Defiance against Chinese oppression has been a defining characteristic of Tibetan life for more than four decades, symbolized most visibly by the much revered Dalai Lama. But the story of Tibetan resistance weaves a far richer tapestry than anyone might have imagined.
Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison reveal how America's Central Intelligence Agency encouraged Tibet's revolt against China--and eventually came to control its fledgling resistance movement. They provide the first comprehensive, as well as most compelling account of this little known agency enterprise.
The CIA's Secret War in Tibet takes readers from training camps in the Colorado Rockies to the scene of clandestine operations in the Himalayas, chronicling the agency's help in securing the Dalai Lama's safe passage to India and subsequent initiation of one of the most remote covert campaigns of the Cold War. Conboy and Morrison provide previously unreported details about secret missions undertaken in extraordinarily harsh conditions. Their book greatly expands on previous memoirs by CIA officials by putting virtually every major agency participant on record with details of clandestine operations. It also calls as witnesses the people who managed and fought in the program--including Tibetan and Nepalese agents, Indian intelligence officers, and even mission aircrews.
Conboy and Morrison take pains to tell the story from all perspectives, particularly that of the former Tibetan guerrillas, many of whom have gone on record here for the first time. The authors also tell how Tibet led America and India to become secret partners over the course of several presidential administrations and cite dozens of Indian and Tibetan intelligence documents directly related to these covert operations.
As the movement for Tibetan liberation continues to attract international support, Tibet's status remains a contentious issue in both Washington and Beijing. This book takes readers inside a covert war fought with Tibetan blood and U.S. sponsorship and allows us to better understand the true nature of that controversy.
This book is part of the Modern War Studies series.
KENNETH CONBOY is a former policy analyst and deputy director at the Asian Studies Center in Washington, D.C., whose other books include Spies and Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam and Feet to the Fire: CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia, 1957–1958.
The late JAMES MORRISON was a thirty-year Army veteran and the last training officer for the CIA-sponsored Unity project. He coauthored numerous books with Conboy, including Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos.
Table of Contents
The Prodigal Son
Four Rivers, Six Ranges
Hitting Their Stride
The Joelikote Boys
A Pass Too Far
"Though a hundred Khampas die," goes a Tibetan proverb, "there are still a thousand Khampa children." While it is true that a disproportionate number of Khampa tribesmen have died in the revolts since the middle of the twentieth century, defiance against Chinese subjugation has become a defining characteristic of Tibetans from all clans and ethnic backgrounds.
The following is a story of how the U.S. government, primarily through the Central Intelligence Agency, came to harness, nurture, and encourage that defiance in one of the most remote covert campaigns of the cold war. This is not the first time that it has been told. Indeed, some of the details--such as apocryphal tales of CIA case officers chanting Tibetan Buddhist mantras to seek solace--have become cliché. Two former CIA officials have even published books on Tibet after clearing the agency's vetting process.
This take on the Tibet story is different. As much as possible, it is told on the record, through the people who managed and fought in the program: from CIA case officers to Tibetan agents to Indian intelligence officials to proprietary aircrews. Many are going public for the first time; many, too, are offering details never before revealed.
It was our intent to tell the story objectively from all angles, especially from the Tibetans' viewpoint. Through their own words and deeds, it becomes possible to cut down the inflated caricatures many Westerners have been fast to paint and thus see the Tibetans as they should be seen: as fallible mortals replete with moments of defeatism, selfishness, and brutal infighting.
Telling the story in this manner is important for several reasons. First, the Tibet saga is an important chapter in the CIA's paramilitary history. In Tibet, new kinds of equipment--aircraft and parachutes, for example--were combat tested under the most extreme conditions imaginable. New communications techniques were tried and perfected. For many of the case officers involved in this process, the Tibet campaign was a defining moment. Not only did the Tibetans win over U.S. officials with their infectious enthusiasm, but the lessons learned in Tibet were used by these officers during subsequent CIA campaigns in places like Laos and Vietnam. Tibet, therefore, became a vital cold war proving ground for CIA case officers and their spy craft.
Second, the story told in these pages is properly placed in the context of the country where most of its programs were staged: India. In past renditions of the Tibet campaign, India's role gets barely a mention, if at all. In reality, Tibet led Washington and New Delhi to become secret partners over the course of several U.S. administrations; even when relations appeared to be particularly strained during the era of Richard Nixon, there remained a discreet undercurrent of intelligence cooperation. With an understanding of this secretive dimension to Indo-U.S. ties, American involvement in the subcontinent suddenly appears far more nuanced and pragmatic.
Finally, the CIA's secret campaign in Tibet was a vital part of contemporary Tibetan history. Though the agency's assistance was small in absolute terms--the Dalai Lama's older brother, Gyalo Thondup, has since derided it as "a provocation, not genuine help"--it proved pivotal during several key moments. Were it not for the CIA's radio agents, for example, the Dalai Lama might not have arrived safely in exile. And in his early years on Indian soil, the Dalai Lama relied on CIA assistance to get settled. Though the CIA-supported guerrilla army in Mustang proved ineffectual on the ground, the mere fact that there were Tibetan troops under arms was a significant boost to morale in the refugee community. All these factors helped carry the diaspora and its leadership through the darkest years of exile when their cause might otherwise have been forgotten. That the free Tibetan community has been able to survive and even thrive--arguably, the Tibetan issue has a higher profile today than at any time since the 1959 flight of the Dalai Lama--is owed in no small part to the secret assistance channeled by the United States.
This book is based on both written sources and extensive oral interviews. The written sources were gathered primarily from the Foreign Relations of the United States series, as well as releases in the Declassified Documents Reference System and relevant media transcripts recorded by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service. For oral sources, Tashi Choedak and Roger McCarthy were particularly helpful in arranging initial contacts with several key participants. Others that deserve special mention are Dale Andrade, Chue Lam, Harry Pugh, MacAlan Thompson, John Dori, and Tom Timmons. John Cross assisted with locating sources in Nepal. Frank Miller generously provided documents on the People's Liberation Army in Tibet.
As with the two other books we coauthored, the attention to detail in these pages is a reflection of James Morrison and his passion for history. Sadly, it is the last time we can appreciate his talents. Before the publication of this work, Jim passed away. With his passing, I lost a dear friend and colleague who can never be replaced. I truly hope this meets his exacting expectations, and it is in his memory that this book is lovingly dedicated.
Even after stripping away centuries of myth and cliche, Tibet still invites hyperbole. This is largely due to its being situated on real estate best described by superlatives. Averaging almost five kilometers above sea level and covering an area the size of the American Southwest, it is surrounded by some of the planet's highest mountain ranges: the Himalayas to the south, the Karakoram to the west, the Kunlun to the north. Within these imposing natural borders, most of northern and western Tibet -- a third of the country -- is a barren mountain desert of wind-blown dunes crusted with salt deposits. Life in these parts is barely present, nor welcome. In the northeast -- in a zone known among Tibetans as the province of Amdo -- the terrain is akin to the Mongolian steppes, with its grassy veneer sustaining a sparse population of hardy alpine animals. In the southeast quadrant known as Kham, Tibet drops slightly in altitude, and the topography devolves into the exaggerated slopes, impossibly narrow valleys, and gnarled conifers normally associated with Chinese watercolors.
It is the central plateau, however, that has become synonymous with the landscape of Tibet. Encompassing the provinces of U and Tsang, it is a harsh, rocky land of hypnotic beauty where, because of the altitude, light seems to intensify color and detail. Here is a world where animal life copes through unique adaptations: an indigenous breed of horse with double the lung capacity of its low-land cousins, or a species of beetle containing a glycerol "antifreeze" that lets it function in the snow.
The cultures of Tibet reflect these various ecosystems. In the northern and western deserts, the parched, frigid dunes have traditionally kept the region free of human habitation, save for transient trade caravans. To the northeast, the sparse population of Amdo finds little recourse on the steppes other than to eke out a living as seminomadic herdsmen -- or marauding bandits that prey on the same. In the southeast, residents of Kham make the most of river valleys, using them for both pastureland and terraced agricultural plots. Tall for Asians and often lacking the Mongoloid eye fold (giving them a passing resemblance to American Indians), Khampas have earned a reputation for being clannish, courageous, and socially unpolished. This has not stopped them from making their mark as accomplished traders, plying their goods in China, India, and other parts of Tibet. 
Once again, it is in the central plateau where stereotypical Tibetan culture can be found. Clustered around arable meadows, inhabitants of this zone focus on animal husbandry and growing the most robust of crops, such as barley. Central Tibetans at one time also boasted a formidable martial spirit; in the late eighth century, they conquered territory as far south as the Indian plains and as far west as the Muslim lands of the Middle East. Although such prowess has since been replaced by spiritual introspection, central Tibetans have maintained a lock on the country's political power. Dominating the thin upper strata of Tibet's religious bureaucracy and lay aristocracy, they often assume a pampered, elitist air toward the more rural Khampas and Amdowas.
Despite such diversity, all the peoples of Tibet share two basic historical truths. The first is the prominent role of religion in daily life. All Tibetans are believed to have descended from nomadic tribes in the eastern part of central Asia. However, it is not their common ethnic stock but rather a shared devotion to a unique brand of Buddhism -- blending metaphysical teachings from India and indigenous Bon shamanism -- that has lent them a unifying identity. With its rich pantheon of demigods and demons filling a complex cosmology, Tibetan Buddhism is a superstitious and highly ritualized set of beliefs that permeates society. Traditionally, more than a quarter of Tibet's male population -- usually one son in every household -- chose a life of religious celibacy. Within this number, specialized monks came to serve in such diverse roles as servants and athletes. Their sprawling monasteries not only doubled as houses of worship and learning centers but also held sway over vast manorial estates that managed the bulk of national economic output. Three-quarters of the national budget, in turn, was dedicated to education for the priesthood and maintenance of religious institutions. 
Religion even came to replace Tibet's need for more traditional forms of diplomacy. Beginning with the Mongols in 1207 -- and succeeded by the Manchus in the eighteenth century -- there arose an enduring priest-patron symbiosis whereby the suzerain of mainland Asia was largely held at bay in exchange for Tibetan spiritual tutelage.
The second historical truth is that geography has been Tibet's savior. Occupying a strategic crossroads at the heart of the Eurasian landmass, Tibet has been coveted for centuries by surrounding empires. As a consequence, despite its priest-patron accommodation with the suzerain, it has repeatedly suffered the humiliation of occupation by various neighbors.
Subjugation of the Tibetan population is a wholly different matter. Owing to its high altitude, invaders from the lowlands invariably weaken in Tibet's thin air. Aside from more lasting incursions onto the edge of the Amdo plains or across the Kham river valleys, foreign expeditions against the central plateau soon found the cost of sustaining a military presence prohibitive, affording the Tibetan heartland extended periods of de facto independence.
The Historical Divisions of Tibet
By the start of the twentieth century, however, these historical truths were under pressure. The Manchu dynasty, crumbling from within and fraying at the periphery, had its nominal control over Tibet challenged in 1904 by a British expedition staging from India (England, vying with Russia for imperial influence, wanted to extract trading privileges from the Tibetan government). Looking to salvage at least the appearance of authority, the Manchus geared up for a military drive onto the plateau and by 1910 were occupying the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Just as quickly, Tibet won a reprieve. In 1911, the Han Chinese -- who constituted the majority of the population under Manchu domination -- rebelled against their non-Han dynastic overlords. The following year, the last Manchu emperor abdicated the throne and was replaced by a provisional Chinese republican government. Almost overnight, imperial garrisons across the former empire started to revolt, enticing some of the frontier territories to proclaim independence. This put Tibet in a fix. For centuries, Tibetans had had few qualms about their priest-patron quid pro quo with the Mongols and Manchus. But now facing a secular republican regime, Tibetans felt no compulsion to continue this arrangement with the Han Chinese. Seizing the opportunity, they declared full autonomy and evicted the Chinese garrison in Lhasa. At the same time, Chinese troops in Kham began deserting their posts en masse.
Unfortunately for Lhasa, it was not to be a velvet divorce. Suddenly empowered, the republicans had little intention of forfeiting the irredentist claims of their predecessors. Briefly regrouping in neighboring Szechwan Province, the Chinese headed back into Kham. With equal determination, they dispatched a second task force on a southwest bearing from Amdo toward the Tibetan heartland. This latter move came easily for the republicans. Since the eighteenth century, much of Amdo had fallen under the control of local chieftains -- primarily Hiu Muslims -- loyal to the Manchu empire. Now these Hiu were encouraged by the republicans not only to directly impose their will across Amdo but also to send troops toward central Tibet.
Facing twin threats, the Tibetans looked to fight back -- not with religion, as in the past, but by force of arms. The trouble was that Tibet had nothing approaching a military force in the modern sense of the term. For generations, Lhasa had seen little need for a standing army. Among the 3,000 men it retained as a glorified border force, the weaponry was antiquated and training virtually nil. This was especially true of the officer corps, where senior rank was doled out as a favor to nobility.
Scrambling to bolster this paltry force, Tibet approached the British in India and found a mildly sympathetic ear. A shipment of new rifles was rushed across the Himalayas; despite the limited number of weapons, they proved a decisive factor when Lhasa not only stopped China's offensive in Kham but actually pushed it back in some sectors. A cease-fire was called in 1918, with Kham bisected into Chinese and Tibetan sectors of influence along the Yangtze River. Along the Amdo frontier, too, an accommodation was reached with the Hiu.
The truce was not to last. In 1928, Chiang Kai-shek's regimented Kuomintang party took the reins of power within the republican government. Stoking Han nationalist sentiment, the Kuomintang reemphasized the goal of a unified China -- including Tibet. To realize this goal in part, that same year it announced plans to formally absorb Amdo and Kham as the new Chinese provinces of Tsing-hai and Sikang, respectively.
In the case of Amdo, Muslim warlord Ma Pu-fang -- a loyalist from the early days of the republic -- immediately complied with Kuomintang wishes and assumed the seat as Tsinghai governor. In Kham, consolidation was more difficult. Using Khampa clan rivalries as a pretext for intervention, the Chinese were involved in skirmishes during 1930. After a slow start, they gained momentum and by 1932 were making headway across tl1e zone.
Once again, the Tibetans won a reprieve. Facing an imperial Japanese invasion of Chinese Nationalist territory in Manchuria, and not wanting to be distracted by a Tibetan sideshow, the Kuomintang allowed the Kham battle lines to once again settle along the Yangtze. By the mid-1930s, most of Tibet was again enjoying de facto independence.
For the next decade, the country's isolation served it well. While most of the world was consumed in World War II, Tibet shrewdly walked a neutralist tightrope and emerged unscathed with its traditional way of life intact. lt was by no means a perfect existence, however. Tibet's legions of monks were not above internecine struggles that sometimes degenerated into divisive, bloody skirmishes. The religious bureaucracy oversaw a primitive criminal code -- major crimes were punishable by mutilation -- and enforced economic monopolies that made for an exceedingly wide social gap. Moreover, Tibet's spiritual leaders had shunned the introduction of most Western innovations because they feared that modernity would erode their central standing in society. Tibet, as a result, was the ultimate dichotomy: a nation pushing the envelope in terms of philosophical and spiritual sophistication, yet consciously miring itself in the technology of the Middle Ages. 
All this changed in early 1949. To the east of Tibet, a festering civil war in China -- pitting Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Nationalists against communist insurgents under Mao Tse-tung -- was fast coming to a head. Though better equipped, the Nationalists were riddled with corruption and petty rivalries. By that fall, their defenses were crumbling under the combined weight of ineptitude and relentless communist pressure. Looking to regroup, the Kuomintang leadership escaped with 400,000of its troops to the island sanctuary of Taiwan.
The communists lost no time filling the void. On 1 October, a victorious Chairman Mao formally inaugurated the People's Republic of China (PRC) from a new capital in Beijing. Its grip, however, was far from consolidated. Besides facing Nationalist strongholds on Taiwan and on the tropical island of Hainan to the south, the PRC saw itself as heir to the Kuomintang claim over Tibet. Making no secret of its intentions, on 1 January 1950 communist state radio declared that the liberation of all three -- Taiwan, Hainan, and Tibet -- was the goal of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) for the upcoming calendar year.
Of these objectives, Hainan -- separated from China by a small strait and home to only a modest Nationalist presence -- was the easiest to realize. The communists placed elements of four divisions aboard junks and sailed them to the island in April 1950. With little effort, Hainan was soon occupied.
The other targets posed major challenges. To conquer Taiwan, the PLA not only had to cross a far larger strait but also had to contend with Chiang Kai-shek's concentrated defenses. Counting only limited amphibious and airborne forces in its ranks, the communists -- for the time being -- could do little besides verbal saber rattling.
Tibet posed a different set of difficulties. Like the Mongols, Manchus, and Nationalists before them, the PLA had to confront both distance and altitude to reach the central Tibetan plateau. With no drivable roads or airfields, trucks and transport aircraft were of little help.
Still, there were compelling reasons for the PLA to go forward with a land-grab against Tibet. For one thing, the communists had already absorbed Amdo. They had also secured a solid foothold in eastern Kham, and the communists outnumbered Tibetan troops across the Yangtze by a ratio of ten to one. For another thing, the Kham citizenry was far from united. Though intensely devout toward Tibet's religious hierarchy on a spiritual level, most Khampas were prone to interclan rivalries and were loyal to only their families, villages, or -- at most -- districts. A sense of binding nationalist affinity toward Lhasa was usually lacking -- in no way helped by the ill-concealed chauvinism on the part of many central Tibetans. Khampas, as a result, were apt to fall behind whichever side -- Lhasa or Beijing -- offered the most attractive terms for absentee rule.
Nobody epitomized Khampa fence-straddling more than the wealthy Pandatsang family. Led by three brothers who had grown rich on Tibet's lucrative wool trade, the Pandatsangs were as renowned for their commercial skills as for their fiery politicking. The eldest and most orthodox sibling, Yangpel, held several senior Tibetan government titles and lived in the northeastern Indian town of Kalimpong to help run the resident Tibetan trade mission. The second brother, Ragpa, was the family ideologue who initially advocated Tibetan autonomy within republican China (which made him exceedingly unpopular in Lhasa), then tried to ingratiate himself with the advancing communists. Coming full circle, in mid-1950 he was secretly sounding out an accommodation with the Tibetan authorities west of the Yangtze. The youngest brother, Topgyay, was a charismatic firebrand and former officer in the Tibetan military who had led a failed putsch against Lhasa in 1934; he was now hedging the family's bets by offering Beijing support for any PLA invasion of western Kham.
Such waffling was not limited to the Pandatsangs or even the Khampas. Indeed, the PRC could take comfort in the fact that half measures and general confusion had characterized the Tibet policy of key foreign powers for decades. England, for one, paid lip service to "Tibetan autonomy under Chinese suzerainty" but remained cool to giving Lhasa all the aid it wanted or needed. India (which gained its independence from England in 1947) also spoke sympathetically about autonomy but had difficulty embracing Tibet with gestures more substantive than symbolic. 
Whereas British and Indian policy on Tibet often meandered between word and deed, it was nothing compared with the mental whiplash caused by the divergent views within the U.S. government. Not until World War II did Washington seriously explore the implications of a U.S. Tibet relationship, Almost immediately, this resulted in a schism among policy-making bodies. On one side was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America's wartime spy agency, and the U.S. mission in New Delhi, both of which advocated good-faith gestures toward Lhasa. This mind-set was behind the December 1942 visit to Tibet by two OSS officers -- Captain Ilya Tolstoy and Lieutenant Brooke Dolan -- ostensibly to survey an Allied supply route to China through Tibetan territory. Opposing such moves were top State Department officials who, out of deference to America's Chinese allies, did not want to stray from U.S. recognition of what the Kuomintang declared was its sovereign jurisdiction.
For the duration of World War II, these two camps pursued separate and often conflicting agendas. For a brief period after the Allied victory, OSS pragmatism fully gave way to the countervailing pro-China bias. But by the summer of 1949, with Kuomintang defeat in the Chinese civil war seen as increasingly likely, the United States belatedly entertained thoughts of a policy shift. The impetus for this rethinking came from American diplomats in both India and China, who suggested that the United States weigh the advantages of courting Tibet before control was forfeited to the communists.
Back in Washington, policy makers were not swayed. Even when members of the Tibetan cabinet made a desperate plea for U.S. assistance in gaining membership in the United Nations that December, Secretary of State Dean Acheson flatly discouraged the idea, for fear that it might force Beijing's hand and result in a quick takeover. Although Washington might not have liked the idea of losing Tibet to communism, it appeared loath to do anything to stop it. 
None of this was lost on the PRC. By the beginning of 1950, the PLA had secretly charged its Southwest Military Command with the task of consolidating control across Kham. After massing east of the Yangtze early that spring, patrols crossed the river in late May. Apparently intent only on testing Tibetan resolve, the Chinese soon halted the probes and resumed a riverside stare-down.
Beijing had reason to pace its moves. Within a month after the May incursion into Kham, the other side of Asia grew hot as North Korean troops spilled into South Korea. For the next few months, communist columns sliced easily through the southern defenses and nearly reached the bottom of the peninsula. But after winning a United Nations mandate of support, U.S.-led reinforcements rushed to the front and by 1 October had the North Korean army reeling back toward the PRC border.
For Beijing, the turn of events in Korea was both a setback to the worldwide communist movement and a direct threat to its frontier. Throughout the month of September, statements out of the PRC grew increasingly shrill with each defeat of its North Korean ally. But with world attention now focused on East Asia, North Korea's misfortunes created an opportunity in Tibet. At the end of the first week of October, China ordered 20,000 of its troops to "realize the peaceful liberation of Tibet." 
In Lhasa, the Chinese incursion shook Tibet's authorities to the core. Although vastly outnumbered, the Tibetan army theoretically could have exploited Kham's rugged topography to force a protracted guerrilla campaign. Squandering this advantage, it chose instead a strategy that hinged on the conventional goal of defending the town of Chamdo. It was hardly an enlightened choice. Situated on the western bank of the Mekong headwaters, Chamdo was isolated and exposed. This allowed the PLA to traverse the Mekong at multiple points and easily cut the town's avenues of retreat. On 19 October, after a pathetic defensive showing by the local garrison, Chamdo surrendered to Chinese control. After the Tibetan commissioner-general was taken prisoner, he promptly signed over the rest of Kham to the PRC.
Though Tibet was on the ropes, the world barely took notice. This was because within a week after Chamdo fell, Beijing made good on its saber rattling and dispatched a massive intervention force to the Korean peninsula. Staggered by waves of PLA infantry, United Nations troops were forced to retreat south.
With global attention fixed on Korea, the PLA pondered its next move in Tibet. Although China could take satisfaction in how easily it had taken Kham, the Korean conflict had forced the PRC to push forward its timetable and initiate the Tibet operation before adequate preparations were complete. For example, Tibet still lacked a transportation network to support a military occupation of the central plateau. Moreover, it was late in the season, and the combination of snow and altitude would work against the PLA's lowland troops. For the interim, then, Beijing's rule hinged on co-opting Tibet's existing monastic structure. In particular, it needed to secure support from the kingdom's most powerful figure, the Dalai Lama.
If religion is the lifeblood of Tibet, the Dalai Lama is its heart. A by-product of Tibet's priest-patron relationship with the Mongols, the title of Dalai Lama originated in the sixteenth century when a prominent monk, or lama, met ranking Mongol chieftain Altan Khan. In an inspired exchange, the lama declared that the Mongol was an incarnation of a great warlord from an earlier time, while he himself was the incarnation of that warlord's spiritual adviser. By flattering the khan in this manner, the lama was looking to win critical Mongol support for his particular sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The khan was duly impressed and bestowed the monk with the title Dalai -- a partial Mongolian translation of the lama's name -- and he was thereafter known as the Dalai Lama. 
In naming himself an incarnation, the Dalai Lama was not breaking new theological ground. Already, the practice was entrenched among prominent Tibetan monasteries for reasons of statecraft. By using divination to identify a child as the reborn spirit of a recently deceased -- and celibate -- senior lama, the sects could retain a sense of order in the succession process for their chief abbots. The Dalai Lama took this a step further, posthumously naming two earlier monastic leaders as his first and second incarnations.
When the third Dalai Lama died, a search commenced for his reborn soul. Having already won considerable favor with the Mongols, the sect looked to cement that support by shrewdly naming Altan Khan's great-grandson as the fourth incarnation. The tactic worked: by the time the fifth Dalai Lama came to power, he was able to count on firm Mongol backing to spread both his religious and his temporal authority across Tibet.
The fifth Dalai Lama then asked his subjects to make an extraordinary leap of faith. Besides calling himself an incarnation of previous sect leaders, he boldly declared himself the earthly manifestation of one of Tibet's most popular divinities, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Again, this had precedent: many other Asian rulers of the period -- in Cambodia and Indonesia, for example -- claimed similar celestial authority.
Coming to the fore during a golden era in Tibet's history, the fifth Dalai Lama fit easily into the role of god-king. Subsequent Dalai Lamas, however, did not have it so good. Several were murdered in their prime, and most retained power for only a few short years. Most, too, oversaw only theological decisions; political control remained firmly in the hands of a powerful bureaucracy.
It was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the Dalai Lama -- by then in his thirteenth incarnation -- again became Tibet's undisputed religious and temporal leader. By all measures, it was a critical juncture in Tibetan history. Coming off a decade of self-imposed isolation, the country had devolved into a technological backwater. Moreover, several foreign powers -- the British, Manchus, and even Russians -- were all anxiously knocking at its gates.
Faced with these developments, Tibet's conservative bureaucracy had few answers. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in contrast, met the challenge by offering a relatively warm welcome to the introduction of modern innovations. He also proved a canny survivor, twice eluding capture by fleeing abroad during a pair of short-lived foreign invasions.
By the time the thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, he left behind a mixed legacy. Despite early momentum, most of his attempts at modernization were ultimately stymied by the religious elite. The country, as a result, had yet to emerge from its primeval status. Still, Tibet was arguably enjoying greater independence than at any time over the last few centuries.
It was with this benchmark fresh in Tibetan minds that religious search parties scoured the kingdom for the Dalai Lama's reborn spirit. In 1937, their quest came to an end. In a small Amdo farming village, a precocious two-year-old was identified as their ruler's fourteenth incarnation. After being brought to the capital -- where he immediately became the subject of national adulation -- the boy began intensive monastic schooling. Under normal circumstances, he would have continued his studies until the age of eighteen before being formally invested with secular authority. But after Beijing's invasion of Kham in October 1950, Tibet feared an imminent move against the central plateau. Desperate, the Tibetan government waived three years of preparation and on 17 November officially recognized the fifteen-year-old Dalai Lama as the kingdom's supreme ruler.
Though bright and energetic, the youthful leader was a most unlikely savior. Despite being better read than most of his cloistered predecessors, he was unversed in diplomacy and had no ready solution to counter the approaching Chinese juggernaut. Compounding his quandary was the fact that his ecclesiastical court of advisers was divided on how to deal with the PRC. Many senior lamas were inclined to negotiate away most of Lhasa's trappings of autonomy -- in economic, national security, and foreign policy, for example -- in exchange for a free hand in internal affairs. Such thinking was understandable, given that recent Tibetan history was rife with examples of Lhasa's muddling through unscathed from similar foreign threats.
Other Tibetan officials -- led by Thupten Woyden Phala, a close assistant of the Dalai Lama, and Surkhang Shape, one of the country's few foreign envoys -- were far less willing to concede their newfound freedoms. This faction had been behind the appeal for support at the United Nations in late 1949. Ignored the first time, Tibet again petitioned the world body in November 1950 to take up its case against Beijing's aggression. Once more, however, Tibet received little sympathy. Finding deaf ears among the international community and fearful of capture if he remained in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama responded in the tradition of his immediate predecessor: he fled the capital. Disguised as a layman and escorted by an entourage of 200, he stole out of Lhasa on the night of 20 December (1950) and worked his way south toward the border town of Yatung, just twenty-four kilometers from the princely protectorate of Sikkim.
As this was taking place, American diplomats in neighboring India did what they could to monitor the Dalai Lama's movements. Perhaps none took a greater interest than the U.S. ambassador to India, Loy Henderson. Dubbed a "quintessential Cold Warrior" by one Foreign Service officer under his watch, Henderson had long harbored deep concern for Tibet, especially the threat of PRC control extending across the Himalayas. As far back as the summer of 1949 he had lobbied for a more proactive U.S. policy toward Lhasa to offset this feared Chinese advance, including sending a U.S. envoy from India to the Tibetan capital and leaving behind a small diplomatic mission. 
Despite the ambassador's expressed urgency, Washington dragged its feet on approving any bold moves. Frustrated, Ambassador Henderson felt that the stakes were growing too high to afford continued neglect, especially after the Dalai Lama reached Yatung in early 1951. Unless there was some immediate future indication of moral and military support from abroad, he cabled Washington on 12 January, the youthful monarch might leave his kingdom and render ineffective any future resistance to Chinese rule. 
But if the exile of the Dalai Lama posed problems, Henderson saw it as preferable to having him return to Lhasa. To prevent the latter, the ambassador took the initiative in March to pen a letter to the monarch. Written on Indian-made stationery and lacking a signature -- thereby affording the United States plausible deniability if it was intercepted -- the note implored the Tibetan leader not to move back to the capital for fear that he would be manipulated by Beijing. The letter further urged the Dalai Lama to seek refuge overseas, preferably in the predominantly Buddhist nation of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Informing Washington of the note after it had been written, Henderson was in for a surprise. Finally coming around to his way of thinking, the State Department lent its approval to the scheme, with only minor editorial changes. Two copies of the anonymous appeal were eventually printed: one carried to Yatung by Heinrich Harrer, the Dalai Lama's Austrian tutor who had fled Lhasa shortly before the monarch's departure, and the second turned over to a Tibetan dignitary in Kalimpong during Mid-May. Those forwarding the letter were told to discreetly convey that it came from the U.S. ambassador.
The Dalai Lama did not take long to respond. On 24 May, his personal representative sought out U.S. diplomats in Calcutta to clarify several points regarding potential exile. Among other things, the monarch wanted to know if Washington would grant him asylum in America and if the United States would extend military aid to a theoretical anti-Chinese resistance movement after his departure from Tibetan soil. He also wanted permission for his oldest brother, Thubten Norbu, to visit the United States.
Before the United States could respond, a shock came over the airwaves on 26 May. Three months earlier, the Dalai Lama had dispatched two groups of officials to China in a desperate bid to appease Beijing and keep the Kham invasion force at bay. Arriving in the Chinese capital by mid-April, neither group had been authorized by the Dalai Lama to make binding decisions on the kingdom's behalf. Despite this, several weeks of stressful talks took their toll: on 23 May, all the Tibetan emissaries lent their names to a seventeen-point agreement with China that virtually wiped out any prospect of an autonomous Tibetan identity.
When news of the pact was broadcast three days later over Chinese state radio, it was a devastating blow to the Dalai lama. Knowing that the monarch would be under mounting pressure to formulate a response to Beijing, Henderson received approval on 2 June to grant U.S. asylum to the Dalai Lama and a 100-man entourage -- provided both India and Ceylon proved unreceptive. Washington was also prepared to provide military aid if India was amenable to transshipment. Finally, Henderson was authorized to extend U.S. visas to Thubten Norbu and a single servant, though both had to pay their own expenses while in America.
Given the fast pace of events, the embassy decided to send a U.S. diplomat to Kalimpong to deal directly with Tibetan officials at their resident trade mission. These officials were shuttling to and from the Dalai Lama's redoubt at Yatung, and this offered the fastest means of negotiating with the isolated monarch. Because Kalimpong fell within the purview of the American consulate general in Calcutta, Vice Consul Nicholas Thacher was chosen for the job. 
There was a major stumbling block with such indirect diplomacy, however. The United States was looking to advance its Tibet policy in a third country, and that country -- India -- had its own national interests at heart. Despite being condemned by Beijing in 1949 as the "dregs of humanity," New Delhi was doing its best to remain on good terms with China. This precluded Indian officials from being taken into Washington's confidence. Thacher, therefore, needed to negotiate in the shadows.
With little time to concoct an elaborate charade, the American vice consul prepared for the long drive from Calcutta. Taking along his wife, young child, and nanny as cover, Thacher was to explain his Kalimpong trip as a holiday respite if questioned by Indian authorities. Before leaving, he was coached in the use of a primitive code based on the local scenery. Because his only means of communicating from Kalimpong was via telegraph -- no doubt monitored by Indian intelligence -- he would rely on this code to send updates to the Calcutta consulate.
Heading north, Thacher and his family drove thirteen hours to the hill station of Darjeeling. Like other British hill resorts, Darjeeling had been a summer capital for British colonial administrators looking to escape the sweltering low-lands. Like other hill stations, too, the town had earned fame as a recreation center for the social elite; its grand lodges and scenic gardens were set against the breathtaking backdrop of Kanchenjunga, the world's third tallest mountain. Darjeeling was further renowned for producing the champagne of teas; picked from Chinese bushes grown on the surrounding estates, British connoisseurs rated the local leaves as the best in the subcontinent.
Driving another fifty kilometers east, Thacher pulled into Kalimpong on 15 June. Compared with Darjeeling and its amenities, Kalimpong ranked as a minor resort. Still, the town factored prominently in the trans-Himalayan economy because for generations it had served as the final destination for mule caravans hauling products -- primarily wool -- from Tibet. At any given time, there was a significant community of Tibetan merchants in town, making it a logical site for that country's only overseas trade office.
After dropping off his family at an inn run by Scottish expatriates, Thacher had little trouble locating the Tibetan mission. Entering, he introduced himself in English to the ensemble of officials. Sizing up the lone youthful diplomat, they reacted with collective disappointment. "They were expecting more, " he surmised. 
Given few specific instructions, Thacher set about explaining the U.S. offer to grant asylum and material assistance. Very quickly, the vice consul was struck by the lack of realism displayed by Lhasa's envoys. "There was a sense of the absurd," he later commented. "They were talking wistfully in terms of America providing them with tanks and aircraft." Thacher did his best to downplay expectations before taking his leave and making his way to the telegraph office to send a coded report to Calcutta. "It probably amused the Indian intelligence officers who were monitoring the transmissions," said Thacher. "They never raised the issue with us, probably because they thought it would not amount to much and was not worth the trouble of souring Indo-U.S. relations." 
If this was the case, the Indians were right. Hearing of the latest U.S. promises, the Tibetans found little reason for cheer. The offer of U.S. asylum, for example, was to be granted only if Asian options were exhausted, even though the Dalai Lama was adamant that he wanted exile only in America. Military aid, too, was moot, because it was contingent on Indian approval -- a near impossibility, given New Delhi's desire to maintain cordial ties with China.
Twenty-nine years old, Thubten Norbu was an important Tibetan religious figure in his own right. As a child, he had been named the incarnation of a famed fifteenth-century monk. Studying at the expansive Kumbum monastery not far from his home village in Amdo, Norbu had risen to chief abbot by 1949. When Amdo was occupied by the PLA that fall, he came under intense Chinese pressure to lobby his brother on Beijing's behalf. Feigning compliance, he ventured to Lhasa in November 1950. But rather than sell the PRC, he presented a graphic report of Chinese excesses in Amdo. 
Because Beijing no doubt viewed Norbu's act as treachery, the Dalai Lama was anxious to see his brother leave Tibet. He succeeded up to a point, spiriting Norbu to Kalimpong by the first week of June 1951. But with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru doing his best to remain warm with the Chinese, there was ample reason to suspect that the Indian authorities would soon make life uncomfortable for him. The promise of a U.S. visa offered the chance for a timely exit from the subcontinent.
Just when Norbu's departure seemed secure, however, complications arose. Neither he nor his accompanying servant had passports, and they had fled Tibet with insufficient funds to pay for extended overseas travel. Thus, both of them needed to quickly secure some form of sponsorship.
At that point, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stepped forward with a ready solution. By coincidence only weeks earlier the agency had inaugurated the perfect vehicle for discreetly channeling financial support to persons like the Dalai Lama's brother. On 18 May, the San Francisco-based Committee for a Free Asia (CFA) had been formally unveiled to the public as a means to "render effective assistance to Asians in advancing personal and national liberty throughout their homelands." The committee's charter further declared its intention to assist noncommunist travelers, refugees, and exiles in order to "strengthen Asian resistance to communism." Left unsaid was the fact that the committee was made possible by financial assistance from the CIA. 
The plight of Thubten Norbu meshed perfectly with the committee's goals. On 18 June, the embassy in New Delhi was informed that full sponsorship of Norbu's U.S. visit would be assumed by the CFA. If quizzed by the press, Norbu would allegedly be seeking medical treatment for rheumatism of the legs and might also use the opportunity to take English language classes at the University of California at Berkeley, near the committee's headquarters. 
With the sponsorship issue resolved and using temporary Indian identification papers (New Delhi, eager to avoid diplomatic embarrassment, had facilitated a quick departure), Norbu arrived in Calcutta on 24 June with plans to catch a flight to the United States within two weeks. Before leaving, he met with members of the U.S. consulate and was informed that Washington would support a third Tibetan appeal to the United Nations, provided the Dalai Lama publicly disavowed the 23 May agreement with China. Norbu assured the diplomats that his brother, despite his curious silence to date, did not approve of the May pact and was still intent on seeking overseas asylum. 
As scheduled, Norbu departed India on 5 July. Accompanying him was his loyal servant Jentzen Thondup. Two years Norbu's senior, Jentzen hailed from a neighboring village in Amdo and had tended to his master since the latter's schooling at Kumbum. Neither spoke much English, though they carried a guide-book written forty-two years earlier by an Indian Baptist missionary. Landing in London in transit, they reportedly answered questions at the immigration counter with such inappropriate retorts as, "There are a great many landlords under the British." 
From London, the pair continued to New York. Getting off the plane, they were shocked to be greeted by a white man speaking their native Amdo dialect. Their chaperone, Robert Ekvall, had a fascinating personal history. Born in 1898 on the China-Tibet border near Amdo, Ekvall had grown up speaking Chinese and Tibetan. After primary school, he worked as a missionary among the Chinese, Muslims, and Tibetans in that area. In 1944, he joined the U.S. Army as a China area expert and served in that country as a military attaché near the end of the civil war. Given his unique linguistic ability and cultural sensitivity, Ekvall was put on retainer by the CFA to assist Norbu for the duration of his stay in America.
As his first order of business, Ekvall escorted Norbu and Jentzen for a night's rest at New York's posh Waldorf-Astoria. Reporters curious about the new arrivals were fed the bromide about Norbu's rheumatism and intended study at Berkeley. In reality, the Tibetans were whisked the following day to Washington for meetings with State Department and CIA officials.
Norbu had arrived at a critical juncture. By the close of June, Thacher and his family had concluded their faux vacation and returned to Calcutta. In order to maintain coverage in Kalimpong, Thacher was to be replaced by another consulate official. Given that assignment was Robert Linn, head of the small CIA base in Calcutta.
By chance, several weeks earlier, Linn had happened across a key Tibetan contact. While exploring Calcutta by foot, he had taken note of an Asian woman and three men dressed in ornate ethnic attire who had taken up residence near the consulate. Striking up a conversation with the group, Linn received a windfall when he learned that the woman was Tsering Dolma, the elder sister of Norbu and the Dalai Lama. She had been in Calcutta since early 1950 seeking medical treatment. 
When Linn got orders to proceed to Kalimpong, he immediately sought out Tsering Dolma, who agreed to escort him and assist with introductions. Despite her company, however, he found the Kalimpong crowd of little help in swaying the teenage monarch and his conservative courtesans across the border at Yatung. On 11 July, Linn passed word to the Calcutta consulate that the Dalai Lama intended to return to Lhasa in ten days. 
With time running short, officials in Washington imposed on Norbu to translate a message for the Dalai Lama into Tibetan. This, along with two more unsigned letters prepared by the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, was quickly forwarded to Yatung. Embassy officials even flirted with fanciful plans for Heinrich Harrer, the monarch's former tutor, and George Patterson, an affable Scottish missionary who had once preached in Kham, to effectively kidnap the Dalai Lama and bundle him off to India.
All these efforts were to no avail. On 21 July, the monarch heeded advice channeled under trance by the state oracle and departed Yatung on a slow caravan back to the Tibetan capital. Still unwilling to concede defeat, American diplomats continued to smuggle unsigned messages to the Dalai Lama while he was en route. Trying a slightly more bold tack, Ambassador Henderson received approval on 10 September to write a signed note on official government letterhead. Tibetan representatives in India were allowed to briefly view the document the following week and verbally convey its contents to their leader. The United States, read this last message, was now prepared to publicly support Tibetan autonomy. In addition, Washington vowed to assist an anti-Chinese resistance movement with such material as may be "feasible under existing political and physical conditions."
Even if the Dalai Lama's interest was piqued by the latest round of promises, it was probably too late for him to act. He arrived in Lhasa during mid-August, and PLA troops were sighted in the capital by early the following month. On 28 September, the Tibetan national assembly convened to debate the controversial seventeen-point agreement signed the previous May. Less than one month later, confirmation was sent to Mao Tse-tung that the kingdom accepted the accord. Tibet was now officially part of the People's Republic of China.