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JFK's Forgotten Crisis

Riedel, Bruce. JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2015. 256 pp.

Occurring in the shadows of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Sino-Indian War of 1962 is a forgotten slice of history that is remembered vividly only in India. With it is buried an important episode of US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s diplomacy, an intriguing ‘what-if’ of Indo-US relations, and perhaps the most active chapter in the neglected history of Tibet’s resistance to China’s brutal occupation. The war, however, brought about significant geopolitical changes to South Asia that shape it to this day. Bruce Riedel’s JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War is a gripping account of the United States’ involvement in South Asia and Kennedy’s personal interest in India. In it, he dispels the commonly held belief that India was not a priority of US foreign policy in the early 1960s and that Kennedy was preoccupied with events in his own backyard to pay any attention to a “minor border skirmish” on the other side of the world.

Except perhaps among historians of the Cold War, it is not widely known that the United States cosied up to Pakistan during the Eisenhower administration not to buttress South and West Asia against communism but to secure permission to fly reconnaissance missions into the Soviet Union, China, and Tibet. Initiated in 1957, the US-Pakistan agreement allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to operate U-2 reconnaissance planes from Lahore, Peshawar, and other airbases in West Pakistan over Communist territory. Airfields in East Pakistan, such as at Kurmitola, were also made available to the United States. Some of the missions were flown by the Royal Air Force as well. These overflights provided a wealth of information about the Soviet and Chinese militaries, economies, terrain, and other aspects important to Western military planners. Particularly useful was the information on China, which was otherwise sealed off to Western eyes and ears. Ayub Khan, the Pakistani president, claimed his pound of flesh for the agreement – Washington and Karachi signed a bilateral security agreement supplementing the CENTO and SEATO security pacts that Pakistan was already a member of and American military aid expanded to include the most advanced US jet fighter of the time, the F-104.

In addition to intelligence gathering, the United States was also involved – with full Pakistani complicity – in supporting Tibetan rebels fight the Chinese army. The CIA flew out recruits identified by Tibetan resistance leaders, first to Saipan and then on to Camp Hale in Colorado or to the Farm – the CIA’s Virginia facility – to be trained in marksmanship, radio operations, and other crafts of insurgency. The newly-trained recruits were then flown back to Kurmitola, from where they would be parachuted back into Tibet to harass the Chinese military. No one in Washington had any illusion that these rebels stood any chance against any professionally trained and equipped force, especially one as large as the People’s Liberation Army, but US policymakers were content to harass Beijing in the hope of keeping it off balance.

Jawaharlal Nehru knew of US activities in Tibet, for his Intelligence Bureau chief, BN Mullick, had his own sources in Tibet. It is unlikely, however, that he knew of Pakistan’s role in the United States’ Tibet operations. In any case, Nehru did not believe that it was worth antagonising the Chinese when there was no hope of victory; India had to live in the same neighbourhood and hence be more cautious than the rambunctious Americans. Furthermore, it was the heyday of non-alignment and panchsheel and the Indian prime minister did not wish to upset that applecart if he could help it. In fact, Nehru urged US president Dwight Eisenhower during their 1956 retreat to the latter’s Gettysburg farmhouse to give the UN Security Council seat held by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China to Mao Zedong’s Communist China. As Nehru saw it, a nation of 600 million people could not be kept outside the world system for long, but Ike, as the US president was known, still had bitter memories of the Chinese from Korea fresh in his mind. Yet three years later, when Ike visited India and Chinese perfidy in Aksai Chin had been discovered, the Indian prime minister’s tone was a contrast.

To most, Cuba defines the Kennedy administration: JFK had got off to a disastrous start in his presidency with the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, an inheritance from his predecessor’s era. His iconic moment, indisputably, came two years later in the showdown with Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Less well known is the president’s interest in South Asia and India in particular. Riedel explains how, even before assuming the presidency, Kennedy had made a name for himself in the US senate with his powerful speeches on foreign policy. In essence, he criticised the Eisenhower government for its failure to recognise that the era of European power was over; Kennedy wanted to fight a smarter Cold War, embracing the newly liberated peoples of Asia and Africa and denying the Communists an opportunity to fan any residual anti-imperialism which usually manifested itself as anti-Westernism. Riedel points to a speech in May 1959 as a key indicator of the future president’s focus: in May 1959, JFK declared, “…no struggle in the world today deserves more of our time and attention than that which now grips the attention of all Asia. That is the struggle between India and China for leadership of the East…” China was growing three times as fast as India, Kennedy went on, because of Soviet assistance; to help India, the future president proposed, NATO and Japan should put together an aid package of $1 billion per year that would revitalise the Indian economy and set the country on a path to prosperity. The speech had been partially drafted by someone who would also play a major role in the United States’ India policy during Kennedy’s presidency: John Kenneth Galbraith.

Riedel shows how, despite his Cuban distraction, Kennedy put India on the top of his agenda. A 1960 National Intelligence Estimate prepared by the CIA for the new president predicted a souring of India-China relations; it further predicted that Delhi would probably turn to Moscow for help with Beijing. However, the border dispute with the Chinese had shaken Nehru’s dominance in foreign policy and made Indian leaders more sympathetic of the United States. The NIE also projected the military gap between India and China to increase to the disadvantage of the former. The PLA had also been doing exceedingly well against Tibetan rebels, picking them off within weeks of their infiltration. By late 1960, a Tibetan enclave had developed in Nepal; Mustang, the enclave was called, became the preferred site for the CIA to drop supplies to the rebels. Galbraith, the newly appointed ambassador to India, disapproved of the CIA’s Tibetan mission, which had delivered over 250 tonnes of arms, ammunition, medical supplies, communications gear, and other equipment by then. Like Nehru, he thought it reckless and provocative without any hope of achieving a favourable result. There were, however, occasional intelligence windfalls coming from Tibet and Kennedy overruled Galbraith for the moment.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis shows how Galbraith was far more attuned to India than he is usually given credit for. He is most famously remembered – perhaps only among Cold War historians – for nixing a Department of Defence proposal in 1961 that proposed giving India nuclear weapons. Then, he predicted – most likely accurately – that Nehru would denounce such an offer and accuse the United States of trying to make India its atomic ally. Now, the Harvard professor pushed for Nehru and Kennedy to meet. This would give the Indian prime minister, Galbraith hoped, an opportunity to remove any lingering suspicions he may have had about US foreign policy in South Asia. The large aid package Washington had planned for India would only sweeten the meeting. This was not to be: Nehru remained most taciturn and almost monosyllabic during his visit to Jacqueline Kennedy’s home in Newport. However, he was quite enamoured by the First Lady, and Jackie Kennedy later said that she found the Indian leader to be quite charming; she, however, had much sharper things to say about the leader’s daughter!

Washington’s outreach to Delhi annoyed Karachi. Though ostensibly the US-Pakistan alliance was to fight communism, the reality was that Pakistan had always been preoccupied with India. Ayub Khan felt betrayed that the United States would give India, a non-aligned state, economic assistance that would only assist it in developing a stronger military to be deployed against Pakistan. Riedel’s account highlights the irresistible Kennedy charm – when Pakistan suspended the Dragon Lady’s flights from its soil, JFK was able to woo Khan back into the fold. However, the Pakistani dictator had a condition – that Washington would discuss all arms sales to India with him. This agreement would be utterly disregarded during the Sino-Indian War and Pakistan would start looking for more reliable allies against their larger Hindu neighbour. Riedel reveals how Pakistan had started drifting into the Chinese orbit as early as 1961, even before China’s invasion of India, an event commonly believed to have occurred after India’s Himalayan humiliation.

When India retook Goa from the Portuguese, a NATO country, it caused all sorts of difficulties for the United States. On the one hand, Kennedy agreed with the notion that colonial possessions should be granted independence or returned to their original owners but on the other, Nehru and his minister of defence, Krishna Menon, had not endeared themselves to anyone with their constant moralising; their critics would not, now, let this opportunity to call out India’s hypocrisy on the use of force in international affairs pass. The brief turbulence in relations was set right, oddly, by the First Lady again. On her visit to India, she again charmed the prime minister and he insisted that he stay with him instead of the US embassy and had the room Edwina Mountbatten had often used on her visits readied. The play of personalities, an often ignored facet of diplomacy, has been brought out well by Riedel.

Ironically, China believed that the Tibetan resistance movement was being fuelled by India with US help. India’s granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama did not help matters either, even though it was Nehru who had convinced the young Dalai Lama to return to Tibet in 1956 and have faith in Beijing’s promises of Tibetan autonomy. Although Indian actions did factor into the Chinese decision to invade India in October 1962, records from Eastern European archives indicate that the Sino-Soviet split was also partly to blame. Humiliating India served two purposes for Mao: first, it would secure Chinese access to Tibet via Aksai Chin, and second, it would expose India’s Western ties and humiliate a Soviet ally, thereby proclaiming China to be the true leader of the communist world.

Riedel’s treatment of the war and the several accounts makes for interesting reading, though his belief that there is rich literature on the Indian side about the war is a little puzzling. Most of what is known about the Sino-Indian War comes from foreign archives – primarily the United States, Britain, and Russia but also European archives as their diplomats recorded and relayed to their capitals opinions they had formed from listening to chatter on the embassy grapevine. There is, indeed, literature on the Indian side but much of it seeks to apportion blame rather than clarify the sequence of events. Records from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of External Affairs, or the Ministry of Defence are yet to be declassified, though the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat Report was partially released to the public by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell. Chinese records, though not easily accessible, have trickled out via the most commendable Cold War International History Project. The Parallel History Project has also revealed somewhat the view from Eastern Europe.

Riedel dispels the notion of Nehru’s Forward Policy as the cassus belli. According to Brigadier John Dalvi, a prisoner of war from almost the outset, China had been amassing arms, ammunition, winter supplies, and other materiel at its forward bases since at least May 1962. This matches with an IB report Mullick had provided around the same time. Furthermore, the Indian forces were outnumbered at least three-to-one all along the border and five-to-one in some places. The troops were veterans of the Korean War and armed with modern automatic rifles as compared to Indian soldiers’ 1895 issue Lee Enfield. Though Riedel exonerates Nehru on his diplomacy, he does not allow the prime minister’s incompetence to pass: the political appointment of BM Kaul, the absolute ignorance of conditions on the ground, and the poor logistics and preparation of the troops on the border left them incapable of even holding a Chinese assault, let alone breaking it.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis brings out a few lesser known aspects of the Sino-Indian War. For example, India’s resistance to the PLA included the recruitment of Tibetan exiles to harass the PLA from behind the lines. Nehru was approached by the two men most responsible for the debacle on the border – Menon and Kaul – with the proposal which Nehru promptly agreed. A team, commanded by Brigadier Sujan Singh Uban and under the IB, was formed. A long-continuing debate Riedel takes up in his work is the Indian failure to use air power during the conflict in the Himalayas. It has been suggested that had Nehru not been so timid and fearful of retaliation against Indian cities but deployed the Indian air force, India may have been able to repel or at least withstand the Chinese invasion. One wonders how effective the Indian Air Force really might have been given the unprepared state of the Army. In any case, Riedel points out that the Chinese air force was actually larger than the IAF – the PLAAF had over 2,000 jet fighters to India’s 315, and 460 bombers to India’s 320. Additionally, China had already proven its ability to conquer difficult terrain in Korea.

Throughout the South Asian conflict, the United States was also managing its relationship with Pakistan. Despite the Chinese invasion, the bulk of India’s armies were tied on the Western border with Pakistan and Ayub Khan was making noises about a decisive solution to the Kashmir imbroglio; it was all the United States could do to hold him back. However, Ayub Khan came to see the United States as a fair weather friend and realised he had to look elsewhere for support in his ambitions against India: China was the logical choice. Thus, the 1962 war resulted in the beginning of the Sino-Pakistani relationship that would blossom to the extent of Beijing providing Islamabad with nuclear weapon and missile designs in the 1980s.

The Chinese had halted after their explosive burst into India on October 20. For a full three weeks, Chinese forces sat still while the Indians regrouped and resupplied their positions. On November 17, they struck again and swept further south. The Siliguri corridor, or the chicken neck, was threatened , and India stood to lose the entire Northeast. In panic, Kaul asked Nehru to invite foreign armies to defend Indian soil. A broken Nehru wrote two letters to Washington on the same day, asking for a minimum of 12 squadrons of jet fighters, two B-47 bomber squadrons, and radar installations to defend against Chinese strikes on Indian cities. These would all be manned by American personnel until sufficient Indians could be trained. In essence, India wanted the United States to deploy over 10,000 men in an air war with China on its behalf.

There is some doubt as to what extent the United States would have gone to defend India. However, that November, the White House dispatched the USS Kitty Hawk to the Bay of Bengal (she was later turned around as the war ended). After the staggering blows of November 17, the US embassy, in anticipation of Indian requests for aid, had also started preparing a report to expedite the process through the Washington bureaucracy. On November 20, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its troops to the Line of Actual Control. A cessation of hostilities had come on Beijing’s terms, who had shown restraint by not dismembering India. Riedel makes a convincing case that Kennedy would have defended India against a continued Chinese attack had one come in the spring of the following year, and that overt US support may have influenced Mao’s decision

In the immediate aftermath of the war, the United States sent Averell Harriman of Lend-Lease fame to India to assess the country’s needs. Washington had three items on its agenda with India – 1. Increase US economic and military aid to India; 2. Push India to negotiate with Pakistan on Kashmir as Kennedy had promised Ayub Khan; and 3. Secure Indian support for the CIA’s covert Tibetan operations. The first met with little objection, and though Nehru strongly objected to talks with Pakistan, he obliged. Predictably, they got to nowhere. On the third point, Riedel writes that India agreed to allow the CIA to operate U-2 missions from Charbatia. This has usually been denied on the Indian side though one senior bureaucrat recently claimed that Nehru had indeed agreed to such an arrangement but only two flights took off before permission was revoked. Nonetheless, the IB set up a Special Frontier Force of Tibetans in exile and the CIA supported them with equipment and air transport from bases in India. All  this, however, withered away as relations again turned sour after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and the election of Richard Nixon.

Most of the sources JFK’s Forgotten Crisis uses are memoirs and prominent secondary sources on South Asia and China. Riedel also uses some recently declassified material from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library that sheds new light on the president’s views on South Asia. Despite the academic tenor of the book, it is readily accessible to lay readers as well; personally, I would have preferred a significantly heavier mining of archival documents and other primary sources but that is exactly what would have killed sales and the publisher would not have liked! Overall, Riedel gives readers a new way to understand the Kennedy years; he also achieves a fine balance in portraying Nehru’s limitations and incompetence. The glaring lack of Indian primary sources also reminds us of the failure of the Indian government to declassify its records that would inform us even more about the crisis.

As Riedel notes, the Chinese invasion of India created what they feared most and had not existed earlier: the United States and India working together in Tibet. This was largely possible also because of the most India-friendly president in the White House until then. Yet Pakistan held great sway over American minds thanks to the small favours it did for the superpower. It was also the birth of the Sino-Pakistani camaraderie that is still going strong. The geopolitical alignment created by the Sino-Indian War affects South Asian politics to this day. Yet it was a missed opportunity for Indo-US relations, something that had to await the presidency of George W. Bush.

There are two things Indian officials would do well to consider. First, Pakistan’s consistent ability to extract favours from Washington is worth study: if small yet important favours can evince so much understanding from the White House, it would be in Indian interests to do the same. Second, Jaswant Singh’s comment to Strobe Talbott deserves reflection: “Our problem is China, we are not seeking parity with China. we don’t have the resources, and we don’t have the will.” It is time to develop that will.