Bruce Riedel is the author of the new book JFK's Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. His other books include What We Won and The Search for Al Qaeda. He is a senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, and spent 30 years working for the CIA.
Q: Why did you decide to write about the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and why is it a “forgotten crisis”?
A: It’s a forgotten crisis for an understandable reason—in October and November of 1962, Americans’ attention, and the globe’s attention, was focused on Cuba and the Soviet deployment of missiles.
Had that crisis not have been resolved the way it was, it would have meant the end of mankind. The risk of failure in the Cuban Missile Crisis was nuclear Armageddon. It tended to push out everything else.
But for two of the largest countries in the world, China and India, October and November 1962 is remembered for their brief border war, which ended in a humiliating Indian defeat. It would have been worse had Kennedy not intervened.
If you look at the two, you think the Cuban Missile Crisis was John F. Kennedy’s finest hour, but [considering the two crises together] makes the finest hour even more fine. That’s the real message of the book. The guy multitasked…at a level that was extraordinary.
I got into the issue writing a previous book about U.S. relations with India and Pakistan. I came across the 1962 incident and put it in the back of my mind—there was a whole book to be written about this…
Q: You write, “The events of the autumn of 1962 created the balance of power, the alliance structure, and the arms race that still prevail today in Asia.” What are some of the reasons for this legacy?
A: The border dispute between China and India, one of the causes of the 1962 war, has not been resolved. They continue to have the longest disputed border in the world.
It affects their relationship. China and India have been in an arms race since 1962. China has multiple reasons for the buildup, including the United States, but one is India. India also has [multiple reasons] but one is China. [India was] the loser in 1962 and they have been trying to build an effective deterrent since…
India has a second risk calculation, and that is Pakistan…1962 was the beginning of the China-Pakistan axis of today. In the last few years China and Pakistan have moved ever closer. Pakistan is the recipient of Chinese nuclear technology. Today they have an extremely close relationship.
The triangle of India, China, Pakistan was really set in motion in 1962, and has been dominating the geopolitics of [the region] ever since.
Q: In the book, you describe JFK as “the ultimate crisis manager in 1962.” How did his actions during this “forgotten crisis” compare to those he took during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
A: I think the Cuban crisis dominated White House attention, and certainly dominated the press coverage of the White House. What’s interesting is that in dealing with Cuba, Kennedy turned to a collection of aides, his Cabinet and senior former officials to get advice—the ExComm.
The advice was very hawkish, and in the end, he rejected the advice—he did not go for a preemptive strike, but a naval quarantine, and behind the scenes he was offering Khrushchev a way out.
In the China-India, crisis, he relied almost exclusively on his ambassador in India, John Kenneth Galbraith, a personal friend, a person he’d turned to for advice for years. He relied on Galbraith’s advice.
I speculate in the book that I suspect by the end of October, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was fading out, Kennedy came to the conclusion that the wisdom of collective advice was not wisdom, and that he was better off relying on somebody he could trust.
The two decision-making processes reflect a learning curve. If you ask a group of people for advice, you get group-think.
Q: You also describe the impact Jackie Kennedy had on U.S. relations with India. What was her role?
A: The first lady, who was if not the youngest, one of the youngest first ladies, played a very important role in two respects.
First, she was the hostess for state visits by the prime minister of India, Nehru, and the dictator of Pakistan, Ayub Khan. In that role, she was always looking for a way to make state visits more unique and memorable.
For Ayub Khan, she secured the use of Mount Vernon for a state dinner, for the only time in history. It provided an extraordinary venue, and a memorable evening. She had a similar idea for Nehru—he was invited to her family’s home in Newport, Rhode Island, one of the exclusive mansions in the city.
The second way she played a role was in the spring of 1962, she traveled to India and Pakistan. John F. Kennedy never traveled to India and Pakistan as president—he would have, had he lived.
It was the first foreign travel by an American first lady in the age of television, and it was an incredible success. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to welcome her, and it was televised back in the U.S. It was an important morale-booster for the administration, and an advance in U.S.-India and U.S.-Pakistan relations.
She was an incredibly classy first lady, very attractive, handling herself with great dignity and style, conveying that America was a dynamic, vibrant country—in contrast to the image the communist world wanted to portray, that they were the future.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book about U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t have any Jackie Kennedy figure in it. In fact, it has no women in it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb