Not every war is a just war, nor has every conceivable just war been fought. Take, for example, the Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama plead for international assistance, but his words fell upon deaf ears. Compelled to resist the dissolution of his country he explored strategies of non-violence and negotiation. For his efforts, the international community awarded him with a Nobel Prize in 1989, thirty-nine years after the crisis began. The international community never awarded him the direct aid he requested, nor sanctions against China, resulting in Tibet’s loss of self-determination. The question is: could it have? Few just causes are easily realized, and fewer still are straightforward in their resolution. An examination of why this war wasnt fought may shed light on interesting factors why other wars are or should be.

The plight of the Dalai Lama is as harsh as the grace of his response is admirable. In 1950, he was only fifteen years old and simultaneously the spiritual head of state and the soon-to-be the temporal one as well. With the authority of religion and politics in his hands, he was also prepping for his comprehensive examination. This entailed something like a PhD level of study in Tibetan Buddhism. Those of us who have completed doctorates cannot imagine doing so also under the duress of being looked to as the head-of-state, and being recognized to be the reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion that presides over Tibet. Under such circumstances, most would have buckled. It is remarkable that Tenzin Gyatso carries himself with such poise and wit.

As an admirer of Gandhi, the Dalai Lama has maintained that non-violence was the only way he could have responded to the Chinese. He describes this in his autobiography Freedom in Exile and several other books. This disposition is also accurately portrayed in the films Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. Non-violence, while an admirable and worthy tool for promoting justice, does not always prevail in all situations or against all opponents. The Chinese government did not have the conscientious nature to respond to it, nor might it have elicited a viable popular resistance. In this case, Tibet was a good candidate for a Just War scenario. But this never took place, and so Tibet’s inexorable absorption into China followed. Why? And what can we learn from this? There are good reasons why one can argue the aid to Tibet never materialized, and why a just war venture was inapplicable. The self-interest of nations, the logistical difficulty of fighting in Tibet, and the political repercussions of such a war can be considered.

The Self-Interest of Nations: In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nations may fight for ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’ but they do not do so until their vital interests are imperiled.” This describes the plight of Tibet as it was consumed by China. What resources did it claim, what strategic trade routes did it occupy, that it could be considered a geo-strategic nerve center? Certainly, when juxtaposed with Iraq, where America has waged two campaigns in recent decades, Tibet is an oilless country without naval port or easy access, at an extreme and inaccessible elevation. Its remoteness was a reason that aligned with our lack of self-interest to support it.

Could Harry Truman have been persuaded to fight for Tibetan Buddhists in 1950? Figures are hard to come by, but if today Buddhists approach 1 percent of the U.S. population, in 1950 American Buddhists must have been negligible. After the end of an exhausting World War II, there was no American will for this one. Truman could rally no viable American will against the Chinese claim to this territory.

Logistical Difficulty: This writer is no military expert, but the logistical difficulty of getting troops and supplies to Tibet in 1950 must have been a nightmare. It would have required the cooperation of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had already expressed to the Dalai Lama that he could not intervene on his behalf. India, as a young nation, was in no position to march against China, nor to be proxy to the West to wage such a campaign. India lost a border war with China in 1962, just three years after Nehru offered the Dalai Lama sanctuary in Dharamsala India. A viable regional ally was lacking. There was neither self-interest, nor a sure means of supporting a fight at the roof of the world. So, this fight, one might argue, was justifiable, but was never going to be picked. It was the war that wasn’t and never could be.

Political Repercussions: The elephant in the room is that no one wants to leap into a ground war with China, the most populous nation on Earth, either today or seventy-three years ago. This is one reason that the war should not have been fought, it defies the sense of proportionality in terms of lives lost to lives saved. Another, that it had a viable chance of success, was a concern expressed by Nehru and rejected. Imagine, for a preposterous moment, had the war been waged, how it might have driven Communist China and the Soviet Union together, and thereby dramatically altered the Cold War’s trajectory. Some fights ought not to be picked because of tangible repercussions.

Yet anyone familiar with the plight of the Dalai Lama, and the impact of the Chinese annexation of Tibet, cannot help but be sympathetic. What could have been done, in hindsight, if neither non-violence nor just war were plausible options? The impact on Tibet has been described in genocidal proportions. A fact-finding mission of the Dalai Lama’s younger brother Lobsang Samten in 1979 revealed this conclusion: “One-fifth of the population had been murdered or died of starvation; 6254 monasteries and nunneries had been destroyed, their contents looted, melted down or sold on foreign markets; sixty percent of Tibet’s sacred literature had been incinerated; Amdo had become the world’s biggest gulag, with the capacity for holding ten million prisoners; one in every ten Tibetans was in prison; one hundred thousand had disappeared into labor camps.” Over 1.2 million Tibetans are believed to have died because of war, famine, and occupation. Was there a just way to avoid this?

The Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, become involved with the CIA in resisting China and sought refuge with Chiang Kai Shek. That the Dalai Lama’s own brother approved of more forceful resistance to China is not well known but must have been a constant source of concern for Tenzin Gyatso. The Tibetan people weren’t aided because their plight fell into the cracks between effective non-violent and just-war strategies. We know on the one hand that an absurd sense of bravado would involve us in every just war, and further that it is political callousness never to fight one. If we must pick and choose our just war according to how well it aligns with national means and interest, this may well be a prudent realism at work. It is also a humbling lesson that we need to find ever more innovative solutions to promoting justice.