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JFK’S Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, The CIA, & The Sino-Indian War

JFKForgottenrisis.pngThe help rendered to India in 1962 by then U S President John Fitzgerald Kennedy brings to the fore the key role played by him against the expansionist designs of Communist China. Kennedy’s role cannot be undermined in his handling of the India-China conflict as well as the Cuban crisis which had the portends of escalating into a full fledged war.

“”JFK’S FORGOTTEN CRISIS : TIBET, THE CIA, And Sino-Indian War”” authored by Bruce Reidel with a thirty year career in the Central Intelligence Agency looks at the charismatic leadership of Kennedy. Handling of the Sino-Indian conflict and the Cuban crisis was the tour de force of policy making at the highest level. Presently a senior fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, he analysis Kennedy’s role in the Sino-Indian war which has been largely ignored. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy played no small part in bolstering diplomatic relations with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Reidel’s analysis of declassified CIA documents and top secret letters between Nehru and Kennedy provides valuable insight on the war, diplomacy and covert operations.

The 1965 the CIA concluded that the Tibet uprising had gravely compromised Nehru’s ability to keep India’s relations with China friendly. The crisis between the two countries was now in the open. The Dalai Lama’s presence in India was another major point of friction between India and China. The temporal head of the Tibetans was granted political asylum in March 1959 when he fled the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Nehru sought to navigate a difficult balance — providing help to the Tibetan leader by allowing him to set up an informal government in exile in India without alienating China. However, China saw the Dalai Lama as a mortal enemy trying to subvert its control over Tibet.

Then IB Director Mullik saw China as India’s main threat, along with Pakistan. Starting from scratch with no intelligence capability in 1948, India had greatly increased its intelligence infrastructure along the northern border in response to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Kennedy handpicked John Kenneth Galbraith, who spent half a century at Harvard teaching economics, to be the ambassador to India. He was the central American player in the 1962 Sino-Indian crisis. Vice-President Richard Nixon, as Kennedy’s opponent was an outspoken supporter of Pakistan and a sharp critic of Nehru and India. After a visit to South Asia Nixon said that “”Pakistan is a country I would do anything for. They have less complexes than the Indians.”” Kennedy felt the Nixon approach was out of step with the changes sweeping the world, particularly the independence granted to countries.

The US intelligence agencies judged India’s “”major foreign policy problem centred on the threat of Communist China.”” Nehru and his advisors gradually implemented what became known as the “”Forward Policy”” of sending Indian military forces into contested and disputed territory with China. In the early 1960s, India began to build military outposts behind the Chinese troops in the disputed land so as to cut off their supplies and force their return to China. This led to some scholars and in particular Australian journalist and author Neville Maxwell to argue “”it was Nehru and not the Chinese who declared war.”” Mullik reported two important insights to Nehru. First the Chinese consulate in Calcutta was secretly telling the Indian Communist party leadership that “”forced by the adamant attitude of the Indian government about the border, the Chinese government was going to adopt a new line of action towards India.””

The new action will be implemented in the fall (September to November) and China wanted its sympathizers in India to be ready to back the Chinese claims. Mullik’s assessment of “”possible military collusion between Pakistan and China”” was a bombshell for the Indian leadership. The prospect of a two front war as Mullik later wrote “”remained imprinted in the minds of our leaders and the Army headquarters. The bulk of the Indian army was deployed on the Pakistan front leaving only the weaker units to face China and the PLA.”” In May 1962 China began a major buildup of forces facing the weak Indian position in North Eastern Frontier Area (NEFA). Brigadier John P Dalvi who was captured in the fighting in October 1962 concluded after talking to senior Chinese army commanders “”it is ludicrous to suggest that India had provoked the Chinese, forcing the Chinese to launch self defense counter attacks. The war was coldly and calculatingly planned by the Chinese.”” Later he wrote that the Chinese withdrawal was the “”direct result of President Kennedy’s direct action.””

At one point Nehru and his intelligence chief were fully expecting to lose control of all of Northeastern India to China east of the Siliguri neck. At the peak of the crisis on November 19, 1962, Nehru wrote two letters to Kennedy. Realizing the desperate situation at one point of time, Nehru wrote to Kennedy asking the US to join the war against China. It was a momentous request. Assuring JFK that the equipment will not be used against Pakistan, Nehru observed “”the stakes were not merely the survival of India but the survival of free and independent governments in the whole of this subcontinent and Asia. India is ready to spare no effort until the threat posed by Chinese expansionist and aggressive militarism to freedom and independence is completely eliminated.”” In his second letter Nehru asked Kennedy for 350 combat aircraft and crew. At least 10,000 persons will be needed to staff and operate the jets, provide radar support and conduct logistical support for the operation.

In his diary Galbraith notes that on the morning of November 21, 1962, “”like a thief in the night peace arrived.”” Just before midnight on November 20 the Chinese government declared a unilateral ceasefire along the entire Sino-Indian border that would begin within 24 hours. In addition, on December 01 Chinese forces will withdraw to positions 20 Km behind the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) which existed between India and China since November 07, 1959. China would keep the strategic but uninhabited land in the west, and in the east retain its claim to NEFA, but adhere to the de facto border situation that existed before the 1962 war. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai warned Nehru that refusal to cooperate will jeopardise the ceasefire.

The question is how would Kennedy have answered Nehru’s desperate appeal for American pilots to start flying combat missions to fight the Chinese and defend India, Reidel believes “”almost certainly the President would have reacted positively to India’s request. Kennedy believed that the rivalry between India and China was an existential issue for the United States.”” When Pakistan complained and asked for compensation, Kennedy refused to be blackmailed. “”The 1962 war was over on Chinese terms. India had lost,”” observed the author.

Salient Points

  • President John F Kennedy’s key role against the expansionist designs of China against India in the 1962 war cannot be undermined.
  • Charismatic Kennedy managed to ensure the Cuban crisis did not escalate into a full fledged war.
  • Tibet uprising in 1965 had affected Nehru’s ability to maintain friendly Sino-Indian ties.
  • Nehru had made a momentous request for U S help in flying combat missions against China.
  • Author Bruce Reidel believes almost certainly Kennedy would have a reacted positively to India’s request.
  • “”The 1962 war was over on Chinese terms. India had lost,”” emphasised the author
Book:JFK’S FORGOTTEN CRISIS : Tibet, The CIA, And The Sino-Indian War
Author:Bruce Reidel
Publisher:Harper Collins
Pages:233
Price:699-INR

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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