We just discovered two old U.S. government-made films on Tibet (maybe they are familiar to some of you already). They provide a fascinating window into an official American portrayal of Tibet before and after the Chinese invasion, and demonstrate that the U.S. government’s consideration of Tibet as a distinct cultural, if not political, entity goes back decades.
The first film is called “Inside Tibet,” and was produced by the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) in the 1940s. The subject of the film is the delegation of Major Ilia Tolstoy and Capt. Brooke Dolan that was sent by President Roosevelt to Tibet to establish relationship with the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa, with the more clandestine purpose of finding another route to supply Chinese allies fighting imperial Japanese forces.
The film was recently digitized by the National Archives and made available on their website, and can be seen below.
The film opens with a summary of their mission and images of the gifts that Tolstoy and Dolan planned to present to the Dalai Lama when they reached Lhasa. It shows the gift of the gold watch from President Roosevelt, which His Holiness still owns and cherishes. Among the gifts is the now famous letter from Roosevelt to the Dalai Lama introducing the delegation. The Dalai Lama had lost the letter until President Barack Obama presented him with a copy when they met at the White House in February 2010. It reads in part, “[T]here are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who, long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly regard such an opportunity [to visit Tibet].”
The film proceeds like a travelogue of the delegation’s caravan over the mountains from Sikkim to Lhasa, and of the landscape, culture and rustic economy of Tibetans. It covers their entry into Gyantse (including, interestingly, their welcome by British officials there and the hoisting of the British and American flags), and crossing of the Yarlung Tsanpo river.
The delegation is given a ceremonial greeting as it comes into Lhasa, attends a dinner with Lhasa government officials, including officials of the Kashag and Tibet’s foreign office, and attends a party at the British mission. While the film does not speak to Tibet’s political status, it offers every appearance that Tibet in the 1940s is functioning as an independent state. There is no sign of a Chinese presence or authority anywhere, other than an old gift from a Chinese noble. “Although Tibet is isolated from what we consider the civilized world, we found a highly developed culture,” says the narrator.
The map at the outset of the film appears to draw Tibet as an entity separate from China. Its shape represents the totality of the Tibetan plateau, not just the area that later became the Tibet Autonomous Region in the PRC.
The observations are straightforward and respectful, and in contrast to the second film, refrain from romanticization. In this, we get glimpses of “old Tibet,” including political and economic stratification (it notes that wealth is concentrated among 20 families). Little of Lhasa (population 20,000!) is modernized, having one telegraph to India and little electricity. Agriculture and industry are termed primitive.
The film does not cover the delegation’s meeting with His Holiness, but it does have an image of him as a boy. He is called the “supreme pontiff of the Buddhist church,” which is how he is addressed in the Roosevelt letter.
My favorite quaint qualities of the film include the use of English typeface meant to mimic the jagged Tibetan script. It sees fit to note that the “The musical score is not Tibetan.”
“Inside Tibet” ends with the narration, “Nature presented Tibet with the ideal focal point for Buddhism. Isolating that tempestuous section of our Earth, she bestowed upon it all the power, and splendor and inspiration that could be conceivably united into one boundless land. The timeless symbol of this majesty and power is their Dalai Lama. He is the absolute deity of an almost unknown civilization and culture.”
The second film is called “Man from a MissingLand.” It was produced by the U.S. Information Agency in the late 1960s at the earliest. The 16-minute film briefly tells the modern story of Tibet, with images from Tibet before 1959 and of Tibetans in exile after.
The film is available for viewing at the National Archives, although we are not able to provide a link to the video here due to copyright issues.
It applies romantic notions of Tibet with the apparent design to evoke sympathy. The narrator says, “For 2,000 years Tibet chose to live in isolation, desiring only to be left alone. The people of Tibet were totally unprepared for the violence that would wreck their peaceful world.” This is followed by footage of invading Chinese PLA troops, Tibetans surrendering, and refugees fleeing over the Himalayas. “Tibet was now an occupied land.”
Phala, the Dalai Lama’s senior chamberlain, speaks (through a translator) of the promises made by Chairman Mao in Beijing and simultaneously being broken in Lhasa. With prescience, he says, “And with the many Chinese who were coming to settle in Tibet, we were destined to become a minority people in our own country.” The film features interviews with refugees telling of the Chinese killing their neighbors and taking their land.
While it does touch on Tibetans working to preserve their culture in exile, the tone is gloomy, almost hopeless. It finishes, “In occupied Tibet, Buddhism is in disgrace. Of the many thousands of monks in the once great monasteries, not a one remains. Only the few scattered in exile are the caretakers of a vanishing tradition.”
My favorite bit is when the camera lingers on an image of John Lennon as it pans to an altar for the Dalai Lama. The picture is the insert from the White Album, which dates the film to 1968 at the earliest.
Contemporary U.S. statements on Tibet often say that “Tibet a part of the People’s Republic of China,” by way of accepting the currently reality. At the same time, U.S. policy does recognize the distinctiveness of Tibet, from the repeated admonitions to the Chinese to preserve Tibet’s cultural and religious identity, to the separate Tibet sections in annual State Department human rights and religious freedom reports.
What these films show us is that, from the earliest moment of official contact, the United States government did consider Tibet as a distinct entity, in both cultural and political ways. As the Chinese diplomatic pressure increases, it would be wise for today’s American policymakers (and those in other countries for that matter) to acquaint themselves with this history. It should guard them against the false choice offered by the Chinese government, whose polemic provides that if you don’t accept their complete and unassailable sovereignty over Tibet, you are for independence. The U.S. history shows there is room to stand for the Tibetan nation without explicitly recognizing a nation-state. Of course, this is the ground laid by the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way. We can take some encouragement that President Obama, who has openly praised the Middle Way and reminded us all of this history in his gift of the 1942 letter, sees the Tibet issue this way.
PICTURE: OSS spies Brooke Dolan and Ilia Tolstoy traveling to Lhasa (still from “Inside Tibet,” Records of the Office of Strategic Services).