FDR and the Dalai Lama

I’ve finally finished watching The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, Ken Burn’s documentary on Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor, three extraordinary individuals. It’s a long haul, fourteen hours, but I recommend this program. A comprehensive portrait of complex personalities who shaped history in ways still felt today.

In my Sept. 19 post, I wrote about the slight connection TR had with Buddhism, through a friend, William Sturgis Bigelow, who was Buddhist. FDR had a similar link. His Vice President, Henry Wallace, studied Buddhism, and was friends with a self-styled guru from Russia, Nicholas Roerich, who wrote a book on Tibetan Buddhist legends. Wallace at one point was involved with a woman, a relationship that evidently was “not physical but metaphysical – they were involved together in a quest to discover the true Buddha” or so Roosevelt was told.

FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942
FDR sent the Dalai Lama a signed photo like this one in 1942

But the primary Buddhist link for both FDR and Eleanor was Tibet. The country’s status was a delicate issue early in FDR’s administration. The Chinese had already laid claim to the Land of the Snows and Roosevelt had to tread lightly when dealing with the Tibetan government. In 1937, a cousin of Eleanor’s, Helen Cutting Wilmerding, wrote to him asking for a “signed photo” and a “letter of good will” on behalf of her brother, Charles Suydam Cutting, who planned to visit Tibet that summer. In 1930, Cutting was the first American to visit Tibet. He had traveled previously with Theodore Roosevelt to Ladakh and Sinkiang.

Wilmerding’s letter landed on the desk of Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles who vetoed the request. In a letter to Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand FDR’s private secretary (and mistress), Welles wrote, “Tibet is still technically under the suzerainty of China and consequently, gifts or a letter of good will from the President of the United States to officials of Tibet would be liable to be misconstrued in China.” Even then, the U.S. Government walked on eggshells around the Tibet issue for fear of upsetting the Chinese.

Eventually, FDR did send the Dalai Lama a personal letter.

Ilia A. Tolstoy was a Russian Count, the son of Leo Tolstoy, and a U.S. Army Colonel. He and a man named Brooke Dolan visited Tibet in December of 1942. They were on a mission for Roosevelt and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, forerunner to the CIA). They wanted Tibet’s help in the war against Japan. The Allies wanted to set up a shipping route in the country for transporting goods Tibet to China.

Tolstoy and Dolan carried with them a letter from the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age 60, to Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, age 7. It read:

Tenzin Gyatso
Tenzin Gyatso in 1944

Your Holiness:

Two of my fellow countrymen, Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan, hope to visit your Pontificate and the historic and widely famed city of Lhasa. There are in the United States of America many persons, among them myself, who, long and greatly interested in your land and people, would highly value such an opportunity.

As you know, the people of the United States, in association with those of twenty-seven other countries, are now engaged in a war which has been thrust upon the world by nations bent on conquest who are intent on destroying freedom of thought, of religion, and of action everywhere. The United Nations are fighting today in defense of and for preservation of freedom, confident that we shall be victorious because cause is just, our capacity is adequate, and our determination is unshakable.

I am asking Ilia Tolstoy and Brooke Dolan to convey to you a little gift in token of my friendly sentiment toward you.

With cordial greetings [etc.]

Franklin D. Roosevelt

The “little gift” was a gold Rolex watch. “At that time, my only interest (was) the gift of the watch, not the letter,” the Dalai Lama said 68 years later. In 2007, the watch was in his pocket when President George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal. The letter, however, had been lost. In 2010, he received a copy of it from President Barack Obama during a White House meeting.

In a future post, I’ll have some tidbits about Eleanor Roosevelt and her Tibetan connection.

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David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944, Indiana University Press, 2011

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs: Vol. 5, April – June 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (New York, N.Y.), Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969

Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, University of California Press, May 19, 1991


2 thoughts on “FDR and the Dalai Lama

  1. I thought it was interesting the similar upbringings of FDR and the Buddha. Both as children were isolated from any kind of pain or the suffering of others. Both then came to a quick and difficult realization of the pain and suffering that exists in the world. Both worked to ease the pain and suffering of all others around them.

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