As I cruise around the Greek Isles for a few weeks, I want to recommend a truly remarkable book for your summer reading, "Freeing Tibet: 50 Years of Struggle, Resilience, and Hope," by my great friend John Roberts and his wife, Elizabeth Roberts. (While I am blessed to have many friends who write good books, my regular readers know that I am not in the habit of reviewing them. But this book is so distinctively fascinating that it deserves to be reviewed — and widely read.)
I confess to not having been particularly fascinated by Tibet, the Dalai Lama or even Buddhism when I picked up the book. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. I suspect that the unique fascination of this book derives from the curious background and strange mix of skills, knowledge and ideals of co-author John Roberts combined with Elizabeth Roberts’ rigorous researching skills and deep appreciation of Buddhism. John Roberts is an Oxford-trained art historian, former White House political operative, television producer, Olympic-caliber international expert small-arms shot who is intimately connected to our intelligence services and also is an experienced operative in the process of transitioning repressed nations toward fuller freedom (with personal experience in such places as Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Romania, Ukraine and South Africa, inter alia
And it takes just such skills and passions of the co-authors to understand and describe so captivatingly the as-yet-unfinished story of Tibet’s struggle for cultural survival and freedom. Thus, they move effortlessly between explanations of Tibetan Buddhist culture (the young Tibetan nobles who led the guerrilla war against the Chinese occupiers descended from very tall nomadic tribesmen who called themselves "ten dzong ma mi" — warriors of theocracy) — and a technical explanation for why the 57 mm recoilless rifle is ineffective at the optimal safe distance (a range of 1,000 yards) for Tibetan guerrillas to attack Chinese bunkers.
At its core, "Freeing Tibet" is about what was, until this book, the largely unknown CIA operation to back Tibet’s guerrillas in their fight against Communist China at the height of the Cold War. The Robertses reveal for the first time in this book most of the details of how the CIA smuggled the Dalai Lama out of Tibet, ran a multiyear propaganda campaign and covertly aided both the Dalai Lama and the guerrilla campaign for years.
The bare outlines of this astonishing bit of secret history were first publicly reported in 1996, by John Roberts in John Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine. (Full disclosure: As the book points out, at the time, I was editor at large at George magazine and arranged for Kennedy’s editorial team to become acquainted with Roberts regarding this Tibet operation.)
Both then and for this book, the authors were given the green light to reveal this most successful and benign CIA Cold War operation by the late Howard Bane, to whom this book is dedicated. Bane was the street man for the CIA on the Tibet operation at the time, under the leadership of legendary CIA agent Desmond FitzGerald — the model for James Bond and a friend of President John Kennedy’s. The worldly Howard Bane went on to shrewdly lead all agency field operations during the CIA’s later halcyon days.
But the CIA’s operation to protect the Dalai Lama and guide Tibet’s fight for freedom under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson is only the first part of this extraordinary book and extraordinary real-life history.
"Freeing Tibet" goes deeply behind the scenes of the Nixon White House to describe how and why, as part of their historic Cold War triangulation with Communist China to isolate the Soviet Union, Nixon and Henry Kissinger ended the CIA program (much to the consternation of the CIA and the Tibetans but to the great satisfaction of Mao Zedong and his regime).
And then the authors paint the implausible but historically precisely accurate picture of the CIA’s protective role being passed on to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others of the counterculture Beat Generation as they discover Tibetan Buddhism, meet the Dalai Lama and start an international religious/cultural/celebrity-driven campaign to protect — through publicity — both the Dalai Lama and the entire struggle for freeing Tibet, which continues today through the efforts of celebrities such as Richard Gere.
In the final chapters of the book, the authors bring on line their practical knowledge of White House operations — and of the use of economic strategies previously used to help liberate countries such as South Africa — to suggest a practical campaign targeted on Communist China to gain Tibet its long-overdue freedom.
While this book has been expertly and technically crafted, at heart it is a passionate act of advocacy that has become, in the short months since its release, a part of the campaign committed to freeing Tibet. Read the book and, if you can, join the struggle.