IN APRIL, India launched a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear bomb deep into the Indian Ocean. The successful Agni missile test fulfilled India’s fifty-year quest to achieve the means of dispatching a nuclear weapon to Beijing. Just about fifty years ago, in October 1962, India fought a brief war against China in the Himalaya Mountains. India lost that war—and vowed it would acquire the capacity to deter Chinese aggression.
The Sino-Indian war also posed a crisis for America’s young president, John F. Kennedy, who had entered office determined to build a strong U.S. relationship with India. But his attention that fateful autumn was diverted to a more ominous crisis—the one involving Soviet efforts to place nuclear missiles in Cuba—that unleashed a dangerous nuclear face-off with the Soviet Union. Thus, Kennedy confronted two simultaneous crises, one far overshadowed by the other at the time and also later in history.
But Kennedy’s handling of the 1962 war—in the midst of a far graver national challenge—offers lessons today for those interested in the ongoing diplomatic conundrum posed by India and its mutually hostile neighbor, Pakistan.
When Kennedy became president in January 1961, the United States and India were estranged democracies. Throughout the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower had tilted his administration’s subcontinent diplomacy toward Pakistan’s military dictatorship and away from India. After all, Pakistan offered its territory as a secret base for America’s U-2 spy planes, which were used effectively to penetrate Soviet airspace and collect valuable intelligence on Washington’s Cold War adversary.