When Kennedy Stared Down Mao

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On Oct. 20, 1962, Communist Chinese troops attacked India at opposite ends of their disputed 2,200-mile border in the Himalayas. They plunged deep into Indian territory in Kashmir to the west and to the east in what is now the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The war lasted just one month before Mao Zedong, puzzlingly, ordered a withdrawal.

In Washington, the Kennedy administration was already preoccupied with intelligence that revealed Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. The resolution of that crisis is well known; the Soviets withdrew the missiles. Much less attention has been given to the president’s actions during the month-long Sino-Indian War.

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, addresses that deficit with “ JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War,” a readable and timely account of the conflict from which, he believes, “the contours of modern Asian grand politics” emerged.

Even before the fighting broke out, Kennedy had viewed Sino-Indian relations as being of exceptional importance. It was, he told an audience in 1959, “a struggle for leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better.” When Mao attacked, Kennedy responded accordingly—sending arms to India, declining to pressure Delhi over Kashmir, and expanding a covert CIA program supporting the Tibetan rebels who were fighting the Chinese occupation.

Mr. Riedel narrates all this engagingly, using diplomatic sources, accounts of the Tibetan covert program and vignettes from the Kennedy administration, including the July 1961 state dinner for Pakistan’s leader, Gen. Ayub Khan, at Mount Vernon and the competing attempt to entertain India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in Newport, R.I., in November. Mr. Riedel shows the great public-relations success of Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of India and Pakistan in March 1962. Ayub Khan made her a gift of Sardar, the horse that would march riderless in Kennedy’s funeral procession.

The greatest value in “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis” is the compelling answers it provides to the war’s two lingering questions: Why did Mao attack? And why did he then declare a cease-fire and withdraw when he could have dealt an even more severe blow to India?

Mr. Riedel dismisses arguments that India provoked the conflict. Even accounting for Nehru’s disastrous “forward policy,” which had sent ill-equipped and vastly outnumbered Indian troops to set up bases in the disputed areas, Mr. Riedel blames the Chinese. Mao saw Indian designs on Tibet and imagined Delhi was in collusion with the CIA program supporting the Tibetan rebels—there had been a failed uprising in March 1959, and guerrilla warfare continued into 1962. In fact, Nehru had acquiesced to the 1950 Chinese invasion of Tibet in the belief that he could forge an anti-imperialist solidarity with China. It was Mao’s attack, Mr. Riedel writes, that “created the partnership he had feared, bringing India closer to the United States than anyone would have thought possible before October 1962.”

For Mr. Riedel, the key is Mao’s “deep frustration that Tibet would not accept, quietly and submissively, Chinese communist rule.” Here he puts his finger on an interesting question about the Kennedy administration and the aftermath of the 1962 war. What would the president have done in regard to Tibet had he lived longer? He had provided covert support for the Tibetan resistance and overtly expressed considerable sympathy for the country’s right to self-determination. Given his staunch support for India and the role of Tibet in India’s security, he might have laid the foundations for a national policy focused on restoring Tibet’s independence and giving political support to the Dalai Lama and the government in exile.

As for why Mao stopped the war when he could have punished India even more, Mr. Riedel argues that the principal reason was Kennedy’s prompt action. Although poised to seize strategic territory, Mao saw that “the United States was on India’s side“ and “realized that such blatant aggression would have forced Kennedy’s hand.” Had Mao not withdrawn, Mr. Riedel says, Kennedy would have approved Nehru’s desperate request for American planes and pilots to help defend Indian territory, an extraordinary step from the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nehru himself said that the speed of the American response had played a major role in the Chinese decision. Mao had, nonetheless, achieved some useful objectives, including humiliating India. He would rather richly present the withdrawal as a show of “restraint” when pressing for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and Zhou Enlai used it effectively while negotiating the opening between the U.S. and China with Henry Kissinger in 1971.

Kennedy’s vision for a new strategic relationship with India did not outlive him. According to Mr. Riedel, a White House meeting to approve a major arms deal was scheduled for a few days after the trip to Texas when Kennedy was assassinated. The Johnson administration fell back into the familiar pattern of deference to Pakistan, and India turned toward the Soviet Union.

This oft-overlooked episode is of growing contemporary interest as well. China claims a large area of northeast India as “Southern Tibet.” Incursions into India by troops of the People’s Liberation Army have dramatically increased over the past few years. The Sino-Indian border remains one of Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints. President Obama is charting a new strategic partnership with Delhi. Would he back India in another border war? And will he, or the next U.S. president, ever address the strategic importance of Tibet?

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