Steve Weissman: Tibet and the Games Nations Play
Tibet and the Games Nations Play
By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
For people asking little more than the right to live their own lives in their own way, Tibetans once again find themselves in the morass of great power politics. They have been in this swamp before and know how quickly old friends can turn their backs, as President George W. Bush is now doing in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing. These are the games nations play, and if we ever hope to change the rules, we need to join with younger Tibetans in learning from one of the most intriguing strings of events in their modern history.
The story reaches back to World War II, when Japanese troops blocked the Burma Road, the lifeline to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces in "Free China." In response, the US Office of Strategic Services sent Col. Ilia Tolstoy, grandson of the Russian novelist, to search for an alternative supply route through Tibet. Tolstoy never found anything suitable, but his visit to Lhasa won the good will of Tibetan officials, who were looking to break free from the nominal rule of Nationalist China.
The Chinese had claimed Tibet as part of China ever since the Manchu Emperor conquered the Tibetans in the early 18th Century. But, following Colonel Tolstoy's visit, Tibetan officials attempted to force Chiang Kai-shek's representative in Lhasa to work through a newly created Bureau of Foreign Affairs. The Nationalist Chinese were furious, just as are their Communist successors are today. As part of China, Tibet had no right to act as an independent country, the Nationalists insisted. Chiang Kai-shek's officials shut down the Bureau and accused their British and American allies of backing the would-be separatists. London and Washington backed down.
"The Government of the United States has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that the Chinese Constitution lists Tibet among other areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China," the State Department declared in 1943. "This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of these claims."
Nonetheless, Washington maintained unofficial contacts with its new Tibetan friends as events rapidly unfolded. In December 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland for Taiwan. In October 1950, Chinese Communist forces defeated the Tibetan army. And in May 1951, President Truman's National Security Council determined to "foster and support anti-Communist elements both outside and within China with a view to developing and expanding resistance in China to the Peiping [sic] regime's control, particularly in South China."
The following month, the young, newly enthroned Dalai Lama fled to Yatung, a Tibetan market town seven miles from the border with Sikkim. "Private Americans" had reportedly offered to evacuate him by air, while Life magazine dramatized his plight in a ten-page photo story called "Flight of the Dalai Lama."
Less publicly, the Dalai Lama's eldest brother, Thubten Norbu, made his way to India, where he met with American officials in Calcutta and reached a tentative understanding. According to one of the participants in the discussions, the US would support the Dalai Lama in exile, back an appeal by Tibet to the United Nations and "provide finance for whatever was required in Tibet's fight for freedom." In return, the Dalai Lama would repudiate the agreement the Chinese had offered and flee Tibet.
The Dalai Lama remained in Yatung pondering Washington's offer when an unlikely American appeared on the scene - Supreme Court Justice William Douglas. An avid mountaineer, Douglas was on a well-publicized walking trip in the Indian Himalayas. "I had a letter to the Dalai Lama and had arranged to visit him there," Douglas later explained in his Beyond the High Himalayas.
A leading figure among America's more liberal anti-Communists, Douglas wanted the god-king of Tibet to symbolize anti-Communism to Asia's all-important Buddhists. "Millions upon millions look to the Dalai Lama as spiritual head of the church," wrote Douglas. "The measure of their resistance to Communism may be dependent on the word from him." Douglas never got to make his argument in person. Before he could reach Yatung, the Dalai Lama turned down the official American offer and returned to Lhasa. His brother had already flown to New York as a guest of the Asia Foundation, which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) created and ran.
A short time later, small bands of Khamba, Amdo and Golok tribesmen began attacking Chinese military posts in and around Tibet. As the uprising grew, the Americans gave their support, supplying equipment and flying small groups of tribesmen to the United States for guerrilla training at Camp Hale high in the Colorado Rockies. The trainees took at least one CIA officer, the legendary Anthony Poe, back into Tibet with them, and also helped the Dalai Lama make his second "Flight to Freedom" in March 1959.
Once the Dalai Lama was safely in India, the CIA began secretly paying him an annual subsidy and created Tibet Houses in New York and Geneva to serve as his unofficial embassies. As Tim Weiner explains in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Legacy of Ashes," "The goal was to keep the dream of a free Tibet alive while harassing the Red Army in western China." The CIA also used the growing Tibetan presence in India to help push the Indians into their ill-fated border war with China in 1962.
American support for the tribal rebellion continued until August 1969, when National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger cut off the funding. The Tibetans soon learned why, as did the United States Information Agency, which in early 1971 completed a 13-minute documentary called "Man From a Missing Land." Made in Switzerland with the help of Tibetan refugees, the film portrayed the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet and ended in the Dalai Lama's 1959 "flight to freedom." In July, President Nixon announced he would visit Peking, and the film was never released.
As noted in "Legacy of Ashes," Washington continued to fund the Dalai Lama. But, older and wiser, the world's best-known monk increasingly became his own man. While never a major voice for peace against America's military adventures from Vietnam to Iraq, and not a proponent of Tibetan independence from China, he began to put moral pressure on successive American administrations in ways they never wanted or expected, especially as it affected their growing economic dependence on Beijing. The Dalai Lama is in the United States this week quietly bringing pressure to bear on George W. Bush, as younger Tibetans openly carry the banner of a Free Tibet.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.