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INTO TIBET by Thomas Laird


The CIA’s Secret Expedition to Lhasa

by Thomas Laird

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8021-1714-7
Publisher: Grove

An initially promising but poorly executed exposé of Cold War spookery in the high Himalayas.

Asiaweek correspondent Laird turns up an intriguing tale of a secret CIA-sponsored expedition (details of which are still largely classified) into Tibet just before the Chinese invasion of 1950. Neither altruism nor defense of democracy prompted the American mission, which put five spies on the ground at considerable risk to themselves; instead, Laird suggests, the CIA was rushing to locate Asia’s uranium reserves and convince their owners to side with America, then enjoying a brief postwar monopoly on the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The CIA’s involvement in Tibet was ironic, Laird shows, since the State Department had hitherto evinced little interest in the remote nations of Central Asia and had effectively encouraged one-time ally China to expand beyond its borders and acquire whatever territory it wished. The American spies of 1949–50, Laird writes, had only mixed success, and some of them were killed. The Tibetan guerrillas funded by the CIA after the Chinese invasion fared still worse. Abandoned when the US and China established diplomatic relations in the early 1970s, hundreds of guerrillas died as a result, Laird charges: “collateral damage of American actions, which America now denies ever happened.” This story isn’t exactly new (Life magazine reported some of it in 1950), but it has long been forgotten. Unfortunately, Laird’s narrative is ill-developed, less a cohesive narrative than a movie treatment that jumps from subject to subject in very short chapters. The author relies on hearsay and speculation as much as hard fact (“naturally the agents in the field never viewed their work this cynically, but those who sent them there may have”), and his prose is awash in ellipses and non sequiturs (“because of a childhood spent in Mexico and Brazil he spoke German and Spanish fluently”).

Of some interest to Cold War buffs, though general readers will do better to wait for the History Channel special.