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 1999, I asked the Dalai Lama if the CIA operation had been harmful for Tibet. “Yes, that is true,” he replied. The intervention was harmful, he suggested, because it was primarily aimed at serving American interests rather than helping the Tibetans in any lasting way. “Once the American policy toward China changed, they stopped their help,” he told me. “Otherwise our struggle could have gone on. Many Tibetans had great expectations of CIA [air] drops, but then the Chinese army came and destroyed them. The Americans had a different agenda from the Tibetans.”
This was exactly right, and the different goals of the Agency and the Tibetans are explored fully by the Tibetan-speaking anthropologist Carole McGranahan in her Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (2010). Although sometimes clouded by anthropological jargon, her account fascinatingly explores how differently from their American counterparts the Tibetan veterans remember the CIA operation. A striking example is the matter of the Chinese army documents, whose capture in a Tibetan ambush of a high-ranking Chinese officer is depicted in grisly detail in a huge painting in the CIA’s museum in Washington. In addition to revealing low Chinese morale, the documents disclosed the extent of Chinese violence in Tibet. “This information was the only documentary proof the Tibetan government [in exile] had of the Chinese atrocities and was therefore invaluable,” MacGranahan notes. Yet the documents and their capture rarely came up during her long interview sessions with the veterans. “Why is it that this particular achievement, so valued by the US and Tibetan governments, is not remotely as memorable for [the] soldiers?”
One reason is that the Tibetan fighters were told nothing about the value of the documents, which they couldn’t read.