How Kennedy supported India against China in 1962 war

Bruce Riedel
Bruce RiedelJan 17, 2016 | 11:50

How Kennedy supported India against China in 1962 war

On October 28, on the same day that the Cuban missile crisis began to abate as Nikita Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of Soviet missiles, John F Kennedy wrote a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru assuring him that the United States fully backed India against the Chinese attack. The letter promised both moral and tangible support if India sought help.

The next day Nehru summoned United States ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, to a meeting where the Indian leader congratulated Kennedy and Khrushchev for finding a peaceful settlement and then told him that India "indeed had to have aid and it would have to come from the United States." Nehru also told Galbraith that the Soviets would not be supplying the MIG-21s as promised, signalling that the USSR was siding with Mao.


Asking for American arms was a humiliating moment for the prime minister who had prided himself on Indian in dependence and neutrality. He knew he needed JFK's help, but did not want to be seen to be abandoning his principles. Nehru especially did not want to join a military alliance such as SEATO, but he desperately needed arms.

Galbraith assured him that Kennedy would not impose the condition of joining any military alliance. Menon, who was also at the meeting with Nehru and Galbraith, provided the details on exactly what weapons India wanted. Galbraith told the British and Canadian ambassadors in New Delhi that India had requested military aid and that Kennedy had agreed to provide it; they both asked their respective governments in London and Ottawa to join the effort.

Nehru's request

The United States and the United Kingdom responded very quickly to Nehru's request for armaments. US Air Force (USAF) Boeing 707 aircraft, flying from bases in Europe and Thailand, began airlifting weapons and ammunition to India; by November 2, eight flights a day were each bringing in 20 tonnes of supplies to Calcutta.

USAF C-130s then transported the arms from Calcutta to airfields near the front line. Basic infantry equipment was thus flowing rapidly to help the Indian Army, and the press was reporting on the US airlift. The Royal Air Force (RAF) also soon began airlifting supplies to India, and London was consulting with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada on providing aid from the British Commonwealth.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis; HarperCollins; Rs 699.

In the end of October, there was a three-week lull in Chinese military operations that gave the Indian military a chance to regroup and regain their self-confidence. By this time the Indians had built a new defensive line south of the Thag La ridge at a pass in the mountains named Se La. At an altitude of 14,600 ft, the pass would provide a strong position from which to stop further People Liberation Army advances if the Chinese resumed their offensive. Yet, by retreating to Se La the Indians abandoned the town of Tawang, an important Buddhist centre. To make matters worse, the Chinese found it easy to outflank the position at Se La, which India still found difficult to supply.

Nehru asked Intelligence Bureau director BN Mullik for an updated assessment of Chinese military strength and battle plans. Mullik reported large-scale Chinese troop movements from Xinjiang and other parts of China to Tibet to reinforce their offensive manoeuvers along the McMahon Line and in Aksai Chin. The 11 PLA divisions at the start of the crisis had been reinforced by at least an additional three divisions. The Indians had roughly half as many divisions deployed along the entire border from Kashmir to NEFA; several were guarding the Bhutan-Sikkim front where the narrow Indian connections between NEFA and mainland India were so vulnerable.


The estimate also warned that China had overall superiority in the air and could defeat the Indian Air Force. The only way to reinforce the Himalayan battlefield was to draw down troops facing Pakistan, "which would expose Punjab and Kashmir to great danger," Mullik warned Nehru.

Pakistan angle

During the lull in fighting, Kennedy also asked for an intelligence estimate from McCone. The special national intelligence estimate (SNIE), which was delivered to the Oval Office on November 9, 1962, concluded that the "Sino-Indian quarrel has become a serious military struggle which is already causing a change in India's foreign and domestic attitudes favourable to the West." The SNIE also reported that "Pakistan's reaction to the West's support of India has been a bitter one."

A Pakistani attack in Kashmir in the fall of 1962 would have stretched India's military to the breaking point. Three years later, in 1965, Ayub Khan did attack India. In a plan, code-named Operation Gibraltar, Pakistani commandos infiltrated into Kashmir to provoke a popular uprising; then Pakistan launched Operation Grand Slam to deliver a decisive armoured attack severing Kashmir from India.

Both operations, especially Grand Slam, failed primarily because of the improved weapons and equipment India had acquired from the United States after the 1962 war.

Reprinted from publisher's permission.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: November 22, 2016 | 11:31
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