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.
India’s neutralist government in New Delhi never would have contemplated such an arrangement. So Ike cut his deal with Pakistan, which included the sale of F-104 jets and Patton tanks, both superior to India’s weapons. Needless to say, this didn’t endear the American government to New Delhi.
In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy promised a departure from Eisenhower’s foreign policy—more vigorous and less accepting of Western colonialism. Though an ardent cold warrior, Kennedy also recognized that the winds of change were whipping around the world, ending the era of colonial empires. He had been an early critic of France’s colonial war in Algeria, for example, and he understood that many of the new postcolonial states would resist pressures to join one bloc or another in the Cold War.
Further, as a senator Kennedy had sponsored legislation to increase food aid to India. And so it wasn’t surprising that as president he sought to woo India and its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, into a closer relationship with Washington that didn’t require any formal anticommunist commitment from India. He sent his friend John Kenneth Galbraith to New Delhi as U.S. ambassador.
Yet Kennedy also wanted to maintain a tight alliance with Pakistan. Like presidents before and after, he tried to befriend both nations. He invited Pakistan’s president Mohammad Ayub Khan to visit the United States twice during his thousand days in office. In July 1961, Ayub was feted in New York with a ticker-tape parade on Fifth Avenue and in Washington with a full state visit including a state dinner at Mount Vernon, the only time that the first president’s mansion has hosted a state dinner. A year later, in September 1962, Kennedy hosted Ayub again at the family home in Newport, Rhode Island, and his farm in Middleburg, Virginia. Ayub gave Jacqueline Kennedy a horse. The Kennedy team hailed Pakistan as a reliable ally against communism and a model for development in the Third World.
But it was the India relationship that most preoccupied Kennedy as he contemplated U.S. relations with South Asia. Galbraith’s appointment put a Kennedy man and a firm advocate of his New Frontier at the center stage of U.S.-Indian relations. No president since has sent such a close friend and high-powered representative to New Delhi as ambassador.
Galbraith frequently wrote Kennedy long letters from India in which he commented not only on India and South Asia but also on global developments, domestic issues, economics and especially the growing conflict in South Vietnam, where he was an early and prescient critic of U.S. involvement. His letters and diary, which have been published, offer penetrating insights into this period.
Kennedy never traveled to India during his presidency, but Jacqueline Kennedy visited both India and Pakistan in March 1962. The charismatic and photogenic first lady was a big hit. Nehru was so entranced that he kept a photo of Mrs. Kennedy in his private study for the rest of his life. The Peace Corps, created by Kennedy early in his tenure, also drew the United States and India closer together, as did other factors such as enhanced American economic assistance and the candid dialogue between top leaders. Nehru visited the White House in November 1961 at the age of seventy-one, accompanied by his daughter Indira (though that visit was undercut a bit by the fact that Nehru seemed old, tired and disengaged).
BY FAR the most important development in the relationship emerged with the Chinese invasion of India in October 1962. Like much of India’s borders, the boundary between China and India was set by the British in the nineteenth century. The small kingdom of Tibet was given a border drawn to the Raj’s advantage. The western portion of the border was known as the Johnson line, dividing Kashmir from China. The eastern one was the McMahon line, dividing Assam in eastern India from China. Both lines were named after British diplomats. When China invaded Tibet in October 1950, it therefore inherited a border it did not regard as legitimate or fair. Negotiations between Beijing and New Delhi in the 1950s proved futile. But China opened negotiations with Pakistan on their shared border in Kashmir, and the result was the cession of a large part of northern Kashmir to China and an agreed border between Islamabad and Beijing.
Nehru championed Communist China’s right to take over China’s permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, which was still held by the Nationalist Party government in Taiwan. He sharply criticized America’s refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China and portrayed China and India as kindred spirits, two great Asian countries that had been exploited by Western imperialism but now were free and independent.
So it was a crushing blow to Nehru and India in October 1962 when China surprised them and invaded to seize control of territories it claimed along the 3,225-kilometer border. The Chinese forces, superior in leadership and weapons, routed the Indian Army, which retreated in confusion from the Himalayas. The situation was most precarious in India’s easternmost regions, which were linked to the rest of the country only by a narrow land connection north of what was then East Pakistan. After maintaining its neutrality in the Cold War for fifteen years, India found itself the victim of a Chinese invasion it was powerless to halt. Nehru was devastated. He reluctantly turned to the United States and Britain, asking for immediate supplies for the Indian Army. In his panic, he also requested the deployment of American bombers to repulse the Chinese advance. America unexpectedly found itself arming both Pakistan and India, with no assurance they would not use the weapons against each other.
It is clear from Galbraith’s diary that Washington was surprised by the Chinese invasion. But, with the U.S. bureaucracy fixated on the life-and-death duel over Cuba, Galbraith was given almost no instructions from the White House or State Department during the key period of the Indo-Chinese crisis. Thus, he became the main decision maker on the American side, a role he relished. As he wrote, “Washington continues totally occupied with Cuba. For a week, I have had a considerable war on my hands without a single telegram, letter, telephone call or other communication of guidance.” To add another element of drama, the crisis also coincided with the move of the ambassador and his family into a new residence, Roosevelt House, where the staff could find no dishes and Galbraith was without a room suitable for small, intimate discussions.
Working closely with his British counterpart, as U.S. diplomats typically do in South Asia, Galbraith fashioned a response that backed India and delivered much-needed military assistance to the Indians. Once a request for aid was formally transmitted, the first American shipments of military support arrived by air four days later. British support came as well.
Chinese intentions were impossible to decipher. After their initial victories, they paused for several weeks. Then they attacked again with devastating results, driving the Indians back in the East. Had they pressed on in the most vulnerable sector, they could have cut off Assam and eastern India and linked up with East Pakistan. Even Calcutta was at risk. Nehru asked for more aid—a dozen squadrons of American fighters and two squadrons of bombers—to redress the imbalance. In his desperation, he sought direct American military intervention, at least in the air. This would have meant war with China.
There ensued many anxious moments in New Delhi, Washington and London until China unilaterally announced a cease-fire on November 19, 1962. Kennedy never had to answer the request for air power. The war was over; India was humiliated; Nehru was devastated. But U.S.-Indian relations were better than ever before. America’s approval ratings among Indians soared from 7 percent at the start of the war to 62 percent at the end.
GALBRAITH’S MEMOIRS make it clear that, even as he faced the Chinese threat, he had to devote an equal measure of his energy and skill to managing Indo-Pakistani relations. Pakistan promptly sought to exploit India’s distress. Ayub’s government suggested to the American embassy in Karachi that Pakistani neutrality in the war could be assured by Indian concessions in Kashmir. Implicitly, an Indian refusal would bring Pakistan into the war. China tried to sweeten the deal by offering a nonaggression pact with Pakistan. Galbraith writes that throughout the crisis:
My concern . . . was about equally divided between helping the Indians against the Chinese and keeping peace between the Indians and Pakistanis. . . . The nightmare of a combined attack by Pakistan and China, with the possibility of defeat, collapse and even anarchy in India, was much on my mind.
In short, at a defining early moment in U.S.-Indian relations, when China and India were military adversaries, America found itself trying to manage the Indo-Pakistani rivalry to avoid Armageddon in India. Pakistan was outraged that America was arming its rival and wanted to be bought off in Kashmir. Working with his American and British counterparts in Karachi, Galbraith persuaded India and Pakistan to begin a dialogue on Kashmir. Nehru reluctantly agreed. Galbraith describes him as a much-diminished prime minister. He had devoted his entire life to Indian independence but now was forced to rely on Washington and London. American C-130s were delivering vital military aid, and an American aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, was visiting Madras to show tangible support.
Galbraith suggested to Kennedy in one of his private letters that the United States and United Kingdom seize the opportunity to quietly move toward a Kashmir settlement. Galbraith opposed a territorial settlement; he envisioned a much more subtle deal that would transform the entire nature of South Asian politics, a fundamental rapprochement based on regional cooperation that would make Kashmir largely irrelevant. In a letter to the president on December 6, 1962, the ambassador wrote:
It would be fatal, however, to show hesitancy at this moment when [the Indians] are relying on us and when the fear of the Chinese is so great. Now that we have got the Kashmir issue out in the open—a significant achievement in itself—we must press it but in such a manner as not to involve ourselves in the inbuilt antagonisms between the two countries. We must continue to make it clear to the Indians that it is their task, not ours and not Pakistan’s. In my view, incidentally, Kashmir is not soluble in territorial terms. But by holding up the example of the way in which France and Germany have moved to soften their antagonism by the Common Market and common instruments of administration, including such territorial disputes as that over the Saar, there is a chance of getting the Indo-Pakistan dialogue into constructive channels.
Galbraith had reached the right conclusion about the proper American role in South Asia in the midst of a terrible crisis.
Instead of Galbraith’s sophisticated approach, the Kennedy team joined forces with the British on a more conventional policy. After letters from JFK to Ayub and Nehru, the two South Asian leaders reluctantly agreed to resume bilateral discussions on Kashmir, with American and British diplomats pushing each side to compromise on territorial offers. On the eve of the first round, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, announced that China and Pakistan had reached an agreement to demarcate their border in Kashmir. China received a considerable concession of territory from historic Kashmir. The Indians were furious. After being attacked and invaded by China, India now saw Pakistan giving away part of the territory still in dispute and about which bilateral negotiations were about to commence. Bhutto maintained the Chinese had tricked him into prematurely announcing the deal. The United States and Britain accepted this farce; Nehru did not. Talks began, but they were destined to fail. After six desultory rounds, they collapsed.
Kennedy began his presidential tenure eager to build the ties with India that had languished under Eisenhower and Truman. By the time of his death, the United States was helping build a new Indian Army with six mountain divisions to face China. But Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would not sell India high-performance jet aircraft like the F-104s Pakistan was getting. In 1965, Pakistan used the F-104s in an unprovoked war on India in Kashmir, Operation Grand Slam. LBJ promptly cut off military aid to both countries.
JFK was determined to keep a strong alliance with Pakistan even as he improved ties with India. But as U.S. arms flowed to India in the wake of the Chinese invasion, the U.S.-Pakistani connection began to sink. Islamabad did not want an ally that armed both sides. It had not joined SEATO and CENTO to see American arms flowing to its archrival, India. Ayub feared the American arms sent to India were rapidly diminishing his qualitative advantage over his rival, and he was right.
Not surprisingly, Pakistan turned increasingly to China. After the border agreement, Pakistan signed an aviation agreement with the Chinese, which broke an American-inspired campaign to isolate that communist nation. Pakistan International Airlines began regular flights between Dacca and Shanghai. The Kennedy team responded with the first of what would become a long list of sanctions on Pakistan—canceling a deal to upgrade the Dacca airport.
In his last days, Kennedy became increasingly irritated with the Pakistanis and with Ayub. In one of his last meetings with his national-security team, he asked, “What do we get from Pakistan? In return for the protection of our alliance and our assistance what do they do for us?” The answer was another secret intelligence base that the CIA and NSA used to eavesdrop on China and Russia. Ayub skillfully exploited America’s desire for the base to keep Kennedy’s question rhetorical. The base was expanded considerably in a new secret protocol in September 1963. Less than two months later, Kennedy was dead. Sardar, the horse Ayub had given Mrs. Kennedy, followed his casket down Pennsylvania Avenue, riderless.
The failure of Pakistan’s efforts to extort concessions from India on Kashmir led Ayub in 1965 to unleash Operation Gibraltar, a campaign of subversion in the Himalayan state. That ended in the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965, which was disastrous for Pakistan. It lost the war, and the conflict led to a rupture in trade and transportation links between the two South Asian states that continues today. It also ushered in a series of increasingly dangerous crises between the two, contributing to the subcontinent being probably the most likely arena for nuclear conflict in the twenty-first century.
The Sino-Indian war had one other major consequence: India moved closer to its decision to develop a nuclear deterrent. Nehru had begun a nuclear-power program early after independence and acquired reactors from the United States and Canada. But he insisted India would use them only for peaceful purposes. His worldview held the use of nuclear weapons to be unthinkable. But in the wake of the Chinese invasion, the first Indian voices emerged in favor of a nuclear-weapons program. The opposition party called for the development of the bomb to deter further Chinese aggression. Nehru still demurred, but the path to a peaceful nuclear-explosive test had begun.
Meanwhile, the Americans also came to realize that the United States and India likely would need the bomb in order to stop another major Chinese invasion. In 1963, Kennedy met with his military advisers shortly before his death to review options in the event of another Chinese attack. Secret tapes record Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara telling Kennedy, “Before any substantial commitment to defend India against China is given, we should recognize that in order to carry out that commitment against any substantial Chinese attack, we would have to use nuclear weapons.” Kennedy responded, “We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India if she were attacked.”
THE KENNEDY era underscores several key points about U.S. diplomacy in South Asia. First, it is virtually impossible to have good relations with both India and Pakistan. We may want them to stop being rivals, but they can’t escape their history and geography. Almost every American president has sought to have good ties with both, though none really has succeeded because it is a zero-sum game for two rivals who cannot abide America being their enemy’s friend. When we give one country a substantial gain, like the 2005 U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, the other feels hurt and demands equal treatment.
Second, China is our rival for influence in the region because it has the capacity to frustrate American goals. For Pakistanis, China is the “all-weather friend” that they can rely on, unlike the unreliable and quixotic Americans. China provided Pakistan with key technology to build the bomb in the 1970s while America was trying to prevent Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons. Today, Beijing is building new reactors to fuel the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world in Pakistan.
Third, Kashmir is the spoiler in the region; it needs a subtle solution that so far has escaped American diplomacy. JFK was the last American president to make a concerted effort to resolve the underlying issue causing so much instability in South Asia. All of his successors have regarded it as too hard, so every few years another major crisis erupts that takes the subcontinent to the brink of destruction. Galbraith laid out the subtle path to a better outcome, but it has been the road not taken. Instead, the path India set out on fifty years ago has led to the Agni. Nobody knows where it will end.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. A career CIA officer, he has advised four presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues on the staff of the National Security Council.
Image: U.S. Embassy New DelhiImage: Pullquote: It is virtually impossible to have good relations with both India and Pakistan. We may want them to stop being rivals, but they can’t escape their history and geography.Essay Types: Essay