The CIA in Tibet, 1957 -1969.
By Patrick Anders
In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) invaded Tibet. The People’s Republic of China (written as China for simplicity) took control of Tibet, but the Tibetan government remained largely autonomous and could preserve traditional Tibetan socio-economic systems.[i] In 1956, China instituted land reforms and began dismantling monasteries, severely limiting Tibetan self-governance.[ii] A rebellion led to the formation of the militia Chushi Gangdruk, which fought against the PLA.[iii] Upon learning of the insurgency, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) decided to support the Tibetan resistance.[iv] This support arose in the context of American foreign policy during the Cold War seeking to contain communism, oftentimes through CIA covert operations. Aiding Tibetans in their fight against communist China fit into this strategy.[v]
The CIA Tibet program lasted from 1957 to 1969 and consisted of supplying and training Tibetans to disrupt Chinese activities, aiding Tibetans in broadcasting their struggle to the world, and undertaking related operations.[vi] The program's goals were to (1) prevent the spread of communism, (2) to collect intelligence on Chinese strategic planning, and (3) to keep the spirit of an independent Tibet alive.[vii] This essay assesses whether and to what extent the CIA program achieved its goals.
The first component of the program was supporting military actions against Chinese forces in Tibet to prevent the spread of communism. In 1957, the CIA selected eight Tibetans to be trained at a base on Saipan.[viii] Five of them were parachuted into Tibet to gather information about the size of the resistance movement. After contacting resistance leaders, the agents reported that there would be resistance irrespective of CIA involvement. This was a key factor in the ensuing CIA decision to provide support, as the CIA did not want to appear as the driving force behind Tibetan efforts.[ix] In 1958, the CIA made two supply drops to the resistance headquarters. They contained 403 bolt-action Lee Enfield rifles, twenty machine guns, and 26,000 rounds of ammunition.[x] 28 more drops followed in the next three years.[xi] Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s brother and liaison between the CIA and the resistance, believes these drops were not impactful. He argues they “did not make an appreciable difference to the outcome of the resistance” because the arms supplied were insignificant given the size of the resistance. By the time of the first drop, the resistance totaled 40,000 fighters, and the number was growing. The supplies, therefore, did not “meet the real needs of the resistance.”[xii] Furthermore, to hide their involvement, the CIA provided dated, World War 1-era weaponry. When dropped, the arms were often damaged, rendering them useless.[xiii]
The CIA also trained Tibetans at Camp Hale, a military facility in Eagle County, Colorado. Tibetans were instructed in radio operation, flight training, light and heavy weaponry, demolitions, and guerrilla tactics.[xiv] The first nine Camp Hale trainees were dropped into Tibet in 1959 with the mission of persuading resistance fighters to destroy Chinese chemical transports. An informant from within the resistance tipped off the PLA, who ambushed the trainees; those not killed fled to India. Shortly thereafter, another three teams totaling 18 Tibetans were dropped in the Pembar region. The first two teams were to secure Shotusalam and arm the local resistance, but the planes dropping their supplies alerted the Chinese. A Chinese aerial bombardment campaign killed or dispersed all fighters in the area. A similar fate met the third team dropped into Amdo. They were spotted, surrounded, and the PLA dispersed the resistance.[xv] Of 49 airdropped men, only twelve survived.[xvi]
Thus, the operations did not lead to attacks on PLA sites. The weapons supplied were old, of inferior quality, and insufficient to make a difference. Counterproductively, airdrops alerted the Chinese of the resistance’s positions. At the same time, China gained territory along the disputed Himalayan border through its victory in the Sino-Indian war, which the Tibetan resistance could not prevent from happening, showing communism successfully expanding during this time.[xvii]
After the failure of its airdrop operations, the CIA changed its approach and decided to create a guerrilla base in Mustang, a region in Nepal. The plan was to support 1,000 fighters under the command of monk-turned-freedom-fighter Baba Yeshi, who had fought the PLA since 1955.[xviii] Additional leadership was to come from over one hundred Camp Hale trainees. In 1960, to arm the fighters, the CIA dropped 2,900 pounds of supplies including bolt-action rifles, recoilless rifles, light machine guns, and mortars.[xix] In 1961, when 2,100 volunteers — more than double what the CIA had expected — arrived in Mustang, the delivered supplies were insufficient.[xx] The financial support — 500,000 rupees delivered yearly or roughly 60,000 USD adjusted for inflation — was similarly not enough. The fighters starved, and some were only armed with sticks and stones. The CIA promised more supplies only if Mustang troops moved into Tibet. However, under these conditions, the Tibetan leaders did not want to risk taking any action against the PLA.[xxi]
This stalemate resulted in no meaningful action by the Mustang force. While some minor raids occurred, no PLA convoys were ambushed during all of 1963.[xxii] In 1964, English missionary George Patterson travelled to Mustang and asked some men to stage a raid he could film. A CIA-trained Tibetan led nine guerillas into Tibet where they destroyed three trucks, killing eight PLA soldiers. The CIA reprimanded the Mustang leadership for the unauthorized publicity and cut funding for a year.[xxiii] In 1965, an arms-drop supplied pistols and ammunition. By then, all Mustang fighters were armed in some capacity, but they remained inactive. According to a senior guerrilla, Mustang “went on existing for the sake of existence.”[xxiv] The CIA cut off support for Mustang and officially ended the force by 1969.[xxv]
While a lack of supplies initially forced Mustang guerrillas into inaction, they remained passive even when fully equipped. In 1967, India and China fought over a disputed border in the Nathu La and Cho La clashes. Indian forces defeated the PLA and retained the land, showing resistance to communist expansion.[xxvi] Mustang forces, however, did not affect this outcome because they were far from the conflict zone and, therefore, cannot be credited with this success.
The Blue Satchel Raid
As part of and supplemental to the military operations, the CIA pursued its second goal of collecting intelligence on the Chinese government. In October 1961, Mustang fighters led by a CIA trained operative attacked a Chinese convoy. They killed an assistant commander, took his satchel, and delivered it to the CIA.[xxvii] This event, known as the Blue Satchel Raid, provided one of the greatest intelligence hauls in CIA history. Unbeknownst to the Tibetans, the satchel contained twenty-nine issues of the Bulletin of Activities of the General Political Department of the PLA, a top-secret publication. The documents discussed problems resulting from the implementation of the Chinese government’s Great Leap Forward plan, such as low troop morale due to famine. They also contained information contradicting earlier US Department of Defense conclusions, as they showed that the People’s Militia (which the Pentagon considered part of the Chinese military) was not a government organization.[xxviii] The bulletin acknowledged China’s view that invading Taiwan was impossible at the time, contrasting the State Department view that China still aspired to take the island.[xxix] Finally, the documents described tensions between China and the USSR and even provided evidence of crimes committed against Tibetans.[xxx]
This intelligence acquisition, though coincidental, yielded the US government with its first candid assessment of the Great Leap Forward. According to CIA officer Clay Cathy, “This [...] haul became the basic staple of intelligence on the Chinese army.”[xxxi] Detailing the Sino-Soviet rivalry and the resignation that an invasion of Taiwan was not feasible, it also provided information relevant in the Cold War. Finally, it aided the Tibetan cause, due to the evidence of atrocities against Tibetan people.[xxxii] Despite being a chance intelligence find, the raid represented a remarkable success in intelligence acquisition by a CIA planned, supplied, and led operation.
Intelligence operations regarding China’s nuclear capabilities had mixed results. After the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the CIA conducted U-2 flights over Xinjiang province to aid the Tibetans.[xxxiii] Flights over Lop Nur Military Base allowed the CIA to predict that China would detonate its first nuclear bomb on October 16, 1964, three weeks before the event.[xxxiv] With nuclear proliferation dominating politics, information regarding China’s nuclear capabilities was crucial. Since this intelligence resulted from operations related to the Tibetan resistance, the CIA was linked to the acquisition of this vital information. The CIA subsequently looked for additional ways to obtain relevant data. In 1964, the CIA commissioned mountain climbers to place radiation sensors atop the mountain Nanda Devi in India.[xxxv] Due to harsh weather, the climbers abandoned the equipment before reaching the peak, rendering it useless. In 1969, the CIA trained Tibetan Amdo Tsering in intelligence gathering techniques. He was to travel to the Lop Nur Base to gather radioactive soil samples. While traveling, he attracted suspicion and was caught by Chinese authorities.[xxxvi] Overall, while further attempts at collecting radiation data were unsuccessful, the information about China’s nuclear capabilities obtained from U-2 flights as part of the CIA Tibet Program provided crucial information for the Cold War.
In 1966, the CIA partnered with India’s Special Frontier Force (SFF) to tap telephone lines along the Sino-Indian border, but this operation had limited success. The operation featured operatives crossing the border into China, connecting taps to telephone lines, and recording Chinese conversations. The operation was completed without any agents lost, but the recordings proved of little value. According to India CIA officer Angus Thuermer, “[We] got miles of tapes, but much of it was useless.”[xxxvii] In 1969, the CIA trained four SFF commandos to place impulse probes under telephone lines to transmit information to the CIA for analysis. While several taps were installed, two of the four commandos disappeared. The Chinese military discovered the probes within a year and moved the telephone lines away from the border, preventing the CIA from acquiring actionable intelligence.[xxxviii] Therefore, wiretapping operations produced little to no useful intelligence while draining manpower and resources, demonstrating a failure in procuring valuable information.
The Dalai Lama’s Escape
The final component of the CIA Tibet program was attempting to keep the spirit of an independent Tibet alive. The Dalai Lama ensures cooperation between the religious and ethnic groups on the Tibetan plateau and is crucial for any unified movement within Tibet.[xxxix] After the Chinese invasion, relations between Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Chinese government were uneasy. On March 10, 1959, the PLA invited the Dalai Lama to a performance but stipulated that he come without his guards.[xl] Worried that the Dalai Lama would be kidnapped, thousands of Tibetans crowded outside the Dalai Lama’s palace, resulting in the Lhasa Revolt of 1959. Fearing violence, the Dalai Lama escaped to the south.[xli]
Two Camp Hale trainees codenamed Tom and Lou met the Dalai Lama’s caravan.[xlii] During his getaway, the Dalai Lama determined that he would need to seek asylum in India or risk being captured by the PLA.[xliii] Using CIA-provided radios, the agents informed the CIA. Knowing the Dalai Lama’s importance, Officer John Greaney relayed the Dalai Lama’s request to India. India granted asylum, and the Dalai Lama successfully fled.[xliv] The CIA was essential in procuring this asylum. On a trip to India in 1956, the Dalai Lama had asked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for asylum, but at that time Nehru denied it.[xlv] Due to US influence on India, this decision was reversed.
Without the Dalai Lama, any independent Tibet movement would be severely damaged. The Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second-ranking leader with most influence on the Tibetan people had the Dalai Lama disappeared, was willing to accede to China’s demands and would not fight for independence.[xlvi] Additionally, finding a new Dalai Lama would have taken years and left the movement without a leader.[xlvii] Thus, by ensuring the protection of the Dalai Lama, the CIA preserved the symbol for Tibetan independence and prevented a power struggle within Tibet, substantially aiding the Tibetan independence movement.
The Tibetan Cause at the United Nations
At the time of Tibet’s invasion by China, the United Nations (UN) was preoccupied with the Korean War, and few countries stood up for Tibet.[xlviii] When the CIA began its Tibet program, it also catalyzed support and awareness for the Tibetan cause at the UN. The CIA connected Gyalo Thondup with former US delegate to the UN Ernest Gross to mount a lobbying effort at the UN.[xlix] The CIA also established and funded an unofficial Tibetan embassy in New York.[l] With this assistance, the Tibetans could take their cause to the UN. While the US did not sponsor resolutions in the UN, it used its diplomatic influence to get other countries to support Tibet.[li]
In 1959, a UN General Assembly resolution sponsored by Malaysia, Ireland, and the UK passed that called for "respect for the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.” It also acknowledged reports that “fundamental human rights and freedoms [...] have been forcibly denied,” without mentioning any responsible party.[lii] In 1961, another broadly worded resolution called for “cessation of practices which deprive the Tibetan people of their fundamental human rights and freedoms, including their right to self-determination.”[liii] In 1965, to gain Indian sponsorship, Thondup settled for another resolution that only deplored violation of human rights without reference to self-determination.[liv] This action marked the end for the pursuit of Tibetan independence through the UN.[lv]
CIA support facilitated Tibet’s pleas to be heard at the United Nations. As international support was needed for action towards independence from China, the resolutions provided hope that Tibet’s calls for independence would be answered.[lvi] Once the pursuit of self-determination resolutions was abandoned, the situation inside Tibet did not change and no substantive action against China was taken. Thus, CIA-supported action at the UN had mixed results.[lvii]
Overall, the CIA Tibet Program achieved positive results in two of its three goals. The CIA’s para-military operations failed. Airdrop operations did not provide substantial aid to resistance fighters and at times made their mission more difficult. The Mustang force, despite eventually being well equipped, did not take substantive action against the PLA due to strategic differences with the CIA. During this time, various border clashes occurred between India and China, allowing for Chinese territorial gains. However, the CIA’s intelligence gathering operations provided crucial pieces of information for both the Tibetan cause and major developments in the Cold War, though largely due to the fortuitous success of the Blue Satchel Raid. During the escalating nuclear arms race, the program also provided key information regarding China’s nuclear program. Thus, the CIA Tibet program achieved its second goal of collecting intelligence on China. Perhaps the most significant success for the CIA was ensuring the viability of the independent Tibet movement. By saving the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet and physical embodiment of Tibet’s independence, the CIA ensured the survival of the independent Tibet movement’s leader, allowing the campaign to survive This enabled Tibet to begin its lobbying efforts at the UN. Despite not achieving the desired outcomes, this action increased the visibility of the Tibetan cause. Therefore, the CIA Tibet program achieved its goal of keeping the spirit of an independent Tibet alive, indicating success in its final goal.
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[i] Gyatso, Tenzin. Freedom in Exile. Harper Collins, 1990, 57
[iii] Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison. The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet. UP of Kansas, 2002, 71
[iv] McGranahan, Carole. Arrested Histories. Duke UP, 2010, 166
[v] Knaus, John Kenneth. Orphans of the Cold War. Public Affairs, 1999, 188
[vi] Conboy and Morrison, 38
[x] Conboy and Morrison, 79
[xii] Thondup, Gyalo. The Noodle Maker of Kalimpong. Rider, 2016, 178
[xvii] Lidarev, Ivan. “History’s Hostage: China, India and the War of 1962.” The Diplomat, 21 Aug. 2012, thediplomat.com/2012/08/historys-hostage-china-india-and-the-war-of-1962/. Accessed 17 June 2020.
[xviii] The Shadow Circus. Directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, White Crane Films, 1998. YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_5LOPYzddy. Accessed 17 June 2020, 00:30:30 – 00:31:30
[xx] Conboy and Morrison, 152
[xxii] Conboy and Morrison, 198
[xxiv] Conboy and Morrison, 199
[xxvi] Menon, Vandana, and Nayanika Chatterjee. “Remembering the War, We Forgot: 51 Years Ago, How India Gave China a Bloody Nose.” The Print, 1 Oct. 2018, theprint.in/defense/remembering-the-war-we-forgot-51-years-ago-how-india-gave-china-a-bloody-nose/127356/. Accessed 17 June 2020.
[xxix] Masko, John. “CIA Operations in Tibet and the Intelligence-Policy Relationship.” American Intelligence Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 2013. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26202084. Accessed 17 June 2020, 129
[xxxi] Conboy and Morrison, 162
[xxxiv] Rosen, Armin. “Here’s How the US Reacted to China’s First Nuclear Test 50 Years Ago.” Business Insider, 28 Oct. 2014, www.businessinsider.com/how-the-us-reacted-to-chinas-first-nuclear-test-2014-10. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.
[xxxvi] Conboy and Morrison, 237 - 238
[xxxix] “The 14th Dalai Lama Biographical.” The Nobel Prize, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1989/lama/biographical/. Acessed 18 June 2020.
[xlii] The Shadow Circus, 00:17:40 – 00:17:55
[xliv] The Shadow Circus, 00:19:14 – 00:20:22
[xlvi] Feigon, Lee. Demystifying Tibet. Rowman & Littlefield, 1996, 163
[xlvii] Shackle, Samira. “Dalai Lama, A Spiritual Leader Who Is Found, Not Chosen.” The Guardian, 27 Aug. 2008, www.theguardian.com/world/2008/aug/27/tibet.china1#:~:text=The%20Dalai%20Lama%20is%20found,a%20reincarnation%20of%20the%20last. Accessed 18 June 2020.
[lii] UN General Assembly. Resolution 1353 (XIV). United Nations Documents, undocs.org/en/A/RES/1353(XIV). Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.
[liii] UN General Assembly. Resolution 1723 (XVI). United Nations Documents, undocs.org/en/A/RES/1723(XVI)%20. Accessed 17 Nov. 2020.