JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Sino-India 1962

Why did I read this book?

Etymology reveals that – Strategy – a ubiquitous term in today’s world, derives its meaning from the Greek word ‘stratēgia’ meaning war or generalship. The foundation of business strategy in the 21st century lies in the art of war practiced thousands of centuries ago. As part of a course called ‘Strategic Leadership’ in our MBA curriculum at IIM Calcutta, we spent a couple of sessions analyzing military strategy and global wars. The case in point here was: Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Captured brilliantly in the movie – The Missiles of October – it is an exemplary case of JFK’s style of leadership on handling an event that could have marked the outbreak of the third World War. The movie traces out the 13-day period of discussions in the US EXCOMM and diplomatic moves by both countries against the backdrop of mounting external pressure due to recent failures (Read: Bay of Pigs and 1960 U20 Incident)

While history acknowledges the remarkable leadership demonstrated by JKF in handling the Soviet missiles, forgotten in another part of the world, happening in parallel was the 1962 Indo-China War.  The border conflict in the Aksai Region of Ladakh (Present day Kashmir) and McMohan Line (Erstwhile Arunachal Pradesh) threatened to escalate and create a global crisis, until when the US government intervened in its own brilliant way.

How did the US government, JFK to be precise, silently handle the second crisis in the East when simultaneously faced with USSR? How did he manage to protect India, in the heydays of US-Pakistan alliances, and despite the openly-acknowledged communist bent of Nehru India?

This much under-appreciated aspect of his tenure in office is captured beautifully by Bruce Riedel in this book. (It was typically recommended by the professor as an additional reading for class discussion)

The Plot Summary

I have provided some context in the above section already. Furthermore, the book covers ground on the five major countries and their inter-country dynamics during 1950s and 1960s: US, India, China, Pakistan and Tibet. The role of stakeholders: governments, leaders (Ike Eisenhower, JFK, Ayub Khan, Mao Zedong, Jawaharlal Nehru), intelligence agencies (CIA, ISI), ambassadors (Ken Galbraith) and their interconnected links to decision-making that shaped the future of the world.

It may appear that the book reads like a historical documentary, but surprisingly it does not. Riedel provides context or reasoning (in some cases speculations) for every event that had occurred back then.

If anything, it reads like sequential moves of chess.

What are my views on the book?

It’s a brilliant book! Especially for novices (like me!) to historical accounts of global wars and diplomatic policymaking.

It is difficult to narrow down and sketch the myriad topics Riedel has touched upon: Foreign policies, covert operations, China Korean War, Mao’s military strategies, US Foreign policy, Indian and Pakistani leadership and the list goes on and on. Not to mention that he does a fantastic job in connecting all the dots and taking us down the history lane. For example, I did not know a bunch of things as factually, as accurately as he places them:

  • How Kennedy had little choice but to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, rolled out by his predecessor Eisenhower, and then accept responsibility for the military debacle in his initial days in office (The event served as a subsequent trigger for Cuban missile crisis)
  • How US served as a crucial link to ward off Pakistan attack on the Kashmir border during Sino-India war of 1962 despite US having followed Pro-Pakistan policy for nearly a decade before JFK
  • How India was labelled as an aggressor in 1962 for her Forward policy whereas, in ground reality, it was Peiping’s (Beijing formerly) deliberate military strategy involving invasion of Tibet, construction of war infrastructure along the border (camps etc.) that spanned 7 years.
  • How a CIA covert operation (to spy on PRC/ USSR military zones via U20 aircrafts, dropping of arms for Tibetan rebels) through the Peshawar and Dhaka base, costed them so dearly that it paralysed all policy-making in favour of Pakistan. Ayub Khan threatened to discontinue the covert mission unless anti-India policies were adopted. “A lot of the concerns and decisions by the us govt. happen due to the fear of losing Peshawar base” ~ recalls Galbraith


Nehru and JFK Pics
Meeting between Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and US President John F Kennedy – Washington, USA, November 1961

But this is merely uncovering the facts and placing them in order, which might already be known to an informed reader. But Riedel goes beyond narrating just the sequence of events, providing the underlying connections in events, similarities that add a second layer to his analysis. Let me give you some examples:

  • There is an emotional appeal of American values of freedom, anti-colonialism and independence in JFK’s speech in the Senate on foreign policy in Algeria in 1959, similar to Bobby Kennedy’s lobbying in the ExComm to achieve consensus on imposing the blockade in Cuba. (Both of these were decisive points in their life; the charismatic siblings used similar persuasive styles)
  • The stark differences in Kennedy’s affluent family background and Harvard connection in his cabinet versus Khrushchev’s peasant upbringing which shaped their approaches to decision making and diplomacy are hinted to at length.

And if this was not enough to already impress you, there is an extra angle: As a student, I am amused with the subtle references to war literature which brings an academic touch to the text. There are active references which relate back to Napoleon Bonaparte and his war strategies:

  • Mao’s paranoia in his last days’ bears resemblance to Napoleon in his Waterloo struggle: of isolating himself from actual on-ground advice, alienating his Generals and gambling away the lives of million soldiers. Mao’s musings later define how the Korean War was a price too high just like Napolean’s pyrrhic victory in Borodino (1812)
  • The use of time and place of battle as a strategic tool in war, when China declared ceasefire in November 1962, at the height of the war. Galbraith assumed that “There would be renewal of war at an occasion and time chosen by China”, anticipating Mao to follow Clausewitz idea of decisive points. (They had used a similar strategy just a decade earlier in the Korean war)
  • The Guns of August’ moment in his book where JFK urges the EXCOMM and Harold McMillan (much is written about his friendship with the British Prime Minister) to follow diplomatic policies and not let war dictate his opinion
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with PM Nehru and Indira Gandhi on her solo trip to India

There is more content to rattle you: Riedel’s book has the correct ‘what if’ scenarios spread evenly throughout. He speculates, how the course of world history would be altered, if certain events were changed. A direct book excerpt :

  • “If China had not declared a unilateral ceasefire in 1962, Riedel insists, Kennedy would have almost certainly responded positively to Nehru’s desperate request for a huge influx of military assistance” Would this have reversed the India Arms Deal in 1965 that Lal Bahadur Shastri signed with the Soviets?
  • If JFK had not died prematurely in 1963, the US could have solidified a long-term partnership with India that would have changed the trajectory of Asia?

Closing thoughts: China assumed India was aiding US to run covert spying operations in Tibet (which US did using Pakistan over Russia). Fearing US-India affinity, China prompted the 1962 attack. Ironically, the attack was what forged the JKF-Nehru-Galbraith ties.

Was it all due to a misconception?

Bottomline: Brilliant doesn’t quite cover it. It opens a whole new world of things you’d like to read 


Name: JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War

AuthorBruce Riedel (Published in 2015)

Genre: Non-fiction, War, Foreign Policy

What are some of the best lines from the book?

As a drift away from normal, I’ll write Why is this relevant even today :

2017 –  The border conflict between India and China in the Doklam region has been ongoing for more than 50 days and has escalated as both parties have increased security. It has been highlighted by world media all over bringing in light on India-China border disputes.

2015 – Modi allocated $ 46 BN for constructing a road network in Arunachal Pradesh (former MacMohan Line) signaling China about India’s preparedness for war. In 2014, China denied India to open a consulate in Tibet

2005-2015 – The geostrategic importance of Pakistan for China is shown by how their regular investments in infrastructure projects around the border. China had kick-started their nuclear operations in the hope of pitting it against India as recent as the 2000s

2017 – On another plane, Trump seemed to have confirmed a CIA covert operations arming Syrian rebels, funding and training them, bearing an eerie similarity to arming Tibetan rebels against PRC in 1958




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