How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war that the world never knew about


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army

(by R Sengupta | Outlook | February 15, 1999)

How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about

It was code-named 'ST Circus'. But there was nothing funny about the way the CIA funded, trained, armed and ultimately used and betrayed the Tibetan cause. This is the war no one knew about. This is the war that shatters the popular impression that the non-violent Tibetans allowed the Chinese to stroll into Lhasa in 1951 after token resistance. A war that is relived in The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet, a gripping documentary made for the BBC by Tenzing Sonam and his wife Ritu Sarin.

This was a labour of love, and it shows. Without being jingoistic, the superbly shot documentary — initiated ten years ago — vividly recounts how a few thousand Tibetans took on the might of the People's Liberation Army. Outgunned and outnumbered, they fought a bloody guerrilla battle on the roof of the world for over a decade. And their ally for much of the time: The CIA.

Tenzing's father, Lhamo Tsering, was a senior resistance leader and the CIA's chief coordinator for the Tibet operation. In 1958, he was trained at CIA camps in Virginia and Colorado's Rocky Mountains. He documented the entire movement, writing at length on the subject. Though he died on January 9 this year without realising his dream of a free Tibet, The Shadow Circus stands tribute to the man.

China invaded Tibet in late 1949, and two years later, overran the brave but tiny Tibetan army to enter Lhasa. The Dalai Lama, 17 at the time, was forced into an uneasy compromise with Beijing. But when monasteries in eastern Tibet were razed in 1956, the local Khampa tribesmen revolted and formed an underground outfit, sending out desperate calls for help. The Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, in exile in India, promised to contact the Americans.

The Americans, in the throes of the worst stage of communist-phobia, were happy to oblige. Six men were selected from a group of Khampas that had come to India. They were secretly flown to the Pacific island of Saipan and trained in guerrilla warfare and clandestine radio communications.

Five months later, Athar Norbu, who now lives in Delhi, and his partner were the first men ever to be parachuted into Tibet. By then, the resistance had been forced out of Lhasa into southern Tibet. Their success against the Chinese led to the CIA making its first arms drop to the resistance. Then the agency set up a top-secret training camp in the Rocky Mountains, where conditions approximated those in Tibet. Some 259 Tibetans were trained in Camp Hale over the next five years.

'We had great expectations when we went to America. We thought perhaps they would even give us an atom bomb to take back,' says Tenzin Tsultrim. 'In the training period, we learned that the objective was to gain our independence,' adds another grizzled veteran. But the Americans had other ideas. 'The whole idea was to keep the Chinese occupied, keep them annoyed, keep them disturbed. Nobody wanted to go to war over Tibet...It was a nuisance operation. Basically, nothing more,' says former CIA agent Sam Halpern.

In March 1959, the CIA made a second arms drop in southern Tibet, where the resistance now controlled large areas. Back in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama was invited to the local Chinese military camp to attend a play — sans bodyguards, the invitation said. The citizens of Lhasa rose up in revolt; the Dalai Lama realised it was time to leave.

A few days later, the Dalai Lama, disguised as a soldier, escaped from his palace and headed south. The CIA-trained radio team met them en route, and asked the Americans to request Prime Minister Nehru to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama.Nehru, well aware of the situation, immediately approved. On March 31, 1959, after an arduous trek across the mountains, the Dalai Lama and his entourage entered India. This sparked off an exodus of refugees from Tibet to India — leaving behind only small pockets of resistance in southern Tibet.

Undeterred, the CIA parachuted four groups of Camp Hale trainees inside Tibet between 1959 and 1960 to contact the remaining resistance groups. But the missions resulted in the massacre of all but a few of the team members.

The CIA cooked up a fresh operation in Mustang, a remote corner of Nepal that juts into Tibet. Nearly two thousand Tibetans gathered here to continue their fight for freedom. A year later, the CIA made its first arms drop in Mustang. Organised on the lines of a modern army, the guerrillas were led by Bapa Yeshe, a former monk.

'As soon as we received the aid, the Americans started scolding us like children. They said that we had to go into Tibet immediately. Sometimes I wished they hadn't sent us the arms at all,' says Yeshe. The Mustang guerrillas conducted cross-border raids into Tibet. The CIA made two more arms drops to the Mustang force, the last in May 1965. Then, in early 1969, the agency abruptly cut off all support. The CIA explained that one of the main conditions the Chinese had set for establishing diplomatic relations with the US was to stop all connections and all assistance to the Tibetans. Says Roger McCarthy, an ex-CIA man, 'It still smarts that we pulled out in the manner we did.'

Thinley Paljor, a surviving resistance fighter, was among the thousands shattered by this volte-face. 'We felt deceived, we felt our usefulness to the CIA is finished. They were only thinking short-term for their own personal gain, not for the long-term interests of the Tibetan people.' In 1974, armtwisted by the Chinese, the Nepalese government sent troops to Mustang to demand the surrender of the guerrillas. Fearing a bloody confrontation, the Dalai Lama sent the resistance fighters a taped message, asking them to surrender. They did so, reluctantly. Some committed suicide soon afterwards.

Today, the survivors of the Mustang resistance force live in two refugee settlements in Nepal, where they eke out a living spinning wool and weaving carpets. 'The film is for the younger Tibetans, who are unaware of the resistance, as well as for Americans, who don't know how their own government used and betrayed the resistance,' says Tenzing. 'Though it was a story begging to be told, funding it was almost impossible,' adds Ritu.

The couple have been making films since 1983, on subjects from reincarnation to the expat Sikh community in California and Tenzing's first trip to Tibet. A full-length Tibetan feature film is in the pipeline, but The Shadow Circus is likely to be remembered for its startling revelations.

The most poignant summary comes from Tenzing's father: 'We were able to utilise [the American] help for our own ends. We couldn't just go and fight the Chinese with empty hands. I don't see our armed struggle as something that was helpful only at a certain point in our history, something that is finished. We should look at it as one chapter in our continuing struggle for freedom, one that still has some meaning.'


Super Mod
Mar 24, 2009
Country flag
The Americans are known to follow short sighted policies. Hire and Fire as they say. So no surprises in them dumping the Tibetans.


Senior Member
Mar 21, 2009
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hi ajtr i think nice topic topic and lot of Info, but change the heading "World" would be best then "we".
this war is still not considered and recognised in India too.


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
A Secret War in Shangri-La
14 November 1998
-- Patrick French, The Daily Telegraph , London

A Tibetan filmmaker reveals how the CIA once helped his people fight their

One morning in spring 1974, a 15-year-old Tibetan refugee, Tenzing Sonam,
came into the quad of the Darjeeling school where he was a boarder to read
the newspapers pinned up on the bulletin board. 'There was a headline which
said something like "Tibetan Bandits on the Rampage - Warrior Leader
Arrested",' he remembers. 'I read on and realised that the leader was my
father. I just went into class and didn't say anything to the other boys.
Later, my mother came to the school and told me what had happened, or as
much as she knew.'

Up until that point, Tenzing Sonam had believed that his father was in New
Delhi, working for the Dalai Lama's Tibetan government in exile following
the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. In fact, he had been captured in
Nepal where he was co-ordinating a CIA-inspired proxy war against the
Chinese in one of the least known but most unusual operations in the Cold
War, code-named 'ST Circus'.

Now, 24 years later, Tenzing Sonam and his wife, Ritu Sarin, have made a
remarkable documentary film for the BBC which reveals the work of the CIA
in Tibet and shows how desperately the Tibetans fought to get rid of the
Chinese. For the first time, retired CIA agents and Tibetan veterans have
given a full account of Washington's secret war in the remote Himalayan
Buddhist kingdom.

It turns out that his father, Lhamo Tsering - like his son and most
Tibetans, he does not use a surname - was much more than a bandit leader.
He was the trusted link-man between the Tibetan resistance and the CIA for
nearly 20 years. When the resistance fighters were eventually abandoned by
the CIA, he was arrested and imprisoned in Nepal for eight years. Now in
his late-70s, he lives in exile in India.

As a young man in the early Forties, he won a scholarship to a college in
the Chinese city of Nanjing. 'My family were farmers from Nagatsang in
eastern Tibet,' says Tenzing Sonam, 'which at that time was under the
control of a Chinese warlord. My grandparents thought it would be a good
idea for one of their sons to learn Chinese and develop an understanding of
how China worked.'

While he was living in Nanjing, Lhamo Tsering became the secretary and
confidant of the present Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup. When
Chinese Communist troops began to close in on Tibet in 1949, the two of
them fled from Nanjing to Shanghai and escaped on a boat to India. After a
brief return to Tibet, Lhamo Tsering based himself in Kalimpong, near

It was not until 1958, by which time he had met and married a maidservant
of another member of the Dalai Lama's family, that Lhamo Tsering was taken
into Gyalo Thondup's full confidence. He told him that he was working with
the CIA, which had secretly begun to train Tibetan resistance fighters on
the remote pacific island of Saipan.

'My father was sent off to a training camp in Virginia,' says Tenzing
Sonam, 'and later, to Camp Hale in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was
incredibly secret - even in the United States very few people knew what was
happening. Most of the Tibetans were learning about sabotage, laying mines,
operating weapons, detonating explosives, that sort of thing, but because
my father was better educated, and spoke English and Chinese, the CIA
wanted him as a co-ordinator. He was trained in espionage. They even got
him to practise doing dead letter drops in the Library of Congress.'

Lhamo Tsering returned to Darjeeling, where he became the on-the-ground
administrator of ST Circus, selecting Tibetan refugees for training, and
co-ordinating the extraction of intelligence from inside Tibet. Once a
month, he would hitch a lift down to Calcutta on a cargo plane. 'He would
wait on Park Street with a newspaper under his arm until a beaten-up car
came,' says Tenzing Sonam. 'In the back would be an American, usually "Mr
John" - that was all he knew him as - who would hand over a big bundle of
rupees. My father would pass whatever information he had, and they would
discuss arms drops, or whatever.'

In Tibet, the CIA-trained Tibetans were attempting to link up with the
indigenous resistance, the Chushi Gangdrug or 'Four Rivers, Six Mountain
Ranges' movement, which controlled swathes of southern Tibet. As the
Chinese Communists tightened their control in the late Fifties, an
increasingly violent war developed between the Tibetan rebels and Mao
Zedong's People's Liberation Army.

Almost 300 Tibetans were trained in the Rocky Mountains, many being
parachuted into Tibet from US planes during covert overflights. Their
survival rate was extremely low, and the only living member of the first
mission, Bapa Legshay, has described the operation as 'like throwing meat
into the mouth of a tiger'. 'We had made up our minds to die,' he said. 'We
had been given cyanide capsules so that we wouldn't be caught alive by the

In March 1959, the Dalai Lama escaped from the Tibetan capital, Lhasa,
disguised as one of his own bodyguards. Accompanied by his senior
officials, he rode on horseback towards the border with India. It was here
that the American connection became especially useful, albeit in a
different form from the romanticised version of his escape found in the
recent spate of Hollywood films about Tibet.

Using a hand-cranked Morse radio, Athar, a member of the US-trained Tibetan
resistance, sent a message to Washington asking for political asylum in
India for the Dalai Lama. It was received late on a Saturday night by a
senior CIA officer, John Greaney, who immediately put through an urgent
call to his boss. Four hours later, the CIA's man in New Delhi sent a wire
back to Washington saying that the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru,
had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama and his entourage.

In the Sixties, ST Circus changed tack. Instead of training selected
Tibetans in the United States, the CIA decided to set up a larger operation
in Mustang, a mountainous spur of land which juts out of Nepal into
southern Tibet. Groups of Tibetans would be armed with mortars, carbines
and 55mm recoil-less rifles, and from there would set up guerrilla units
and conduct raids inside Tibet. Recently declassified US intelligence
documents show that the CIA was spending more than $1.7 million annually on
this operation.

Lhamo Tsering now had a difficult job on his hands. As rumours of the new
Mustang base spread among the 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal,
they began to make their way there in their hundreds, anxious to fight for
the freedom of their motherland. But this coincided with a ban by President
Eisenhower on covert overflights - following the shooting down of a U2 spy
plane over the Soviet Union in May 1960 - which meant that supplies could
not be dropped to the Tibetan rebels.

'It was a terrible situation,' says Tenzing Sonam. 'There were more than
2,000 people up in the mountains with nothing to eat. They were even
boiling their shoes and eating the leather. People died. There was nothing
my father and the other leaders could do until later that year the
Americans made their first drop of arms and supplies.'

During the Sixties, the Mustang guerrillas were organised along the lines
of a proper army, and conducted repeated raids into Tibet. The most
successful raid, on the Xinjiang-Lhasa highway in 1961, resulted in the
capture of a significant haul of documents.

Forty armed horsemen ambushed a Chinese military convoy. 'The truck came to
a stop,' one fighter, Acho, remembers. 'The driver was shot in the eye, his
brains splattered behind him and the truck came to a stop. The engine was
still running. Then all of us fired at it. There was one woman, a very
high-ranking officer, with a blue sack full of documents. This was
carefully collected by our leader.'

The documents showed for the first time the extent of the famine and unrest
in both China and Tibet created by Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, and
the causes of the Sino-Soviet split. Ken Knaus, a CIA officer, describes
the contents of the blue sack as 'one of the greatest intelligence hauls in
the history of the agency'.

Nevertheless, the activities of the Mustang freedom fighters were of
limited effectiveness. The guerrillas were useful to the US principally for
their nuisance value against the Chinese, and their ability to supply
intelligence about a country that was closed to the outside world. They
never managed to establish a proper resistance army inside Tibet, since
they did not have a strong enough level of military backing.

As the Cultural Revolution got under way, Tibet's ancient monasteries and
temples were destroyed, many monks and nuns were killed or imprisoned and
famine ravaged the country. At the same time, the Mustang operation became
mired in internal feuding between the CIA-trained generation of fighters,
and the tribal leaders who had started the original resistance.

The final nail in the Tibetan resistance movement was President Nixon's
historic rapprochement with China in 1971-72. As Sino-American relations
thawed, the Tibetans were left to fend for themselves. After a final burst
of funding, the CIA's involvement with Mustang was severed.

The base in Mustang continued operations until 1974, when the Nepalese
government decided, under Chinese pressure, to put a stop to it. When the
leaders of Mustang refused to surrender, the Dalai Lama intervened to try
to prevent a bloodbath. He sent a taped message ordering the fighters to
lay down their arms, which was played in each of the camps.

The effect was terrible. The rebels felt they had no choice but to obey
their political and spiritual leader, but many of them saw such a surrender
as tantamount to suicide. Several soldiers threw themselves into a river
and were drowned, and one man, a CIA-trained senior officer named Pachen,
handed over his weapons and promptly slit his own throat with a dagger.
Wangdu, the Commander of Mustang, tried to flee to India but was ambushed
at the Tinker Pass by the Nepalese army and shot dead.

Tenzing Sonam points out that, 'These were men who had been fighting the
Chinese since the mid-Fifties, people who had grown up with guns and
knives, being asked to surrender their weapons. . . It was the end of
everything for them.'

His father was arrested in Pokhara and brought to the Central Jail in
Kathmandu, where he was charged with raising a rebel army and smuggling
arms. Although for a time it looked as if they might face the death
penalty, he and six other Tibetan resistance leaders were sentenced to life
imprisonment. He was eventually released in 1981, after an amnesty by the
King of Nepal.

Tenzing Sonam sees the struggles of the resistance movement as 'a forgotten
chapter in recent Tibetan history. It doesn't fit in with our image of
nice, happy, smiling, peaceful people with tinkling bells up in Shangri-la.
. . There was a culture of violence in Tibet. We didn't just lie down and
ask the Chinese to roll over us.'

For Tenzing, the process of researching the story of CIA involvement in
Tibet has made him see his father in a new light. 'It was a revelation to
me. I feel much closer to him now that I know what he was doing all through
my childhood. In a way, the film is an act of filial devotion. . . I think
it's amazing what he did coming from his background, having such
single-minded devotion to the cause of Tibetan freedom. He, and a whole
generation of our people.'


Tihar Jail
Oct 2, 2009
CIA's Secret War in Tibet

Call it the Shangri-La factor. In the popular imagination, pre-Communist Tibet was a fabled theocracy in which a beatific Dalai Lama smiled over a kingdom where no man raised a hand in violence as he spun his prayer wheel in search of nirvana. Then along came the Communist Chinese, who made short work of these placid people. Fifty years after the Chinese takeover of Tibet, the myth still persists and has even grown, thanks to the media and the increased interest of Westerners in Buddhism.

But contrary to the pop history version, the Tibetans did not simply let the Chinese roll over their country in 1951. For almost 20 years afterward they fought a long, bloody war of resistance that struck serious blows to Chairman Mao Tse-tung's expansionist plans. Invisible to outsiders as it raged, this largely unknown struggle that no novelist could have dreamed up got support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which sponsored secret training camps and made arms and equipment drops to aid horse-mounted herdsmen against the bombers and artillery of the largest standing army on the planet. By way of background, the story begins in the fall of 1951, when the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) marched into the ancient Tibetan capital at Lhasa, after forcing the Dalai Lama's religious government to sign a 'Plan for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet.' This thin fiction of an agreement was somewhat maintained in Lhasa, but in the outlying regions the Chinese occupation involved forced collectivization and the killing of tribal chiefs and lamas.

At that time influential Tibetan traders began to mobilize in a resistance movement that would later become Chushi Gandrug (Four Rivers, Six Mountains). Chushi Gandrug's organizer was a hard-fighting, hard-drinking 51-year-old trader named Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang. Uncoordinated and poorly armed as they were, Tibetans conducted a series of surprisingly successful raids and battles.

A widespread popular revolt finally broke out in February 1956, after the Chinese bombed ancient monasteries at Chatreng and Litang, killing thousands of monks and civilians massed there for protection. Given the growing military might of Tibet's occupiers, Gompo Tashi and the meagerly equipped Chushi Gandrug knew they were going to need outside support. Consequently, the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, who had already been approached by the CIA, contacted the Americans. The Americans, he found, were quite intrigued with the prospect of supporting the Tibetans as part of a global anti-Communist campaign. If nothing else, their resistance would be one more way to create a 'running sore for the reds,' as one CIA man put it, even though at the top levels of the U.S. administration there was no pretense of commitment to Tibetan independence. Gompo Tashi's guerrillas were excited at the prospect of American support. They knew little about the United States, but judging from the Communist propaganda they received, this faraway country was China's greatest enemy.

Then one pitch-black night in the spring of 1957 six men from Gompo Tashi's group found themselves spirited away by the CIA, whereupon they encountered with amazement their first airplane — for which the Tibetans had to invent a new word, namdu, or'sky boat' — and saw their first white man. After an unimaginable flight in the unimaginable machine, six very bewildered Tibetans landed in Saipan for training, though most had no idea where on earth Saipan might be. Over the next five months the Tibetans were trained in modern weapons and guerrilla tactics. They were also trained in espionage and codes, and in the operation of the hand-cranked radio transmitter/receiver.

'We only lived to kill Chinese,' recalled one Tibetan veteran. 'Our hopes were high.' One of the trainees, Gyato Wangdu (who would later become the last commander of the Chushi Gandrug), asked CIA operations officer Roger McCarthy for 'a portable nuclear weapon of some kind"¦that the trainees might employ to destroy Chinese by the hundreds.' The CIA declined, but McCarthy noted that Wangdu 'did take to demolition training with renewed enthusiasm' and became quite taken with bazookas and mortars. By fall of 1957, Tibetans who had never seen a sky boat were jumping out of one in the cold light of a full moon over Tibet. One of the first jumpers, Athar Norbu, remembered: 'We could see the Tsangpo River below us gleaming in the dark. There were no clouds. It was a clear night. Happiness surged through me"¦[as] we went rattling out of the plane.' In Lhasa, Athar Norbu and a fellow guerrilla made contact with Gompo Tashi. This ultrasecret project was code-named 'ST Circus.' The CIA was now in the fight.

In the summer of 1958, Gompo Tashi established new headquarters at Triguthang in southern Tibet, where thousands of men had gathered in a pan-Tibetan resistance force. In an effort to be more inclusive, they renamed their movement Tensung Dhanglang Magar (Voluntary Force for the Defense of Buddhism). Two CIA-trained Tibetans watched it all, radioing back to the United States. In July the CIA made its first arms drop into Tibet — mostly of untraceable old Lee-Enfield rifles. Agency veterans of ST Circus recalled the excitement and romance at receiving messages from their protégés 15,000 miles away in a near-mythical place few Americans could locate on a globe. Even CIA Director Allen Dulles, searching for Tibet on a world map, poked around near Hungary before one of his officers politely enlightened him. Quoting a fellow CIA officer, John Kenneth Knaus, a former CIA operations officer who worked with Tibetan resistance from 1959 to 1965, admitted, 'There was something so special' about Tibet — including the 'Shangri-La factor.' Beyond that, the CIA officers involved — self-dubbed 'the Old Guys Tibetan Club' — admit today with a chuckle that they felt fortunate to be involved in a 'good operation' rather than the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba. Thrilled by the success of the two radio operators in central Tibet, the CIA built a top-secret facility at Camp Hale, Colo., former home of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. The Tibetans loved Camp Hale's 10,000-foot Rocky Mountain peaks, alpine air and dense forests — reminiscent of home — and called the camp Dhumra, or 'the Garden.' Life at Camp Hale was Spartan, the training rigid and thorough. When the Tibetans got on the plane for their return flight homeward, each team carried the same things — its personal weapons, wireless sets and a cyanide capsule strapped onto each man's left wrist.

The Camp Hale Tibetans believed they were being trained to regain Tibetan independence. Interpreter Thinley Paljor recalled: 'In our games room we had a picture of [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, signed by him, 'To my fellow Tibetan friends, from Eisenhower.' So we thought the president himself was giving us support.' Some of their trainers came to feel that way as well, with unusually strong bonds formed between many CIA men and the Tibetans.

Back in Tibet the resistance's furious campaign was paying off. Freedom fighters were effectively in control of significant chunks of the mountain kingdom. Encouraged, the agency made a second arms drop to Gompo Tashi's men, then two more resupply drops in 1958.

In Lhasa, however, the delicate veneer of coexistence between Tibet's young god king, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Communist occupiers was stripping away. Certain incidents had made obvious, even to the public, the Chinese plans for the Dalai Lama's elimination, and a multitude of Lhasa's populace surrounded his residence to protect him. How the Dalai Lama ever escaped through this throng is a mystery, but on March 17, 1959, resistance fighters smuggled him out of his residence, the Potala, and through guerrilla-held territory. They were joined by two CIA-trained Tibetans in escorting him to the Indian border.

Two days later, still unaware of the Dalai Lama's escape, the Chinese lobbed shells toward his vacated palace, and at 2 a.m. on March 20 they began shelling the city. Enraged when they learned of the Dalai Lama's escape, the Chinese executed Lhasa civilians in reprisal. Exact numbers are unknown, but the bodies were reportedly stacked like cordwood in the streets. The Chushi Gandrug forces in eastern Tibet were quickly outgunned, outnumbered and, thanks to aircraft and improved Chinese radio communications, relentlessly pursued by beefed-up PLA forces. In the face of such an onslaught, Gompo Tashi and what was left of his force joined the exodus of Tibetans streaming across the Himalayas, following their exiled leader. After the Dalai Lama's flight to India, the number of Tibetan teams secretly flown into Camp Hale grew. Eventually, 259 Tibetans would be trained there. Still, there were successes. Gompo Tashi later related to Roger McCarthy, CIA operations officer in charge of the Tibetan program at the time, details of a December 25 attack by 200 of his men: 'The men attacked on the date set and fought the Chinese for 15 days, destroying more than 500 Chinese quarters and many vehicles"¦.The Chinese Communist newspaper"¦reported that more than 550 Chinese soldiers had been killed 'heroically' in this battle. We lost 20 men and nine others wounded.' Tashi added that 29 Tibetan volunteers leading 400 locals attacked another Chinese camp in the area. 'That battle lasted 10 days,' he recalled. 'They inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese"¦.' Then on January 24, 1959, 'Another of our volunteer forces of 130 men attacked the Chinese in Tengchen and seized the fortress in Teng Dzong"¦. More than 4,000 people from the local area volunteered to join us"¦.The destruction of the Chinese was systematic and about completed when unfortunately the skies cleared and the Chinese began bombing and machine-gunning us from their airplanes"¦.We had not killed all of the Chinese but would have if we had better communications between our forces and if the weather had not cleared.' Eighteen more guerrillas were dropped in September 1959 near Chagra Pembar, 200-plus miles northeast of Lhasa, to train a native force gathered in a tent city with their families and the livestock on which they depended. Eventually the force reached 35,000 Tibetans. This was a feudal culture whose tribes gathered in the same way they had for 1,000 years. Amid the bleating animals and the sea of blue smoke from cooking fires, at least two of the Tibetan teams radioed for more support.

The CIA made several arms drops soon afterward, this time providing M-1 Garand rifles, mortars, grenades, recoilless rifles and machine guns. Nor were they small drops. The first one consisted of 126 pallets of cargo, including 370 M-1 rifles with 192 rounds per rifle, four machine guns with 1,000 rounds each and two radio sets. A second similar drop came the next month, and a third 226-pallet drop during the next full moon provided 800 more rifles, 200 cases of ammo and 20 cases of grenades. On January 6, 1960, some 650 pallets landed with more arms, plus medicine and food. Clearly, after the Dalai Lama escaped, the agency was far less concerned about maintaining 'plausible deniability' regarding the arms support.

By now the massive, tumultuous Tibetan camp at Chagra Pembar was a real problem. Guerrillas cannot operate effectively with such encumbrances, and CIA coordinators tried frantically to convince the fighters to disperse into smaller units in order to operate more flexibly and present less of a target. Within a month, the inevitable happened. A veteran of Chagra Pembar, Dechen (surnames are not always used in Tibet) described the attack: 'A Chinese plane came in the morning and dropped leaflets which told us to surrender and warned us not to listen to the 'imperialist' Americans. 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.' Thousands of men, women and children were killed, both at Chagra Pembar and at another gathering site called Nira Tsogeng. Artillery barrages topped off the aerial bombings. Only five of the Chagra Pembar parachutists survived; the rest died in the Chinese attacks or were hunted down later.

This disaster was even worse when the Chinese bombed the large encampment at Nira Tsogeng, where the CIA had dropped 430 pallets of weapons and other supplies to 4,000 Tibetan fighters. Saddled with their dependents and some 30,000 animals, the surviving resistance fled across the desolate plain of Ladakh, where most died for lack of water. Things got grimmer. In the spring of 1960, a seven-man team parachuted into Markam in eastern Tibet. Led by Yeshe Wangyal, son of a local chieftain, it hooked up with the force of Wangyal's father, who had been killed some months before. The guerrillas landed on a light dusting of snow, considered a good omen by Tibetans. This time, however, the omen proved false. After arming the local resistance, they almost immediately came under attack and fought running battles against a steadily swelling PLA force until they were surrounded. The sole living survivor of that team today is a former medical student turned guerrilla named Bhusang, who remembered: 'The whole mountainside was swarming with Chinese. We fought them nine times. During the battle, the Chinese shouted out to us, 'Surrender! Surrender!' We shouted back, 'Eat sh-t!'"¦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. It was the end. I put the capsule in my mouth because later I might not have had time.' Before he could bite down on the capsule, however, a blow from behind knocked him out cold. Bhusang spent the next 18 years in a Chinese prison, where he was tortured and starved until he revealed his training by the Americans and the identities of those taught with him. The Tibetans' resistance efforts under CIA auspices, however valiant, now seemed more and more pointless. Forty-nine men had been dropped into Tibet. Twelve survived, two of whom were in Chinese prisons. With the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, it is clear that the area of operations could not even feed its own population, much less an additional guerrilla force. Compounding the situation was the Tibetans' independent spirit, which often valued pure guts over strategic planning. Against the advice of their CIA mentors, the Tibetans often insisted upon hurling full frontal attacks at the massive Chinese forces.

One of the biggest problems for the resistance was that the CIA could not provide tactical radio equipment, which would allow them to coordinate their forces. While the CIA feared the Tibetans would not observe proper communications security, there were other obstacles. The PRC 10 radios ate batteries by the dozen. Given the choice of being dropped batteries or weapons, Tibetans chose the latter.

The effort to sustain a large guerrilla force had been a painful failure. From a purely logistical standpoint, however, the drops into hostile Tibetan territory had been a brilliant success. 'The earlier drops, perhaps the first 10 or 15, were very successful in that the morale of the Tibetan trainees and the Chushi Gandrug went sky high,' McCarthy said in retrospect. 'The next 20 or so gave the resistance much of what they needed to maintain their winning ways over the PLA; the drops to the Pembar area brought false hope, and thus I call them sadly futile.'

Given the nasty beating the resistance was now taking, the time had come to move its base out of reach of the Chinese. In the summer of 1960 the Tibetan operations base was relocated to Mustang province, a moonscapelike scrap of Nepalese real estate jutting into Tibet. From there the resistance planned, with CIA help, to send 2,100 fighters in groups of 300 into occupied Tibet. One of Gompo Tashi's lieutenants, an ex-monk named Bapa Gen Yeshe, ran the operation, and he easily collected the first 300 guerrillas for Mustang. Rightfully nervous about such numbers while it secretly staged operations in Nepal without consent, the CIA demanded the highest level of security.

Security, however, was not the average Tibetan's strong point; articles began to appear in the newspapers about the more than 2,000 Tibetans flocking into the camp — over three times the original number planned — to be fed, housed and kept occupied. Upset by the security breach, and heeding Eisenhower's proscription against conducting provocative airdrops in the wake of the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident, the CIA withdrew support. That made for a horribly bitter winter situation in the Mustang camps. Some Tibetans froze to death. Others ate their shoes and animal hides to survive. Eventually, however, money was provided for food, and Tibetan hopes at Mustang remained high. Spring of 1961 brought the Americans a new president and an apparent change of heart. John F. Kennedy's administration, at least initially, continued to support Tibetan resistance. The CIA dropped more arms and a seven-man team to the camps in Nepal. It turned out to be one of the most auspicious decisions in CIA history. The Mustang guerrillas proceeded to make a series of smashing raids along the nearby Sinkiang-Tibet Highway running through southwestern Tibet toward Lhasa. Eventually, the Chinese gave up completely on using that important route and built another road farther from the Mustang border.

The real reward for the CIA, however, was an intelligence coup that occurred when 40 Tibetan horsemen overran a small Chinese convoy in what came to be called the 'blue satchel raid.' A veteran of the raid named Acho described what transpired: 'The driver was shot in the eye, his brains splattered behind him and the truck came to a stop. The engine was still running. Then all of us fired at it. There was one woman, a very high-ranking officer, with a blue sack full of documents.' When the CIA men in Washington opened it, they were stunned. The bloodstained, bullet-riddled cache of 1,500 documents contained the first hard evidence of the failure of Mao's Great Leap Forward, famine, and discontent within the PLA. John Kenneth Knaus said: 'The Tibetan Document Raid was one of the greatest intelligence hauls in the history of the agency"¦.So that was of great help as far as getting or maintaining support for these kinds of operations was concerned.' There were at least three important courier satchels captured, which provided insight into policy decisions, order-of-battle information, and proposals being made by China to India. The Tibetans were happy to know that the Americans were so pleased with the blue satchel's contents, although Acho, in a 2001 interview said, 'We still don't know what was in that bag.' The satchel was by no means the last of it. In 1962 a Tibetan spy team located deep inside Chinese territory photographed Chinese military sites, made maps and located potential parachute drop zones, at the same time helping to inform the United States about China's missile programs and efforts to develop nuclear weapons. After repeated attempts, Tibetan operatives managed to plant sensors that gave Washington its earliest clues of China's first nuclear test at Lop Nor, north of Tibet, in 1964.

Meanwhile, however, China's collectivization of Tibet was taking a grisly toll. Newly built roads and airfields had allowed the PLA to bury the country in troops and equipment. Ancient monasteries and temples were systematically destroyed; tens of thousands of civilians, including monks and nuns, were killed, raped, scalded and imprisoned. Famine rumbled across the 'roof of the world.' Altogether 1.2 million Tibetans died, either at the hands of the soldiers or from the Chinese starvation strategy. 'We should have committed ourselves earlier,' McCarthy said, 'before the Chinese got those roads and airstrips built, and before they established their lines of communications so thoroughly.'

By the mid-'60s things began to deteriorate for the Tibetans. Now aware of the Mustang camps, of which there were four, India and Nepal were nervous about the incursions. The CIA program also had its American detractors. Kennedy's ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, was, in his patrician manner, calling it 'a particularly insane enterprise' involving 'dissident and deeply unhygienic tribesmen.' The guerrillas were instructed to cease making armed incursions inside Tibet and to limit their operations to intelligence gathering. The Tibetans nodded and smiled, then continued raiding until the late 1960s. The CIA made its last arms drop in May 1965.

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing within the Tibetan organization, beginning with the death of the 64-year-old Gompo Tashi in September 1964, following surgery to remove 10 pieces of shrapnel acquired from years of fighting. The Dalai Lama's brother, Gyalo Thondup, and camp organizer Lhamo Tsering replaced Gompo Tashi with Bapa Yeshe, a reliable fighter of the old school. More akin to a feudal tribal chief than a contemporary guerrilla commander, however, Yeshe and a like-minded group generally kept things stirred up among the resistance camps. Camp Hale vets said he misappropriated funds and supplies. In Mustang province he terrorized the locals and stole from farmers. The Nepalese protested to India, and of course the Indians protested to the Dalai Lama, while the Chinese happily kept up the political pressure on both Nepal and India for letting the Tibetans stay there at all. Though he had his own followers, Bapa Yeshe was dismissed in 1968. Camp Hale Tibetans and CIA men say he proceeded to Kathmandu (where he remains today) and gave the Nepalese army minute details as to where the resistance camps were located and the names of their leaders.

There would be one more Mustang resistance leader. Gyato Wangdu, a steel-hard fighter and one of the original Saipan-trained Tibetans, would be the principal actor in the Chushi Gandrug's tragic closing act.

It was President Richard Nixon's rapprochement with China that rang the death knell for the Tibetan resistance. John Kenneth Knaus, now an associate at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University, wrote, 'After their journey to Beijing Dr. [Henry] Kissinger told his chief [Nixon], 'We are now in the extraordinary situation that, with the exception of the United Kingdom, the People's Republic of China might well be closest to us in its global perceptions." These global perceptions did not include the Tibetans. When the order to close ST Circus came down, not a few CIA field officers were as angry and saddened as the Tibetans. While they still feel it was a great program and are proud of their part in it, they are regretful that they did not or could not do more. 'It was more a case of not being straightforward with the Tibetans,' McCarthy lamented, 'and letting the State Department types have the trump cards, especially at critical junctures. Again, had we been able to go to Tibet's aid in 1952, or even up to 1955, history would have been rewritten. By 1958 and 1959 we were again on the tail end of opportunity.' Rather more bluntly than the other CIA officers involved in ST Circus, McCarthy concluded: 'Generally speaking, I think the Agency looks at Tibet as having been one of the best operations that it has ever run. Well that's fine, that's very complimentary. But if you look at the final results, it'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 failed miserably.'

The base in Mustang struggled on until 1974, when the Nepalese government, under tremendous Chinese pressure, sent troops to shut it down. The Mustang leaders refused to surrender. In an effort to prevent a Nepalese slaughter of his people, the Dalai Lama issued a taped message to be played in all the camps, ordering the Tibetans to lay down their arms. 'The tape contained the Dalai Lama's real voice,' recalled Mustang soldier Ugyen Tashi. '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.' Afterward, some Tibetans threw themselves into a river and were drowned. A CIA-trained senior Tibetan officer slit his own throat on the spot.

Yet one man did not comply — Gyato Wangdu, who with a few select warriors embarked on a hard-fighting run for India. But a month later they were ambushed by Nepalese forces at a place called Tinkers Pass. Seeing the end before him, Wangdu chose to ride straight into his attackers. And with that, it was over. The last fighter of the secret war at the top of the world went down in a deadly cross-fire, as much a casualty of politics half a world away as the guns of Tinkers Pass.

This article was written by Joe Bageant and originally published in the February 2004 issue of Military History. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!
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