While much of the world was focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis, half-way around the world two countries, with a combined total of a billion people–or about a third of the world’s population–were at war.1
India and China had been arguing about two sections of shared border for years. The disputed borders combined for a total of about 2,000 miles. In the west, the Chinese claimed territory in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir and Western Tibet. In the East, a line drawn by the British in 1914 established a border with Tibet as a buffer state. Named after the Foreign Secretary for the British colonial government of India and the chief architect of the border, Sir Henry McMahon, it had been disputed since its creation and especially after India won its independence.
Because of the sensitivity of these letters, the Indian Government kept them classified until very recently. They weren’t available for the Foreign Relations of the United States volume [here and here].The years since had been punctuated a number of diplomatic and occasionally military disputes along the border. Various incarnations of a buffer region in the disputed territory adjacent to the northeast part of Assam were established after India’s independence, eventually becoming known as the North-East Frontier Agency, or NEFA. During the summer of 1962, the skirmishes were getting hotter.2
On October 20, 1962, China launched a massive offensive at several points along the NEFA border and to the west in the Ladakh area of north-east Kashmir. The offensive caught the Indian government by surprise. Caught flat-footed, the Indian military forces suffered a series of local defeats and were driven back from their forward positions.3
India was reeling. It had become obvious that they had no answer to China’s offensive. As the U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, put it, the Indian government “is currently in disarray.” From the Indian perspective, it was a war going badly.4
The Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had written to Kennedy several times before.
But on November 19, 1962, he sent two letters, one shortly after the other, that went far beyond previous requests for help.
Asking for help was not something that was easy for Nehru to do. For one thing, India was a leader of the non-aligned movement. As such, it had assiduously avoided getting drawn overtly into either the Western or Soviet orbit of the Cold War. For another, there was the matter of personal pride. As the U.S. Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, told Kennedy:
All his life he has sought to avoid being dependent upon the United States and the United Kingdom—most of his personal reluctance to ask (or thank) for aid has been based on this pride. He did not like it because it advertised what hurt his pride. Now nothing is so important to him, more personally than politically, than to maintain the semblance of this independence.5
Bolstering Indian military capabilities also risked provoking Pakistan; the long-running dispute between Pakistan and India could all-too-easily become explosive, especially if the United States provided significant military aid to India. The State Department described the Pakistanis as being in a “near hysterical state.”6
Nehru’s First Letter to JFK on November 19
Nehru wrote to Kennedy to update him on the situation. The letter was hand-delivered to the President at 4 P.M. by Braj Kumar Nehru, the Indian Ambassador to the United States and a nephew of Prime Minister Nehru.7
New Delhi, 19th November 1962
Dear Mr. President,
It is now a month since the Chinese massive attack on India started on 20th October. I think I must write to you again to acquaint you with further developments that have occurred since my letter of 29th October. Before I deal with these further developments I would like to say that we are extremely grateful to you and the Government and people of the United States of America for the practical support given to us. We particularly appreciate the speed with which the urgently needed small arms and ammunition were rushed to India.
There was a deceptive lull after the first Chinese offensive during which the Chinese mounted a serious propaganda offensive in the name of peace to get us to accept their so-called three point proposals which, shorn of their wrappings, actually constituted a demand for surrender on their terms. The Chinese tried, despite our rejection of these proposals to get various Afro-Asian countries to intercede with varying offers of mediation.
After my clear and categorical statement in Parliament on 14th November rejecting the three point proposal of Chou En-Lai, the Chinese who had made full preparations to put further military pressure on us restarted their military offensive. I am asking our Ambassador to give you a copy of a statement on the developments in the military situation during the last few days which I made in the Parliament this morning. Bomdila which was the Headquarters of our North East Frontier Agency Command, has been surrounded and the equivalent of two divisions engaged in the operations in the N.E.F.A. area are fighting difficult rearguard actions. It is not quite certain how many of them will be able to extricate themselves and Join the Corps Headquarters at Tezpur further south.
The Chinese are by and large in possession of the greater portion of the North East Frontier Agency and are poised to overrun Chushul in Ladakh. There is nothing to stop them after Chushul till they reach Leh, the Headquarters of the Ladakh province of Kashmir.
Events have moved very fast and we are facing a grim situation in our struggle for survival and in defending all that India stands for against an unscrupulous and powerful aggressor.
Our Defence experts have been discussing our detailed requirements with the technical experts in your Embassy here and have given them a full picture of the magnitude of the operations and the need for air transport and jet fighters. These are absolutely necessary to stem the Chinese tide of aggression. A lot more effort, both from us and from our friends, will be required to roll back this aggressive tide.I hope we will continue to have the support and assistance of your great country in the gigantic efforts that have to be made and sustained to deal with the unscrupulous and powerful enemy we are facing.
I am also writing to Prime Minister MacMillan to keep him informed of these developments.
With kind regards,
Nehru’s Second Letter to JFK on November 19
But after he sent that message, new information came in. The situation was dire. Nehru went before the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India’s parliament) to update them of the situation.8
I have to give grievous news to this House. Both Walong and Sela Ridge in N.E.F.A. have fallen to the enemy. In the Chushul area, fighting is proceeding.
In Walong, the enemy attacked on 15th/16th night. This was a two-pronged attack. The battle continued till the 17th. The enemy succeeded in shelling the air-field which was the only source of supply to our forces. On the 17th afternoon, our troops started withdrawing to defensive positions in the rear.
In the Jang area, the enemy attacked our positions on November 17. Their attack was repulsed four times. Ultimately, they attacked in greater strength and this Jang position had to be given up and our troops fell back to the main position at Sela. In the meantime, the enemy bypassed our main post by outflanking movement between Sela and Bomdila. They attacked in the early hours of 18th November and cut the road between Sela and Bomdila. The infiltrators were forced to withdraw; they formed up again and renewed the attack. The situation is somewhat confused and fighting is going on. But our command had to withdraw from Sela.
In the Chushul sector in Ladakh, heavy artillery attacks were made on Chushul air-field; and one post was attacked on the morning of November 18 and after fierce fighting, this post was overwhelmed. Part of another post, six miles east of Chushul, was also attacked. Other attacks in Chushul area were repulsed. Fighting is still going on.
This is bad news. I cannot go into further details at this stage. I should like to add that in spite of reverses suffered by us, we are determined not to give in any way and we shall fight the enemy however long it may take to repel him and drive him out of our country.
Galbraith gave Kennedy advance warning that Nehru was working on a new letter. It arrived in Washington around 10 P.M. It went far beyond his previous appeals for help. Contrary to the confidence and assurance Nehru struggled to project publicly, in the second letter to Kennedy, Nehru dispensed with any pretense that India had the situation in hand.7
New Delhi, 19th November 1962
Dear Mr. President,
Within a few hours of despatching my earlier message of today, the situation in the N.E.F.A. Command has deteriorated still further. Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped between the Sala Ridge and Bomdila. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oil fields in Assam. With the advance of the Chinese in massive strength, the entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.
The Chinese have poised massive forces in the Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan and another invasion from that direction appears imminent. Our areas further North Wont on the border with Tibet in the States of U.P., Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are also threatened. In Ladakh, as I have said in my earlier communication, Chushul is under heavy attack and shelling of the airfield at Chushul has already commenced. We have also noticed increasing air activity by the Chinese air force in Tibet.
Hitherto we have restricted our requests for assistance to essential equipment and we are most grateful for the assistance which has been so readily given to us. We did not oak for more comprehensive assistance particularly air assistance because of the wider implications of such assistance in the global context and we did not want to embarrass our friends.
The situation that has developed is, however, really desperate. We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country.
We have repeatedly felt the need of using air arm in support of our land forces, but have been unable to do as in the present state of our air and radar equipment we have no defence age fret retaliatory action by the Chinese.
I, therefore, request that immediately support be given to strengthen our air arm sufficiently to stem the tide of Chinese advance.
I am advised that for providing adequate air defence a minimum of 12 squadrons or supersonic all weather fighters are essential. We have no modern radar cover in the country. For this also we seek your assistance. Our needs are most immediate. The United States Air Force personnel will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained. U.S. fighters and transport planes manned by U.S. personnel will be used for the present to protect our cities and installations from Chinese air attacks and to maintain our communications. We should if this is possible also like U.S. planes manned by U.S. personnel to assist the Indian Air Force in air battles with the Chinese air force over Indian areas where air action by the I.A.F. against Chinese communication lines supplies and troop concentration may lead to counter air action by the Chinese.
Any air action to be taken against the Chinese beyond the limits of our country, e.g, Tibet, will be taken by I.A.F. planes manned by Indian personnel.
Determined as we are to liberate all parts of our territory which may pass into the hands of the Chinese aggressors it is clear that sooner or later we would have to neutralise their bases and airfields by striking from the air. For this purpose I request you to consider assisting us with two Squadrons of Bombers of B-47 type. To man this indispensible arm we would like to send immediately our Pilots and Technicians for training in the United States.
The Chinese threat as it has developed involves not merely the survival of India, but the survival of free and independent Governments in the whole of this sub—Continent or in Asia. The domestic quarrels regarding small areas or territorial borders between the countries in this sub-Continent or in Asia have no relevance whatever in the context of the developing Chinese invasion. I would emphasize particularly that all the assistance or equipment given to us to meet our dire need will be used entirely for resistance against the Chinese. I have made this clear in a letter I sent to President Ayub Khan of Pakistan. I am asking our Ambassador to give you a copy of this letter.
We are confident that your great country will in this hour of our trial help us in our fight for survival and for the survival of freedom and independence in this sub-Continent as well as the rest of Asia. We on our part are determined to spare no effort until the threat posed by Chinese expansionist and aggressive militarism to freedom and independence is completely eliminated.
With kind regards,
For Kennedy, the decision was not whether to help, but how. Nehru’s new appeal far exceeded the scope of previous requests. In particular, the prospect of American pilots joining a war with China was not something that many in Washington seriously entertained. And many were skeptical that the Indians were positioned to make good use of any aid the American sent.
Kennedy met with his advisers on November 19 to try to devise a response. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who had served in the region during World War II, pushed for immediately sending C-130 transport planes to help the Indians with their supply lines. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was sharply critical of the nature of the Indian requests and argued that sending help was futile until they had a better sense of what kind of help would be useful. That led to the sending of a fact-finding team led by veteran diplomat Averell Harriman.
If you’re looking to explore the Sino-Indian War more deeply, here are some recommendations:
- Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975)
- Andrew Bingham Kennedy, The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
- Steven A. Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)
- China’s population in was about 673 million. India’s was about 440 million. ↩
- Allen S. Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence: India and Indochina, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975), pp. 77-106. ↩
- Steven A. Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 163-65; Andrew Bingham Kennedy, The International Ambitions of Mao and Nehru: National Efficacy Beliefs and the Making of Foreign Policy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 233-36. ↩
- “A Chronology of the Sino-Indian Border Dispute (through November 18), undated, “Countries: India: Sino-Indian Border Clash, 1962, Chronology” folder, Box 1, Roger Hilsman Papers, John F. Kennedy Library; Hoffmann, India and the China Crisis, p. 175; “The War That Shook the Giant,” LIFE, 16 November 1962; Telegram, Kenneth Galbraith to President Kennedy,” undated, in John Kenneth Galbraith, Letters to Kennedy, edited by James Goodman, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 114; “Letter From the Ambassador to India (Galbraith) to President Kennedy, 13 November 1962, in FRUS, 1961-63, 19: doc. 196. ↩
- “Letter From the Ambassador to India (Galbraith) to President Kennedy, 13 November 1962, in FRUS, 1961-63, 19: doc. 196. ↩
- “Telegram From the Embassy in India to the Department of State,” 1 November 1962, in FRUS, 1961-63, 19: doc. 189; Report, State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, “The Five-Fold Dilemma: The Implications of the Sino-Indian Conflict,” 17 November 1962, in “India, ‘Implications of the Sino-Indian Conflict'” folder, Box 108, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library; “Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Pakistan,” 18 November 1962, in FRUS, 1961-63, 19: doc. 201; “Letter From the Pakistani Ambassador (Ahmed) to President Kennedy,” 4 November 1961, in FRUS, 1961-63, 19: doc. 57; Prime Minister Nehru to President Ayub Khan, 12 November 1963, in “Countries: India, Nehru correspondence, November 1962: 11-19” folder, Box 111, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library. ↩
- Prime Minister Nehru to President Kennedy, 19 November 1962, in “India: Subjects: Nehru correspondence, November 1962: 11-19” folder, Box 111, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library. ↩ ↩
- “Text of Prime Minister Nehru’s Statement in the Lok Sabha on the Border Situation on November 19, 1962,” 19 November 1962, in “India: Subjects: Nehru correspondence, November 1962: 11-19” folder, Box 111, National Security Files, John F. Kennedy Library. ↩