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On 13 February 1952, Thubten Norbu and his chaperone-cum-translator Robert Ekvall arrived at Foggy Bottom for a meeting with the new assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, John Allison. The reason for the tryst was the arrival of a secret letter from the Dalai lama addressed to his eldest brother.
Messages from the Tibetan leader had come before, but nothing like this. In marked contrast to the urgency of earlier communications, the Dalai lama was now subdued and measured. Four months after the Tibetan government had conceded on the seventeen-point agreement with Beijing, the monarch was now clearly hedging his bets. The Chinese were thus far being "correct and careful," he wrote, and he was determined to treat them in kind. As if to offset any perceived tilt toward Beijing, the letter instructed Norbu to maintain contact with U.S. officials and not allow for any "misunderstandings."
That Tibet's spiritual leader was writing in such pragmatic terms was not necessarily bad news at the upper echelons of the State Department. It had been senior department officials, after all, who had kept Ambassador Henderson at bay for so long. Now using the Dalai lama's own sentiments as cover, Allison had no need to apologize when he assured Norbu that the United States remained sympathetic but noncommittal. Allison went further, advocating that the United States not invite undue attention to Tibet by making any public statements. 
Although Allison was effectively writing off Tibet, Norbu saw it otherwise. Judging from the pleasantries exchanged around the room, he logically concluded that the Americans concurred with the Dalai lama's approach. Offering thanks to Allison, he departed.
It would be another three months before Norbu was back in contact, this time offering a decidedly different spin on events in his homeland. Allegedly tapping his own private sources, he claimed that the Dalai lama was continuing with a long-term master plan to appear compliant with China's wishes while secretly organizing resistance against them. Tibetans in the capital, he claimed, had recently sworn oaths of allegiance to the Dalai lama and affirmed their opposition to the Chinese.
Hearing this news, State Department officials in Washington admitted that they had little ability to verify its validity. Norbu, after all, had a vested interest in making it sound as if his brother were playing the Chinese according to a clever script, not the other way around. Still, the department's China desk thought that there was enough circumstantial evidence indicating that the Chinese in Tibet were encountering difficulties. On the pretext that the United States should allow China to make further missteps, the desk counseled continued restraint from both public statements and attempts to contact persons in Tibet who might be making the first move toward organizing an anticommunist resistance. Taking a pen to the margin of the source text, Assistant Secretary of State Allison wrote, "I agree." 
With those words, any residual thoughts of an activist Tibet policy by Washington entered into full remission. Plans to come to Lhasa's defense -- overtly or covertly, verbally or physically -- were shelved. Norbu himself lost relevance; in short order he left Washington for a brief English course at Berkeley before traveling to Japan for the 1952 conference of the Buddhist World Fellowship. While in Tokyo, both Norbu's sponsorship by the Committee for a Free Asia and his Indian identification papers expired.  In a telling rejection, his application for readmission to the United States was turned down, stranding the Dalai Lama's sibling in Japan as a gilded refugee.
Although Washington had no intention of coming to Tibet's assistance, it still needed to keep apprised of events in the region. In the summer of 1952, however, Tibet was more inaccessible than ever. Much as Ambassador Henderson had lamented a year earlier, most reports forwarded from the New Delhi embassy were either unreliable extracts from the Indian press or "wishfully warped" official views from the government of India.  One notable exception was the unique window provided by the princely state of Sikkim.
A sparse populated cluster of mountains roughly half the size of Connecticut, Sikkim appeared to be an unlikely font of information. But squeezed among India to the south, Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the southeast, it sat at the crossroads of the Himalayas. Sikkim also possessed several key mountain passes linking the Indian lowlands to the Tibetan plateau. These features attracted the attention of the British, who absorbed the territory in 1817 as an appendage to their vast Indian holdings.
Over the next 130 years, the British afforded Sikkim semiautonomous status and allowed its royals to remain in effective control. Since the 16th century, a line of chogyal, or "heavenly kings," had been both temporal and spiritual rulers of the state. Devotees of the same stylized form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet, these Sikkimese kings presided over an elite caste with its share of palace intrigue -- some of it deadly. In the 18th century, for example, a half sister of the reigning chogyal helped assassinate the king by opening an artery as he rested in a hot tub; she was later strangled with a scarf for her treachery.
It was with this traditional system of leadership intact that Sikkim approached the mid 20th century. By 1947, however, its future was suddenly in doubt. The British were gone, and a new set of Indian authorities had come to power in New Delhi. Although the princely states were theoretically entitled to declare their independence, in reality, the Indian leadership was making every attempt to entice them into a federal republic.
Sikkim was one such case. Beginning in 1947 and continuing for the next three years, its royals scrambled to salvage some form of autonomy that would safeguard their exalted status. Unfortunately for Sikkim, its reigning monarch, Maharaja Tashi Namgyal (Britain had insisted on the change from chogyal to the lesser term maharaja, or prince, to keep Sikkim's leader on a par with other rulers across the subcontinent), was hardly in a position to negotiate. An inscrutable recluse, he frittered away most of his time painting and meditating. 
The job of negotiating with the Indians went to the prince's son and heir apparent, Palden Thondup. Commonly known as the maharaja kumar, or crown prince, he was a relative newcomer to politics. Recognized at birth as the reincarnation of his late uncle, he appeared destined for a monastic life. But after the untimely death of his elder brother during World War II, he suddenly moved up the succession ladder and was thrust into government service.
Charming and well educated -- he had spent time at a British college -- the crown prince quickly assumed all governing responsibilities from his father. In 1947, he ventured to New Delhi to initiate talks with the Indian government. Through force of personality, he was able to win a three-year stay on any decision about Sikkim's integration into the republic. In early 1950, he again ventured to New Delhi. If anything, his audience had grown more fickle in the interim. The previous year, the Indian government had granted generous autonomy to the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan, and it was reluctant to make concessions to yet another Himalayan territory.
Undeterred, the crown prince, then only twenty-seven years old, persisted with a convincing legal pitch that the special privileges extended by the British set Sikkim apart from the other princely states. The result was a December treaty whereby the protectorate of Sikkim was free to manage domestic matters but allowed India to regulate its foreign affairs, defense, and trade.
The Sikkimese royals saw leeway in this pact. Though prohibited from making independent foreign policy, they believed that it was still within their right to retain a degree of international personality. This held obvious appeal for the United States, which appreciated Sikkim's unique perspective on Himalayan events, on account of its royals being related by blood and marriage to the elite in neighboring Bhutan and Tibet. But it also meant walking a fine diplomatic tightrope, as American contact with the Sikkimese ran the risk of agitating India. In the spring of 1951, the U.S. consulate in Calcutta gingerly tested the waters. The Chinese had already invaded Kham, and Larry Dalley, a young CIA officer who had arrived in the city the previous fall under cover of vice consul, was eager to collect good intelligence on events across the border. He knew that two members of Sikkim's royal family frequented Calcutta and would be good sources of information.
The first, Pema Tseudeun, was the older sister of the crown prince. Popularly known by the name Kukula, she was the stunning, urbane archetype of a Himalayan princess. Her contact with American officials actually dated back to 1942, when she had been in Lhasa as the teenage wife of a Tibetan nobleman. OSS officers Tolstoy and Dolan had just arrived in the Tibetan capital that December and were preparing to present a gift from President Franklin Roosevelt to the young Dalai Lama. The gift was in a plain box, and the two Americans were scrambling to find suitable wrapping. "I came forward," she recalls, "and donated the bright red ribbon in my hair." 
For the next eight years, Kukula had it good. Married into the powerful Phunkang family (her father-in-law was a cabinet official), she now had considerable holdings in Lhasa. After the Chinese invasion of Kham, however, all was in jeopardy. Leaving many of her possessions back in Tibet, she fled to the safety of Sikkim. There she became a close adviser to the crown prince, accompanying her brother to New Delhi that December to finalize their state's treaty with India.
The second royal in Calcutta, Pema Choki, was Kukula's younger sister. Better known as Princess Kula, she was every bit as beautiful and sophisticated as her sibling. Kula was also married to a Tibetan of high status; her father-in-Iaw, Yutok Dzaza, had been a ranking official at the trade mission in Kalimpong. Both Kukula and Kula were regulars on the Indian diplomatic circuit. "They came to many of the consulate's social functions," remembers Nicholas Thacher, "and were known for their ability to perform all of the latest dance numbers." 
Not all of that contact, CIA officer Dalley determined, was social. After arranging for a meeting with Princess Kukula at his apartment, he asked her if she thought the Tibetans might need anything during their current crisis. Kukula suggested that they could use ammunition and said that she would bring a sample of what they needed to their next meeting. True to her word. the princess appeared at Dalley's apartment bearing a round for a British Lee-Enfield rifle. She also mentioned that waves of Tibetan traders came to India almost quarterly to get treatment for venereal disease (a scourge in Tibet) and to pick up food shipments for import. Particularly popular at the time were tins of New Zealand fruits packed in heavy syrup.
Based on this information, Dalley devised a plan to substitute bullets for the fruit. He went as far as pouching Kukula's bullet and a sample tin label to CIA headquarters -- all to no avail. "They laughed at the scheme," he recalls. 
Later that spring, the U.S. consulate in Calcutta again turned to the Sikkimese royals for help. At the time, the Dalai Lama was holed up in the border town of Yatung, and CIA officer Robert Linn was brainstorming ways of facilitating indirect contact with the monarch. Two of those he asked to assist in passing notes were Kukula and Kula. Although the Tibetan leader ultimately elected not to go into exile, it was not for want of trying on the part of the princesses. 
One year later, Sikkim's royals once more proved their willingness to help. In June 1952, Kukula approached the consulate with an oral message from the Dalai Lama. She had just returned from a visit to her in-laws in Lhasa, and although she had not personally seen the Dalai Lama, she had been given information from Kula's father-in-Iaw, Yutok Dzaza, who had been in Lhasa at the same time, circulating among senior government circles.  Kukula quoted the Dalai Lama as saying that when the time was propitious for liberation, he hoped the United States would give material aid and moral support. Kukula also passed observations about food shortages in Lhasa and about the desperate conditions of the vast majority of Chinese troops in that city. 
To maintain the flow of such useful information, the consulate continued its discreet courtship of the Sikkimese sisters. Part of the task fell to Gary Soulen, the ranking Foreign Service officer in Calcutta. In September 1952, Soulen obtained Indian approval to visit Sikkim for a nature trek. Venturing as far as the Natu pass on the Tibetan frontier, Princess Kukula accompanied him on the trip and imparted more anecdotes about the situation in Lhasa. 
CIA officials, too, were looking to make inroads. Kenneth Millian, who replaced Larry Dalley in October 1952 under cover as vice consul, counted the Sikkimese as one of his primary targets. By that time, however, the Indians were doing everything in their power to obstruct contact. On one of the rare occasions when he got permission to visit the Sikkimese capital of Gangtok, for example, New Delhi leaked a false report to the press that the American vice president -- not vice consul -- was scheduled to make an appearance. As a result, entire villages turned out expecting to see Richard Nixon. "Discreet contact," lamented Millian, "became all but impossible." 
Occasional trysts with the Sikkimese were conducted by another CIA officer in Calcutta, John Turner. Born of American parents in India, Turner spent his formative years attending school in Darjeeling. He then went to college in the United States, followed by a stint in the army and induction into the agency in 1948. For his first overseas CIA assignment, he was chosen in May 1952 to succeed Robert Linn as the senior CIA officer in Calcutta. Given his cultural background and fluency in Hindi, Turner was well suited for the job. "I felt very much at home," he later commented.
The Sikkimese, Turner found, needed no prompting to maintain contact "They offered us tidbits of intelligence to try and influence U.S. policy," he concluded. "They were never on the payroll; they were not that sort of people." Some of the best tidbits came from the crown prince himself. "He was not the kind of person comfortable in dark alleys," quipped Turner. "He would make open, official visits to the consulate, and was the guest of honor with the consul general." 
As an aside to these visits, the prince would pass Turner relevant information about Tibet. One such meeting took place in the spring of 1954 immediately after the crown prince's return from a trip to Lhasa. While in the Tibetan capital, the prince had spoken with the Dalai lama, whom he found unhappy but resigned to his fate. Even more revealing, the Chinese had feted their Sikkimese guest by showing off their new Damshung airfield north of Lhasa and had motored him along a fresh stretch of road leading into Kham. Turner found the debriefing so informative that he recorded the entire session and sent a voluminous report back to Washington. 
In retrospect, the crown prince had been made privy to the twin pillars behind Beijing's strategy for absorbing Tibet. Ever since it had first invaded western Kham in late 1950, the PLA knew that it could not sustain its presence without a modern logistical network. As the Chinese worked feverishly to complete this, they retained the existing monastic structure -- including the Dalai lama -- and attempted to woo Tibet's lay aristocracy. They were fairly successful in winning support from the latter, especially since many aristocrats profited from the sudden influx of needy Chinese troops and administrators. 
This soft sell was not without its problems. In 1952, the Dalai lama was pressured into firing his dual prime ministers over alleged anti-Chinese sentiment. There were also food shortages due to the presence of the occupying troops, as well as the affront they represented to Tibetan prestige. Various forms of nonviolent resistance -- anonymous posters and sarcastic street rhymes were the preferred outlets -- were already becoming commonplace in Lhasa.
Still, both the Tibetans and the Chinese had seen fit to abide by an unofficial truce. This lasted up until Beijing's transportation network was nearing completion. With the new option of rushing reinforcements to the Tibetan plateau, the PLA had the flexibility of eclipsing carrot with stick.
Beijing wasted no time driving the point home. Just weeks after the crown prince's 1954 visit, the Dalai Lama was invited to the Chinese capital, ostensibly to lead the Tibetan delegation to the inauguration ceremonies for the PRC's new constitution. Though many members of his inner circle were suspicious of Chinese intentions, the young monarch -- still determined to work within the system -- had little choice but to heed the call. He even made it a family affair, bringing along his mother, three siblings, and a brother-in-law.
On 11 July, the Dalai Lama and his 500-person entourage departed Lhasa. Where possible, they took stretches of the partially finished road that wove east through Kham. Once in Beijing, the visit started out well. Partial to socialist precepts, the Dalai Lama had few qualms with China's economic direction; he had already voiced support for radical land reforms at home, although the landed aristocracy and religious elite had successfully thwarted implementation. The Dalai Lama was also treated with respect by the upper echelons of China's communist hierarchy; Mao Tse-tung, in particular, doted on the teenage monarch.
But it was Mao who made a major gaff that would cloud the entire trip. Taking the Dalai Lama aside to impart a bit of fatherly wisdom, the chairman likened religion to poison. To a person who devoted his life to cultivating his spiritual side -- and whose people believed that he had one foot firmly in the celestial world -- this was blasphemy of the highest order.
Worse was to come. By the time the Dalai Lama headed home in the spring of 1955, the road leading from Kham to Lhasa was fully finished. A second route from Amdo to the capital was also complete. No longer feeling the need to be tolerant, the Chinese introduced atheist doctrine in Tibetan schools. The PLA also started disarming villagers in eastern Tibet prior to the implementation of harsh agrarian collectivization; as firearms were a cultural fixture in Kham and Amdo, their removal struck at a tenet of Tibetan tradition. As the Dalai Lama wove his way west, several Khampa leaders presented his entourage with petitions complaining of Beijing's heavy-handed ways.
During that same time frame, a hint of the dissatisfaction brewing in Kham reached the U.S. consulate in Calcutta via a different channel. John Turner, the CIA base chief, had been approached by George Patterson for an urgent meeting in the town of Kalimpong. Patterson, the Scottish missionary who had volunteered his services to the consulate in the past, was making the pitch on behalf of Ragpa Pandatsang, the same activist from the wealthy Kham trading family who had been alternately flirting with Lhasa and Beijing since 1950. Ragpa had done reasonably well for himself under the Chinese -- he was a senior official in the town of Markham -- but in a characteristic twist, he was now venturing to India to quietly sound out noncommunist options.
Based on middleman Patterson's request, Turner made his way to Kalimpong. By that time, the hill town had drawn a sizable roster of eclectic expatriates. One permanent fixture, Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark, was a physical anthropologist who spent his time measuring skulls. There was also Dennis Conan Doyle, who made a brief appearance in an unsuccessful bid to contact the spirit of his late father, Arthur. Joining them were die-hard followers of the late Madame Helena Blavatsky, the debunked Ukrainian psychic whose nonsensical Theosophist religion had the unenviable distinction of being one of the tenets of the Nazi's Aryan master race thesis. 
Arriving at a house owned by the Pandatsang family, Turner waited outside. Perfectly timed, Ragpa materialized from out of the dawn mist on the back of a Tibetan pony. "He was apparently on his morning gallop," recalls Turner, "and he cut quite a figure." Dismounting, the Khampa greeted the CIA case officer. Patterson, who had befriended the Pandatsang family during his missionary days in Kham, was on hand to act as translator. After brief pleasantries, Ragpa touched lightly on the fact that the Khampas were looking for assistance in resisting the Chinese, including armaments. Without exchanging anything further of substance, he remounted the horse and melted back into the hills. Said Turner, "It was a surreal moment." 
Although Ragpa's approach to the CIA went nowhere (as did similar meetings he had with Indian officials and Tibetan trade representatives in Kalimpong), his hint about armed resistance proved prophetic. By the close of 1955, the combination of factors simmering over the previous year -- atheist indoctrination, forceful disarming of the population, rapid collectivization -- sparked a wave of violence in eastern Tibet. True to their brigand reputation, nomads from the Golok region of Amdo were the first to unleash their fury on PLA garrisons across that province. 
Eastern Kham followed suit in early 1956. Whereas the Amdo revolt was spontaneous and unorganized, the Khampas were more deliberate. Many of their pon (clan chieftains) had already taken to the hills after the PLA demanded compliance with agrarian reforms. With the chieftain from the town of Lithang (also spelled Litang) taking the lead, a coordinated attack was planned for the eighteenth day of the first lunar phase of the year. Although preemptive Chinese arrests threw off that timetable by four days, some twenty-three clan leaders ultimately responded to the call and laid siege to a string of isolated Chinese posts. 
The PLA responded in force. That February, Beijing dispatched several of its massive Tupolev-4 bombers over the Tibetan plateau. Because of their poor performance at high altitudes, the planes flew uncomfortably close to the terrain. This allowed guerrillas to fire down from ridgelines on the large, slow aircraft; one Tupolev returned to base with seventeen bullet holes. 
Still, thousands of Khampas and Amdowas died in the ensuing air campaign, buying time for the PLA to deploy ground reinforcements and retake lost garrisons. Particularly hard hit was Lithang; its grand monastery, home to 5,000 monks, was razed.
As this was taking place, the Dalai Lama faced mounting challenges on the political front. While in Beijing during 1955, he had been informed by Mao that a Preparatory Committee for the Autonomous Region of Tibet (PCART) would be formed to codify Tibet's status under the seventeen-point agreement. The committee was inaugurated in Lhasa during April 1956, with the Dalai Lama as chairman; the majority of PCART members, however, were either directly or indirectly named by the PRC. In this way, Beijing effectively bypassed both Tibet's cabinet and the National Assembly.
Between Beijing's PCART ploy and news filtering into the capital of Chinese brutality in the east, the Dalai Lama was fast reaching his breaking point by mid-1956. Just shy of his twenty-first birthday, he had already entertained thoughts of withdrawing from all secular life. It was at this critical juncture that his earlier foreign guest, the crown prince of Sikkim, made a return visit to Lhasa.
The crown prince was on more than a courtesy call. Back in April 1954, New Delhi had signed a landmark agreement with Beijing regarding trade with the "Tibet region of China." Building on India's desired role as arbitrator between East and West, as well as Nehru's own self-styled image as a champion for peace, New Delhi had intended the treaty as a means of blunting Chinese actions in Tibet by moral containment. But with reports of the harsh Chinese policy in eastern Tibet reaching India, the tack did not seem to be working. 
Disturbed by Beijing's lack of restraint, Nehru suddenly developed some backbone. By coincidence, the 2,500-year anniversary of the birth of Buddha was to be celebrated during the fourth lunar month of 1957. Special events to mark that date, known as the Buddha Jayanti, were scheduled across India beginning in late 1956. If the Dalai Lama could be enticed to travel to India for the occasion, New Delhi felt that this would symbolically underscore its interest in the well- being of Tibet and its leader. Because he already had good rapport with the Dalai Lama, and because he was president of the Indian Maha Bodhi Society (an organization that represented Buddhists across the Indian subcontinent), the crown prince was tasked by Nehru to deliver the invitation.
Upon receiving his Sikkimese guest and hearing the news, the Dalai Lama was ecstatic. For a Tibetan, a pilgrimage to India -- especially one that coincided with the Buddha Jayanti -- had all the connotations of a visit to the holy sites of Rome or Mecca. But more important, it would allow him to air his concerns directly to Nehru and perhaps offset Chinese influence. Perhaps, too, he could finally make good on his earlier contemplation of exile. Some of his minders, in fact, were convinced that the latter could be arranged, despite the fact that no nation, India included, had given any solid guarantee of asylum. 
Having delivered the invitation, the crown prince returned to India and on 28 June made his way to the U.S. consulate in Calcutta. Speaking directly with the senior diplomat, Consul General Robert Reams, he noted the apparent desire of the Dalai lama to leave his country. The crown prince also relayed stories reaching Lhasa about horrific fighting taking place in eastern Tibet, offering Washington hearsay evidence that anti-Chinese resistance had escalated into armed rebellion. Noting the apparent lack of weapons among the insurgents, the prince astutely suggested channeling arms from East Pakistan (presumably via Sikkim) to Tibet. And in a more fanciful departure, he wondered aloud if the United States could "exfiltrate" Tibetans from Burma and Thailand -- ostensibly while on religious pilgrimages -- and give them artillery and antiaircraft training. 
The United States was clearly unprepared for this turn of events. For more than four years, Washington's Tibet policy had basically been to have no policy. Now the specter of the Dalai lama's exile had returned. Complicating matters, the Tibetans had shifted from passive resistance to an armed struggle. For nearly four weeks, Foggy Bottom contemplated a response. When it finally came on 24 July, it was remarkable for its lack of originality. Falling back on the waffle perfected in 1951, Washington was prepared to extend a shifty promise of asylum, provided the Dalai Lama first asked India for help. No response was made to the crown prince's musings about arms and training.
It was unlikely that the U.S. offer would ever be put to the test. Hearing of the Buddha Jayanti invitation, senior Chinese authorities in Lhasa immediately threw water on the plan. Claiming that the Dalai Lama would have a tight schedule for upcoming PCART activities, they made clear their opposition to any foreign travel.
If the young monarch was frustrated, so too was India's Nehru. It was his prestige on the line following the 1954 treaty on Tibet. Moreover, with reports now beginning to circulate about the extent of the destruction in eastern Tibet, he felt the need to make a stand.  On 1 October, Nehru telegraphed an official invitation to the Dalai Lama to supplement the one forwarded earlier by the crown prince. Grudgingly, Beijing considered the new appeal from its treaty partner, and exactly one month later, the Chinese conceded. Tibet's young leader would be leaving his country.
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