Interview: Bruce Riedel

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Interview: Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel on the forgotten crisis of the JFK administration.

Interview: Bruce Riedel
Credit: The Brookings Institution

John F Kennedy was U.S. president for slightly less than three years, from 1961 to 1963. During this brief time he faced two grave political crises. The first was the Cuban missile crisis, in which the two leading powers of the day – the United States and the Soviet Union – came to the brink of war over the issue of the deployment of ballistic missiles to Cuba.

The second crisis was the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Very few know of the role played by America to defuse the crisis and how Washington stood by India in its hour of need. The crisis brought New Delhi and Washington closer together. Indeed, the two countries were on the verge of signing a strategic military alliance, until the effort was derailed with Kennedy’s assassination. India subsequently drifted away to become a strategic partner of the Soviet Russia.

Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, lays out this underappreciated chapter of history in his latest book, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. The book details how Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru panicked at China’s unexpected advance into Indian territory, desperately seeking U.S. military assistance to counter the threat. Riedel describes Kennedy’s timely response, and shows how Washington’s support for New Delhi discouraged Beijing from remaining in Indian territory.

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar recently spoke with Riedel, who spent three decades working for the CIA and who has served as a U.S. presidential advisor on South Asia and the Middle East.

Why prompted you to explore JFK’s forgotten crisis?

John F Kennedy is rightly famous for his leadership in the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962. He defused a crisis that could have all too easily ended in nuclear Armageddon. His role in helping India defend itself against China at exactly the same moment in time has been largely forgotten. The strong political and military aid JFK gave India was crucial to keeping Pakistan neutral and halting China. Kennedy faced two enormous crises on opposite sides of the globe and handled them with determination and finesse, it was his finest hour.

One of the points that emerge after reading your book is that had JFK survived longer, India-US relations would have achieved a greater depth than it in fact did.

After the war Kennedy embarked on refashioning the American relationship with India. The cornerstone was to be a strong military relationship. India needed to arm and equip its forces and the U.S. would be its principal supplier. Kennedy’s assassination and Nehru’s death, however, slowed the process and instead India looked to Russia for arms. It was a wasted opportunity. Had Kennedy lived it would have been very different.

The U.S. has been trying to contain China since the 1950s, yet China has managed to emerge as a parallel power center and a threat to American hegemony. Do you see this as a failure on the part of Washington to understand China’s ambitions and strength?

Washington has had a complex relationship with China ever since Nixon went to Beijing. Containment ended decades ago as the main element of American policy, engagement has been a bipartisan approach since.

How would you assess the leaderships of JFK, Mao and Nehru?

Kennedy and Nehru were elected leaders, subject to public opinion and legislative oversight. Mao was an absolute dictator, secretive and paranoid. Kennedy grew in the job, his first six months in office were filled with miscues like the Bay of Pigs. He learned some hard lessons from these setbacks and listened to advice differently than he had earlier. In the Indian crisis of 1962 the president had the great fortune of having Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith in New Delhi. Both Kennedy and Nehru relied heavily on Galbraith’s advice during the crisis.

To what extent do you think Washington’s covert operation in Tibet and New Delhi’s support for that was the reason for Mao’s attack on India in 1962?

American covert support for the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation and India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama were probably critical elements in Mao’s decision to attack in October 1962. The Chinese leader was determined to bring Tibet into his country and outside interference in Tibet fueled his suspicions about collusion between Washington and New Delhi. The irony of course is that Pakistan was America’s secret partner in aiding the Tibetans before the war. It was only after the war that India and the United States began cooperating in Tibet. So the war created the covert collusion Mao feared.

In your reading, who do you hold responsible for the 1962 war?

China started the war. It prepared ahead of time to launch an offensive. India foolishly pursued the forward policy that gave China a useful excuse for war, but this war was planned in China.

Was Nehru naive to trust China or did he deliberately keep provoking the communist regime?

Nehru was naive about Mao but it should be remembered that he tried very hard to work with China after the revolution. India kept the Tibet issue out of the UN and it advocated strongly for the communist government to take the seat in the Security Council. Nehru was betrayed by Mao, and I believe he never fully recovered from that betrayal.

The crisis of 1962 also offered an opportunity for India to move closer to Washington. Why was the opportunity lost and why did it take more than four decades for India and the U.S. to become strategic partners?

The missed opportunity to forge a strong partnership between India and the United States after Kennedy had committed to India’s defense in 1962 is in part due to an accident and in part due to the power of the Pakistan lobby in Washington. Kennedy’s assassination was crucial – he was the leading advocate of a partnership with India. President Johnson was much less inclined to New Delhi. LBJ was preoccupied with Vietnam. Pakistan’s supporters in Washington gained even more traction when Richard Nixon came into office. Not until Bill Clinton would American policy change course to the line Kennedy had advocated.

What implications do you see for South Asia in this Indo-U.S. friendship? How will Pakistan’s behavior change and how will China react?

The 1962 crisis set in motion Pakistan’s tilt toward China. The Chinese-Pakistani axis of today with its multiple dimensions began in 1962. The more recent American entente with India, which Kennedy previewed in 1962, is a counterweight. But China and India also have strong economic ties and a robust dialogue while Pakistan and the U.S. have a troubled relationship. I expect Washington and New Delhi to grow even closer, and Pakistan to tilt more toward China.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently started a new dialogue process. How important is that and how optimistic you are that this will make some headway?

Prime Minister Modi’s trip to Lahore and the subsequent terrorist attack in Punjab demonstrate how difficult it will be to achieve a lasting detente between India and Pakistan. Powerful elements of the Pakistani army do not want detente; they want to maintain a hostile environment to justify their oversize role in the country’s politics. I’m skeptical that will change soon but I am convinced Prime Minister Sharif genuinely wants to improve relations. Modi has a partner but one with a difficult house to manage.

What is your take on the Indo-China relationship?

India and China have the longest disputed border in the world. Despite years of negotiations since the 1962 war, it remains an obstacle to the fullest development of their bilateral relationship. Tibet also remains a point of contention. But the trade and economic interaction is robust and likely to grow. A real breakthrough would come if China supported giving India a permanent seat on the Security Council.