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).Image: 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