Central Intelligence Agency in Tibet in the 1950s

The issue in question was the impact of the CIA’s involvement in Tibet’s political affairs during a critical period in the nation’s history. This query refers to the time period when Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party took control of China in the year 1950. Shortly thereafter, Mao made known his intentions to unite the nation while setting his sights on Hainan, Taiwan, and Tibet (Falkenheim). It is important to find out if the CIA’s activities were deemed successful after Mao made known his plans to conquer Tibet. It is not possible to answer this question without determining the query’s point of view. The answer to this question is affirmative if viewed through the eyes of a sympathetic and loyal supporter of the CIA, but a negative answer is expected from the point of view of an impassioned and objective observer.

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Clarifying the Issue

Judging from the events that transpired during the Cold War days, it is difficult to believe that there was a time when China and the United States of America were allies. Leaders and policymakers were willing to set aside ideological differences when they were facing a common enemy during World War II. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Americans viewed Communist beliefs as antithetical to the ideals of freedom and democracy. America’s deep-seated concerns over China’s political views reached the boiling point in the 1950s, especially when Mao Tse Tung’s Communist government was able to overthrow Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government. The latter was the government apparatus in 1940s China that leaders in Washington perceived as more malleable compared to the hardliners within the Communist Party. Mao’s plan to capture Hainan, Taiwan, and Tibet may sound like a domestic political issue if examined through the perspective of 21st century politicians. Nonetheless, this pronouncement sounded different from the point of view of Cold War America. During this period in American history, policymakers were anxious to defeat the global spread of communism (Acheson).

Political discourses during the Cold War era were partly based on the requirements of conventional warfare (Acheson). Thus, terms like strategic locations and buffer zones were important considerations. From the point of view of the Americans and their British counterparts, Tibet was both a strategic location and a buffer zone in relation to the Asian continent (Duncan). It does not require the insights of a political analyst or a military strategist to appreciate Tibet’s role in the Cold War between the United States, China, and Russia. If the Americans were compelled to pick a fight with China or Russia in the aftermath of the Second World War, they would have preferred a neutral Tibet as opposed to a territory controlled by the Chinese.

Tibet’s eventual secession to the People’s Republic of China or PRC enhanced Mao Tse Tung’s influence and political control of another large land mass north of Beijing. Without a doubt, a stronger China necessitates the conquest of Tibet. CIA operatives and their counterparts in the British government made the necessary steps to maintain the status quo and ensure the independence of Tibet. At this critical juncture in the Sino-Tibet relations, American diplomats within the area understood the importance of initiating a more proactive stance to secure Tibet’s freedom (Central Intelligence Agency 1). One of the more sympathetic diplomat was U.S. ambassador to India, Loy Henderson. Unfortunately, his pleas fell on deaf ears until the U.S. government lost control of the situation, and it came about when the 14th Dalai Lama was compelled to accept the terms that Beijing offered for Tibet. In October of 1951, Tibet officially became a part of the PRC (Conboy and Morrison 14).

One of the first documented covert act supported by the CIA was the assistance given to the brother of the Dalai Lama, Thubten Norbu (Conboy and Morrison 15). He sought political asylum in the US, and through his help the Americans were hoping to build a backdoor communication channel to the Dalai Lama. Even after several months of intense negotiations combined with covert actions, the CIA was unable to prevent Tibet’s downfall.

Success or Failure?

It may require a higher sense of optimism coming from a blind follower in order to declare the CIA’s intervention as a successful one. A blind and loyal supporter may justify the affirmative answer by stating that the CIA-backed operations gave hope to the Tibetan people. More importantly, the CIA’s involvement was seen as a means to minimize China’s influence in Eurasia. However, an objective assessment of the CIA-sponsored activities must render an adversarial verdict, one that labels the CIA-backed initiative as a failure. In addition, the American interference through CIA-sponsored covert operations may have compelled hardliners from the Chinese government to issue tougher directive designed to subdue Tibetan defiance with an iron-hand rule. As a result, the Chinese government was accused of human rights violation and the wanton killing of Tibetans (International Commission of Jurists).

From an operational and diplomatic perspective, the CIA failed to develop effective strategies, because the US government was unable to foresee the collapse of Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government. In other words, US officials were unable to develop contingencies in preparation for a Mao Tse Tung victory. One can also argue that the Americans were caught flat footed when Mao declared his desire to conquer Tibet.

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CIA Responsibility in the Creation of Present Day Tibet

Aside from the need to figure out if the CIA was successful in dealing with the Tibetan dilemma of 1951, it is also imperative to find out if the CIA was the one responsible for the creation of present day Tibet. It is important to know for instance if the people of Tibet suffered unnecessarily because of the connection between Tibetan leaders and CIA operatives. It is also interesting to find out if China’s aggressive stance towards Tibet was fueled by the CIA’s display of support for the embattled Tibetan leaders.

In a fair and impassioned analysis of verifiable evidence, one can argue that the CIA was only guilty of negligence and the inability to act at the right moment. These flaws explained the failure to strengthen Tibet from within in order to repel the Chinese army’s incursion into the region. However, Tibet’s conquest and misfortune was assured even without the participation of the CIA. China, India, Russia, and the West have this enduring fascination with Tibet. Many have tried to overwhelm her with military conquest, but it was only China’s shrewd diplomacy and military tactics that paved the way for her defeat. The bloody reprisals that followed were the byproducts of the clash between the Tibetan people’s indomitable will and the rough edges of communist ideology. The CIA had nothing to do with it.

Murders committed in the name of nation building and regional cooperation was not the indirect impact of CIA-supported covert operations. Even without the participation of the CIA in the events that transpired in Eurasia in the 1950s, China’s human rights violations were inevitable, because Chinese leaders were compelled to use intimidation and brutal force to control a rebellious population. One has to remember Tibet’s long history characterized by relative calm and peace in order to understand that these people are not going to accept the fate of a conquered nation (Conboy and Morrison 15). Tibet enjoyed centuries of independence, and was free from interference from the outside world not only as a result of clever diplomacy, but also as a consequence of the country’s geographical features. Foreign armies did not have the skill and the stamina to fight in a battlefield located thousands of miles above sea level (Shakya 17). Thus, one can argue that the Tibetans did not appreciate the way Beijing treated the local population.


In response to the query regarding the success or failure of CIA-sponsored operations in favor of Tibet, one can expect an affirmative answer from an optimistic and loyal follower of America’s elite intelligence agency. However, an objective examination of verifiable evidence leads to a negative conclusion. Flaws in the CIA’s strategy and covert efforts failed to prevent the PRC’s conquest of Tibet. However, how this country is being perceived by her neighbors and the international community is an image created by conflicting forces that were beyond the control of the CIA.

Works Cited

Acheson, Dean. “Dean Acheson on the Outcome of the Chinese Revolution (1949).” AlphaHistory. Web.

Central Intelligence Agency. Geographic Intelligence Memorandum: Resistance in Tibet. Langley: CIA: Office of Research and Reports, 2000.

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

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Duncan, James. “American Journalism and the Tibet Question, 1950-1959.” Iowa State University Digital Repository. Web.

Falkenheim, Victor. “Hainan.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web.

International Commission of Jurists. “ICJ Report on the Question of Tibet and the Rule of Law.” ICJ. Web.

Shakya, Tsering. The Dragon in the Land of Snow. Columbia University Press, 1999.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Central Intelligence Agency in Tibet in the 1950s." January 15, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/central-intelligence-agency-in-tibet-in-the-1950s/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Central Intelligence Agency in Tibet in the 1950s'. 15 January.

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