, I swear, some of the men even cried. Everyone heard the message with their own ears so we had no choice but to give up. Then we turned in our weapons...all day and all night" (www.naatanet.org).
Reportedly, a few of the men threw themselves into the river and drowned and one of the leaders slit his own throat rather than give up the cause.
The battle for independence was over. If Tibet was to become an autonomous nation, it would have to be done another way. Unfortunately, the US was more concerned with improving relations with China. President Jimmy Carter was hesitant to allow the Dalai Lama into the US, lest it upset those relations by angering China. In 1978, the administration went so far as to accede that Tibet was, indeed, a part of the People's Republic of China. Since then, there has been little progress.
1The Nationalists also fought with the Burmese army, as they were not wanted in the country. This went on until 1961, when Burma asked Communist China to jointly attack the unwanted Nationalists and drive them out.
2It should be noted, though the subject deserves its own piece, that contrary to the commonly held ideas propagated by some Tibetans, some in the Free Tibet movement, and the Dalai Lama, pre-invasion Tibet was not the Shangri-la paradise that people have been led to think. Many of the population lived as serfs under the feudal control of the monks (who could claim one's children if they chose), harsh punishments were often inflicted (though Buddhism proscribes killing, many were injured until the point of death and then left to die on their own). There was involuntary servitude, people were excessively poor, and nutrition was often inadequateall while the monks lived in ornamental monasteries and were wealthy. There are even some who actually said many conditions of life improved (at least initially) under the Chinese. Of course, this is not to make an apologetic for China and its harsh and wrong policies and actions in respect to Tibet (they have been correctly cited for numerous civil and human rights violations), but to shed some light on the myth of Tibet that is usually accepted without examination.
(Sources: www.naatanet.org/shadowcircus, www.tibet.ca/wtnarchive/1999/7/8_2.html original article from the Boston Globe, www.asiamedia.ucla/Deadline/MacKinnon/TibetQuestion/articles/Xu.htm, William Blum Killing Hope: US military and CIA interventions since World War II 1995 rev. ed., a large number of sites on the history of Tibet, quotations from the "17 Point Agreement" from www.tibetinfo.net/publications/docs/spa.htm