John Kenneth Knaus, 92, CIA officer who aided in Tibetan struggle

John Kenneth Knaus, CIA officer who aided in Tibetan struggle, dies at 92.

John Kenneth Knaus, CIA officer who aided in Tibetan struggle, dies at 92. Photographer unknown

By Bart Barnes | Boston Globe

ON THE WEB, 27 May 2016

John Kenneth Knaus, a CIA case officer who in the late 1950s and the 1960s helped train and direct Tibetan guerrillas against Chinese occupiers, only to see US support for the policy later evaporate, died April 18 at a hospital in Washington. He was 92.

The cause was an intra-cranial hemorrhage, said his son, John Kenneth Knaus Jr.

During a 43-year CIA career, Mr. Knaus was based at times in India, Japan, and Canada, and a substantial focus of his work involved aiding Tibetan guerrillas in their resistance against communist China.

After retiring in 1995, Mr. Knaus wrote two books based on his Tibetan experience, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival (1999), and Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century (2012). In his Los Angeles Times review, journalist and longtime China scholar Orville Schell called Orphans of the Cold War “superbly well-researched and written.”

Mr. Knaus first met Tibetans in 1958 when he was asked by the CIA to deliver a lecture to a group of “foreign nationals” on international communism and Chinese communism. This evolved into a program of support for Tibetan fighters challenging Chinese invasion and occupation of their country. It included training of 300 soldiers in guerrilla warfare at Camp Hale, Colorado, a site chosen for its physical similarities to Eastern Tibet, where the guerrillas would be airdropped.

Working from India and Colorado, Mr. Knaus was a key operations officer for this program.

But the guerrilla campaign was seriously flawed, Mr. Knaus wrote in Orphans of the Cold War. An airdrop, for example, attracted flocks of Tibetans to a drop site, but it also alerted the Chinese to a location for an effective attack. By the 1970s, support dwindled as the United States began to make diplomatic overtures to China.

“As Knaus concedes, the CIA trainers knew next to nothing about Tibet,” wrote Jonathan Mirsky, former East Asia editor of the Times of London, in a New York Times review of the book. “They thought of Buddhism only as the Tibetans’ religion and not as the bedrock of their nationalism. No agent had been to Tibet; only one knew any of its languages; and the maps they used to locate the first parachute drops for the Tibetans trained in Colorado had been drawn by a British expedition in 1904.”

John Kenneth Knaus, who lived in Washington, was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on 30 May 1923. After Army service in World War II, he graduated from Stanford University, where he also received a master’s degree in political science.

He joined the CIA in 1952. His last post before retiring was CIA officer in residence at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. In retirement, he was a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for East Asian Research (now the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies).

He leaves his wife of 56 years, Lois Ann Lehman Knaus; three children; and four grandchildren.

Soon after his retirement from the CIA, Mr. Knaus spoke with the Dalai Lama, who in 1959 had fled to India from Tibet and headed a Tibetan government in exile.

Mr. Knaus asked whether US support for the Tibetan guerrillas in the 1950s and 1960s had been helpful. “Thousands of lives were lost,” he quoted the Dalai Lama as having said in Orphans of the Cold War. Furthermore, the spiritual leader said the US intervention in Tibetan affairs had principally been a Cold War tactic to challenge China.

In Orphans of the Cold War, Mr. Knaus said that one of his reasons for writing the book was “to alleviate the guilt some of us feel over our participation in these efforts, which cost others their lives, but which were the prime adventures of our own.”


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