On Exhibit: The “Yeti Memo”

Today’s post comes from Sanjana Barr from the National Archives History Office.

Foreign Service Despatch 75 from the American Embassy, Kathmandu, regarding regulations governing mountain-climbing expeditions in Nepal relating to yeti (The Yeti Memo), 11/30/1959. (National Archives Identifier 24194175)

In 1959, the U.S. State Department received a curious memo from the new U.S. Embassy in Nepal concerning the regulations for Yeti hunting.

The Himalayan Yeti, a mythological creature often compared to Bigfoot, achieved international infamy in the 1950s. Western climbers ascending Mount Everest continued to report yeti footprints.

The “Yeti Memo” originated with the Nepalese government about two years before the Americans published it in English. It stipulated that the Yeti could only be killed in self-defense and that any evidence of the existence of the creature had to be immediately turned over to the Government of Nepal.

The memo also insisted that explorers who sought the Yeti pay a royalty of 5,000 rupees to the Nepalese government. In today’s currency that would be roughly $1,100.

Of course, the existence of this document doesn’t mean that the U.S. Government believed in Yetis. The memo was instead a strategic move to demonstrate the U.S. support of Nepal sovereignty.

During the increasingly tense early years of the Cold War, Nepal had become less isolationist, which opened doors for Westerners. The United States took advantage of this opportunity to keep an eye on the relations between the Soviet Union and Asian countries.

At the time the memo was sent to the State Department, the U.S. was in the throes of the Cold War, struggling with the Soviet Union for dominance. Although they never fought directly, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both influenced politics in other regions by providing support for opposing factions. While this sometimes involved military aid, in many cases the U.S. simply formed alliances with countries who also wished to slow the Soviet Union’s rise to prominence.

The U.S. had concerns about India and China, as the main state actors in the region, though for different reasons. Communist China was spreading its ideology by aggressively acquiring new territory, and India led the nonaligned nations during the Cold War—a move that looked to U.S. policymakers like tacit support of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. chose Nepal as an ally around 1947 because it was uniquely placed as a neutral zone between independent India and Tibet (then occupied by China). The first King of unified Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, referred to his country as “a small yam between two stones.”

Both India and Nepal were wary of Western imperialist nations, but the U.S. needed Nepal’s approval to maintain an embassy within Nepal’s border and—on a larger scale—they needed India’s political support in the region.

It was important for the U.S. to demonstrate that their diplomatic involvement in the area was entirely nonthreatening. The reprint and distribution of the Yeti Memo was the U.S. government’s way of declaring their support for the sovereign rule of Nepal.

By stationing itself in Nepal, the U.S. could monitor the political atmosphere of the area and ensure that neither China nor India aligned with the Soviet Union. Nepal was protected by the Himalayas and maintained a form of government unlike that of any of the surrounding nations.

Technically, Nepal ran on a panchayat (village council) system, but the U.S. agreed to support it as a government system analogous to democracy. The U.S. also stated a disinclination to go against India’s proposed plans for Indo-Nepalese relations—they knew they needed allies against China and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was willing to leave nonaligned India unchallenged so long as India didn’t ally itself with the Soviet Union or any Soviet satellite states.

The U.S. had clear and widely-acknowledged motives for planting itself between China and India, but their power in Nepal was entirely diplomatic. They depended on Nepal to host and protect them.

The desire to reinforce their diplomatic bond with Nepal led the embassy to send a translated version of the Yeti hunting rules back to the U.S. State Department. Eventually the document was handed to the National Archives for safekeeping.

The National Archives is a repository for many similar documents, relics of the past that make little sense out of context. Although at first glance a memo about Yeti hunting seems fanciful, it is in fact representative of American Cold War strategies to combat what they saw as the rising threat of communism.

The Yeti Memo will be on display from September 28 to November 29, 2017, in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.

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