JFK’s Forgotten Crisis

Title:                      JFK’s forgotten Crisis

Author:                  Bruce Riedel

Riedel, Bruce O. (2015). JFK’s forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and Sino-Indian War. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press

LCCN:             2015019160

E183.8.I4 R54 2015


  • Prologue: At Mount Vernon — Introduction — Ike and India, 1950-60 — Galbraith and India, 1961 — Jackie and India, 1962 — Jack, India, and war — From JFK to today — Chronology.


Date Updated:  April 6, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

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 US missiles from Turkey, ended the frightening crisis.

But 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.

But things went poorly for the Indians. An alarmed Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent an urgent letter to Kennedy asking for twelve 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. And 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—twelve fighter squadrons with twenty-four 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 that “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. 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 thirty years with 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 Institute. 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 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 US 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, CIA concluded that the “anti-American aspect of Peiping’s foreign policy is deeply grounded,” and that further challenges to US 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 Riedel observes, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung [Mao Zedong] “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 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 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 some-time 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.

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

In October 1962, President Kennedy dealt with two crises affecting the national security of the United States. One involved Soviet missiles in Cuba and has been long remembered. The other concerned the Chinese invasion of India and prompts a Wikipedia moment, if mentioned at all. In JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel explains how the Sino-Indian War originated, why the United States was involved, how the crisis was resolved, and its lasting impact.

The origins of the war, writes Riedel, were in longstanding Chinese-India border disputes and claims that Tibet was a Chinese province, not an independent state. Each time China proposed a compromise settlement, it was rejected by the Nehru government, which gave sanctuary to the Dalai Lama.

US involvement was initially peripheral. Its primary interest in the area was its agreement with Pakistan that allowed use of two of its air bases to support CIA clandestine U-2 missions over the Soviet Union, China, and Tibet. Soviet operations from the Peshawar base ended after the U-2 flown by Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union on 1 May 1960. U-2 coverage over China continued, however, as did CIA flights in support of the “rebellion in Communist China’s Tibet province.” (p. xii) But in 1961, when President Kennedy indicated he would honor India’s request for a billion-dollar economic aid package, Pakistani president, Gen. Ayub Khan, suspended the program as a signal that a “tilt toward India at Pakistan’s expense would have its costs.” (p. xiii)

In July 1961, General Khan visited Washington, and President Kennedy hosted a state dinner in his honor at Mount Vernon (the only state dinner ever held at George Washington’s home). (p. ix) At the suggestion of Allen Dulles, President Kennedy used the occasion to request that Khan allow the “missions over Tibet to resume.” Khan agreed, but only after Kennedy promised that “if China attacked India, he would not sell arms to India without first consulting Pakistan.” But when China invaded India in October 1962, Kennedy ignored his promise, and sent India “critical aid including arms without consulting Khan” (p. xiii) since the Chinese invasion risked crippling India and raised the possibility that the United States would have “to start bombing Chinese forces.” (p. 1) Thus Kennedy was faced with the dilemma of helping India, maintaining Pakistan’s support of the CIA’s covert program, and preventing Pakistan from tilting toward China.

Kennedy employed multiple approaches in dealing successfully with these problems. Riedel tells how he employed the undisciplined John Kenneth Galbraith, his effective ambassador to India, who frequently bypassed the greatly irritated State Department while communicating directly with the president as he made decisions on his own. Jacqueline Kennedy also played a soothing role by establishing a positive relationship with Nehru and Khan and visiting both when tensions were high. A key point in the war occurred when Nehru requested in writing that the United States “join the war against China by partnering in an air war to defeat the PLA.” (p. 136) Curiously, Indian historians later denied such a letter existed, but Riedel found a copy, and he explains how Kennedy and Galbraith attempted to deal with the matter. In the end, the Chinese decided the issue by abruptly declaring a unilateral cease fire on 21 November 1962.

The aftermath of the crisis “saw a dramatic improvement in American relations with India, both politically and militarily,” (p. 160) but the situation changed rapidly after Kennedy’s death. President Johnson was not inclined to view India as a key South Asian partner. Riedel summarizes the geopolitical consequences of that position that persist to this day. He also includes a useful section on the “lessons learned about presidents and their relationship to the Intelligence Community,” that emphasizes the links between covert action and policy goals. (pp. 176ff)

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis does more than comment on some little-known aspects of the Kennedy administration, although Riedel does include some of the Camelot charm. Viewed broadly, it establishes the foundation for courses of action and political relationships that exist in India, China, and Pakistan to this day in a vital region of the world.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 105-106). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp. 130-131 ).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at  www.cia.gov.


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