“JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA & The Sino-Indian War” by Bruce Riedel

Historians, writers and the American people, at large, have given more attention to the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban crisis during John F. Kennedy’s presidency than the happenings in  South East Asia, especially the Sino-Indian War of 1962. This was only to be expected as the Cuban crisis saw the two global super powers, the United States and the then USSR virtually on the brink of a nuclear war. However, as Bruce Riedel writes in his book, events in far away South Asia nearly dragged the US into another conflict, this time between the two most populous countries in the World, China and India. Riedel has therefore very aptly named his book, ” JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA  & The Sino-Indian War.” This will soon be published by the Brookings Institution Press.

Mr. Riedel has an impressive background with over three decades in the CIA and later as senior advisor to the last four Presidents on South Asia and the Middle East.

The book starts with a quick update on the stand the United States took towards India, Pakistan and China starting from the post-Second World War and then the Eisenhower years. Pakistan was clearly the favourite while India, under Prime Minister Nehru, was suspected of being a possible candidate to join the growing list of communist countries in South East Asia which were opposed to the capitalism so dear to the US.  When JFK took over the Presidency he inherited several CIA initiatives including one aimed to destabilize Tibet which by then was firmly in Chinese hands. The US took the support of Pakistan who provided airfields in the then East Pakistan for clandestine CIA flights. In return the US provided huge amounts of military aid to Pakistan with the expectation that this would be used not against India but against China.

In the meanwhile, Nehru clearly misread Chinese intentions and assumed that they would not attack India despite claims on disputed land. For his part, the Chinese supremo Mao Zedong wanted to teach India and more particularly Nehru a lesson he wouldn’t forget. The battles that followed were one-sided. The Chinese troops who were far better equipped and led by officers who had fought in Korea succeeded way beyond their initial expectations. Apart from a few isolated examples, the poorly equipped Indian Army caved in and buckled under the fierce onslaught. Nehru did not have any strong military leader to question his directives and a weak military leadership lamely accepted challenges that were impossible for anyone to achieve given their circumstances.

As the battles raged, Nehru wrote frantically to Kennedy pressing him to send US Air Force planes and pilots to support the Indian Air Force. Strangely, while he asked for US Air Force help, the Indian Air Force, for reasons best known to Nehru and his intimate advisers, was hardly used in the conflicts that raged in the Himalayan mountain passes.

The United States and the United Kingdom promised aid to the beleaguered Indians and sent a certain amount of arms and ammunition to the Indian forces. However, before the conflict became worse, China unilaterally called for a cease-fire and the short and sharp war ended leaving the Indian Army totally bruised and Prime Minister Nehru’s image considerably battered. He had earlier thought of himself as being a world leader with much influence but after the Sino-Indian War he was never the same again and passed away in 1964.

Riedel then traces events till the present, right up to 2014 to show how the long forgotten War of 1962 still has its effects on the political climate in South Asia. Very significant changes have taken place over the decades in all the three countries, China, India, and Pakistan but each in their own way have learnt lessons from that bitter mountain war in 1962.

This has to be a must read for those interested in the history of South Asia as well as those who follow John F Kennedy’s triumphs and failures. All through the book, we hear much from what a key player in the crisis had to say and write. This was John Kenneth Galbraith, US Ambassador to India, who Kennedy relied greatly upon and who granted him an unusual amount of direct access.

I am grateful to NetGalley  and the Brookings Institution Press for the opportunity to read and review this book.


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