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John F Kennedy’s forgotten crisis: The Indo-China war

The Indo-China war was one of the major crises that confronted the USA during Kennedy’s years as president. An excerpt

books Updated: Jan 23, 2016 15:59 IST
Hindustan Times
John F Kennedy,JFK,Indo-China war
Indian troops being inspected before leaving their posts in the Ladakh region during the border clashes between India and China in 1962.(Radloff/Getty Images)

India’s implementation of the Forward Policy served as a major provocation to China in September 1962. India’s Fourth Division was stationed near the juncture of the western end of the McMahon Line with the small kingdom of Bhutan. As in many other parts of the border, the exact demarcation of the McMahon Line was unclear here. In principle the border was supposed to run along the ridge line separating the Himalayas from the descent into Assam, but in this area the McMahon Line did not align with the ridgeline, but ran south of it. The Fourth Division was ordered to move forward to the Thag La ridge (also called Thagla) in territory the Chinese regarded as theirs.

Brigadier John P Dalvi commanded the Seventh Brigade of the Fourth Division that was instructed to move to the Thag La ridge. He reported to New Delhi that his forces were outnumbered and poorly supplied. While the Chinese soldiers had winter clothing and a supply depot immediately behind their front lines, the Indian troops were dressed in summer uniforms. He urged caution.

Instead Nehru and Defense Minister Krishna Menon decided to press the Indian claim and ordered the army high command on September 9, 1962, to carry out Operation Leghorn to take control of Thag La ridge. “This order was typical of the approach that the Army HQ was to take throughout the war. It responded dutifully to the political requirements of the government, but disregarded elementary military considerations.” A senior Indian general, BM Kaul, was given overall command in NEF. Kaul was a cousin of Nehru and was not highly regarded by his fellow officers, who regarded him as a political appointee without serious military experience.

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Mao probably finalized the decision to go to war in a meeting in Beijing on October 6 with his senior generals. Mao told them that China had defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, Imperial Japan, and the United States in Korea. Now “Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him: for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy demands reciprocity.”

The People’s Liberation Army was ordered to impose a “fierce and painful” blow on India and expel India from the territory China claimed in Kashmir west of the Johnson Line and in NEFA south of the McMahon Line. On October 8 the Chinese Foreign Ministry informed the Soviet ambassador in Beijing that a massive attack by China was imminent. Because the Soviets were engaged in their own high-stakes gamble in Cuba, Moscow did not discourage the Chinese...

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Mao’s focus was on Nehru, but a defeat of India would also be a setback for two of Mao’s other enemies: Khrushchev and Kennedy. Humiliating India would demonstrate that China’s hardline foreign policy and ruthless determination to “communize” itself on its own without the aid of Soviet advisers was a superior strategy to Khrushchev’s more moderate policies. Mao knew that Moscow’s half-hearted support for his war with India was likely to last only as long as the Cuba crisis, and humiliating India would send a tough message to Moscow.

At the same time defeating India would answer the question Kennedy had raised in his 1959 speech in the Senate about which country, democratic India or communist China, was poised to win the race for great power status in Asia. For Mao, the conflict with India provided a surrogate for his rivalry with Moscow and with Washington.

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On October 10, 1962, the PLA struck first, pushing back Dalvi’s patrol with superior force. Dalvi later reported that Kaul said, “Oh my God, you’re right; they (the Chinese) mean business,” and he rushed back to New Delhi to report the situation. The very next day Kaul met with Nehru and the senior Indian leadership, proposing that “India should seek speedy and copious military assistance from the United States.” Kaul’s proposals included setting up a temporary dictatorship in India, asking South Korea and Taiwan to attack China, and requesting that the United States “Launch massive air attacks on China from bases in India.”

Nehru rejected these hysterical ideas and insisted that Operation Leghorn continue. The next morning Nehru left for a three-day visit to Ceylon. At the airport Nehru told the press, “Our instructions are to free our territory, I can not fix a date; that is entirely for the army.” Thus Nehru ignored the advice of his generals on the scene and instead listened to the top brass in New Delhi. This was a serious mistake. The Indian and international media interpreted Nehru’s remarks at the airport en route to Ceylon as an ultimatum to China.

First Published: Jan 23, 2016 15:58 IST