A Forgotten War in the Himalayas

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Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The event will be met with little fanfare in India, where China's surprise invasion still evokes feelings of outrage and betrayal. But the episode may be worth remembering for another reason, as the first occasion when India shed its nonaligned scruples and formed a tactical military alliance with the United States.

For a decade after Indian independence in 1947, New Delhi enjoyed cordial relations with Beijing. In the spirit of Asian comity, the two agreed early on to sideline a border dispute India inherited from the British Raj . But the honeymoon was shortlived: By the late 1950s an ethnic insurgency in Tibet had put Beijing on the defensive. Suspecting Indian involvement, either directly or as an intermediary for the CIA, Beijing abandoned conciliatory language on the territorial dispute. Indian patrolling in disputed areas became more adventurous, and by 1959 a game of brinksmanship at the border devolved into armed clashes.

Three contentious years later, Chinese forces launched a surprise invasion on October 20; the same day the Kennedy administration decided to enact a blockade of Cuba to keep Soviet missiles out of the Western Hemisphere.

Even under the threat of the Cuban missile crisis, Washington found it impossible to remain aloof. Indeed a week before the Chinese invasion, Washington was expediting Indian requests for two Caribou transport planes, spare parts for C-119 aircraft and long-range radios. The US had tasted Mao's revolutionary zeal in the Korean War and was alarmed by China's support for insurgencies across Asia. Only days after Chinese forces crossed the Himalayas, President John Kennedy wrote to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asking "what [America] can do to translate our support into terms that are practically most useful to you as soon as possible."

The constraints of India's nonalignment policy and Washington's special relationship with Pakistan made the US an unlikely ally. But New Delhi's preferred patrons in Moscow could ill afford to alienate China during the Cuban missile crisis, despite the onset of the Sino-Soviet split.

By November 1, US military supplies were arriving in India by air. At New Delhi's behest, the first shipment was modest: military advisors, ammunition, rifles, mortars and airlift support. But by November 14 the two had established the "formal basis for military assistance" and Washington was preparing a $50 million package to equip five Indian divisions.

It would prove too little, too late. India's beleaguered military crumbled under the weight of a second Chinese offensive in mid-November. Desperate, Nehru appealed directly to Kennedy on November 19 for "twelve squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters" and "modern radar cover." He requested the aircraft be "manned by U.S. personnel [to] protect our cities and installations and... to assist the Indian Air Force in air battles with the Chinese air force."

Two days later China abruptly ended the war, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and surprising many by voluntarily ceding considerable gains it had won in the east. China's decision deprived Kennedy of the chance to answer Nehru's call, but the US-India entente would endure: In late November the State Department's Policy Planning Council considered the imposition of "a total western embargo against China" if Beijing chose to resume hostilities. US military sales to India surged in the following years, before coming to an abrupt halt during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war.

Ironically, while US military aid failed to salvage India's defenses, its diplomatic efforts in Pakistan may have proven decisive. There, the US faced the unenviable task of convincing its allies in Islamabad not to capitalize on the Chinese invasion by pressing its own claims to Kashmir.


US officials lobbied Islamabad, unsuccessfully, to call off Pakistan's own border negotiations with Beijing and withdraw troops from the Line of Control in Kashmir. To build trust, they urged Nehru to provide Pakistan with data on Indian troop movements and convinced him to send a friendly letter to Pakistani President Ayub Khan.

But upon learning of US arms shipments to India, Pakistan was indignant, threatening to withdraw from two anti-Soviet alliances, CENTO and SEATO. National Security Council staffer Bob Komer noted, "The Pakistani[s] are going through a genuine emotional crisis as they see their cherished ambitions of using the U.S. as a lever against India going up in the smoke of the Chinese border war."

Washington stood firm. It rejected the idea of "balancing" support to India with increased arms to Pakistan and deflected demands to force India into immediate negotiations over Kashmir. Bearing an eerie relevance to contemporary US-Pakistan relations, Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote to the embassy in India, "The esteem and friendship of the American people for Pakistan would melt away if Pakistan elects to draw close to those who are sworn enemies of freedom."

In the end, the US helped forestall any Pakistani adventurism by promising to draw India into deliberations over Kashmir after the resolution of the border war. Foreseeably, the negotiations proved futile.

Finally, we turn to America's most enduring imprint on the border war. Belying a lack of interest and expertise on the subject, in 1959 Secretary of State Christian Herter publicly insisted the US took no official position on the Sino-Indian territorial dispute. But at the war's outset, America's ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, grew determined to back India's claims in the "eastern sector," along the British-drawn McMahon Line.

A close confidant of the president, Galbraith wrote to Kennedy requesting his "frank protection" on this "major political decision." His concerns were not misplaced: The State Department initially rejected his proposal, requesting further time to examine the border dispute. "The McMahon line... is indeed sanctioned by all recent usage," Galbraith vented in another letter to Kennedy. "What a hell of a time to have to start a study."

Days later the ambassador got his wish. With "slightly reluctant permission" from the White House, Galbraith announced on October 27: "The McMahon Line is the accepted international border and is sanctioned by modern usage. Accordingly we regard it as the northern border of the [North East Frontier Agency] region." Fifty years later, Galbraith's basic formulation remains official US policy.

The US position on Aksai Chin, the "western sector" of the Sino-Indian border dispute, is noncommittal by comparison. At the time, Galbraith "resolved to maintain silence on the west," concluding: "The fact that the Indians had not discovered a Chinese road [in Aksai Chin] for two years seemed to suggest a tenuous claim." Today, the US considers Aksai Chin a disputed area "administered by China but claimed by India."

Three observations bear relevance to contemporary Indo-US relations.

First, as the US seeks to build on its new strategic partnership with India, one of its greatest challenges has been overcoming lingering doubts about its reliability as an ally. It need not shy away from its record of defending India in its darkest hour.

Second, the US has a longstanding position on the Sino-Indian border conflict that has assumed some ambiguity of late. A State Department spokesman confirmed there's been no public affirmation of the McMahon line in the past decade. If tensions over the border again flare, as they did in 2009, Washington may have to reconsider its studied silence on the issue.

Finally, New Delhi and Beijing are unclear about where America would stand in the event of any future Sino-Indian hostilities. So, it seems, are many in Washington. A precedent was set in 1962, even if it's been largely forgotten.

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