Intervention Gone Sour: The CIA’s Tibet File

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

What would happen if America and its allies were to intervene to protect the rights of Tibetans under Chinese rule in much the same fashion as the NATO allies just did on behalf of the people of Kosovo?

The answer is that the United States already tried, a long time ago. For years, during the 1950s and ‘60s, the CIA actively backed the Tibetan cause with arms, military training, money, air support and all sorts of other help.

It didn’t work out well at all. Quite a few Tibetans were killed, but China’s hold over Tibet was never really shaken. By the end of the 1960s, the CIA ended the effort, leaving the Tibetans embittered and abandoned.

“Please arrange in your next reincarnation to be the prime minister of a country where we can do more to help you,’ Desmond Fitzgerald, one of the CIA’s senior hands, told a senior Tibetan official. That poignant line sums up the ineffectiveness of the operation.


The details of the CIA’s Tibetan program have long been cloaked in secrecy. In 1993, then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey told Congress that the files on the agency’s activities in Tibet and several other of its covert operations of the Cold War would be opened. The CIA has since reneged on this promise, claiming it doesn’t have enough resources.

But recently a wealth of new information has begun to emerge elsewhere. The Times reported last fall on recently declassified documents showing that the CIA provided an annual subsidy of $180,000 to the Dalai Lama from the late 1950s through the 1960s.

A new book is helping to fill out the long-hidden story of the CIA in Tibet. “Orphans of the Cold War” was written by John Kenneth Knaus, a former CIA operative who for a time was in charge of the agency’s covert operations in Tibet. Knaus’ account sheds new light on both the origins and the unhappy denouement of the CIA’s Tibetan venture.

Take, for example, the matter of those CIA subsidies. The earlier documents suggested that they started after the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet into exile in India in 1959.


While that’s true, Knaus’ book points out that the idea for the subsidies dates back much earlier. In 1950, troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibet, ending nearly four decades in which Tibet had run its own affairs and operated like an independent country.

The following year, the Truman administration secretly tried to persuade the young Dalai Lama to leave Tibet for exile, hoping that he could serve as a catalyst for political opposition to China’s new Communist regime. The CIA offered to provide him financial support as part of the deal.

At the time, the Tibetan leader decided instead to stay in his homeland and try to work out an accommodation with Beijing. But eight years later, he hurriedly left for India amid an unsuccessful Tibetan revolt against China.

“The Tibetans came up with figures [in 1951] for how much money was needed to sustain him and a government” in exile, Knaus explained in an interview. “In 1959, his flight into exile wasn’t voluntary, but we [the CIA] lived up to that commitment.” Knaus found that the CIA’s subsidies to the Dalai Lama lasted, at an unspecified level, until 1974.

For years, it has been assumed that the CIA pulled the plug on the Tibetan operation as a result of President Nixon’s opening to China. Many Tibetan exiles still believe that Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger worked out a deal with the Chinese on Tibet.

However, after several years of research, Knaus says he could find no evidence of such a deal. And he writes that by 1969, “the decision had already been made to abandon Mustang [the headquarters in Nepal for the Tibetan guerrillas] for operational and not geopolitical reasons.” CIA officials decided the Tibetan guerrillas couldn’t do what they had hoped.

In other words, after underestimating China’s resolve, the CIA gave up. But along the way, CIA officials seem to have misled the Tibetans into thinking they had American support for the establishment of an independent Tibet.

“The Americans who negotiated [with the Dalai Lama’s brother] in 1956 probably did make promises to back Tibetan independence--promises that were never honored,” Knaus concluded. “The negotiators were for the most part operations officers who may well have been swept up in the optimism of their own plans, not legal experts schooled in the differences among independence, autonomy and self-determination.”


By Knaus’ account, the American officials who supported the Tibetans were motivated by idealism in the spirit of Woodrow Wilson--much as is the American support for Kosovo today. And yet Knaus confesses in the end to his sense of “guilt . . . over our participation in these efforts, which cost others their lives, but which were the prime adventure of our own.”

The Tibetan saga is a cautionary tale, worth remembering now as Americans watch the Kosovars returning to their homes. When the United States ambitiously intervenes overseas to help stop repression, its best intentions sometimes go awry. And when that happens, America leaves behind orphans like those from Tibet.