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.