Tibet and the CIA: The War We Cancelled

Jonathan Mirsky discusses books by CIA veteran John Kenneth Knaus and anthropologist Carole McGranahan on the history and consequences of CIA operations in Tibet, which contributed to Beijing’s enduring suspicion of “the Dalai clique”. From The New York Review of Books:

[…] For nearly two decades after the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet, the CIA ran a covert operation designed to train Tibetan insurgents and gather intelligence about the Chinese, as part of its efforts to contain the spread of communism around the world. Though little known today, the program produced at least one spectacular intelligence coup and provided a source of support for the Dalai Lama. On the eve of Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 meeting with Mao, the program was abruptly cancelled, thus returning the US to its traditional arms-length policy toward Tibet. But this did not end the long legacy of mistrust that continues to color Chinese-American relations. Not only was the Chinese government aware of the CIA program; in 1992 it published a white paper on the subject. The paper included information drawn from reliable Western sources about the agency’s activities, but laid the primary blame for the insurgency on the “Dalai Lama clique,” a phrase Beijing still uses today.

[…] While the CIA effort never produced a mass uprising against the Chinese occupiers, it did provide one of the greatest intelligence successes of the Cold War, in the form of a vast trove of Chinese army documents captured by Tibetan fighters and turned over to the CIA in 1961. These revealed the loss of morale among Chinese soldiers, who had learned of the vast famine that was wracking China during The Great Leap Forward. Over the next decade, however, there was growing disagreement in Washington over the CIA’s activities in Tibet, and in 1971, as Henry Kissinger prepared for Nixon’s meeting with Mao, the program was wound down.

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