The Historical Evolution of
American Policy Toward Tibet
Tibet is well known around the
world today. The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
is one of China’s five ethnic minorities’ autonomous regions.
However, to some in the West, Tibet’s political position seems open to
It is obviously that
no one can reach a proper understanding of this issue without consulting
history. In ancient times,
Tibet was a vague geographical concept to Western world, but
it did witness competition between the great powers in modern times.
Originally the so-called “Great Game” brought Russian and
British monk-spies and, eventually, the British Indian army, into Lhasa.
Then, during World War II, the US established the famous air transport
route known as the “Hump”, during which
the aircraft flew through Tibetan airspace.
Thus, the issue of Tibetan
independence, which never existed before Europeans came to Asia, became
unavoidably connected with the Western powers. Since
American hegemony has dominated the Western world for more than half a
century, the viewpoints of the United States and its policies towards
Tibet are an important key to the issue.
Although American influence on
Tibet came later than that of Russia and Britain, it increased after
World War II, when the Cold War began and a group of leaders from the
Gaxag (the local Tibetan Government) asked the US Government to support
their claim for independence. It
continued to increase after 1959, when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet
and established his Government-in-exile in India.
Nowadays, the US is in the forefront of Western support for the
Dalai Lama, although it has never officially recognized the Tibetan
Government-in-exile. It seems clear that the
issue of Tibetan independence cannot be properly examined without
considering this American influence. Yet,
very few books have narrated clearly the story of American involvement
in Tibetan issues—how did the US develop its Tibetan policy?
What were the background and aims of this policy?
When did the US start to take a hand in Tibet? Why did it do so, and how did American Tibetan policy
In order to trace the
historical process and to analyze US involvement in Tibet from the
perspective of Sino-US relations, one should pay attention to the period
the 1880’s to the 1970’s, starting with William Woodville Rockhill
(the first American to travel through the Tibetan areas, during which he
interviewed the 13th Dalai Lama and wrote to the then US president about
Tibet), ending with Richard Nixon (the first US president who visited
Beijing and met Chairman Mao). I
prefer to leave the later decades untouched, mainly because the
archives, both in Chinese and in English, about that period are, at
present, still classified and inaccessible.
As a geographical concept, Tibet
differs between the Western and Eastern perceptions. Although the English word Tibet is translated into Chinese as
“Xizang”, “Xizang” does not equal Tibet. “Xizang” is a
Chinese name given by the Qing (Manchu) Emperor Kangxi when he ruled the
whole of China, which basically indicates the area in which the Tibet
Autonomous Region (TAR) is now located.
On the other hand, the name Tibet is quite ambiguous.
Sometimes, it indicates the Tibet Autonomous Region, which some westerners
say has been “invaded” by China. Sometimes it indicates not only
Xizang, but also the Tibetan areas in China’s Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan
and Yunnan provinces, as one often reads in some Western books.
In fact, the Gaxag never administered the latter since it was
established by the Qing Emperor Qianlong in 1757, and the Dalai Lamas
exerted only religious influence there.
The word Tibet in this thesis means “Xizang” proper, namely
the region of Tibet where the Gaxag ruled during the period from the
1750’s to 1951. It is
basically today’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
Early Contacts Between Tibet and the US and America’s Early Attitudes
towards Tibet (From the End of the 19th Century to the End of the
The last years of the 19th century
saw the earliest contacts between Tibet and the US. Rockhill traveled
through China’s north-western and south-western parts, wrote much
about the Mongolians and Tibetans and even learned to speak Tibetan. Soon after he was appointed the American Minister to China,
Rockhill met the 13th Dalai Lama and submitted a report to the then
American President Roosevelt.
When John Hay, the US Secretary of
State, put forward the “Open Door” policy regarding China in 1899,
the US began to pay attention to Tibet, although she had not at that
time produced any clear Tibetan policy.
A British army,
led by Francis Younghusband, invaded Tibet and eventually entered
Lhasa in 1904. In the view
of the US, this British invasion meant that Great Britain was making
efforts to include Tibet in its sphere
of influence by using the geographical advantage of the adjacent British
India. These efforts,
contradictory to the “Open Door” policy, definitely threatened
American interests in China, and so it objected.
Joseph H. Choate, the American ambassador to Britain called, soon
after the invasion, on Lord Lansdowne, the British Foreign Secretary,
seeking assurances that the latter still regarded Tibet as a part of the
Chinese Empire, and expressed his government’s disapproval of the
policy followed by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of British India, which regarded
China as having no sovereignty but only suzerainty over Tibet.
Soon after China’s 1912
revolution, the Yuan Shi-kai Government sent troops to Tibet to restore
order and the traditional relationship between the Chinese central
Government and the Tibetan Government.
Great Britain lost no time in sabotaging China’s effort.
Sir John Newell Jordan, the British ambassador to China, denied
China’s right to send its troops into Tibet. He also asked China to
take part in the Simla Conference to discuss Tibetan issues with Great
Britain and Tibet, and then made the recognition of China’s new
Government conditional on this.
Once again the American Government
raised objections. Without
accepting Great Britain’s suggestion to recognize China’s new
Government as a common action by the Western powers, the US was, in
fact, the first of these to give formal recognition to the Republic of
China in May 1912. Of
course, the recognition was not a result of exclusive consideration over
Tibetan issues; nevertheless, American attitudes towards Tibet differed
increasingly from those of Great Britain.
The tripartite Simla Conference,
in which the Chinese Government was forced to send its delegation to
attend on equal terms with Tibet and British India, never reached a
formal convention. After
World War I, Great Britain urged the Chinese Government to reopen
negotiations. Knowing its
weak position and the friendly attitude of the US on Tibetan issues,
China considered whether it would be of benefit to invite the Americans
to mediate between Britain and itself on the issues.
Although this suggestion was never offered by the Chinese
Government, Sir John W. Jordan opposed it even when it was no more than
a rumor. His strong dislike
was based on the fact that the US was pro-Chinese on Tibetan issues and
took Tibet to be part of China. Just
as Professor Owen Lattimore, an American scholar, said later: “the
American doctrine is the integrity of China....The American concept of
the integrity of China is that Tibet, Mongolia and Sinkiang (Xinjiang)
are all part of China”. In fact, the US Government did not change this
attitude until the end of the 1930’s.
Generally speaking, from 1900 to
the end of the 1930’s, the US Government took Tibet as a part of
China, against Great Britain’s denial of China’s sovereignty over
Tibet. As a logical
development and an extension of the “Open Door” policy, this
attitude was based on, and resulted from, not only the historical facts,
but the consideration of America’s own interests in China.
It was this attitude that resulted in the establishment of a
Tibetan policy that exerted both an active influence on US China policy
as a whole, and a negative one on British efforts to alienate Tibet from
World War II and The Making of the US’s Tibetan Policy (1940-1945,
During World War II).
When China, the US, the USSR and
Great Britain formed an alliance to fight against the Axis powers Tibet
once again attracted American attention and direct contacts began.
On July 2nd, 1942, Captain Ilya
Tolstoy II and Lieutenant Brook Dolan were sent to Lhasa by the Office
of Strategic Services. They
arrived in Lhasa via India at the end of the year and handed President
Roosevelt’s letters and gifts to the Dalai Lama and the Regent.
Then three months later, the two Americans left for the US with
Lhasa’s replies and gifts to the President.
Meanwhile, a memorandum issued by
the Department of State in June 1942 included Tibet in the total
territory of China.
When talking about Tibet soon after, Secretary of State Cordell
Hull reminded Clarence E. Gauss, the American Ambassador to China:
Chinese Government have long claimed suzerainty over Tibet, the Chinese
constitution lists Tibet among the areas constituting the territory of
the Republic of China, and … [the U.S.] … Government has at no time
raised questions regarding either of these claims.”
Great Britain, of course, was not happy about this
attitude. The British
Embassy sent a memorandum to the American Department of State in April
1943 informing the latter of the negotiations between China and Britain
over Tibetan issues and over the transportation of war materials from
India to inland China via Tibet. Using the Government of India’s
words, the memorandum declared:
Government of India has always held that Tibet is a separate country in
full enjoyment of local autonomy, entitled to exchange diplomatic representatives
with other Powers. The
relationship between China and Tibet is not a matter that can be
unilaterally decided by China, but one on which Tibet is entitled to
negotiate, and on which she can, if necessary, count on the diplomatic
support of the British Government along the lines shown above. ”
The Department of State replied to
Britain promptly by sending a memorandum on May 15th to the British
Department of State appreciates the courtesy of the British Embassy in
acquainting this Government.…With regard to the position of Tibet in Asia, the
British Government has been so good as to give an account of its
historical attitude. For its part, 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 the areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China.
This Government has at no time raised a question regarding either of
these claims. The Government of the United States does not believe that
a useful purpose would be served by opening, at this time, a detailed
discussion on the status of Tibet.”
No one knows whether the Chinese
Government had persuaded or urged the US to issue such a memorandum and
to show its dissent over Tibet’s status so openly with Great Britain.
However, one fact might be mentioned here: just before the
memoranda were exchanged between Great Britain and the US, the Gaxag
declared the establishment of a “Foreign Bureau” and asked the Tibet
Office in Lhasa of the Chinese Government’s Commission for the
Mongolian and Tibetan Affaires (CGCMTA) to contact the Foreign Bureau
instead of the Gaxag directly as before.
By doing so, it intended to prove that it was an independent
government. Meanwhile, the
Gaxag rejected the plan of building a road from India to inland China
via Tibet. As a result, Chiang Kai-shek sent troops to the Qinghai-Tibet
border, delivered a very strong speech to the representative of the
Tibetan Government in Chongqing and refused British mediation.
Never before had the Chinese Government taken such a strict
attitude over Tibet. It was
reasonable to deduce that the Chinese Government had been quite sure, if
it had not been informed directly that US support was reliable.
By repeating the same words, which
Cordell Hull wrote to Clarence E. Gauss one year before, the US
clarified, in a memorandum of May 15th, 1943, its disagreement with
Britain. It was formed in a
special circumstance of war, subject to the American China policy as a
whole—to help and support China to become a great power and to win the
war against Japan. This
policy obviously backed Chinese claims to Tibet and benefited China’s
struggle with Britain on the Tibetan issue.
However, it was not for China’s interests but that of the
United States. Furthermore,
American direct contact with the Gaxag had already, in a sense, damaged
China’s sovereignty over Tibet, and it was the beginning of US
interference in Tibetan affairs.
Policy Adjustment: Cause, Background and Effects; Why and How the US
Changed Its Traditional Attitude Towards Tibet
Both the Cold War and China’s
civil war began right after the end of World War II.
China’s situation changed rapidly.
It was quite obvious that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime would be
soon overthrown and the Communist Party of China (i.e later CPC) would
take power. The Republic of
China had been for some two decades been friendly towards the US, where
people never seemed reluctant to see China strong and to enjoy its
rights over Tibet. However,
Communist China was another thing.
Its close ties with Russia could make them the enemy of the US.
In this case, the
US government would feel that it would be better for China lose Tibet.
Thus, it was a time for the US to adjust its Tibetan policy.
In other words, the US began to consider whether she should,
follow the line the British had taken and try to alienate Tibet from
In 1947, the Gaxag sent a Tibet
Trade Mission to inland China as well as to the US and the UK.
All five members of the mission, led by Tsepon Shakabpa, held
Tibetan passports and applied for visas to the countries above
mentioned. Because none of
them had formally recognized Tibet as independent, diplomatic problems
Tsepon Shakabpa and his colleagues
received British visas to Hong Kong on their Tibetan passports, and
visas to visit inland China on their Chinese passports, but had nothing
from the US before they left India.
However, the US Consulate in Hong Kong issued them with visas to
the US later.
This “visa” event shocked and
embarrassed the Chinese Government.
On July 12, 1948, Ye Gong-chao, the Chinese Vice-Minister of
Foreign Affairs, issued a statement and made inquiries to the American
Embassy. Apart from
confirming Chinese claims over Tibet, Ye also asked the US Government to
clarify whether giving these visas to Tibetans was a mistake made by the
US Consular office in Hong Kong, or an indication that the US Government
was contemplating a change in its Tibetan policy.
Meanwhile, Dr. Wellington Koo, the Chinese Ambassador to America,
was instructed to call on Secretary of State General George Marshall to
seek clarification. Now,
the Americans were in a dilemma—any declaration that would please
Nanking would certainly depress Lhasa.
After some consideration, the US decided to satisfy the former.
The Chinese Minister Tan Shao-hwa was told, at a meeting on 28
July, by the State Department, that the United States had “no
intention of acting in a manner to call into question China’s de
jure sovereignty over Tibet.”
On the other hand, the Americans did not forget to remind Nanking
to “appreciate that the fact that it (China) exerts no de facto
authority over Tibet is [the] root cause of [the] situation.”
Eventually, the scheduled meeting between Tsepon Shakabpa and
President Truman was cancelled on Dr. Wellington Koo’s request,
because Tsepon Shakabpa refused to let the ambassador accompany the
Tibetans to meet the President.
After his visit to Europe, Tsepon
Shakabpa made his way back to Lhasa with empty hands—neither America
nor Britain promised to recognize Tibetan independence, nor did they
even promise to consider the matter in the future.
Only one year later, on October
1st, 1949, the founding of the People’s Republic of China was
proclaimed. Political and
geographical considerations encouraged Mao Tsetung, the Chairman of the
CPC to choose a peaceful way to realize
Tibet liberation. The
invitations were sent to Lhasa to urge the Gaxag to send its delegates
for negotiations in Beijing.
A multilateral game concerning
In Americans’ eyes, China was
lost. Definitely they did
not want to see Tibet fall into communist China’s hands.
However, unlike India, which is adjacent to Tibet, and Britain,
which had a long history of contacts with Tibet, the Americans lacked
the effective access and reason to support the Gaxag in its claim of
both Russia and Taiwan, which was then controlled by Chiang Kai-shek,
made it impossible to reach a solution favorable to the US after
discussions in the United Nations on a complex issue like Tibet.
Should the Americans say Tibet is not a part of China, Taiwan
would not agree, let alone Russia.
India would undoubtedly feel happy to see no PLA (Peoples’
Liberation Army) soldiers near its border, yet it was not easy for it,
as a newly independent republic and a nonaligned country, to openly
claim some rights in Tibet and to stand with the US. Britain had just retreated from India and dumped all the
responsibilities onto the Government of India.
Some British officers just wanted to let the US “ make the
The US had to do something.
The Gaxag had asked the US to help it fight against the CPC and
it was hesitating to send its delegates to Beijing.
A religious, anti-communist Tibet might contribute to the Cold
War. Why not take this
opportunity? In early 1949,
an official in the Department of State suggested that “if for example
the Communists succeeded in controlling all of China or some equivalent
far-reaching development takes place, we should be prepared to treat
Tibet as independent to all intents and purpose ”.
It is not clear at what level the US Government had considered
this suggestion; however, it did take some steps to undermine the
negotiations between the Gaxag and the newly founded Chinese central
Several factors encumbered
American’s efforts. The first was that the Government of India did not
want to cooperate with the US. New Delhi “would object to any
initiative by another power, particularly the U.S., to extend military
aid to Tibet.” The second
was that Britain just wanted to wash its hands of the whole affair.
London told Washington: “we…considered that any attempt to intervene
in Tibet would be impractical and unwise.
We have no interest in the area sufficiently strong to justify
the certain risks involved in our embroiling ourselves with the Chinese
on this question….”
Having got no cooperation from
either India or Britain, the US could do nothing at this stage but pay
lip service to the Gaxag. After losing the Changdu campaign, Tibetan
delegates arrived in Beijing and signed the Seventeen-Point Agreement
(The Agreement of the Central Government and the local Government of
Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, 1951).
The US had tried to persuade the 14th Dalai Lama not to sign the
Agreement, and after the signing, still encouraged him to denounce it.
America’s Tibetan policy at that time had obviously changed to
split Tibet from China. In
1959, the 14th Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and began his life in exile.
Since the 1950’s, the CIA took
responsibility for carrying out American Tibetan policy and started to
train Tibetans to use radios, maps and rifles, then airdropped them back
into Tibet, despite the fact that Tibet is an area located far away from
America and over which the CIA’s own government had “at no time
raised the question ” regarding its status as Tibet among “the areas
constituting the territory of the Republic of China”.
Because of American intrigues and inducements, the life of the Tibetans
was disturbed by the separatists throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.
All the US had done was not for
Tibetan people, but for their own interests in the cold war.
Just as the remarks written by Prof. Tom Grunfeld, a rather
straightforward American scholar:
“All the indications are that
the CIA and Indians understood full well that the Tibetan rebellion had
no chance of success or even of causing any major disruption to the
Chinese. The Government of
the United States was only interested in harassing China’s
To sum up, the so-called
“Tibetan issues”, most importantly the sovereignty problem of Tibet,
were created by the Western powers, especially when America entered the
scene. This influence was
particularly strong after World War II.
America’s Tibetan policy changed with time and was based on
self-interest, and was subject to its overall China policy.
To put it briefly, at different
periods the US needed a different China, as well as a different Tibet.
During the period of the “Open Door” policy, America wanted
to see an integrated China, not being divided by other powers; then, it
was all right to let Tibet be part of China. During World War II, America helped China win the war against
the Japanese; China’s claim over Tibet was not questioned by America.
However, during the period of the Cold War, especially when the
Republic of China was “lost” in 1949, America hoped to contain
China, to cause turmoil and possible disintegration.
So its attitude towards Tibet changed.
At any time, when talking over
Tibetan issues, America’s first concern is not Tibet but China.
The changing path of US Tibetan policy can be well observed in
this way. No one is sure in
what direction this will develop in the future; however, it will
definitely be subject, as before, to the overall American policy towards
 FRUS, 1942, China, p.71, Memorandum by the Chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs (Hanmilton): China’s War Potential: Estimate, Jun 17, 1942.
 USFR, 693.0031 Tibet/7-2648, memorandum of conversation of J. F. Melby, second secretary, U.S. Embassy in China, with George Yeh, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs; dated 26 July1948. From Goldstein, Melvyn C;1989; A History of Modern Tibet 1913-1951, The Demise of the Lamaist State; India edition 1993; Published by Indian Book Company; p.590.
 FRUS, 1949, vol. IX, p. 1065, Memorandum by Miss Ruth E. Bacon of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs to the Chief of the Division of China Affairs（Sprouse）, April 12, 1949.
 FRUS, 1943, China, p. 630, The Department of State to the British Embassy, May 15, 1943.