The Chargé in India (Merrell) to the Secretary of State
[Received February 7.]
Subject: Letters to the President from the Dalai Lama, the Regent, and the Kashag of Tibet; Political and Strategic Considerations Pointing to Desirability of Returning Courtesy Visit of Tibetan Goodwill Mission.
Sir: I have the honor to refer to my despatch no. 616 dated May 31, 1946 on the subject “Letters and Gifts for the President from the Dalai Lama, the Regent and the Kashag of the Government of Tibet”; to the Department’s written instruction no. 590 dated November 5, 1946—received in New Delhi December 6—under cover of which the letters in question were returned with the request that they be translated; to my secret despatch no. 869 dated December 3, 1946 on the subject “Policy on Status of Tibet: Desirability of Continuing Noncommittal Attitude”, in which, inter alia, were set forth reasons why, in my opinion, it would be in the best interest of our Government to return the courtesy visit of the Tibetan Goodwill Mission; and to my telegram no. 24 dated January 13, 19471 transmitting translations of the letters from the Dalai Lama and the Regent; and to enclose for transmission to the White House the letters to the President from the Dalai Lama, the Regent, and the Kashag and translations thereof.
Upon receiving the letters returned under cover of the Department’s instruction of November 5, 1946 the Embassy made an unofficial request of the External Affairs Department for assistance in obtaining translations, and Mr. A. J. Hopkinson, Political Officer in Sikkim, who happened to be visiting New Delhi at the time, offered to have translations made by his personal assistant, Lobzang Tsering. Since Mr. Hopkinson and Lobzang had to return to Sikkim immediately thereafter, the translations were made in Gangtok and mailed to the Embassy, where they were received on January 12.
Tibetans’ Desire To Strengthen Relations
It will be noted that in each of the letters there is a clear indication that the Tibetan Government desires to strengthen friendly relations [Page 589] between Tibetans and the United States. The Dalai Lama says: “As before, I hope Your Excellency will still think of promoting the good relations which exist between the two governments.” The Regent writes: “In future also, please extend further kindness toward strengthening the friendship which already exists between our two governments.” The Cabinet Ministers in their letter ask the President to “endeavor to increase good relations that exist between our two countries …” As was stated in my despatch of May 31, 1946 the members of the Tibetan Goodwill Mission who called on me in New Delhi conveyed the impression that if the President sent an official to Lhasa to deliver replies to the letters in question, he would be given a cordial reception. As I have also reported, I have gathered from remarks of British officials interested in Tibet that they more or less take it for granted that the President’s replies will be conveyed by hand of an official.
Practical Reasons for Returning Courtesy
Reasons as to why it would be in the best interests of our Government to return the courtesy extended by the Tibetan Goodwill Mission were outlined in my despatch of December 3, 1946. They may be summarized as follows:
Tibet is in a position of inestimable strategic importance both ideologically and geographically. In a central position in a continent threatened by Soviet expansionism and torn by internal strife in its two most populous countries, China and India, the people of Tibet will probably resist Soviet influence and other disruptive forces longer than any other Asiatic people. The conservative and religious nature of the Tibetan people and the relatively firm control exercised by their government combine to produce comparatively stable conditions in a vast area completely surrounded by territories seriously affected by political upheavals or Soviet schemes of aggrandizement.
While it is to be hoped that the necessity of sending United States military forces to the Asiatic mainland will never recur, the present unsettled state of affairs in Asia makes it impossible to avoid the conclusion that such operations might again be forced upon our Government; and while it is also to be hoped that friendly relations will be maintained with such governments as may eventually gain control of India, Burma, Indochina, and China during the next few years we cannot ignore the possibility that any or all of these governments might adopt an unfriendly attitude toward the United [Page 590] States, or that a state of anarchy might develop in the countries in question, or that an unfriendly power might gain control of these areas.
In view of these unhappy possibilities it is therefore conceivable that Tibet might offer the only extensive territory where air and rocket-launching operations might be based. Needless to say such operations would be greatly facilitated if they could be carried on without the interference of a hostile populace. For religious reasons Tibetans at present do not look with favor on aerial operations within the borders of their country, but I believe it may be assumed that if a situation arose in which they were made to realize that preservation of their independence hinged on such operations their current prejudices could be effectively modified.
Ideological Importance of Tibet
In addition to Tibet’s potentialities as a military base, the importance of the conservative outlook of the Tibetan people cannot be over-estimated at a time when countries all around them are in the throes of revolutionary upheavals or civil wars. The Tibetans represent a relatively stable element in the midst of a continent where conditions are for the most part highly unstable, and it is unlikely that conditions in Tibet during the next few years will change nearly as rapidly as in other parts of Asia.
To date Tibet, virtually surrounded by countries in which Communist programs are being conducted with varying degrees of success, appears to have been unaffected by Communist influence. On the contrary, Tibetans’ seeming aversion to Communist doctrines may tend to counteract the effect of Communist activities in many parts of Asia, for the Dalai Lama’s influence extends to followers far beyond the borders of Tibet.
Tibet may therefore be regarded as a bulwark against the spread of Communism throughout Asia, or at least as an island of conservatism in a sea of political turmoil, and a gesture of friendship from the United States might go a long way toward encouraging the Tibetans to resist possible Soviet or Communist infiltration into the Tibetan Plateau which, in an age of rocket warfare, might prove to be the most important territory in all Asia.
Attitudes of Chinese and British
Since the Chinese regard Tibet as an integral part of their Republic, and would like to regain the direct control of Tibetan affairs formerly exercised by the Manchus, a courtesy visit to Lhasa made for the purpose of delivering the President’s replies to the letters sent by the Dalai Lama, the Regent, and the Kashag, should be conducted in such a manner as to allay any Chinese suspicion that it reflects in any way on [Page 591] Chinese claims to suzerainty. However, in view of the precarious position of the present Chinese National Government, and the uncertainty regarding its future, I feel it is far more important for our Government to take advantage of its present opportunity to offer Tibet concrete evidence of its friendship than to be unduly concerned over any objections which the present Chinese Government might offer.
Since the British, while recognizing China’s suzerainty, favor preservation of the autonomy gained by Tibet in 1912, it may be assumed there would be no opposition from this quarter. In fact, care would have to be exercised to avoid giving the impression that the trip was being made under British auspices, for British officials in Delhi and in Gangtok (the point from which the trek to Lhasa would start) have indicated that if the Tibetan’s courtesy call is returned they will offer all possible assistance. Since the British control the trade route to Gyantse, half way to Lhasa, such assistance would, of course, be useful.
Factors Involved in a Trip to Lhasa
An officer carrying the President’s replies to Lhasa would travel more than 300 miles over a mule track which crosses four Himalayan passes ranging from 14, 300 to 16, 400 feet in altitude. Since the trip takes almost a month each way and Tibetan standards of courtesy would require a stay of from four to six weeks in Lhasa, the round trip would take approximately three months.
If a courtesy visit to Lhasa is authorized, it would be desirable if it were made this year as soon as weather conditions are favorable, for Tibetan etiquette requires that a courtesy visit such as that paid by the Tibetan Mission last March be repaid within a year. An officer carrying the President’s replies should, therefore, leave India for Lhasa not later than June 1. Were he to start in May he might encounter snow, and were he to delay until July he would have to cope with the monsoon in the early stages of the trip.
An officer of the Embassy who has recently made a trip through North Sikkim under conditions similar to those encountered in Tibet (including the crossing of a 17, 500 foot pass), has indicated to me his willingness to make the trip to Lhasa in the event that one is authorized by the Department. Out of courtesy to the Tibetans, who designated two members of their Goodwill Mission to deliver the letters addressed to the President, I feel it would be desirable to send two Americans to Lhasa. If one were a Foreign Service Officer, the other might well be an Army officer who would have an opportunity to make observations which might prove to be of great value to his superiors.
If one or more officers were to leave for Lhasa early in June, supplies for the trip obtained in the United States would have to be [Page 592] shipped from the United States not later than the last week in March, and since several weeks would probably be required for the purchase and packing in the United States of the customary gifts for Tibetan officials, provisions, and gear, it would be necessary to start assembling these items some time in February.
A memorandum discussing in some detail the supplies which would be needed on a trip to Lhasa is going forward under cover of my despatch no. 915 of today’s date2 on the subject “Courtesy Visit to Lhasa: Requirements for Journey”.