"For decades, the United States ran covert operations into Tibet in an attempt to help Tibetan exiles take back their country from the Chinese. These operations have never been disclosed—until now."
Read an Excerpt
Mission to Shangri-la
We arrived safely. Next time, please drop us fifty yards downstream because there was a house nearby with dogs who barked at us when we landed last night. We are well. We have cached our parachutes and are off to buy a horse to go to Lhasa tomorrow."
Cheers rang out in one of the buildings along the reflecting pool in Washington when this message was received on a crisp midautumn morning in 1957. It was one that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been anxiously awaiting. Two young Tibetans had tapped it out on a portable radio of the type issued to agents during World War II, its power cranked by hand. They were on a sand dune in the Brahmaputra River sixty miles south of the Tibetan capital. The senders were only a few miles from the spot where a U.S. Air Force B-24 Liberator had crashed fourteen years before, lost flying over "the Hump" of the Himalayas while transporting supplies to the Allied forces in China. Its American crew had been forced to parachute into Tibet by accident, but the American-trained Tibetans dropped from the second plane were on a guerrilla mission to support their countrymen's resistance against the Chinese. The Cold War had come to one of the world's most remote countries.
Since early in the nineteenth century the Tibetans had closed their doors to outsiders. Foreigners were considered threats to a way of life that had to be protected even to the point of slaughtering intruders. Natural obstacles reinforced this official hostility. This country of 500,000 square miles, as vast as Western Europe,is bounded on the north by the towering Kunlun Mountains separating it from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and in the west by the mighty Karakorum range on the border with Kashmir. The majestic Himalayas form a natural boundary with India in the south. Only to the east is there a gap to the outside world. Through it flow the headwaters of three of the world's great rivers, the Yangtze, the Mekong, and the Salween, cleaving great gorges on their way to China and southeast Asia. Within these formidable natural barriers Tibet is a sparsely populated wilderness of plains and mountain ranges of 16,000 feet or higher, a land later described by the Italian explorer Fosco Maraini as one of "dizzy extremes and excesses."
Tibet is a land of Buddhism like no other. Over 1,300 years ago one of the great Tibetan kings, Songsten Gampo, introduced his subjects to Buddhism and determined the destiny of his country. At that time Buddhism had two forms, the Hinayana, called "the Lesser Vehicle," and the Mahayana, "the Greater Vehicle." It was the Mahayana, then spreading through northern India, Kashmir, central Asia, China, and Korea, with its abundant metaphysics, myriad celestial persons, and rich literature and art, that came to Tibet. It filled the solitude of that country's vast spaces and created a culture by compelling the Tibetan people to learn to read and develop a script of their own.
Mahayana differs from Hinayana Buddhism by its focus on the incarnation of an eternal cosmic Buddha and by its unique accompanying deities, saints, and emanations, rather than on the historical Buddha who died in the fifth century B.C.E. Its most unique characteristic is its emphasis on bodhisattvas, persons who have attained illumination but postpone the enjoyment of nirvana and remain active in the cycle of life until every sentient being has been delivered from suffering.
Tibetan Buddhism, like its Hinayana counterpart, which flourishes in South Asia, preaches a message of love and compassion. But this has not precluded violent battles, first with the defenders of Tibet's native Bon religion, then among the sects that grew up within the triumphant Buddhist community itself, and even among monasteries of the same denomination. These monasteries represented the principal route of advancement in Tibet, and almost every family sent at least one son to a monastery. Three of the four brothers of the present Dalai Lama were monks. The monasteries of Tibet were great centers of religious learning and prayer. They were also active participants in the commercial and political life of Tibet. The monks believed strongly in their religion and defended it with equal vigor against all challengers, foreign or domestic. If this meant using arms held in their arsenal, so be it.
Tibet's ruler, the Dalai Lama, belongs to the Yellow Hat sect, which began as a fourteenth-century reform movement preaching discipline, celibacy, and temperance, and diminishing the role of lower gods and devils inherited from the native cults. The Yellow Hats established two of the features that have made Tibetan Buddhism uniquea supreme monk with equal spiritual and temporal authority, and the succession of this pontiff through reincarnation. The sect won power in Lhasa in the sixteenth century and then settled in to seal off Tibet from all challengers.
Tibet's self-imposed isolation was interrupted at the turn of the twentieth century when a Buryat Mongol monk named Dorjieff succeeded in winning the favor of the country's highest spiritual and temporal ruler, the Dalai Lama. Dorjieff had also been able to enlist the interest of his sovereign, Czar Nicholas II, whom he persuaded to invite the Tibetan ruler to Moscow. When the Dalai Lama, despite the objections of his own xenophobic assembly, accepted the Tsar's overtures, Lord Curzon, the viceroy of British India and an arch-Russophobe, saw it as a revival of the nineteenth-century "Great Game"the competition for control of central Asiaand a threat to his domain. Curzon subsequently dispatched Colonel Francis Younghusband with a military expedition to Tibet in 1904. It forced its way into Lhasa after several bloody and unequal battles against the Tibetans, which sickened even Younghusband himself. The thirteenth Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia, a Buddhist land that had been an early protector of Tibet, leaving the British victors an empty throne.
Within a decade the wheel of history had made a complete turn. The British signed an agreement with the Russians ending their competition in that final inning of the Great Game. The Chinese government collapsed after making one last fierce effort to impose its authority over this unruly country, which they claimed as part of their failing empire. The Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa from his second flight abroad, having fled this time to British India, where he had sought the protection of his former enemies. By 1913 the British were the preeminent foreign power in Lhasa, where the Tibetans were to manage their own affairs for the next thirty-seven years.
Until the Communist troops of Mao Zedong forced their way into Tibet in 1950, the U.S. government had taken little notice of Tibet. During World War II, Washington acquired a passing interest in this remote country prompted solely by its location. By May of 1942, the Burma Road, the only remaining overland route used by the military from South Asia into China, had been cut by a Japanese thrust. For Chiang K'ai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist forces, this meant the loss of his best hope of obtaining the large quantities of supplies he had been demanding from his allies since the attack on Pearl Harbor had brought the United States into the war seven months before. Seeking an overland route to supply his prickly ally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned the newly created secret intelligence organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), to dispatch a reconnaissance mission into Tibet, large areas of which were literally terra incognita to the U.S. Army Map Service.
But the Tibetans had little interest in anything that might give their Chinese neighbors an excuse to increase their presence and thus reinforce China's historic claims to sovereignty over Tibet. The British were ambivalent. They saw the need for a road to get supplies to their new Chinese allies, but they were reluctant to do anything that might undercut their traditional policy of maintaining the isolated country as a buffer state between India and China. The Foreign Office suggested that the way could be smoothed if Chiang could be persuaded to make a declaration recognizing home rule for Tibet, but this seemed unlikely. While Chiang had already gratuitously proposed that the British pledge independence to India and Burma after the war, London commented that "what is sauce for the Indian goose is not suitable for the Tibetan gander."
The Lhasa government finally fixed on a compromise that would meet the allies' request while keeping their Chinese neighbors at bay. It would permit the transit of nonmilitary goods destined for China, with the term "nonmilitary" not to be interpreted too strictly. But its concessions were met by further Chinese demands to station "technicians" along the route to supervise the transport. The Chiang K'ai-shek government expected that the supplies coming over this backdoor route would not be sizable enough to be worth paying any political price in yielding its claims to Tibet.
The Tolstoy Mission
Despite this unpromising background the OSS went ahead with its mission to obtain its own reading of the situation in Tibet. This intelligence project was an appropriate beginning to a unique relationship that for the next thirty years was carried out primarily through clandestine channels and based on covert operations. The initial project, code-named FE-2, was approved by President Roosevelt on May 12, 1942. It was formally defined as a "reconnaissance mission via India to Tibet" whose purpose was "to move across Tibet and make its way to Chungking, China, observing attitudes of the people of Tibet; to seek allies and discover enemies; locate strategic targets and survey the territory as a possible field for future activity." All this in a country without paved highways and, of course, no railroads.
Although the Chinese and the British retained limited and residual representation in Tibet, the Tibetan government still discouraged foreign visitors. In the years before World War II, only a handful of explorers and scientists had overcome formidable geographic and political obstacles to carry out limited expeditions to the border areas in the eastern and northern areas of Tibet. No American had made the difficult traverse over some of the world's most desolate deserts and highest mountains that would take the two OSS men 1,500 miles from the Indian-Sikkimese border to the Chinese border on the east. The man chosen to lead this mission was Captain Ilya Tolstoy, grandson of the great Russian novelist.
As a personable young Russian count who used his title even though he had become a U.S. citizen, Tolstoy's aristocratic lineage gave him entrée to the members of the British Raj in India who would be crucial to his success. He was also a man of ebullient charm and suffered from no want of self-confidence. These same credentials stood him in good stead with the generally pro-British Tibetan aristocrats and helped him deal with the arcane theocratic court in Lhasa. In contrast to the austere life in the Tibetan countryside, the clerical elite and noble families of the capital led a surprisingly pleasant and fun-loving existence. Tolstoy easily made friends, including the only Tibetan member of the U.S. National Geographic Society, Tsarong Shape, who maintained what was probably Lhasa's most comfortable and modern household. The dashing former cavalry officer was thirty-nine years old at the time. Those who knew him, both during his OSS days and in his postwar career as a principal officer of Florida's Marineland and prominent member of the Explorer's Club, described him as full of life and ideas and fascinated by adventure.
Tolstoy selected as the second member of the team a noted Far Eastern explorer, Lieutenant Brooke Dolan II, who was five years younger. Dolan was versed in the Tibetan and Chinese languages, as well as Buddhism. Independently wealthy, he had headed an expedition to northeast Tibet and western China ten years earlier for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science and returned with the first specimens of the giant panda. Two years later, he had journeyed to the high Tibetan plateau to collect fauna on a fifteen-month expedition that covered approximately 200,000 square miles. His trek with Tolstoy was nothing compared to what he had already accomplished.
The two left Washington in July of 1942 with instructions from the head of the OSS, General William J. Donovan to "keep in touch if you can." Tolstoy later noted this was hardly possible since portable radio equipment light enough for them to carry was not then available. They spent the next three months in New Delhi while the British-controlled government of India negotiated with the Tibetan government to permit the two emissaries to bring gifts and a letter from President Roosevelt to the Dalai Lama and his government. The two men did not inform their British interlocutors that a previous request brokered by the Chinese government had been already been rejected by Lhasa. Neither did they tell the Tibetans, or at least the British did not inform Lhasa, that their ultimate destination was Chungking and they had no intention of returning to New Delhi.
By the end of September 1942 the Tibetan government had granted Tolstoy and Dolan permission to proceed as far as Lhasa, and they set off in early October with the personal blessing of Vinegar Joe himself, Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell, the legendary commander of the China-Burma-India theater.
Their first stop inside Tibet, as they made their way by foot and mule, was the trade center of Yatung. There they were entertained by Yangpel Pandatsang, a member of a prominent trading family from an area of eastern Tibet called Kham. Pandatsang had grown rich from the wool export monopoly he shared with another Kham family. The importance of the Tibetan government's foreign revenues from Pandatsang's wool trade had been sufficient to protect him when his brothers rose against the central government some years before. By the time he hosted Tolstoy and his party, Pandatsang had become the Customs Commissioner and de facto governor of the Chumbi Valley, which lies on the Tibetan side of the pass through which most trade was conducted with India. The Pandatsangs were later to play a role in the Tibetan resistance against the Chinese, and Tolstoy was charmed by them.
Following the route taken by a British military expedition thirty-eight years before, the American mission arrived in Lhasa in early December. On December 20, 1942, they were granted an audience by the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Tolstoy delivered the gifts and letters from President Roosevelt that were the ostensible reason for their visit. The Dalai Lama was then seven years old and had no way of knowing he would be one of the best known men in the modern world half a century later. He had reached Lhasa only three years before, newly proclaimed as the reincarnation of his predecessor, who had died in 1933. The boy was living in the Potala, the great fortress housing his apartments, a monastery, and the offices of the Tibetan government. In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama describes the Potala, which had been begun in the tenth century and renovated in the seventeenth century, as "very beautiful, but not a nice place to live." He was given the "pitifully cold and ill-lit" vermin-infested room on the top story of the Potala, which had been the bedroom of one of his distinguished predecessors, the "Great Fifth" Dalai Lama. His older brother, who had been his close companion, had been sent off to another monastery and the Dalai Lama was permitted only occasional visits from his mother and other siblings. It was a lonely life devoted to schooling in language, penmanship, and religion, preparing him for his ecclesiastical and temporal duties as ruler and spiritual leader of his country. Although regarded by his countrymen as a "god king," he enjoyed playing like any boy his age and he speaks fondly of the toys and gifts brought to him by foreign officials. He also had an intense curiosity about what lay outside his exotic but closed capital and must have looked forward to this break in his rigid regimen to meet with rare visitors from an unknown world.
At the State Department's insistence, the letter that Tolstoy brought from the president was addressed to the Dalai Lama in his capacity as religious leader of Tibet. This was done to avoid "giving any possible offense to the Chinese Government which includes Tibet in the territory of the Republic of China." Roosevelt's letter introduced Tolstoy and Dolan as hopeful visitors to "your Pontificate," noting that "there are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who, long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly value such an opportunity." Like many Americans, Roosevelt was caught up in the mystery of Tibet. Earlier that year he guarded the secret of where American planes had taken off to bomb Tokyo for the first time by saying, "They came from a secret base in Shangri-la." (Actually, they had come from an American aircraft carrier.) That was also the name chosen by Roosevelt for his retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains now known as Camp David.
There was much less diplomatic anguish in the choice of the gifts Tolstoy and Dolan presented to the Dalai Lama and his regent. The president sent a photograph signed, "For His Holiness, the Dalai Lama from his good friend Franklin D. Roosevelt," and a gold chronographic watch. Tolstoy realized that since "President Roosevelt was Head of State he had to send something in gold to His Holiness," and he decided to obtain the best possible golden chronometer in existence at the time. A jeweler in the Mayflower Hotel obtained one of only two such watches ever made, at a cost of $2,800. The British considered the Americans' offerings to the Dalai Lama unimpressive compared to earlier gifts to his predecessor. But the Dalai Lama, who later became a collector of watches, described the gold chronometer in his autobiography as "magnificent" and valued it sufficiently to take it with him when he fled Tibet in 1959. According to his brother, Gyalo Thondup, he still uses it today.
The gifts Tolstoy received in return signified a certain official pleasure on the part of the Tibetan cabinet ministers' new contact with the United States. He reported they included four "very expensive and beautifully made religious tapestries (which took 300 women several months to make)"; a set of gold coins, a framed picture of the Dalai Lama, and a complete set of previously issued and current stamps, which the Tibetan Minister of Finance Tsarong Dzasa had run off at Tolstoy's request for the president's personal collection. The cabinet also expressed its "warmest appreciation of your good will." When Donovan forwarded this letter to Roosevelt, he responded with his version of the Gelett Burgess rhyme, "The Purple Cow":
Thank you for sending me the letter from the Kashag.
I never saw a Kashag.
I never want to see one.
But this I know, and know full well,
I would rather see than be one.
P.S. I find that Kashag is a Cabinet. The above remarks still hold.
The mysteries of the Tibetan government, about which the president jestingly expressed the desire to remain ignorant, were more politically sensitive than Roosevelt realized. While Tolstoy could not have been expected to detect the divisive undercurrents that were to lead to a bitter civil war between Tibet's top theocratic leaders the following year, this blissful ignorance about the dynamics of Tibetan politics still prevailed when the U.S. government launched its covert action programs in Tibet several years later.
The formalities completed, Tolstoy spent the next several weeks in Lhasa assessing local attitudes, sites, and assets for possible future operational activity. Tolstoy apparently decided that his mission did not include lobbying for the controversial supply route through Tibet. In his final report submitted to OSS headquarters the following summer, he said that he did not broach the subject of a motor road across Tibet with the government. He explained his restraint on the ground that "the present Tibetan government is most unfavorably minded toward any opening of Tibet," and regards "motor vehicles as modern and anti-Tibetan." So much for the fundamental reason for the mission.
Tolstoy made a movie of Lhasa, one of the first of its kind, which served his intelligence task and pleased the Dalai Lama and his official household. The Tibetan government officially requested radio transmitters to communicate with its outposts, and Tolstoy endorsed this proposal to OSS headquarters, which passed it to the State Department, where in April of 1943 Alger Hiss, then an assistant to the State Department's adviser on political affairs, further endorsed it as "helpful to our war effort in the general area." The Department nevertheless reasserted its old fears about offending the Chinese, so Donovan waited ten days and repeated his request. The State Department then apparently decided to wash its hands of the whole thing and leave it to General Stilwell as a military matter.
Tolstoy Leaves Lhasa
Tolstoy and Dolan celebrated the Tibetan New Year in February of 1943 in great style as the recipients of special invitations from the Kashag. After more than three months in Lhasa, the time had come to set off on the reconnaissance mission for which they had been sent to Tibet. They would have to head for China across northern and eastern Tibet.
The OSS files are silent on how Tolstoy managed to obtain permission to head for China across an area previously closed to foreigners. An OSS field memorandum lists several cables concerning "certain [unspecified] action that the United States might take to cement its friendship with the Tibetan Government." Other cables indicate a certain amount of indecision about whether Tolstoy was to return to India or proceed to China. This fuzziness may have prompted Tolstoy's venture into extracurricular diplomacy. According to the head of the British mission in Lhasa, Frank Ludlow, Tolstoy told the Tibetans he was recommending to his government that Tibet be permitted to send a delegation to the postwar peace conference. Tolstoy embellished his freewheeling statements, Ludlow reported, by telling the regent that "the American Government was in full sympathy with those weak and small nations who wished to retain their independence. He [Tolstoy] cited the case of the South American states whom the U.S. could overthrow and swallow in a very short time, but who were completely independent and free."
However prematurethe war would last another two and a half yearsLudlow also endorsed this prospect. When the Tibetans enthusiastically accepted it, warning only that it should be kept secret from the Chinese, Tolstoy quickly began to backpedal. He confided to Ludlow that he doubted his government would approve. If this ploy was ever reported beyond the British Foreign Office, which disapproved mightily, there is no record of any U.S. reaction. It would not, however, have been out of step with the spirit of comradeship and unity of purpose for the Allied cause that the U.S. government was at the time attempting to inculcate among the Tibetans. And in any case, it worked and earned the two travelers their passage across Tibet. It was left to Ludlow's superior, Basil Gould, to disabuse the Tibetans a year later of any illusions that they were to be accepted into the international club.
Tolstoy and Dolan set off from Lhasa at the end of February 1943, riding Tibetan ponies. They were accompanied by one monk, one lay official, and five soldiers provided by the Tibetan government against the "many dangers from robbers and thieves." While Tolstoy was en route, a U.S. naval attaché visited Xining, the capital of the ethnically Tibetan province of Qinghai. There he was informed by the local Chinese government that 10,000 Chinese troops had been moved toward the Tibetan border in obedience to Generalissimo Chiang K'ai-shek's order. The U.S. embassy reported that Chiang had three objectives: to open a military supply route through Tibet on China's terms; to gain a foothold in the independent border provinces; and eventually to bring Tibet under effective Chinese control. China's pretext for all this, the embassy reported, was that Japanese agents were stirring up the Tibetans.
An aroused Winston Churchill warned Chinese foreign minister T. V. Soong at a meeting of the Pacific War Council in Washington on May 20, 1943, "that a disturbing rumor had reached him that China is massing troops on the borders of Tibet, and that he hoped it was in error, both because the borders of Tibet had been secure for so many years and, also, because it would mean diverting forces away from the true enemyJapan...." Dr. Soong "stated emphatically that there was no truth whatsoever to the rumor, either that troops were being massed on the border or that China has any present intention of attacking Tibet. He stated however, that Tibet was not a separate nation; that it is a part of China and that eventually China may have to take necessary action to maintain her sovereignty, but that they have no intentions of taking such action at the present time."
It must have been a lively exchange between the Harvard-educated Chinese banker and diplomat and the British bulldog as they both defended their threatened empires. Churchill did not, however, challenge Soong about the status of Tibet, even though only a month before the British government had informed Washington that "the Government of India [has] always held that Tibet is a separate country in full enjoyment of local autonomy, entitled to exchange diplomatic representatives with other powers." This aide-mémoire had gone on to assert that "the relationship between China and Tibet is not a matter which can be unilaterally decided by China, but one on which Tibet is entitled to negotiate, and on which she can, if necessary count on the diplomatic support of the British Government along the lines above."
Churchill may have been inhibited by the State Department's chilly response, which held fast to its support for Chinas sovereignty over Tibet. Preserving the frequently fragile alliance with Chiang was obviously of more immediate concern than the legal status of far-off Tibet. But the British Foreign Office, obviously losing patience, told Washington that if Chiang continued his saber rattling on the Tibetan border and contemplated withdrawing the autonomy enjoyed by the Tibetans, "His Majesty's Government and the Government of India must ask themselves whether, in the changed circumstances of today, it would be right for them to continue to recognize even a theoretical state of subservience for a people who desire to be free and have, in fact, maintained their freedom for more than thirty years."
Unfortunately for the Tibetans, when this question became painfully relevant with the rise of the Communist regime at the end of the decade, the British either did not raise the question again or answered it more pragmatically.
What People are Saying About This