The Secret War over Tibet

Article excerpt

A story of Cold War heroismand Kennedy administration cowardice and betrayal.

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 late1940's Peking turned its attention to consolidating its territory. In the summer of 195o, 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. …