Back to the Great Game

By Rashid, Ahmed | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Back to the Great Game


Rashid, Ahmed, Harvard International Review


Chronicling the Race for Central Asia

Ten years have passed since the publication of Peter Hopkirk's ground-breaking The Great Game, still considered the Holy Grail for Great Game aficionados. Hopkirk introduced a new generation of readers to the 19th-century game of espionage and great-power maneuverings between tsarist Russia and the British Empire in the "High Himalayas." Since then, several books have fleshed out the details of that Great Game, but none has broken new ground.

However, a new book by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, two retired American journalists, will almost certainly put them in the pantheon of Great Game writers. While Hopkirk concentrated on British secret service exploits in tsarist Central Asia and Tibet, Meyer and Brysac have added a vital new dimension by researching and writing about the lesser, but equally glamorous, role played by Americans. They write insightfully, spinning an intricate, deeply human yarn, with enormous strategic understanding and wisdom, often summing up entire historical eras in a few elegiac but deeply insightful paragraphs.

Moreover, Meyer and Brysac describe the significance and popularity of the explorations by westerners in Central Asia among the populations of Russia, America, and Europe at the time. Such descriptions bring the last century to life. The explorers, mapmakers, and spies whose books were 19th century best-sellers were the astronauts of their time as they travelled through the darkened spaces of the earth.

While Washington had neither a strategic role, nor much interest in Central Asia in the 19th century, American explorers, mapmakers, big game hunters, and East Coast rich kids, were just as fascinated by the lands of Central Asia and Tibet as their British counterparts. In fact, the United States' fascination with Tibet, which culminated in the CIA's abortive arming of Tibetan rebels fighting China's invading forces between 1956 and 1969, began half a century earlier when American diplomats and big-game hunters first arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

The explorer-diplomat William Woodville Rockville (1854-1914), who travelled throughout Central Asia, Mongolia, China, and Tibet was the original American "China Hand," the principal advocate of Washington's "Open Door" policy and the first American to befriend and advise a Dalai Lama. US President Theodore Roosevelt was one of Rockville's closest friends and called him one of the two greatest living diplomats.

By the 1920s the Americans played a role as important as that of the British in Lhasa, together countering Chinese influence and incursions. The authors also tell the fascinating story of the Pundits, Indians trained by the British secret service as mapmakers who were the first to penetrate into Kashmir, Tibet and beyond--where white men could not go.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany became a significant player in Tibet. In the 1940s, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs held as prisoners of war by the Soviet army were disemboweled at the Auschwitz death camp in medical experiments undertaken to test Nazi racial theories. All the Germans involved with Tibet, even the famous Austrian, Heinrich Harrer, who published his bestseller Seven Years in Tibet in 1952, were associated with the Nazis. …

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