Tibet’s Forgotten War – cursed by the Cold War

Tibet’s Forgotten War: Cursed by the Cold War

How and why did CIA suddenly withdraw its covert military assistance to Tibetan Resistance Movement in 1969?


This historical investigation scrutinizes how CIA provided military assistance to Tibetan resistance guerrillas from 1957 to 1969 and examines why the US government stopped the CIA covert mission into Tibet and its assistance all of a sudden. The investigation will also study the US diplomatic relations and the change in its foreign policies at the height of Cold War in relation to its covert operational strategies in Tibet. Notwithstanding this chapter of history being one of the darkest historical events of modern Tibetan history, it has not been disclosed in the two major Hollywood films about Tibet, lately some former diplomats and military special operations personnel were willing to tell the real story of CIA’s war in Tibet through interviews, books and documentaries which became accessible.  Memoirs, documented interviews and face-to-face interviews to the veterans will be used in this investigation. However, it uses Tears of the Lotus by Roger E. McCarthy, one of the former CIA operation personnel who trained the Tibetan recruits at Camp Hale, Colorado and The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison for evaluation of their origins, purposes and limitations in the third section as source analysis.

The Investigation will not include any facts about Tibet’s de facto independence though it might become self-evident, nor will the investigation focus on Chinese policies and the repressions in Thamzing.

Summary of Evidence

United States strengthened its support for Tibet and asked the Dalai Lama to remain outside Tibet and gather International support during his visit to India in 1956 (Knaus, 1999: 135). However, the Dalai Lama went back to Tibet after Nehru’s advice with the hope of negotiations with the young Communist China. Tibetans in Kham revolted after the Chinese attacks on monasteries when the underground rebel group led by Adruk Gompo Tashi sent a representative to India to seek support from outside and especially from United States since there was a promise before. Gyalo Dhondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother in India was the person who connected CIA to Tibet and played crucial role later on.

The CIA’s first agent to sit at the Tibet Desk was John Reagan who he flew to India and met Gyalo to infiltrate six Tibetans in 1957 (Dunham, 2004: 194). A pilot group of six Tibetan Khampas was infiltrated from India and flown to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to Saipan and where they were selected and trained by CIA officers for four and a half month on the island (McCarthy, 1997: 240).

The CIA headquarters had given the cryptonym ST CIRCUS to the emerging Tibet Task Force, this aerial portion of the project retained the same theme and was code-named ST BARNUM (Conboy & Morrison, 2002: 55). In October, after the training, the first six Tibetans as a test group they decided to drop the six into Tibet in two groups with radio gears, extra crystals and personal weapons. The group consisted of two persons as Athar and Lotse successfully landed and were able to work efficiently as a medium of communication between the rebel group, Kashag and CIA from the beginning. However, the other group faced a serious ambush by the Chinese army in which two of them died before they could contact CIA for arms drop (Knaus, 1999: 148) but Wangdu managed to escape to Lhasa later. CIA made its first arms drop to the rebel group and it was the first C-118 drop near the Drigu Tso in Southern Tibet. C 118 aircraft, which has lift capability up to 12000 pounds was used for the first seven airdrops; however it was changed to C-130 that doubled the amount to 25000 pounds under request due to limited arms (Knaus, 1999: 150). And moreover there were also some improvements in arms and ammunitions as they replaced British 303 rifles by U.S. M-1 rifles by late 1958 (McCarthy, 1997: 243). As the CIA training was shifted to the United States in July 1958 and over the next three years, eight teams of CIA-trained soldiers were parachuted into Tibet (McGranahan, 2010: 104).

After the failed resistance inside Tibet, the Tibetan resistance fighters and ‘Chushe Gangdruk’ regrouped at Mustang to form the new force where it operated resistance for the next nine years with CIA military assistance. Unlike the first test group that was trained on Saipan, the subsequent training was relocated to camp Hale, in the rocky mountains of Colorado where Tibetan resistance training was conducted for the next six years (Knaus, 1999: 150). In Nov 1960, U.S. administrations changes as Kennedy becomes the president, but despite passionate opposition from his ambassador Galbraith (India) he takes up the cause and approves the first arms drop to Mustang that was made on March 15, 1961 (Knaus, 1999: 246-248).

CIA demanded results of their operations time and again and was rebuked of for achieving nothing concrete. However, a ‘jeep ambush’ in 1961 was a huge success as they were able to get a bunch of secret official documents of China and that was given to CIA, which reinforced the support to some extent (Conboy & Morrison, 2002: 231). The CIA covert military assistance was maintained right from Eisenhower through Kennedy to Johnson administration despite Kennedy’s hesitance raised by his Indian Ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith.

However, when Washington saw a rift emerging in Sino-Soviet relationship following the so-called ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, which was worsened by its military intervention in Czechoslovakia in early 1969, Nixon realizes the opportunity of playing one communist power against the other which led to his rapprochement with China (LaFeber, 2008: 273). A sudden change in U.S. foreign policy toward China followed CIA’s military assistance to end that devastated the Tibetan Resistance Movement in Mustang (The Shadow Circus).

Evaluation of sources

The book Tears of the Lotus by Roger E. McCarthy, former CIA operation personnel who trained and taught guerrilla tactics to the Tibetan recruits at Camp Hale, was the first book that was ever published on this historical account though there are now several books and a documentary that came later. Another CIA official, John Kenneth Knaus published Orphans of the Cold War in April1999 but it was two years after Tears of Lotus was published. It is an ‘in-depth record’ of every details of the event from 1950 to 1962 in which the writer himself was involved to the extent as an officer of the CIA Tibet Task. It is a valuable source as it supplies a vivid picture of every detail of the events right from the beginning of the covert mission to the end. Unlike other written sources, McCarthy has included many details of the accounts that were reported at the time in Chinese newspapers and also from other sources by giving different perspectives in a comparative presentation of the account that makes it convincing to the readers. For instance, China reported that the Dalai Lama was taken to exile under duress and the separatist rebel group is being funded by Taiwan, when it was in fact the Dalai Lama confirmed publicly that the decision was his own, not even Kashag and also the fact that they were funded by the CIA. McCarthy’s purpose of writing the book is to unveil this historical fact to the world as it was a crucial yet a hidden part of Tibetan history due to CIA’s involvement but his aim was never to justify CIA’s assistance to Tibet to any extent for he acknowledges that it was a failed operation (The Shadow Circus, time: 00:41:40). However, this source can be subjective and biased due to the writer’s direct involvement and his heart-felt sympathy for the Tibetan freedom struggle.

The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison was published three years later, in 2002 and it greatly expands on the memoirs of CIA officials including Tears of Lotus. However, Conboy as a policy analyst and Morrison as a former CIA officer, one can marvel that the book is a critically analyzed account; scrutinizing all previously written narratives with in-depth probe into the intricacies of the events. The inclusion of several interviews of the camp Hale trainees and Mustang veterans has an immense value no matter how subjective it could be as they were several of them interviewed over the same question and examined to draw an objective picture to the best of sources available. Therefore, their purpose of the book is to critically analyze the event by judging from a neutral point of view, as there were no personal involvements. However, its only weakness could be its too much reliance on the previous memoirs of the CIA officials and interviews to the veterans whose sense of failure and betrayal by the CIA could hardly preserve a dispassionate position.


Washington’s view of Tibet as void of geopolitical significance changed after the Pearl Harbor and later in 1949; President Truman chose Mongolia, Sinkiang and Tibet to operate covert actions in USSR and later Communist China (Laird, 2002: 120). Korean Conflict from early 1950’s has in fact helped Tibet as it increased the region’s geopolitical significance with the direction US foreign policy & its crusade against communism and the containment strategy (Dunham, 2004: 61). The Tibet and CIA connection and its covert mission were started in 1956 through Gyalo as the liaison between the two throughout the mission.

The CIA covert mission in Tibet was started during Eisenhower administration and the president even confirmed that the mission would continue if Nixon won in the election in 1960. However, when Kennedy became the president, the CIA director Allen Dulles approached him and was approved by the president to continue backing Tibet its paramilitary assistance. President Kennedy was strongly opposed by the U.S. ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith to terminate CIA Tibet program that somehow might have weakened Kennedy’s commitment as the former CIA officers asserts. However, Kennedy was more involved in communist takeover of Laos and South Vietnam (Knaus, 1999: 246).  The shadow casted by Kennedy-Galbraith-Nehru fraternity was very long indeed; there was even talk of shutting the Tibet task force, (Dunham, 2004: 356) however, it was continued throughout Kennedy administration by Lyndon Johnson.

To look at the actual military assistance, Americans didn’t want the assistance attributable; they did not supply US manufactured equipment but British rifles that were used in World War II in order not to be traced (McCarthy, 1997: 237).  And the military supply of arms and ammunitions were never enough as it was dropped by C-113 in the early air-drops in Tibet in the crucial times. In addition to the limited supply, the two drops in Tibet in July 1958 & February 1959 contained only 20 machine guns and 60 hand grenades, were mostly Lee Enfield rifles (Knaus, 1999: 153). The help was strengthened after CIA changed its plan to assist the Mustang military base of two thousand strong men and from there onward it was entirely financed by CIA.

However, the effort to support Tibet was far too late, and none of it had been requested by the Government in Lhasa which hindered widespread political support for Tibet in the U.S. President Eisenhower was extraordinarily supportive, but the unfortunate drowning of U-2 on May 1960 and capture of the pilot made Eisenhower to suspend the help for a time (McCarthy, 1997: 244). The Soviet military intervention in Eastern Europe worsened the rift between the two great communist powers that gave Nixon and Henry Kissinger an opportunity to play one against another. U.S. foreign policy objectives changed as he sought friendship with China and embraced the so-called ‘rapprochement’ with Mao. The issue of immediate withdrawal of CIA’s military assistance became a historical dispute for there are several versions of it. The CIA officers simply claimed that the ‘operational utility’ of the mission was no longer there and instead it impeded U.S. national interest of seeking friendship with China as it approaches to. On the contrary, the CIA and Nixon government told Gyalo that it was a condition made by China to end any military or financial assistance to Tibetans in Mustang (Conboy & Morrison, 2002).


U.S. started pulling back from Vietnam following its rapprochement with China as now the detente was for all three powers and Tibet’s geopolitical significance for the U.S. was no longer there (Sewell, 2002: 102). Therefore, in that sense, the CIA military assistance was never genuine but was doing it for its own national security interest. The Dalai Lama said on December 1 1994, that U.S. had ‘no courage’ to help and it was not a genuine assistance (Laird, 2002: 131). The objective of the operation was based on this opportunistic utility, which was oblivious to the Tibetans and their political naivety, and hence the sudden call for cut in all assistance in 1969 was a huge shock and an unacceptable moment for the Tibetan guerrillas in Mustang. Moreover, Nixon urged to relocate and withdraw the Tibetan resistance from Mustang when the Chinese government pressurized the Nepalese King, it confirms that it was a sheer betrayal by U.S. as Mustang military bases had to surrender to Nepalese government in the long run.


Goldstein, Melvyn C. The snow lion and the dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalia Lama, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison The CIA’s secret war in Tibet, The University Press of Kansas, 2002.

John Kenneth Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War [American and the struggle for survival], Library of Congress cataloging-in-Publication data, [April 1999].

McGranahan, Carole, Arrested Histories – Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010.

Roger E. McCarthy  Tears of the Lotus [Accounts of the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese invasion, 1950-1962] 1997.

Mikel Dunham Buddha’s warriors [the story of the CIA-backed Tibetan freedom fighters, the Chinese invasion and the ultimate fall of Tibet] 2004.

Mike Sewell, The Cold War, Cambridge University Press, U.K. 2002.

Thomas Laird, Into Tibet [The CIA’s first atomic spy and his secret expedition to Lhasa], Grove Press, 2002.

Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006, published by McGraw-Hill, NY 2008.

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet (1998, 50 Mins, Beta SP), a White Crane Films Production for BBC Television.



  1. Janglo Reply

    Great Read Palden!


  2. Sonam Dolkar Reply

    A great piece of historical evidences! Thanks paldenla for the great job!!!

  3. thupten Reply

    thank you for this article. it was a great read.

  4. Thinley Umawa Reply

    Palden…nice work!!!!!!!!! you must have worked so hard for it…keep it up!!!!! your product is different

  5. Minz Reply

    Nice article & well formatted!

  6. Sonam Topga Reply

    Yes, it was revealing and i am very sad that the CIA a rms assistance to the Tibetan resistannce fighters was peanuts and that the Americans were never serious regarding the whole exercise; it is disheartening to know that the sinophile policies adopted by the Nixon administration was responsible for the end of CIA funding which resulted in the disbandment of the Chushingandrug at Mustang, Nepal. President Nixon had to pay dearly and i am happy about that and i wish with a tinge of guilt that Kissenger suffer a little for the immense role he had played in the sinophile policies of the Nixon administration.

    • Palden Gyal Reply

      Yes, definitely. We have enough reason to make the argument that, basically, it was a complete betrayal, nothing less, nothing more. But the saddest of part of the story of Tibet’s war against the communist regime is that it has been kept in the dark from the mainstream modern Tibetan history, completely absent from the exile secondary school history curriculum!

  7. Palden Gyal Reply

    Tibet became a victim of the cold war and a pawn, easily, to be sacrificed by the US to serves its interests in the so-called crusade against communism. Nixon was, I think, literally Kissinger’s mouthpiece and one could guess why Kissinger fears to declassify all the diplomatic cables of his time, he requested to declassify them only after 5 years of death!

  8. Sonam Topga Reply

    Thanks Palden, how come Kissenger was the President of Richard Nixon when the latter was the President of the USA, it would be very enlightening to know howcome Kissenger was able to prevail upon Nixon. Yes, Tibet was used as a pawn by the western powers in the past in dealing with the communists and this policy of the west headed by the USA is still in practice especially in dealing with the communist Chinese; tibetan issue is being used as a bargaining chip when China starts dictating terms on money matters. The west was never sincere and comitted and i think it is going to stay that way in times to come, and i think it would be foolish for Tibetans to expect too much from any one country as the first priority is the self and this is true even of individuals everywhere.

  9. Palden Gyal Reply

    Firstly, as a general point: Kissinger is widely recognized as one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century for re-shaping and engineering the significant turning point of US foreign policy since the break of the cold war. His influence in US administrations from JFK through Johnson to Nixon and even later on (perhaps even today) are not just factually correct, but the extent to which the sphere of his influence prevailed are pretty obvious, I suspect.
    Secondly, the so-called détente in the cold war was basically Kissinger’s engineering and he continued to implement it even after Nixon in the Ford administration, no matter its consequences, his influence was undeniably prevalent. That’s where American liberals came to criticize him for turning US Foreign Policy from a moralist approach to a pragmatic, realist position, blind to human rights violations and so on.
    Kissinger’s realist position in US FP and his approach of global affairs which he would pursue later in different administrations are evident from his works as a professor of government at Harvard.

  10. Sonam Topga Reply

    Thanks for explaining so comprehensively about Kissenger; he really was an enigma but a brilliant diplomat and a great statesman as you have rihgtly said.

  11. T.N.S. Reply

    What goes around comes around. During his life time Nixon paid dearly for what he did to the Tibetan resistance fighters. Kissinger, the manipulator, will pay more dearly in death and in his after life. Maybe, he will be reborn as a hog that will be savagely eaten by a pride of lions.

  12. Tsegyal Reply

    Kissinger a Great Statesman VS Kissinger a WAR CRIMINAL
    On the flip side has anyone read the late Hitchen’s book ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’?

  13. Palden Gyal Reply

    Thank you T.N.S. and Tsegyal for dropping by. Kissinger is indeed a very controversial figure. From the American foreign policy/relations perspective he might be revered for his diplomatic success in befriending China in the heights of the Cold War, which came at the cost of suspending the covert CIA backed operations to the Tibetan resistance movement. A betrayal we might say but that is what it is like when realpolitik is at work. And with regard to Hitchens’ criticisms of Kissinger, I suspect that he could be trailed as a war criminal in light of his involvements in the Vietnamese and Cambodian humanitarian crises during the wars. But many of the diplomatic documents related to Kissinger are still not declassified and he has requested to keep them so until after 5 years of his death. I guess the Freedom of Information Act has some reservations too. I haven’t read the book, but as big fan of Hitch, I have watched him debating issues from the god problem, mother teresa, kissinger’s war crimes and etc..

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