JFK’S FORGOTTEN CRISIS: TIBET, THE CIA AND THE SINO-INDIAN WAR
By Bruce Riedel
Brookings Institution Press, $29, 231 pages
In October 1962, the CIA’s discovery that the Soviet Union was shipping missiles to Cuba electrified world fears of nuclear warfare. Tedious negotiations by President John F. Kennedy, in which he agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey, ended the frightening crisis.
Virtually unnoticed by the public at large was a parallel crisis — a border conflict between India and China that threatened to escalate into full-scale warfare between the Asian giants. India was the aggressor, dispatching troops to try to settle a long-standing boundary dispute.
Things went poorly for the Indians. An alarmed Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent an urgent letter to Kennedy asking for 12 squadrons of supersonic fighter planes, with ground radar equipment, to fight off Chinese aviators.
What surely astonished Kennedy was Nehru’s request that American pilots do the fighting: “The United States Air Force personnel will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained,” Nehru wrote. American fliers would “assist the Indian Air Force in air battles with the Chinese air force over Indian areas.”
In a follow-up letter several days later, Nehru expanded his demands. He now wanted some 350 American combat aircraft — 12 fighter squadrons with 24 jets in each, and two bomber squadrons — at least 10,000 personnel, including logistical support crews.
The Indian ambassador in Washington, B.K. Nehru (the prime minister’s second cousin), was “so stunned by the contents of the messages” that he did not show them to any of his staff and kept the only copies locked in his desk. Years later, the ambassador told a historian that the prime minister “must have been exhausted and psychologically devastated by the news of India’s defeats” when he sent the letters.
Luckily for the cause of world peace, China chose to agree to a cease-fire in November that in essence froze the pre-conflict borders (which remain at issue today). Still, a relieved JFK remarked to aide Theodore Sorenson that he had feared “an all-out war between the two most populous nations on earth might rival the confrontation in the Caribbean for long-run implications.”
That the India-China conflict was halfway around the world meant the crisis lacked the geographic immediacy of Cuba. Another factor that shielded it from wide public view was that no one outside of official Washington knew of a top-secret CIA operation in Tibet, begun under President Eisenhower, that played a minor role in touching off the confrontation.
Briefly, after the Communist regime came to power, the Chinese began encroaching on independent Tibet. In a tit-for-tat for Chinese intervention in the Korean War, Ike ordered the CIA to recruit Tibetans to resist the intrusion. The CIA trained dozens of these potential fighters at a remote Rocky Mountains base in Colorado and parachuted them back into Tibet (their success was minimal).
Author Bruce Riedel spent 30 years with the CIA, serving as a senior adviser to four presidents on South Asia and the Middle East. He now runs an intelligence project at the Brookings Institution. His book is based upon previously classified White House and CIA documents and memoirs of principals, notably John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard professor who was JFK’s ambassador to New Delhi.
By Mr. Riedel’s account, the India-China conflict put Kennedy into a tight geopolitical bind. India and Pakistan had been blood rivals since the partition of India in 1947, but the United States sought to stay friends with both nations — and particularly Pakistan, which provided bases for overflights of the USSR by U-2 planes. The CIA, meanwhile, aimed a suspicious eye at China. In an estimate in May 1962, the CIA concluded that the “anti-American aspect of Peiping’s foreign policy is deeply grounded,” and that further challenges to U.S. interests could be expected.
Kennedy also had to cope with the politically mercurial Nehru, who detested the West after his years of imprisonment by the British for pushing for Indian independence. A highly vocal pacifist, nonetheless it was a non-apologetic Nehru who initiated the conflict with China to protest a number of border skirmishes.
As Mr. Riedel observes, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung “probably assumed that Nehru was a partner with the CIA and Washington in [the] covert operations to assist the Tibetan resistance.” In fact, Pakistan was the CIA’s sole partner; the Indians had no role. (Nehru did know of the operation through a briefing that the CIA’s Richard Helms gave to B.N. Mullik, the Indian intelligence chief, in 1960.)
When hostilities began, the White House was so occupied with Cuba that Ambassador Galbraith was sent to deal with the Indians. As he wrote in his diary, “For a week I have had a considerable war on my hands without a single telegram, letter, telephone call or other communication of guidance” from Washington.
The sometime professor found the crisis at once fatiguing and exhilarating, writing that “an exhausting government crisis has this in common with a sex orgy or a drunken bar: the participants greatly enjoy it although they feel they shouldn’t.”
Historians give President Kennedy great credit for his management of the Cuban crisis, which was carried out with a good deal of publicity. His handling of the Asian crisis was equally as adept, even if secret. In the end, peace prevailed.
• Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.