Something for the reading lists of students of Unconventional Warfare.
Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War
Lhamo Tsering Collection
Resistance fighters on the Tibetan border during the early years of the CIA's Tibet program
For much of the past century, US relations with Tibet have been characterized by kowtowing to the Chinese and hollow good wishes for the Dalai Lama. As early as 1908, William Rockhill, a US diplomat, advised the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that “close and friendly relations with China are absolutely necessary, for Tibet is and must remain a portion of the Ta Ts’ing [Manchu] Empire for its own good.” Not much has changed with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama one hundred years later. After a meeting in 2011 with President Obama in the White House Map Room—the Oval Office being too official—the Dalai Lama was ushered out the back door, past the garbage cans. All this, of course, is intended to avoid condemnation from Beijing, which regards even the mildest criticism of its Tibet policy as “interference.”
However there was one dramatic departure from the minimalist approach. For nearly two decades after the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet, the CIA ran a covert operation designed to train Tibetan insurgents and gather intelligence about the Chinese, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of communism around the world. Though little known today, the program produced at least one spectacular intelligence coup and provided a source of support for the Dalai Lama. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 meeting with Mao, the program was abruptly cancelled, thus returning the US to its traditional arms-length policy toward Tibet. But this did not end the long legacy of mistrust that continues to color Chinese-American relations. Not only was the Chinese government aware of the CIA program; in 1992 it published a white paper on the subject. The paper included information drawn from reliable Western sources about the agency’s activities, but laid the primary blame for the insurgency on the “Dalai Lama clique,” a phrase Beijing still uses today.
The insurgency began after the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet following its defeat of the Nationalists, and after Beijing forced the Dalai Lama’s government to recognize Chinese administration over the region. In 1955, a group of local Tibetan leaders secretly plotted an armed uprising, and rebellion broke out a year later, with the rebels besieging local government institutions and killing hundreds of government staff as well as Han Chinese people. In May 1957, a rebel organization and a rebel fighting force were founded, and began killing communist officials, disrupting communication lines, and attacking institutions and Chinese army troops stationed in the region.
By that point, the rebellion had gained American backing. In the early 1950s, the CIA began to explore ways to aid the Tibetans as part of its growing campaign to contain Communist China. By the second half of the decade, “Project Circus” had been formally launched, Tibetan resistance fighters were being flown abroad for training, and weapons and ammunition were being airdropped at strategic locations inside Tibet. In 1959, the agency opened a secret facility to train Tibetan recruits at Camp Hale near Leadville, Colorado, partly because the location, more than 10,000 feet above sea level, might approximate the terrain of the Himalayas. According to one account, some 170 “Kamba guerrillas” passed through the Colorado program.
While the CIA effort never produced a mass uprising against the Chinese occupiers, it did provide one of the greatest intelligence successes of the Cold War, in the form of a vast trove of Chinese army documents captured by Tibetan fighters and turned over to the CIA in 1961. These revealed the loss of morale among Chinese soldiers, who had learned of the vast famine that was wracking China during The Great Leap Forward. Over the next decade, however, there was growing disagreement in Washington over the CIA’s activities in Tibet, and in 1971, as Henry Kissinger prepared for Nixon’s meeting with Mao, the program was wound down.
“Although Tibet may not have been on the table in the Beijing talks, the era of official US support for the Tibetan cause was over,” recalled John Kenneth Knaus, a forty-year CIA veteran, in his 1999 book Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival. “There was no role for Tibet in Kissinger’s new equation.” By 1975, President Gerald Ford was able to say to a skeptical Deng Xiaoping, China’s future leader, “Let me assure you, Mr. Vice-Premier, that we oppose and do not support any [United States] governmental action as far as Tibet is concerned.”
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