During World War II, Captain Brooke Dolan and Major Ilia Tolstoy, two Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers, were chosen for an arduous military-diplomatic mission through India to Tibet and finally to China. Their journey was to make contact with the Dalai Lama, who was just 7 years old at that time, and present him with handwritten letters and personal gifts from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — including a $2,800 timepiece that tells the time of day, day of the week, month of the year, and moon phases — as a sign of American friendship.
This trip was the first of its kind in American history and recognized Tibet as an autonomous region.
Prior to their wartime service, Dolan and Tolstoy were experienced naturalists and explorers. Dolan had advanced knowledge of the region having already conducted two 1,500-mile expeditions through western China and eastern Tibet to collect animal specimens of rare mammals and birds found at high altitudes. He collected the first specimen of a juvenile giant panda to be delivered to a Western museum.
Tolstoy, the grandson of 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, went on to study as an ichthyologist and helped develop McKinley National Park in Alaska following a stint in the Russian Army during World War I.
Together with their guide, the young OSS officers left Gangtok, India, in September 1942 for their historic meeting among the gorgeous mountaintop palaces and Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. “The trails of Tibet are too narrow for wheeled vehicles even if they attempted to use them,” said Dolan in his film “Inside Tibet 1943.” “Our caravan of 35 mules and 15 native travelers moves along the road to Lhasa like other roads across Tibet and central Asia; it’s a well-worn trail. Over these routes for centuries caravans have carried the merchandise of the east; tea, rice, gold, musk, silk, jade, and furs.”
Situated along the trails are British trade and mail stations that are spaced out the distance of one day’s travel. The Americans were welcomed and immersed in the culture as they lived alongside the natives and shared cups of tea made from barley, salt, and butter. Tea in Tibet is consumed often — between 30 and 50 cups a day — to prevent hunger and provide warmth against the cold climates in the region.
The cultural immersion extended to performances at a religious festival in Gyantse, a town located about 190 miles south of Lhasa. “Our horses are small but sturdy,” Dolan says in his documentary. “The only difficulty is trying to look dignified riding them.” The mostly flat terrain in the beginning of their expedition took 13 days to complete, while their ascent through the Himalayas lasted nearly three months.
“Tibet hidden beyond the impregnable walls of the Himalayas is a land of mystery and mysticism,” Dolan said. “It’s rugged and primitive beauty can be enjoyed only by those who endure strenuous travel to almost inaccessible regions. Traveling across the treacherous passes the bleak and forbidding desert ways, we see what is made of every phase of the Tibetan life a struggle, yet three million hardy courageous people call this land their home.”
When the Americans arrived in Lhasa, the Tropji Regiment, the Dalai Lama’s honor guard, greeted them, a rare occasion that had never occurred any other time in U.S. history. The Dalai Lama was presented with his gifts, and the OSS officers were treated like royalty.
In addition to their diplomatic mission, the War Department wanted “to survey a possible supply route from India to China via Tibet to replace the Burma Road that had two months earlier fallen to the Japanese.” This action was carried out against the wishes of the State Department and Milton Miles, the commander of the SACO, who had established a strong relationship with the Chinese military. The Tibetan government, however, had no means to communicate with remote regions of their country, so the Americans requested long-range broadcasting equipment that took nearly seven months after their departure from Lhasa to arrive in November 1943.
Dolan died in 1945 and Tolstoy went on to manage Marineland in Florida, the world’s first underwater motion picture studio. In 2016, the Dalai Lama visited Washington, D.C., and carried the gold pocket watch that he was gifted by Roosevelt in 1942. The gesture to send two OSS officers as ambassadors of the United States also set the stage for the CIA to assist and train a Tibetan insurgency force in the 1950s in a secret war against China.