JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and Sino-Indian War by Brookings scholar Bruce Riedel is the first book to examine in depth the Kennedy administration’s decision-making during the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
He provides a comprehensive look at US interests in the region at the time – especially the intelligence collaboration with Pakistan and the effort to support Tibetan rebels – and how these interests played into US and Chinese actions.
In the early 60s, the US was heavily dependent on Pakistan for intelligence insights into both the Soviet Union and China.
The famous U-2 base in Peshawar, revealed when Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, was not the only asset.
The CIA flew a similar operation out of East Pakistan directed against China; this program later demonstrated its value when the US picked up Chinese preparations for its 1964 nuclear test in Lop Nor. The Pakistanis were convinced that the US needed them far too much to threaten their interests in the region by providing military assistance to India.
Riedel traces in detail the CIA’s doomed efforts to support rebels in Tibet, both through a base in East Pakistan and via the Mustang border region in Nepal. The Chinese were well aware of the US effort and killed most of the US-trained rebels.
But Riedel also cites sources to argue that China probably believed incorrectly that India was a partner in this operation. He suggests that this belief helped spur the Chinese to attack across the McMahon line in 1962.
China chose to act the very same week that the Cuban missile crisis broke out.
Cuba totally absorbed senior policymakers in Washington. US Ambassador in India John Kenneth Galbraith complained that for a week his pleas for guidance went unanswered.
For Galbraith, this had its upside; Washington’s neglect put him effectively in charge of US decision-making.
The State Department did send him one instruction – to stay neutral on the validity of the colonial-era McMahon Line – which he disregarded. To the dismay of Taiwan which shared Beijing’s view of the border, he got White House approval to put the United States publicly in support of the Indian position on the dispute, a policy that remains in place to this day. The simultaneous Cuban crisis not only distracted Washington in South Asia but caused the Soviets to back China because they needed Beijing’s support in their confrontation in the Caribbean.
The Chinese attack came October 20 in the eastern and western sectors. The invading forces overwhelmed the Indian border regiments. As the initial defeat sank in, Nehru called on the US for help in a letter to Kennedy on October 28.
Five days later, weapons and ammunition were coming into Calcutta on US planes. After a brief lull, the Chinese attacked again on November 20, taking all of Aksai Chin. At this point, Nehru – desperate – wrote to Kennedy requesting US planes and pilots to fly defensive missions inside India.
But then, suddenly, the Chinese declared a ceasefire, and pulled back in the east to their pre-war positions.
Riedel argues that Mao was increasingly erratic and paranoid during this period, although totally in control of Chinese policy-making. He nevertheless ascribes rationality and even wisdom to Mao’s decision to end the incursion abruptly and withdraw from India-claimed territory in the east (today’s Arunachal Pradesh).
Mao had wanted to humiliate India, he had his land (Aksai Chin in the west), and he knew that the US and the west were actively supporting India.
Riedel points out that China had previously offered India a trade – China would control the territory in the west that linked Tibet with the equally strategic province of Xinjiang in exchange for Indian control of the territory they claimed in the east.
That exchange, which China made a de facto reality in its November ceasefire, remains in many observers’ view the most reasonable approach to a final resolution of the disputed border.
Taking the story beyond the war itself, Riedel asserts that Kennedy would have carried through an intent to establish an enduring strategic partnership with India, including a major weapons supply relationship. But his assassination on November 23, 1963, three days before a crucial US cabinet meeting to approve a $500 million arms deal, and Nehru’s death in early 1964 changed the equation.
Nehru’s successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, quickly returned to close ties with the Soviet Union, signing an arms deal which cemented a long-term partnership with Moscow.
As he brings the story up to the present, Riedel argues reasonably that the border war established the basic balance of power, alliance structure, and arms race that prevails today in South Asia. He suggests that it also led to the decision by Shastri and his successors to develop a nuclear weapons capability, demonstrated first in 1974 and then with the nuclear tests that shook the world in 1998. He points out that the CIA had no warning of the 1998 tests and that he (as a US official at the time) had been specifically assured by Indian officials that India had no plans to test. (The new Indian government had included in its electoral platform a clear intent to pursue a nuclear capability, a public announcement that most of us in the US government preferred to view as mere bravado.)
There are some tenuous what-if scenarios here.
If China had not declared a unilateral ceasefire in 1962, Riedel insists, Kennedy would have almost certainly responded positively to Nehru’s desperate request for a huge influx of military assistance, including provision of US-piloted fighter aircraft to protect India’s population centers.
If Kennedy had not died in 1963, the US could have solidified a long-term partnership with India that would have changed the trajectory of Asia. Riedel wisely does not endorse another obvious hypothetical: Could the Anglo-American post-war effort to broker a settlement of the Kashmir dispute have been successful and set India and Pakistan on a peaceful path? Seventy years of history suggest otherwise.
But skepticism over these scenarios does not diminish the importance of this comprehensive and well-written account of the interplay of forces that brought about the Sino-Indian war and established the power relationships that endure to this day.
Riedel’s history provides an exacting accounting of this seminal period in South Asia.
Donald Camp is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a retired US foreign service officer. He worked for Bruce Riedel on President Bill Clinton’s National Security staff from 1999-2001. Twitter: @donacamp
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