Obituary: John Kenneth Knaus, a friend of the Tibetan people

Ken Knaus

John Kenneth Knaus (center) with then U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Julia Taft (left), and Prof. Robert Thurman of Columbia University participating in a discussion on Tibet at Harvard University in 2000. (Photo: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Gazette)

John Kenneth Knaus, a former CIA officer who was involved with its Tibetan program from late 1950s to early 1960s, passed away on April 18, 2016 surrounded by family.

In 1958, he first met Tibetans when he was asked by CIA to go to lecture to a group of “foreign nationals” on international communism and Chinese communism. That began his life-long interest in the Tibetan people.

He then volunteered to serve in the CIA program to support the Tibetans. For the next seven years, as an operations officer working from India, from Colorado, and from Washington, D.C., he cooperated with the Tibetan freedom fighters as they utilized American assistance to challenge Chinese invasion and occupation.

As part of the program, which lasted from 1957 through 1972, the CIA trained Tibetan soldiers in guerrilla warfare in Camp Hale, Colorado. This site was chosen because of its physical similarities to eastern Tibet where the trainees would later be airdropped. In 2010, through the efforts of Ken Knaus and with support from Senator Mark Udall, the U.S. Forest Service unveiled a plaque to commemorate the training by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency of Tibetan freedom fighters at Camp Hale, Colorado. The plaque said: “From 1958 to 1964, Camp Hale played an important role as a training site for Tibetan Freedom Fighters. Trained by the CIA, many of these brave men lost their lives in the struggle for freedom. ‘They were the best and bravest of their generation, and we wept together when they were killed fighting alongside their countrymen.’ (Orphans of the Cold War, by John Kenneth Knaus). This plaque is dedicated to their memory.”

In the course of his work, he developed an emotional connection with the Tibetan people. After his retirement, he continued to be interested in Tibet, both professionally and personally. Professionally, as a Research Associate working at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University Tibet was his principal focus. He was able to do research, particularly in the collection left behind by William Rockhill, an American diplomat posted in China and who had a deep interest in Tibet. He wrote two books on Tibet during this period: Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Tibetan Struggle for Survival, and Beyond Shangri-La: America and Tibet’s Move into the Twenty-First Century.

Around 1964 he went to India to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the first time. As he recalled in a subsequent interview (an excerpt can be viewed here), he got one of the “chillier receptions I ever had”. He surmised that this was because the Dalai Lama had some reservations about their program. “I represented to him the violence that he could not as a Buddhist condone,” Knaus recalled.

In subsequent meetings with the Dalai Lama, they had longer discussions, including about the state of the world, he would say later.

Ken recalled his experience with the Tibetans in a talk he gave at the International Campaign for Tibet on January 24, 2013, a video of which can be viewed here.

Despite the controversy surrounding the CIA’s involvement in the Tibetan issue, Ken Knaus was an individual who genuinely cared about the Tibetan people and contributed towards finding a solution to their plight.

John Kenneth Knaus is survived by his wife Andy, daughters Maggie and Holly, and son John.

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