The Indo-China War Of 1962 And The Role Of The United States Under The Stewardship Of President Kennedy

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The relations between India and the United States reached their highest point during President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s tenure that witnessed the historic genesis of the ebullient ‘Nehru-Kennedy Spirit’. Welcoming our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his fourth visit to the United States at the Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on 6th November,1961, just a year before the Indo-China war, Kennedy said, ‘India and America are separated by half the globe, but I think that you are aware, as you surely must have been aware, during the long days of your struggle for independence, of the great well of affection and regard for which your country and people are held in this country–a great affectionate regard which belongs to you particularly in these difficult days. So, Prime Minister, we welcome you here to the shores of this country as a friend, as a great world leader, as one who has in his own life and times stood for those basic aspirations which the United States stands for today.’ Nehru responded as follows, ‘Your nation was nurtured in liberty. So also ours, in a peculiar way rather unlike other countries, in the sense that we had a peculiar leader, to whom you were pleased to refer, Mahatma Gandhi. And our struggle for freedom as always everywhere conditioned us, and Mr. Gandhi’s message and the training he gave us also conditioned us…And among the things that he laid great stress on, as you no doubt know, Mr. President, was on peace and peaceful methods of approach to problems…We face mighty problems in the world today, and you, Mr. President, bear perhaps the greatest responsibility in this world. And so we look up to you and to your country, and seek to learn from you, and sometimes also to express what we have on our minds, so that  we can achieve the greatest aim that the world needs today and that is peace and opportunity to grow and flourish in peace.’

Nehru and the monumental British leader Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill both studied at Harrow School, the iconic boarding school in London founded in 1572 by John Lyon, a wealthy local farmer, under a Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I. They harboured an inexplicable mutual respect and admiration for each other. At the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in June,1953, hosted by Churchill to commemorate the happy occasion of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Churchill unequivocally expressed his adulation for Nehru as a man who had ‘conquered two great human infirmities: fear and hate.’ He even visualised his fellow Harrovian as the ‘Light of Asia’, who was shaping the destiny of hundreds of millions of Indians and playing an ‘outstanding part in world affairs’. Nehru assiduously cultivated Communist China with a view to achieving lasting peace in Asia and even coined the illusory slogan ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’.India and China, along with other Afro-Asian nations met at the first large-scale Afro–Asian Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, in April,1954, that resulted in a 10-point ‘declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation’, incorporating the principles of the United Nations Charter. Nehru was intensely draw n into the Chinese Dragon’s trap and naturally didn’t pay heed to Churchill’s terse warning of August,1942 vintage, ‘Trying to maintain good relations with the Communists is like wooing a crocodile. You do not know whether to tickle it under the chin or beat it over the head. When it opens its mouth you cannot tell whether it is trying to smile or preparing to eat you up.’ India’s Defence Minister Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon played into the hands of China and acted against India’s vital interests. The result was inevitably disastrous for India as China tossed the Bandung Declaration literally to the wind, treacherously stabbed India in the back and unjustifiably unleashed upon India a devastating 32 day war on 20th October,1962. In a hasty broadcast to the nation over All India Radio, Nehru said, ‘Huge Chinese armies have been marching in the northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses at Walong, Se La, and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA, has also fallen. We shall not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out.’ On the very same day, the Kennedy administration decided to enact the blockade of Cuba to keep Soviet missiles out of the Western Hemisphere. The Indo- China war thus coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost brought the world to the brink of an all out nuclear holocaust.

Within days after the war broke out, Kennedy wrote to Nehru asking ‘what [America] can do to translate  our support into terms that are practically most useful to you as soon as possible.’ The American response to India’s critical needs to face and counter the Chinese ‘Blitzkrieg’ was prompt and magnanimous. When the Indian situation became particularly desperate,American Air Force squadrons in the Philippines were  alerted to attack the invading Chinese troops. And America, through its contacts in Warsaw, conveyed its firm resolve to the Chinese to come to India’s assistance. Sorties of C-130 Hercules aircraft relentlessly carried out paradrops of arms and ammunition supplies as well as essential winter clothing to Indian soldiers fighting

The spectre of direct American intervention, as well as the threat to China conveyed through America’s contacts in Warsaw, played a decisive  role in the Chinese decision to unilaterally withdraw their forces from Indian territory and eat humble pie

in appallingly freezing conditions atop dizzy mountain heights. The Indian national morale hit its rock bottom on 18th November, 1962, when news of further reverses reached New Delhi. India felt isolated, vulnerable and betrayed, when even the so called ‘friends’ of India like the former Soviet Union shied away from India. On 25th October, 1962, the broadsheet newspaper Pravda, formerly the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, published a front-page article that squarely put the entire blame for the Indo-China War on India. Moscow could ill afford to alienate China during the Cuban Missile Crisis by supporting India! India’s  beleaguered army crumbled under the weight of the Chinese offensive. Nehru desperately appealed directly to Kennedy on 19th November,1962 for ‘twelve squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’ and ‘modern radar  cover.’ He requested the aircraft be ‘manned by U.S. personnel [to] protect our cities and installations and… to assist the Indian Air Force in air battles with the Chinese air force.’ The prodigious Canadian born American economist Prof.John Kenneth ‘Ken’ Galbraith, who was the American Ambassador to India during the material time, played a stellar role in championing India’s cause. American aircraft began regularly landing in Delhi and carrying out incisive photoreconnaissance missions over the Indo-Tibet border. These aerial photographs proved to be of enormous strategic value since India had no maps whatsoever of the areas of conflict. The then US Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman, himself a veteran of the Burma campaign in the Second World War, personally co-ordinated the military aid effort missions over the Indo-Tibet border. Kennedy also dispatched the formidable USS Kitty Hawk aircraft supercarrier of the United States Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to help India repel the Chinese invasion. Upon learning of the all out American military support to India, Pakistan expressed its displeasure, nay indignation, threatening to withdraw from two anti-Soviet alliances viz. CENTO and SEATO. The US National Security Council staffer Bob Komer remarked, ‘The Pakistani[s] are going through a genuine emotional crisis as they see their cherished ambitions of using the U.S. as a lever against India going up in the smoke of the Chinese border war.’ But Washington remained steadfast in its studied determination to support India and made resolute diplomatic efforts to convince Islamabad not to capitalize on the Chinese invasion by pressing its own claims in the Kashmir Valley! On 21st November, 1962, China declared a ‘unilateral cease-
fire’ and surprised the world by voluntarily ceding considerable territory it had captured in Arunachal Pradesh. While it is no doubt true that the Chinese had overstretched their lines of communication and would have found it difficult to sustain themselves on the Himalayan foothills, it is equally true that the spectre of direct American intervention, as well as the threat to China conveyed through America’s contacts in Warsaw, played a decisive role in the Chinese decision to  unilaterally withdraw their forces from Indian territory and eat humble pie.

The Indo-American entente continued unabated. In late November,1962, the US State Department’s Policy Planning Council seriously considered the imposition of ‘a total western embargo against China’ if China chose to resume hostilities against India. American military sales to India surged in the following years, before coming to an abrupt halt during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. According to a Press Trust of India report  published in May, 1963, Kennedy and his senior military aides, including Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara, mulled the idea of using nuclear weapons against China if it launched another attack on India, as part of the American goal to prevent the virulent spread of Communism. In a book entitled ‘Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F  Kennedy’ authored by Edward ‘Ted’ Ladd Widmer (who served as a White House foreign policy speechwriter during William Jefferson ‘Bill’ Clinton’s Presidency) and Caroline Kennedy (Kennedy’s daughter who was just short of her sixth birthday when her father was assassinated), Kennedy declared at a meeting in the Oval Office with his defense aides, including McNamara and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Davenport Taylor, ‘I don’t think there’s any doubt that this country [U.S.] is determined that we couldn’t permit the Chinese to defeat the Indians. If we would, we might as well get out of South Korea and South Vietnam.’ McNamara answered Kennedy by clearly advocating the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese, ‘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…Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers.’

On 16th October, 1964, four months after Nehru’s death, China carried out its maiden nuclear test detonating a 16-kiloton uranium-235 implosion fission device. The United States was alarmed and expressed its keenness that India should follow suit.The nascent seeds of India’s nuclear weapons programme were thus sown by scientific giants like Dr.Homi Jehangir Bhabha with tacit American support. India’s attitude to the then raging conflict in South East Asia (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) also underwent a sea change. India’s criticism of American actions became muffled. India also provided logistical support to the Americans. As far as China was concerned, from 1962 onwards, India was no longer adhering to its avowed ‘non alignment’ policy. But such is the shroud of secrecy that these facts are seldom unraveled openly even though more than 54 long years have gone by.

The American response to India’s critical needs to face and counter the Chinese ‘Blitzkrieg’ was prompt and magnanimous

On 22nd November, 1963,when Kennedy was tragically assassinated in Dallas, Texas, he was genuinely mourned by millions of Indians. Aside from his disarming personal charisma, the immense influence Kennedy wielded in India had much to do with the policies his administration followed vis a vis India, particularly during the days of the Indo-China War when India faced an ordeal of the most grievous kind. In an article published in the Foreign Affairs, New York, seven months before Kennedy’s death, Nehru encapsulated the Nehru- Kennedy Spirit and America’s role in the Indo-China War , ‘Indo American relations have seldom been as close and cordial as they are now. The deep sympathy  and practical support received from the United States in meeting the Chinese aggression has created a wealth of good feeling and apart from that there is much in common between us on essentials. President Kennedy’s vision of a world of free and independent nations, freely co operating so as to bring about a world wide system of inter dependence, is entirely in accord with our own ideas.’

 Anoop Bose,


Supreme Court of India

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4 thoughts on “The Indo-China War Of 1962 And The Role Of The United States Under The Stewardship Of President Kennedy”

  1. ekta says:

    good one

  2. om says:

    nice article

  3. lalit says:

    Thanks for sharing

  4. yash says:

    well written

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