Behind the scenes of the Dalai Lama’s early history with the CIA

Touted to be the "first definitive biography" of the acclaimed Tibetan scholar, author Alexander Norman had one source: the Dalai Lama himself.
February 25, 2020, 5:00 AM UTC
"The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life" by Alexander Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

When Chairman Mao announced the “liberation” of Tibet as a top priority for the newly founded People’s Republic of China, the Dalai Lama was not yet 15 years old (although, counting by Tibet’s lunar calendar, he thought himself that age). The first troop incursions occurred at the end of 1949.

A year later, the Tibetan army was completely routed after a short campaign by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Following this, on Nov. 17, 1950, the Dalai Lama was proclaimed temporal leader of his country. A further six months on and the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet was signed by a delegation of Tibetan negotiators in Beijing. Up to that point, the only window on the outside world the Dalai Lama had had was a series of roughly weekly meetings over a period of around six months with the Austrian adventurer and alpinist Heinrich Harrer.

It is thus a remarkable irony that the Dalai Lama’s introduction to the modern world came from a former member of Hitler’s SS. It was Harrer who subsequently put the Dalai Lama’s brother in touch with officials at the U.S. embassy in India and who hatched a plot with the CIA to spirit the Dalai Lama out of Tibet if he would first publicly repudiate the agreement. This the Dalai Lama declined to do—on the grounds that it was not clear that America would give wholehearted support to Tibet if he did. It was nonetheless at this moment that the agency began to take a close interest in Tibet.

What follows is an excerpt from my book, THE DALAI LAMA: An Extraordinary Life (HMH Books & Media).

“The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life” by Alexander Norman.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Word of the Precious Protector’s escape spread swiftly around the world, but for want of information, the many news agencies taking an interest in the story were compelled to hold their breath. Ten days after the Dalai Lama disappeared from Lhasa, the Indian president sent an urgent letter to Nehru asking for a report. The prime minister replied, saying, “We do not yet know where the Dalai Lama is.” He was being decidedly economical with the truth. Thanks to the presence of the American-trained radio operators among the escapees, Washington—with the help of Geshe Wangyal—was able to monitor the party’s progress almost the entire way along its route. Nehru, second only to President Eisenhower, was informed the day before writing to the Indian president that the escape party had arrived safely at the border. But it would not do to broadcast the government’s intelligence capability owing to its links with the CIA.

As for the press, there were slim pickings for the hundreds of reporters who converged on the remote tea-growing settlement of Tezpur in far northeastern India. It was here, after resting a week in a remote town close to where he crossed the border, that the Dalai Lama was welcomed by the mayor and a large crowd of well-wishers immediately prior to entraining for Mussoorie, a further two days’ journey to the west. There were no interviews, not even for old friends like Heinrich Harrer, who had made a special journey. All that was to be granted him and others was a short, moderately worded statement from the Dalai Lama (the text agreed to in advance with the Indian government) explaining briefly the circumstances leading up to his request for political asylum and thanking the people and government of India “for their spontaneous and generous welcome.” Following lunch with local dignitaries, the Dalai Lama and his entourage left for the station without further word. Despite the Tibetan leader’s temperate language, his words were immediately denounced by the Chinese. “The so-called statement of the Dalai Lama is a crude document, lame in reasoning, full of lies and loopholes,” thundered the People’s Daily.

Two days after leaving Tezpur, the Precious Protector reached Mussoorie, where Nehru had arranged for the Tibetan leader to stay at Birla House, the splendid country retreat of a family of wealthy industrialists close to the prime minister. On arrival, as indeed he had been all along the way, he was given an exuberant welcome by the local people.

Almost the Dalai Lama’s first act on arrival was to preside over the requisite rituals “to invoke the commitment of the Dharma Protectors who had vowed to guard the teachings of the Buddha, in order to quickly pacify these troubling times in the world at large and specifically in Tibet.” The deities had not been able to save Tibet, but at least they had kept the Dalai Lama safe. The very next day, Nehru himself arrived. At first, the Indian prime minister had granted asylum only to the Tibetan leader and his immediate entourage, unaware—as was the Dalai Lama at the time—that there would be a mass exodus of refugees from Lhasa and its environs following in the Precious Protector’s wake. But when reports reached Nehru of the fighting in Lhasa, he relented. Now all were welcome, provided they gave up their arms.

For Nehru, the whole affair was deeply troubling. As he explained to the Dalai Lama, his “being in India [kept] alive the question of Tibet in the world,” which for China was “immediately one of irritation and suspicion.” On the one hand, he had hoped that with the mutual accord treaty signed in 1954, there might be permanently friendly relations between China and India. The presence of the Dalai Lama and his followers threatened this. On the other hand, he clearly felt some responsibility for having insisted on the Precious Protector’s return to Tibet three years earlier. In their four hours of talks, Nehru assured the Tibetan leader of his welcome, but at the same time emphasized that the Indian government would not support his claim to Tibetan independence. The prime minister’s plain speaking on the subject caused the Dalai Lama later to recall that Nehru could be something of a bully. For his part, though, it is clear the prime minister found the young Tibetan leader exasperatingly naive. When the Dalai Lama told him of his determination both to win back independence for Tibet and to avoid any further bloodshed, Nehru exploded, “his lower lip quivering with anger…‘That is not possible!’”

The 24-year-old Dalai Lama may have been politically naive, but he was well aware that he and his fellow refugees faced a decidedly uncertain future. Many Tibetans, including senior members of the Dalai Lama’s entourage, assumed it was simply a matter of time before their return would be negotiated. America and the other great powers would surely support Tibet as soon as they understood the reality of the situation. The Dalai Lama himself had no such illusions. Furthermore, it soon became clear that, while Mussoorie was a congenial place to stay, it was remote both physically and psychologically from the political hub of New Delhi. That the resort retained—as it does to this day—an air of colonial gentility, with several once grand hotels and a number of prestigious English-style private schools, was small recompense.

There were some advantages to these new circumstances, however. Left entirely to their own devices, and having few demands on their time, to their satisfaction the monastic element within the Dalai Lama’s household was able, as Trijang Rinpoché later wrote, to “focus…on religious practice” and “observe the discipline of renunciates.”

While life in Mussoorie settled soon enough into quiet routine, one of the most trying aspects of exile quickly became apparent. Information about what was happening at home, still more so of what had become of individual people, was almost impossible to come by. The Chinese said only what they wanted to say and refused entry to all foreigners. And such news as did reach the Precious Protector’s ears was uniformly bad. The refugees who followed in his wake brought with them shocking tales of Chinese brutality. But then as the springtime heat gave way to the summer’s monsoon rain, another, more pressing problem made itself felt. Most of those arriving had nothing but the heavy clothing suitable to the Tibetan climate and were completely ignorant of conditions in India. Worse, they had little resistance to the tropical illnesses that quickly broke out among them. During a visit to Delhi in June 1959, the Dalai Lama therefore urged the Indian government to move them to camps on higher ground.

By this time a number of international relief agencies were working with the refugees, who continued to arrive in large numbers until, by the end of the year, they were estimated to total around 80,000, including many children. In the beginning they were placed in camps close to the border, where the agencies, notable among them the Save the Children Fund and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, first encountered them. Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama’s American friends had also not been slow to act. That summer the CIA was instrumental in obtaining for the Dalai Lama both the recently instituted Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership and, somewhat improbably, the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Memorial Award for International Rescue. The one commemorated a Philippine politician, the other an American explorer. But together these awards went a good way toward meeting the need for funds for the time being. The agency was also responsible for an investigation of the legal status of Tibet, undertaken by the International Commission of Jurists, whose personnel arrived among the refugees during the summer. The commission subsequently published a report, based on interviews and bolstered by historical research, which argued that Tibet had been, de facto, an independent sovereign state from the moment when the Great Thirteenth expelled the Qing garrison from Lhasa in 1912. This would form the basis of the legal case for subsequent appeals to the United Nations.

It seems certain that the CIA, acting in concert with sympathetic members of the Indian government, also had a hand in the new statement the Dalai Lama released at this time. Speaking of the “tyranny and oppression” of the Chinese authorities, the Precious Protector said that he would welcome “change and progress,” but that the Chinese had “put every obstacle in the way of carrying out…reform.” Instead, “forced labour and compulsory exactions, a systematic persecution of the people, plunder and confiscation of property belonging to individuals and monasteries and execution of leading men” were “the glorious achievements of the Chinese rule in Tibet.”

The public repudiation of the Seventeen Point Agreement that followed (and here one might be forgiven for supposing that the 24-year-old leader had been writing political speeches all his life) was precisely the justification the CIA needed for its continued support of the resistance movement. But while the Dalai Lama’s clearly ghostwritten speech was enough for Washington, the Tibetan resistance still hoped for something more. To this end, Gonpo Tashi, the rebel leader, paid an early visit to Mussoorie. There he learned that although the Precious Protector supported the aims of the movement—a Tibet free of Chinese interference—and was full of admiration for the bravery and determination of the rebels, and accepted that there were times when the Buddhadharma must be defended by all means, including violence, giving his support was a step he could not in good conscience take. Besides, the government in exile’s impending appeal to the United Nations—which the Dalai Lama was determined to lodge in spite of Nehru’s stated opposition—would lose much of its force if Tibet could not present itself as a peaceful victim of China’s aggression.

This was a huge personal disappointment to Gonpo Tashi, described by his CIA handler, Roger McCarthy, as “one of the most impressive figures I…ever met.” Nonetheless, the Tibetan rebel leader played a leading role in planning a major operation scheduled for the coming winter.

In September, 18 men (the first batch from Camp Hale) were parachuted into Pemba, a district approximately 200 miles northeast of Lhasa, where the rebels were jointly led by a layman and a young reincarnate lama. The agents were accompanied by an extremely generous supply of war matériel: 126 pallets of arms and armaments, together with first aid and food supplies, dropped in three separate sorties. Altogether this was adequate to equip something like 5,000 men.

Though properly armed for the first time, the rebels proved unable to capitalize on the munificence of their backers. While the CIA envisaged a classic, highly mobile guerrilla operation, with the rebel force taking to the hills and coming down in small numbers to attack the Chinese at moments and in places of weakness before disappearing back to the mountain trails they knew so well, the reality was very different. The Tibetans’ modus operandi was, as it had always been, to fight in large, loose, mainly mounted formations. This could be effective when they had numerical superiority on open ground but was much less so in the face of even small numbers of a well-armed enemy properly dug in. More significant still was the Tibetan fighters’ vulnerability to air strikes. The result was a foregone conclusion.

Recounting the CIA’s reaction to the debacle years later, Roger McCarthy, the director of operations, recalled: “At first we didn’t believe the reports coming in. We thought it was an exaggeration, an error. But it wasn’t.” The Chinese attacked the rebel encampment— home not just to the soldiers but also to their wives and children— with aircraft and long-range artillery. “It was genocide, pure and simple.”

One might have expected the experience at Pemba to cause the Americans to lose faith in the ability of Tibetans to wage effective war against the Chinese. That it did not suggests the CIA hoped that, with more rigorous training in guerrilla tactics, Chushi Gangdruk could yet become a serious threat to the Chinese. The Tibetans knew their terrain and could survive the harshest conditions; they just needed to learn to fight in small detachments. This now became the focus of their training in the United States.

While the CIA was hopeful of modernizing Tibetan tactics through its training program, the agency also supported a more traditional force that had gathered at Mustang, a remote ethnically Tibetan province in northern Nepal. With arms and funding channeled through India, several thousand men gathered here to form what was intended as a reinvasion force. To keep morale up and to test the force’s readiness to fight, the Mustang guerrillas launched periodic raids into southern Tibet—scoring, on occasion, what has been described as “one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the agency.” This was the acquisition, following a raid on a transport convoy, of a blue satchel containing detailed information about PLA troop dispositions and intentions, along with the first confirmed reports of famine and unrest in China during the Great Leap Forward. This was at a time when almost nothing was known either about the internal workings of the Chinese military or about conditions in China itself.

It remains open to speculation how fully aware the Dalai Lama was of the enormous scale of the operations both in Pemba and in Mustang, but there is room for supposing that he did indeed have a clear idea of what was going on, even if he did not know every detail. From the memoir of John Kenneth Knaus, the CIA’s director of operations in India, who met the Dalai Lama in 1964, it is evident that the Tibetan leader knew exactly who Knaus was. It is also clear that the Dalai Lama was profoundly ambivalent about the whole business. One side of him, the merely human, wished Knaus and his team every success. The other side, the religious, forbade him to do so. Knaus recalled how, as a result, the Precious Protector imposed “a remarkably effective, though invisible, barrier between us” when the American entered the audience chamber.

For the Dalai Lama, perhaps the only positive thing to emerge from the CIA program was its effect on people’s thinking. Knaus reports him allowing that “Tibet had been made up of many tribes who would not cooperate with one another. Now our common enemy—the Communists—had united us…as never before.”

The new book The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life (HMH Books) will be published on February 25, 2020. Order your copy here.

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