Inside Story of CIA's Black Hands in Tibet (I)
Organization Deja News - The Leader in Internet Discussion
Date Sun, 26 Jul 1998 21:03:51 GMT
CIA's involvement in Tibet during the cold war was well known to knowledgable readers in this group, although the inside stories were scarce. Since Dalai Lama started so-called "non-violent" approach, he and his followers don't want people to know their dirty laundry. However, those who were involved started to talk, for variuos reasons. Following story tells us the deep involvement of CIA and cooperation between Taiwan, India, and Tibetans. Now, "non-violent" approach has got them to nowhere, except a Nobel Peace Prize that fell on Dalai Lama's lap and two Hollywood box-office bombs, they are longing once again for those good old violence. Well, could Hollywood + violence achieve what CIA + violence couldn't achieve?
Copyright 1997 The American Spectator The American Spectator December, 1997SECTION: FEATURE
The Secret War Over Tibet
A story of Cold War heroism -- and Kennedy administration cowardice and
John B. Roberts II
John B. Roberts II is a television producer and freelance journalist.
The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, doesn't want his
secrets revealed. He has given his blessing to a new Hollywood film, Kundun,
enshrining the officially sanctioned and sanitized history of his country's
battle for independence against Communist China. And in another Hollywood
Tibetan epic, based on the memoirs of German mountaineer Heinrich Harrer,
actor Brad Pitt re-enacts a spiritual odyssey with the Dalai Lama in Tibet's
remote and mysterious mountain kingdom.
What neither film portrays are facts about the true adventures -- and
tragedy -- of Tibetan freedom fighters that have remained secret for decades.
But thanks to the willingness of a handful of former diplomats, military
special operations personnel, and intelligence officials, the real story of
America's secret war in Tibet can now be told.
Officials at the Central Intelligence Agency were unusually helpful in the
research for this article, although it reports events that are still
classified today. Perhaps they were motivated by the desire to prevent
Hollywood's propagation of revisionist histories about what really happened
in Tibet. Or perhaps this is one of those rare occasions when the Central
Intelligence Agency decides to take some well-deserved credit for one of its
successes by revealing tidbits from its secret history.
But don't expect the Clinton administration to declassify the Tibetan
operation files anytime soon. The secret archives include a shameful episode
involving Clinton's favorite presidency, the Kennedy administration, and
Democratic icon John Kenneth Galbraith. One of the best-kept secrets of the
Tibetan War is Ambassador Galbraith's role in the abandonment of an army of
Tibetan guerrillas caught in a pitched battle. While special operations Air
Force planes stood by to parachute ammunition and supplies to the Tibetan
freedom fighters, Galbraith refused to give permission for the CIA to
resupply its covert Tibetan army. Cut off and surrounded, between six and
eight thousand Tibetans were annihilated by the Chinese in a massacre that
has been shrouded in secrecy for more than thirty years.
The parallels to the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco are eerie. In both cases the
Eisenhower administration originally launched the covert programs to train
freedom fighters to resist Communist domination. In both the guerrillas
depended on U.S. support for arms and ammunition. In Tibet, as in Cuba, only
air support and airdrops of supplies could help trapped men fight their way
out of desperate situations. In both cases, when the freedom fighters were at
their moment of greatest peril, the Kennedy administration chose to abandon
them. This is the true story of how the Tibetan operation began in glory, and
ended in shame.
After Mao Tse-tung and the Peoples Liberation Army pushed the Nationalist
Chinese off the mainland in the late 1940's, Peking turned its attention to
consolidating its territory. In the summer of 1950, skirmishing at border
posts broke out between China and Tibet. Using this fighting as a pretext,
China invaded Tibet with more than 80,000 troops.
Tibet's army was tiny and poorly equipped. Efforts to resist the Chinese
alone would have been futile. Tibet needed allies, it needed to buy time, and
most of all it needed arms.
It is hard to imagine today, in an age of satellites and the Internet, how
remote Tibet was in the fifties. Communications had to be relayed by
messenger over mountain passes. In desperation, Tibet sent emissaries abroad
to negotiate on three separate tracks. Some delegations sought an
accommodation with China, on terms that would maintain some autonomy for
Tibet. Others explored the possibility of asylum and financial support for
the Dalai Lama and his retinue. Still others sought diplomatic support for
Tibet's independence, and military weapons for armed resistance.
Today, with our emphasis on Tibet's human rights situation, it may surprise
many to think of the Buddhist kingdom seeking arms to fight China. Owing
largely to the Vietnam war era television images of self- immolating Buddhist
monks, many Americans mistakenly believe that all Buddhists practice
non-violence and passive resistance. But Tibetan Buddhism, as practiced by
its monks and the people of Tibet, did not shy from violence.
By early 1951, Tibet's emissaries had made contact with American diplomats
in neighboring India. A delegation speaking in the name of the Dalai Lama
asked for support for Tibet's independence, and inquired whether the U.S.
would shoulder the costs of the Dalai Lama and several hundred followers in
Tibet's request was handled at the top levels of the U.S. government.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson sent top-secret cables to embassies in
Ceylon, Thailand, and India, instructing ambassadors to sound out the
prospects for asylum for the Dalai Lama. America's support for Chiang
Kai-Shek's Chinese Nationalists on Formosa complicated matters. Like
Communist China, the Nationalists also viewed Tibet as a historic part of the
Chinese empire. Stopping the Communist conquest of Tibet was attractive to
the U.S., but not if it would alienate Chiang Kai-shek, who opposed Tibetan
independence. But one thing was clear from the beginning. The U.S. wanted
the Dalai Lama to lead his country's resistance against the Chinese. A secret
cable from 1951 reveals that Washington encouraged the Dalai Lama to "remain
in (a) country near Tibet for purpose of mounting resistance to Chinese
Communists within Tibet." The more immediate problem was how to support
Tibet's resistance war.
In the early 1950's, there were no secure channels of communication between
the U.S. and Tibet. American diplomats had little knowledge of the Dalai
Lama's retinue. They didn't know who could be trusted to safely and
accurately convey messages, and who might be a Chinese agent. Sending written
notes the Chinese might intercept was risky. As a result, it took months to
relay oral messages back and forth to the Dalai Lama over the mountainous
reaches of Tibet.
A top secret telegram from Secretary of State Acheson to the U. S. Embassy
in India gives a sense of this difficulty: "Info Contel 91 July 31 and Embtel
440 (rptd Cal unnumbered) Aug 1 suggests unreliable intermediaries figured
critically in failure effort persuade DL leave Yatung....Believe it unwise
advise any Tibetan to receive this msg prior actual communication."
The message Acheson referred to in his cable confirmed America's standing
offer to the Dalai Lama: "our original position -- full aid and assistance to
you when you come out." Acheson wanted U.S. aid conditioned on the Dalai
Lama's agreement to leave Tibet. The Dalai Lama was told that while American
planes couldn't fly into Lhasa to take him into exile, the U.S. would do all
it could to aid him in fleeing Tibet.
The Tibetan emissaries wanted arms. A secret cable from November 15, 1951,
reports the U.S. reply: "...suggestions for overt US provision of planes,
arms, supplies and leadership are practically impossible and politically
undesirable at this time....US shld make at least one final effort by letter
or oral messages to encourage DL to resist in ways best known to Tib
Govt....Although it may not be feasible, DL might for example make pilgrimage
to Buddhist shrines in Tib from one of which he might escape southward to
Where others saw diplomatic quandaries, CIA deputy director Allen Dulles
recognized opportunity. A veteran of "Wild Bill" Donovan's Office of Strategic
Services, America's clandestine predecessor to the CIA, Dulles gained field
experience during World War II as the OSS hustled to organize U.S. spying and
sabotage operations. OSS specialized in behind-the-lines support to resistance
movements across Nazi-occupied Europe, parachuting agents, supplies, and
officers deep behind enemy lines. Some OSS officers were old China hands, and
had fought alongside Mao Tse-tung's forces against the Japanese. OSS veterans
like Dulles had the mindset and experience to run guerrilla operations behind
At the time of Tibet's invasion, Allen Dulles was CIA's Deputy Director
of Plans, with responsibilities that included overseeing all CIA covert
operations. While the State Department temporized about how much aid to give
the Dalai Lama before he left Tibet, Dulles began to explore arming and
training the Tibetan resistance.
Weapons were a problem. Covert aid required arms that could not be traced
to the United States. To cloak their origin, guns had to be compatible with
Chinese military stocks. As a bonus, compatible guns meant Tibetan rebels
could use captured Chinese ammunition. Thirty years later in Nicaragua, CIA
planners faced the same challenge when they had to find Soviet weapons to
supply the contras. When Israel invaded Lebanon and seized PLO warehouses
full of Soviet-supplied weapons, the CIA rapidly transported the captured
arms to Nicaragua's freedom fighters.
But in the early 1950's, the weapons Dulles needed were German. During the
decades of war-lordism that befell China in the twenties and thirties, German
guns were widely used throughout the country. CIA cabled U.S. military
attach s across Europe, asking them to report back on inventories of captured
Nazi arms. But the CIA had little bureaucratic clout in the early days of its
existence, and the Defense Department was unresponsive.
Sam Cummings, now an internationally known arms dealer, was then a young
weapons expert in CIA's Office of Scientific Intelligence. His office
received a routine copy of the Defense Department report, and he knew
immediately that it was wrong. Cummings had been in Europe shortly after
World War II, and had seen stockpiles of Nazi arms himself. He sent his
superiors a memo that claimed there were plenty of surplus guns stashed in
A few weeks later, the young analyst was summoned to meet with Dulles.
Richard Helms, who would later be CIA director when the Tibet war ground
to an end, ushered the 24-year-old Cummings into Dulles's office. Cummings
was persuasive, and soon found himself on a clandestine mission in Europe.
Accompanied by a Hollywood cinematographer named Leo Lippe, and under the
flimsy pretext of needing Nazi weapons for use as props in a series of war
movies, he spent 1951 and 1952 moving around Europe purchasing old Nazi arms
for the CIA. Cummings found plenty of surplus German Mausers and other
weapons for Dulles's secret armies.
For almost fifty years, the record of Dulles's clandestine operation has
remained buried in the government's secret archives. After he became CIA
director in 1953, Allen Dulles oversaw the creation of an audacious covert
program involving tens of thousands of Tibetan freedom fighters who fought
courageously against China's People's Liberation Army in a decade-long
struggle for independence. The scale of Dulles's covert war dwarfed William
Casey and President Reagan's aid to Nicaragua's contras, but both programs
had their roots in the experience that former OSS officers Allen Dulles and
Bill Casey shared running World War II's clandestine liberation wars behind
Throughout the fifties Tibetan refugees trickled into neighboring Nepal, ripe
for recruitment by the CIA. Under the Eisenhower administration, Dulles got
permission to train the recruits in OSS-type sabotage techniques, demolition,
and most importantly, code-and-cipher work for radio operators. Eager
Tibetans were flown from the refugee camps in Dakota transport airplanes with
blacked-out windows halfway across the world to Camp Hale, an army training
base taken over by the CIA near Leadville, Colorado. There they were trained
in the basic doctrines of guerrilla warfare, tactical small-arms use,
explosives, and the tradecraft of underground resistance movements. The CIA
trainees were then flown back to base camps in Nepal, and infiltrated back
Soon Tibetan resistance armies like the Chushi Gangdruk, a force of freedom
fighters headed by Andruk Gonpo Tashi, were in the field. The name Chushi
Gangdruk means "Four Rivers, Six Ranges," and describes the Tibetan homeland
of Tashi's fighters. Although its numbers were small compared to the
divisions of the People's Liberation Army, the CIA regarded them as an
effective fighting force. A memo from Dulles to the White House summarized
the Agency's view of its guerrillas:
The Tibetans, particularly the Khambas, Goloks, and other tribes of East
Tibet, are a fierce, brave and warlike people. Battle in defense of their
religion and the Dalai Lama is looked upon as a means of achieving merit
toward their next reincarnation.
By the late 1950's the CIA had plenty of assets inside Tibet. These
included agents, paramilitary troops, and commanders. The number of Tibetan
freedom fighters had risen to the tens of thousands.
Tibet's mountains meant the only practical way to get supplies to the
freedom fighters was by air. Colonel Harry "Heinie" Aderholt's air commandos,
an elite Air Force unit tasked with supporting the CIA's special missions
since the Korean War, was tapped for the job. The resupply line to Tibet
started in Okinawa, the closest secure transshipment point the CIA could use
in moving the clandestine arms purchases. From Okinawa, Aderholt's planes
shipped the arms to a forward operating base at Takhli, Thailand. From
Thailand, C-130 aircraft flew men and supplies over Indian airspace for
parachute drops into Chinese-occupied Tibet.
The mountain flying, unaided by radar and modern instrument navigational
systems, was hazardous even in good conditions. Diplomatic considerations
made it even more complicated. Because the route involved overflights of
India, there was always a risk that a plane would go down in Indian
territory. Prime Minister Nehru's relations with the neighboring Chinese were
complex, but they were certain to be badly strained if China interpreted the
overflights as tacit Indian support for the secret war. In the late fifties
and early sixties, Nehru was becoming increasingly cooperative with the
Soviet Union, and a breach with China might have furthered India's pro-Soviet
In view of this delicate balancing act, the U.S. could not afford to create
a diplomatic incident by losing a planeload of covert weapons in India. It
was critical that the U.S. supply flights go off without any hitches. Air
Force Major Larry Ropka, said to be "CIA's finest aerial infiltration
planner," handled the operation. Ropka had a reputation as a detail-sweating
perfectionist. Throughout the entire Tibetan airdrop operation, Ropka never
lost a single airplane.
But by far the most important CIA asset was an agent named Gyalo Thondup,
elder brother to the Dalai Lama. Although he has remained in his brother's
shadow, Thondup's role in Tibet's fight for freedom is unsurpassed. He was
vital not only to CIA paramilitary operations in Tibet, but to the Dalai
Lama's safe flight into exile. Thanks to Thondup's liaison with the CIA, the
Chinese were prevented from capturing the Dalai Lama. " Gyalo Thondup was a
good agent," says the retired CIA officer who met clandestinely with the
Dalai Lama's brother to plan the exodus from Tibet. " He was smart,
Thondup's case officer spent a career in the CIA. When he discusses the
Tibetan operation, he is still careful to shelter confidences. " I've sort
of trained myself to forget about the operational detail," he explains. "You
don't talk very much about specific operational details, or even specific
operations, for anyone who's alive..."
The beginning of the end came in March, 1959, when a general uprising known
in intelligence annals as the "Tibetan Rebellion" broke out. Many factors
fueled the uprising, including unthinkable Chinese barbarities, communal land
policies, and the crowding of refugees into the capital city of Lhasa. But
the sparks that ignited the tinder were rumors that China was about to kidnap
the Dalai Lama. Some 30,000 Tibetans flocked to the gates of the Dalai Lama's
palace to protect him. In response, the Chinese shelled the crowd with
The crisis was a turning point for Tibetan diplomacy, which for eight years
had sought an accommodation with China. With no accommodation possible, the
Dalai Lama took up the standing American offer of help in getting out of
CIA -trained Chushi Gangdruk fighters were strategically deployed along a
southern route leading from Lhasa across the Himalayas to India. Their orders
were to prevent any Chinese pursuit, blocking key passes along the southern
route, and fighting to hold them as long as necessary while the Dalai Lama and
his entourage made their way to safety on horseback.
The Dalai Lama's trek lasted from mid-March until the beginning of April.
During the entire trip through the remote mountains of Tibet, CIA -trained
radio operators sent daily progress reports to Allen Dulles. Coded radio
messages were broadcast from Tibet's peaks to CIA listening posts on
Okinawa, and then relayed to Washington, where Dulles anxiously monitored the
day-by-day movements during the two-week-long trek.
In briefing the National Security Council on March 26, 1959, Dulles
confidently predicted that "we have every reason to hope that the Dalai Lama
will get out of Tibet fairly soon." To be precise, Washington had only five
more days to wait for the Dalai Lama's safe emergence in India.
Nowhere, perhaps, was the Dalai Lama's progress more anxiously tracked than
at the U.S. Embassy in India. That is where Gyalo Thondup's CIA control
officer and Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker awaited the Dalai Lama's arrival. The
clandestine radio broadcasts, once relayed to Washington, were then
retransmitted to the CIA Station in New Delhi. By March's end the wait was
On April 1, with confirmation that the Dalai Lama was safely out of Tibet,
CIA Director Dulles sent a memo to President Eisenhower summarizing the
Tibetan operation. The memo noted that new plans were being developed for
But before April was over, conditions for the resistance had deteriorated
badly. A month of fighting between the Chinese and Tibetan resistance in the
south near the Dalai Lama's route into exile had virtually decimated the
guerrillas. Captured Chinese documents estimated that as many as 85,000
Tibetans had been killed in the fighting. Pockets of resistance were short on
food, supplies, and hope. Many guerrillas wanted to flee into India.
The backbone of the rebellion had been smashed. It took Dulles and the CIA
months to find any effective resistance forces left inside Tibet. When they
succeeded, the recruits came mainly from Eastern Tibet, tribal peoples known
as the Khambas.
Again, the Dakota aircraft transported willing novices from base camps in
Nepal to Colorado for training, and Aderholt's clandestine air force planes
parachuted trained men and supplies back into Tibet. But few expected the
remaining Tibetan freedom fighters to win independence. They were valued
mainly for their utility in harassing the Chinese -- and for the
intelligence, including captured documents, they could provide to CIA.
"When you're summing up the Tibetan operation," one of Gyalo Thondup's
former case officers says, "there are three phases. Intelligence.
Paramilitary. Political action.
"It was a combination of running the guerrilla warfare, which we knew was
pinpricks, and the intelligence, because until then the main source was the
British in Hong Kong," he says, dredging up ancient intelligence rivalries.
"Hong Kong, we used to call it our window on China."
British and American intelligence have rarely gotten along. During World
War II, the British secret services eagerly tutored fledgling American OSS
agents in the finer points of spywork. But relations chilled early in the
postwar era, when American diplomacy took a turn against British imperial
claims, and American agents started spying in former British colonies. The
British protested American operations in their "sphere of influence," which
to Britain meant half the world. A series of spy scandals in the fifties
involving Burgess, McLean, and Philby -- British diplomats and intelligence
officers doubling for the KGB -- further strained relations.
To analysts at CIA headquarters, Communist China was at first enigmatic,
puzzling, labyrinthine. Tibet changed the intelligence outlook. Guerrillas
frequently captured Chinese documents that shed light on Chinese policy and
helped resolve internal disputes wracking the intelligence community. "The
take was very good," says the former case officer.
The Tibetan operation meant that the CIA could depend less on British
intelligence to develop an understanding of China. For this reason, President
Eisenhower reauthorized the covert program in February 1960. But in May of
that same year, a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Soviet
airspace. The event occurred on the eve of a major summit, and proved a huge
diplomatic embarrassment for the United States.
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update 18 aug 98