Home page > Articles > A Cold War in Shangri La - The CIA in Tibet

A Cold War in Shangri La - The CIA in Tibet

Wednesday 26 December 2007, by Tenzing Sonam

(First published in Man’s World, India, September 2000)

March 1959. A suburban house outside Washington, D.C. Two men - an American and an oriental-looking monk - keep vigil beside a wireless receiver. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Tibet, a tense drama is unfolding: the Dalai Lama, disguised in layman’s clothes, has escaped from his summer palace and is believed to be heading south for the Indian border. The Chinese military command in Lhasa discovers his disappearance only three days later. Crack troops from the People’s Liberation Army set out in hot pursuit across the uncharted terrain of the Tibetan plateau. The news breaks the international headlines and the world waits with bated breath to find out whether or not the young "God King" will make it safely across the great Himalayan barrier. This is one of the escape stories of the century.

Early morning in Washington, D.C. The wireless finally spits out the dots and dashes the two men have been waiting for. Using a special dictionary, the monk laboriously translates the Morse Coded message from Tibetan into English. Finally, he passes the paper to the American. It says something like, "Contact established with the Dalai Lama. He is safe and well." The two men whoop with joy.

The monk was Geshe Wangyal, a learned Buddhist teacher from the ethnic republic of Kalmykia in southern Russia who had lived and studied for many years in one of the great monasteries of Lhasa before making his way to America. His companion was John Greaney, a young CIA officer assigned to a covert operation dealing with Tibet, code-named ST Circus. And so it was that long before the waiting world had any idea about the Dalai Lama’s fate, the CIA was in radio contact with his escape party. But how did this come about - this weird and implausible collision between an ancient and enigmatic civilization and the shadowy world of the CIA? For how long did this relationship continue and what was its ultimate outcome?

In late 1949, shortly after the Communist takeover of China, the People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Tibet’s tiny army was quickly defeated and by the summer of 1951, Chinese troops were marching into the capital, Lhasa. The 17-year-old Dalai Lama, Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader, was forced to come to terms with the Chinese. Throughout the fifties, Chinese soldiers continued to pour into Tibet. In Lhasa, the government maintained an uneasy coexistence with the occupying forces but in the outlying provinces of Kham and Amdo, the Chinese began to impose communist reforms. The very essence of Tibetan life - Buddhism - came under threat. In 1956, the siege and bombing of Lithang Monastery in Kham, sparked the revolt that had been waiting to erupt. Khampa tribesmen, known for their martial character, took to the hills and started a guerrilla campaign.

News of the rebellion spread to Lhasa where Andrug Gompo Tashi, a well-known Khampa trader living in the capital, started an underground organization called Chu Shi Gang Drug, Four Rivers Six Ranges. Gompo Tashi sent a small group of men to India to explore the possibilities of getting military support from foreign countries and organizations. Their destination was Kalimpong, a thriving frontier town, then the most important trade post between India and Tibet and the centre of the emigrè Tibetan world. The Dalai Lama’s elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, had been living here since the early fifties and was actively engaged in promoting the Tibetan cause. He had already been approached by the CIA, which was keen to find ways of supporting the dissident Tibetan movement as part of its global anti-communist campaign.

Gompo Tashi’s men went to meet Gyalo Thondup who recalls the meeting, "They came to me seeking help. I couldn’t provide any help except my verbal sympathy. Then they asked me to approach, on their behalf, people I knew in the American government. It all started like this." The American response was encouraging. Gompo Tashi’s men couldn’t have been more excited. They had heard of America, mainly through communist propaganda, which constantly decried the country as China’s greatest enemy. Now this very country was coming to their aid. Six men were selected from Gompo Tashi’s group and told be ready to go on a secret mission, the exact nature of which was not revealed.

One night, Gyalo Thondup drove the six men down to the plains, past the town of Siliguri. After some time, they reached the end of a road. Using a compass, he then led them across fields until they came to a large river. Here, he turned back after entrusting them in the care of his assistant. They made a hazardous river crossing. On the other side, a group of soldiers was waiting for them. The men were driven a short distance to a hut where an American - the first white man they had ever seen - greeted them warmly. From here they were taken by car and then by train, heavily guarded in a sealed compartment, to a small airstrip where an unmarked transport plane - a wondrous new sight - awaited them. They did not know it but they were on the outskirts of Dhaka. They flew for what seemed like an eternity, over thick tropical jungles and unimagined expanses of water, stopping only to refuel, until at last they landed at their destination - a small palm-fringed island in the middle of nowhere. The men stumbled out, airsick, dazed and bewildered. They were in Saipan in the South Pacific, as far away from their high mountain homeland as they could possibly be.

Their instructor was a former Marine, Roger McCarthy. "I was in Saipan in March of ’57," he recollects, "when we got the cable from headquarters, from Washington, which said that there was going to be a Tibetan group coming to Saipan for training, without too much more information, other than that they wanted across-the-board training and that the people in the group were supposed to be able to communicate once they went back into Tibet, which meant, of course, clandestine radio." For the next several months, under his tutelage, the men were trained in the techniques of modern warfare and espionage, in the use of weapons and explosives, but most of all, in the operation of the hand-cranked radio transmitter and receiver. Since the Tibetans could not read or write English, a special telecode book was created in which Tibetan words and phrases were encoded into numbered code groups. This became the basis for the Morse Code messages they would send and receive from Tibet. At the end of their training the men were flown back to East Pakistan.

One full moon night in September 1957, they took off in a modified B-17 aeroplane from the same airstrip near Dhaka. Before long they were flying over the Himalayan range, its peaks gleaming in the clear night sky. Athar Norbu and his partner, Lhotse, were the first to jump, their target a wide sandbar in the Tsangpo river close to Samye Monastery in Central Tibet. He can still recall the excitement of that moment: "The Tsangpo appeared below us. We could see it gleaming in the dark. There were no clouds, it was a clear night. A feeling of happiness surged through me when I realized that we would be able to make the jump. The plane descended and at the signal ’Go!’ we went rattling out of the plane." Their mission was to proceed to Lhasa and make contact with Andrug Gompo Tashi and, if possible, to meet the Dalai Lama.

In Washington, DC, their first radio message was awaited with eager anticipation. An operation of this nature, involving as it did, numerous logistical challenges, was audacious even by CIA standards: parachutes had to be modified to accommodate the high altitude; the pilots flying the B-17s had only old turn-of-the-century British maps to navigate with (the CIA would later map Tibet using the U-2 spy plane); a certain type of gold coin then favoured in Tibet had to be found for the men to take back with them (the bazaars of the Far East were scoured); even the Kellog cereal company was roped in to produce tsampa, the roasted barley flour that is a staple in Tibet. Ken Knaus, Roger McCarthy’s successor as head of ST Circus, was at the CIA’s old headquarters in the capital when the message finally arrived. "I suppose you could have heard the cheers from one end to the other when that first message came in saying that the guys had arrived and they were safe," he says, smiling at the memory of that moment. "Yeah, that was indeed a time for celebration. It’s a pretty incredible achievement to think of, you know…here you are, what? 15,000 miles away, message going out, guy sitting out there with a hand cranked generator spinning this stuff out, spinning through the air, and somehow it gets back here on a piece of paper!"

The remaining four men from the pilot group were not so lucky. Three of them, under the leadership of Gyato Wangdu, were dropped near Lithang where they linked up with a large guerrilla force. The fourth man went in by land but was killed before he could join his companions. Before the CIA could send any help, the force came under heavy attack from Chinese reinforcements. Wangdu’s team mates were both killed in the fighting and he himself only just managed to escape, making his way under incredibly harsh conditions across the desolate Jangthang plain before crossing safely into India.

In Lhasa, Athar Norbu and Lhotse made contact with Gompo Tashi. Their efforts to meet the Dalai Lama were unsuccessful. In the summer of 1958, Gompo Tashi moved out of Lhasa to set up his headquarters at a place called Driguthang, in southern Tibet, where thousands of men had gathered. There, they renamed their pan-Tibetan movement, Tensung Dhanglang Magar, the Voluntary Force for the Defence of Buddhism. The two radio operators were on hand to witness the inaugural ceremony and reported back to the Americans. The CIA was now ready to send arms to the resistance. On a full moon night in late summer, they made their first drop, a consignment comprising mostly of old Lee Enfield rifles, which could not be traced back to them.

In early 1958, a second group of men was selected for training. Once again, they made the clandestine crossing into East Pakistan before being flown to a training camp, this time in Virginia in America itself. Among them was Lhamo Tsering, Gyalo Thondup’s right-hand man, who would later head the operations out of India. Buoyed by the success of the two radio operators in Central Tibet, the CIA was now keen to step up its involvement. A top secret training facility was built at Camp Hale, a disused World War Two military base high in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. A story was circulated in the local press that Camp Hale was to be the site of atomic tests and would be a high security zone. The entire area was cordoned off and its perimeters patrolled by military police. The Tibetans immediately fell in love with the place, which, with its high mountains, thick forests and alpine meadows, reminded them of their home. They nicknamed the camp, Dhumra - "The Garden".

In Tibet, the CIA made a second arms drop to Gompo Tashi’s men. The guerrillas had mounted a fierce campaign and were in control of a large swathe of southern Tibet. By the beginning of 1959, the fragile coexistence between the Dalai Lama’s government and the Chinese occupying forces was threatening to unravel. Matters came to a head in March, when a rumour circulated around Lhasa that the Chinese commander had invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance at the military headquarters but that he was to come unaccompanied by any of his bodyguards. The people of Lhasa were convinced that this was a plot to kidnap their young leader. Before long, thousands had converged upon the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka, determined to physically prevent him from leaving. The Dalai Lama was caught in a quandary. The very thing he had feared most of all and tried hard to prevent, bloodshed and violence, now seemed imminent. The decision to escape was made when the Chinese unexpectedly fired two shells at the Norbulingka.

Resistance fighters escorted the Dalai Lama through guerrilla-held territory. The two CIA-trained men met up with the escape party halfway on their journey and accompanied them to the Indian border, keeping the Americans updated about their progress. The Dalai Lama’s escape triggered a massive military operation by the Chinese who brutally quelled the revolt in Lhasa and went on the offensive against the resistance bases in southern Tibet. The guerrillas suffered major setbacks. Andrug Gompo Tashi and the remainder of his force had no choice but to join the exodus of Tibetans who were streaming across the Himalaya, following their leader into exile.

The fall of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama’s escape spurred the CIA to expand the scope of their involvement. More groups of men were brought to Camp Hale. By the time the camp ceased to function in October 1964, some 259 Tibetans had been trained there. The Tibetans proved to be diligent students and impressed their instructors with their quick intelligence, ready humour and natural martial skills. A close relationship developed between them and their American instructors, one that was based on mutual respect and a strange sense of shared "frontier" values. The Americans were known only by their first names - Mr Don, Mr Zeke, Mr Tony, and so on. They were mostly tough former soldiers, men who would later go on to more harrowing and dubious operations in Southeast Asia and who would recall their time with the Tibetans as the one shining highpoint of their careers.

Although it was never the official American policy, the Tibetans were led to believe - and perhaps their American mentors came to believe it themselves - that they were being trained for the fight to regain Tibet’s independence. Thinley Paljor, who worked as an interpreter at Camp Hale, recalls, "During the training period, we learned that the objective of our training was to gain our independence. In our games-room we had a picture of Eisenhower, signed by him, ’to my fellow Tibetan friends, from Eisenhower’. So we thought that even the president himself was giving us support." But Sam Halpern, a senior CIA officer at the time, has no illusions about what the aim of ST Circus was: "I think basically the whole idea was to keep the Chinese occupied somehow…keep them annoyed…keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet, that’s pretty clear. I would think that from the American point of view it wasn’t going to cost us very much, either money or manpower. Anyway it wasn’t our manpower involved, it was the Tibetan manpower, and we would be willing to help the Tibetans become a running sore and a nuisance to the Chinese."

Between late 1959 and January 1960, the CIA parachuted four separate groups of Camp Hale trainees into Tibet to make contact with what was left of the resistance. Each team carried with them wireless sets and weapons for their own use. Each member had a cyanide capsule strapped around his wrist; they could choose to kill themselves rather than be captured alive. The first team was dropped in September 1959 at a place close to the great inland lake of Namtso, north of Lhasa. On landing, they discovered that the guerrilla force they were sent to contact had already been destroyed by the Chinese. They escaped back to India through Nepal.

Around the same time, another group of 18 men was dropped at a place called Chagra Pembar, northeast of Lhasa, where a huge group of resistance fighters, along with their families and livestock, had gathered. The CIA made an arms drop soon afterwards. Unlike before, the weapons were now American, mostly M-1 rifles but also mortars, recoilless rifles, machine guns and grenades. After the Dalai Lama’s escape, there was less concern about maintaining the "plausible deniability" that had determined the composition of the earlier arms drops. According to plan, five of the Camp Hale trainees left Chagra Pembar after the drop and headed north where they linked up with yet another large rebel force, based in a desolate area called Nira Tsogo. This gathering was also made up of families and animals and resembled a medieval encampment rather than a guerrilla force on the move. The team radioed for more support. In response, three more teams, totalling 16 men were parachuted at Nira Tsogo and several arms drops were made, both here and at Chagra Pembar. By now, the numbers of people concentrated in these two places had swollen to huge proportions as more and more escaping families joined them. The CIA frantically gave instructions to its men to convince the leaders of the various groups to break up into smaller outfits and fan out so that they would be less vulnerable to attack, but this did not happen. It was only a matter of time before they were discovered.

One of the fighters at Chagra Pembar, Dechen, clearly remembers when the first Chinese planes flew overhead: "Then one day, the Chinese surrounded us. A Chinese aeroplane came in the morning and dropped leaflets which told us to surrender and warned us not to listen to the ’imperialist’ Americans because nothing good would come of it. After that, every day, some fifteen jets came. They came in groups of five, in the morning, at midday and at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Each jet carried fifteen to twenty bombs. We were in the high plains so there was nowhere to hide. The five jets made quick rounds and killed animals and men. We suffered huge casualties." Thousands of men, women and children were killed, both at Chagra Pembar and Nira Tsogo, in the aerial bombings and artillery barrages that followed. Of the parachute teams, only five men managed to escape and reach India safely. The rest perished, either during the fighting or afterwards, while on the run.

The last of the missions inside Tibet was made in January 1960. A seven-man team was parachuted into Markham in eastern Tibet. The team was led by Yeshe Wangyal, who had already been on the first unsuccessful mission to Namtso. Wangyal’s father, a chieftan of the area, was reported to be heading a resistance group but once on the ground the men learnt that he had already been killed. Wangyal and his men managed to link up with the remnants of his father’s force but from the very beginning, they came under attack from the Chinese. For days, they fought running battles, dogged by an ever-increasing army of Chinese troops until one morning they were surrounded from all sides. They prepared for the last stand, each man ready to fight till the death.

The only survivor of that team, Bhusang, remembers the intensity of that last battle: "Then the whole mountainside was swarming with Chinese. We fought them nine times. We suffered our heaviest casualties that day. During the battle, the Chinese would shout out to us, ’Surrender! Surrender!’ We shouted back, ’Eat shit!’ I swear, we said, ’Eat shit! You invaded our country, what do you mean by surrender?’ We shot at them instead. We really fought. It was intense, like a dream, it didn’t seem real. And then, at around 10 o’clock, I looked around and saw that two men from our team had taken their cyanide capsules and were dead. It was the end. I put the capsule in my mouth because later I might not have had time." But before he could bite into the capsule, Bhusang was knocked unconscious from behind and taken prisoner. Wangyal and the others in his team were all dead. Bhusang would spend the next 20 years in a Chinese prison.

After Andrug Gompo Tashi’s arrival in India in 1959, he and Gyalo Thondup immediately drew up plans to find a new base of operations from which to launch a new front. They decided on Mustang, a remote and barren kingdom in northern Nepal that juts into Tibet. The CIA agreed to help them and the initial plan was to send a total of 2100 men in groups of 300. Mustang would be the staging post from where these groups would move into Tibet and set up bases. The CIA demanded the highest security as the movement of such large numbers of men would be sure to arouse the suspicion of both the Indian and Nepalese authorities. Gompo Tashi selected one of his lieutenants, an ex-monk named Bapa Yeshe, to be in charge of the operations.

In June 1960, Yeshe, along with an advance party, which included a 2-man radio team, made their way to Mustang. The majority of resistance fighters who had escaped from Tibet were now working on road camps in Sikkim. The first group of 300 was selected and gathered in Darjeeling where Lhamo Tsering had now set up the operational headquarters. From here they were sent on to Mustang. The plan went without a hitch, but soon rumours began to circulate among the road-workers that a new resistance army was in the process of being raised. Hundreds of men left the road camps and made their way to Darjeeling until their mysterious migration from Sikkim attracted the attention of the newspapers. The CIA, unhappy with this turn of events, withdrew support. Soon, more than 2000 men had gathered in Mustang, where Yeshe had neither the resources nor the supplies to support them. The situation became dire as winter approached. The men were reduced to boiling their leather shoes and saddlebags for sustenance. Several froze to death. But somehow, the hope that they would soon have the opportunity to go back to Tibet and fight their enemy kept their spirits up.

In March 1961, the CIA finally resumed aid by making an arms drop to the Mustang force. Seven Camp Hale trainees jumped in with the supplies. Several more came overland. Having sent arms, the CIA now wanted to see results and the Mustang force would not disappoint them. A series of raids was conducted along the strategic Sinkiang-Tibet highway that looped through southwestern Tibet, close to the Mustang border, on its way to Lhasa. One such raid, led by a Camp Hale alumnus, resulted in a gold mine of intelligence. A small military convoy was ambushed and its occupants, which included a high-ranking military officer, were killed. Among their effects was a blue satchel full of documents. This was retrieved and carried back to base and then sent by courier to Darjeeling, from where Lhamo Tsering passed it on to his CIA contact person (once a month, he would go to Calcutta where, in classic cloak-and-dagger fashion, he would meet his American counterpart in a secret rendezvous, either in a moving car or in a safe house).

When the documents arrived in Washington, the CIA couldn’t believe its luck. Among other things, they provided the US intelligence community with its first hard evidence of the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Ken Knaus states categorically: "The Tibetan Document Raid was one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the Agency. Here was an actual product of these operations that could be a demonstrable one, that was of benefit to the US Government. So that was of great help as far as getting or maintaining support for these kinds of operations was concerned." A second arms drop was made in December of that year in Mustang. From 1961 until 1964, numerous raids were carried out inside Tibet until the Sinkiang-Tibet Highway became virtually unusable. The Chinese were forced to build a detour further away from the border.

Following the debacle of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, Nehru turned for help to America, which responded swiftly. A number of joint operations was initiated, some involving Tibetan refugees. The Indians were apprised of the Mustang guerrilla force, which, until then, was being run secretly out of the Darjeeling office. It was now brought under the control of a Combined Operations Centre in New Delhi, and run jointly by an American, Indian and Tibetan representative. The CIA continued to finance the guerrillas and provide them with arms and equipment and training at Camp Hale (they no longer had to take the circuitous route via East Pakistan; US transport planes flew them directly out of an Air Force base in north India), but the Indians now had a strong say in the nature and direction of operations.

The CIA made its final arms drop in May 1965, but by now the guerrillas were being instructed to cease making armed incursions inside Tibet and to limit their operations to intelligence gathering. The guerrillas ignored their orders and continued making raids until the late sixties. By then, however, there was internal trouble brewing within the organization itself. For a number of years there had been some discontent, particularly among the Camp Hale trainees who held key positions in the force, about Yeshe’s style of leadership, which was more in the traditional mould of a tribal chieftain than a modern-day guerrilla commander. In 1968, misgivings about the way Yeshe was handling the finances led to a tense confrontation between him and his deputies. The CIA had never been happy about the selection of Yeshe as commander of the Mustang force but, as Gompo Tashi’s nominee, they had little choice. Now, with Gompo Tashi dead - he had passed away in 1964 - it applied renewed pressure to get rid of Yeshe. He was finally replaced by Gyato Wangdu, the same man who had been trained on Saipan and parachuted into eastern Tibet in 1957.

In late 1968, Gyalo Thondup was unexpectedly informed by the CIA that it was pulling out of its Tibetan operations. The agency would provide funding for another three years, which would give the Mustang organization time to retrench and resettle the guerrillas. No explanations were given but it was becoming obvious in Washington that the Tibetans had long outlived their usefulness. Besides, secret rapprochement talks were already underway between America and China and the last thing the Americans needed was an aging guerrilla army under their patronage in the Himalayas. Gyalo Thondup saw the pullout as a complete betrayal. "The Americans had given me verbal assurances," he says, "stating that if the Dalai Lama came to India, they would support Tibet’s struggle for independence until Tibet regained independence." Lhamo Tsering and Wangdu were in Mustang when the news was delivered to them. They were devastated, coming as it did, at the height of the crisis over Bapa Yeshe. Fearing that the news would demoralize the men they decided to keep it a secret.

Under Wangdu’s leadership, the Mustang force continued for a few more years, supported to a much lesser extent by India, although most guerrilla activities were now suspended and plans were put into motion to rehabilitate the force. Then, in the summer of 1974, the Nepalese government - acting under pressure from China, which, by now, had become a close ally - decided to crack down on the organization. It sent in its troops and demanded the surrender of the guerrillas. Lhamo Tsering, who was in Pokhara at the time, was arrested and used as a bargaining chip but the guerrillas were in no mood to comply. They decided to hold out against the Nepalese and prepared for battle. The stage was set for a major confrontation but before matters escalated further, an emissary of the Dalai Lama arrived, carrying a tape recorded message. The message was played at each of the guerrilla camps. The men couldn’t believe their ears. The voice of their sacred leader floated down from the makeshift loudspeakers appealing to them to lay down their weapons and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. Ugyen Tashi, one of the foot soldiers at Mustang, remembers that moment, "The tape contained the Dalai Lama’s real voice. So when we heard his message, I swear, some of the men even cried. Everyone heard the message with their own ears so we had no choice but to give up. Then we turned in our weapons…all day and all night." One of their leaders, Pachen, cut his own throat rather than face the humiliation of surrender. A number of men threw themselves into a river and were drowned.

Wangdu, convinced that the Nepalese would imprison him after the surrender, made a run for the Indian border with a few select men. Hotly pursued by Nepalese troops, they ended up crisscrossing back and forth between Nepal and Tibet for nearly a month until they were within striking distance of the Indian frontier. At a place called Tinker Pass, Wangdu’s men sent him ahead with a small escort while they dug themselves in to hold the rear but, in doing so, they unwittingly sent their leader into a trap. Nepalese soldiers ambushed the advance party close to the pass and Wangdu and his men were gunned down in a murderous crossfire. The remaining guerrillas fought their way out and most of them managed to cross over into India. Lhamo Tsering and six other men were incarcerated in Kathmandu where they would spend the next eight years in prison. Tibet’s armed struggle against the Chinese occupation had come to an ignominious close.

Four decades after the CIA first got involved in Tibet, Roger McCarthy looks back and sums up its outcome: "Unfortunately our history as a government has more sad stories and sad endings than it does have good stories with good endings. Generally speaking, I think the Agency looks at Tibet as having been one of the best operations that it has run. Well that’s fine, that’s very complementary, but however, look at the final results. That’s a very sad commentary. If we look at what we did to Tibet as about the best that we could do, then I say that we have failed…miserably."

Published April 2007

1 Message

Reply to this article

SPIP | Copyright TibetWrites.org 2004-2010 | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0