Yuvan Sharma
15 February 2021: A Review of JFK's Forgotten Crisis by Bruce Riedel
15.02.202116 Min Read — In Politics

In September 1962, the CIA prepared a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on “The Military Buildup in Cuba” after U-2 plane missions flown over Cuba found that surface-to-air missiles were arriving in the Caribbean country from the Soviet Union. Images collected in October 1962 confirmed the worst fears of the USA and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. At the same time, another conflict with huge implications was taking shape in the Himalayas. On October 20 1962, Mao Zedong’s Red China attacked India on its western and northeast borders in two different but simultaneous strikes a thousand kilometres apart. As John F. Kennedy and his Cabinet dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President, with the support of his extremely competent Indian ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, handled the equally dangerous Sino-Indian conflict, the titular event in JFK’s Forgotten Crisis by Bruce Riedel.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis seeks to provide insight into and give credit for JFK’s pivotal role in the Sino-Indian tensions, which had been largely ignored until the writing of this book. Riedel focuses on the incredibly delicate position JFK was in during the peak of both crises; the back cover of the book describes the time as “the most dangerous days of the entire cold war”. The Cuban Missile crisis has been extensively written about from various perspectives. While the 1962 Sino-Indian war has since been analysed by Indians in an effort to understand what resulted in such a humiliating defeat for them, Americans have forgotten what their own President did to defuse this international conflict. The critical contribution of Riedel’s book lies in this very fact. It demonstrates how JFK simultaneously managed two international conflicts, and how he managed them exceedingly well . The book touches on several important themes relating to the time period between the 1950’s and the 1970’s. Examining these in detail is essential to developing an in-depth understanding of Riedel’s novel. One of the recurring points in the book is foreign relations between the US, and India and Pakistan, as well as the changes in these relationships with time. Riedel spends a significant amount of time analysing the relationships between the American and Indian leaders and describes how these relationships played an important role in defusing Sino-Indian tensions. A special mention is given to Nehru’s 1956 visit to Eisenhower’s Gettysburg farm where the two leaders spent fourteen hours talking about various issues. In an accurate summary of US-India relations during the 1950s, the author notes that “the two did not come to agreement on all issues or even most, but Eisenhower concluded that he “liked Prime Minister Nehru”.” (Riedel, 10) An important point in the context of the Sino-Indian war is that Eisenhower and Nehru had very different views on China. Nehru, a prominent leader of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) which began amid the Cold War, wanted to maintain amicable relations with its communist neighbor and even requested Eisenhower to grant China a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Eisenhower refused to consider it with China’s role in the Korean war being “fresh in his memory.” (Riedel, 10) The transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy also saw a gradual but definite shift in the US stance in South-East Asia. This became evident when the US started to back India publicly in October 1962 on its border dispute with China and started to provide arms to support India’s military against the strong Chinese forces. The policy shift towards India is further corroborated by the fact that Kennedy provided arms for India despite explicitly promising Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator, in 1961 that he would not do so without consulting Pakistan first.

The author writes extensively about John Kenneth Galbraith and his pivotal role in the Sino-Indian crisis. He ends the book by saying the world was fortunate to have JFK and Galbraith in those testing times and, judging by Galbraith’s contribution, this is not an exaggeration. He describes how Kennedy and Galbraith had a very close relationship; Kennedy even offered personally intervening and getting him an exemption from Harvard when Galbraith had to go back and resume his teaching duties. Riedel also mentions how Galbraith said in his diary that Washington was “totally occupied with Cuba” (Riedel, 119) at the peak of the Sino-Indian war. Galbraith did not receive any significant communication or advice with regards to the escalating tensions on the North-East border. Riedel observes that this was probably for the best. Galbraith was extremely well informed, had good intuition and relied on himself to take critical decisions. He notes, “During this period Galbraith did receive one message from the State Department, but characteristically chose to challenge it.” (Riedel, 120) Kennedy trusted Galbraith, and his trust was not misplaced. Galbraith handled the crisis extremely well. While Kennedy and Washington defused the Cuban tensions, he let Galbraith handle the other big conflict. Riedel says, “It is clear that Kennedy felt that Galbraith and he made up the right team to tackle the war in India largely on their own.” (Riedel, 117) It is worthwhile to note that Galbraith had an amicable relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru as well, and he gradually became an important advisor to Nehru especially in matters related to Chinese aggression. JFK’s Forgotten Crisis thus duly gives credit to another figure largely ignored by American history and literature: John Kenneth Galbraith. Along with Kennedy, he established good relations with India which would surely have led to a concrete partnership in the longer term, but for Kennedy’s sudden assassination.

Continuing with the theme of American-Indian relations, Riedel describes how American relations with India looked set to continue improving under Kennedy after positive initial exchanges. On November 19, 1962, when Sino-Indian tensions were at their highest and India’s situation was growing desperate, Nehru wrote two letters to Kennedy asking for extensive military assistance from the US to avoid Chinese occupation of the entire North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA). On the same day, Kennedy decided to send Ambassador Averell Harriman to India to understand India’s military requirements. Fortunately for India, Chinese leader Mao announced a unilateral ceasefire the next day, implicitly forcing Nehru to accept it due to India’s dire situation, and thus ending the war as it had begun: on China’s terms. The ceasefire gave Harriman’s mission time to assess India’s military needs without having to respond immediately. Harriman and his team had three primary objectives. The first one was increasing US military aid to India. In 1963, The United States and the UK facilitated the training of American, British, Australian, and Canadian pilots in India with bombers and jet fighters. The US and the UK also provided arms for mountain divisions of the Indian Army. Additionally, Kennedy agreed to a $500 million military package for India over five years. Harriman’s second goal involved initiating India-Pakistan negotiations on the Kashmir dispute. In a rare instance of Kennedy ignoring his Indian ambassador Galbraith’s advice, JFK tried to pursue a peaceful settlement. Negotiations did not go well, and Pakistan’s simultaneous and separate border deal with China - which involved Pakistan giving territory which allegedly belonged to India, to China - “symbolized Pakistan’s new entente with Communist China, the enemy of America and India.” (Riedel, 155-156) Kennedy’s attempt to settle the Kashmir issue instead led to the atrophying of his relations with the Pakistani leaders, including Ayub Khan and his foreign minister Zulfikar Bhutto. The third and final objective Harriman had was to secure Indian support for the covert missions CIA had been carrying out in Tibet since Eisenhower. The CIA was secretly supporting a Tibetan rebellion against China. An elaborate operation had been created over time, which included training Tibetan rebels in Colorado and then parachuting them into Tibet from East Pakistan air bases. As Kennedy’s relations with Pakistan soured - with Ayub Khan persistently threatening to shut down the Tibet operation if the US tilt towards India did not stop - Washington decided to get India’s support for the mission instead. After a series of discussions with the CIA’s Near East (NE) division, India’s head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), B.N. Mullik agreed to support the Tibetan rebellion. India started to help the Colorado trainees in infiltrating the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) and getting into Tibet. India also helped in training Tibetans who started patrolling along the LOAC and collecting intelligence on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Despite all this cooperation, India and the United States failed to capitalize on the improvements in their relations and cement a strategic alliance. Nehru was disappointed with the military aid package, as was Kenneth Galbraith. When Nehru requested aid worth $1.3 billion, Kennedy was only able to promise less than half of that value. After Kennedy’s assassination, the military aid package was suspended under Lyndon Johnson and remained so for several months before a meeting was scheduled to take a final decision in May 1964. Unfortunately, a day before the meeting, Nehru suddenly died. Nehru’s successor Lal Bahadur Shastri was “eager to close an arms deal,” (Riedel, 163) and when the Soviets made a multiyear military aid offer, India accepted it in what was a “lost opportunity in Indo-American relations”. (Riedel, 163) Thus, one of the key points of JFK’s Forgotten Crisis is Indian-American relations, and how the “unforeseeable events” (Riedel, 163) of Kennedy’s assassination and Nehru’s death “stymied Kennedy’s goal of building a new long-term strategic partnership with India.” (Riedel, 163) Riedel argues that India and the United States would have enjoyed a considerably closer alliance today if JFK had continued to be President.

Another critical aspect Riedel analyses in great detail is the evolution of US Intelligence and its essential role in the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Tibetan resistance and the Sino-Indian war. In October 1950, Mao sent a massive number of troops to assist North Korea in the Korean War and ward off the advancing American and South Korean forces. In a fatal move, General Douglas MacArthur - the man in charge of the American troops - had prohibited any outside intelligence (including the CIA) from interfering in his decisions. He had his own intelligence set up in Tokyo, and this intelligence centre continuously downplayed the threat of the Chinese forces in wait for the advancing US troops. The estimate Tokyo provided on the number of Chinese troops in Korea was less than one-tenth of the actual number. MacArthur had also assured President Truman and said that China would not be able to mount a realistic attack on his forces. When the two armies did meet, MacArthur’s and South Korea’s forces were destroyed. As a result of this grave intelligence blunder, the CIA was brought in and it became the irreplaceable intelligence agency for the US. Riedel describes how India had tried to warn Washington about the advancing Chinese forces only to be ignored and uses this incident as a starting point to extensively examine Indo-American relations. He also states that the Korean War played a large part in convincing the American public that China was “a crazy communist state.” (Riedel, 20)

Riedel focuses on clandestine CIA operations, especially the rebellion in Tibet, to a great extent. In 1957, Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA, launched a Tibetan rebellion with Pakistan’s help which involved training Tibetan rebels to resist military aggression from China and to protect their homeland, as described earlier on Page 3. The author correctly argues that this CIA operation had big consequences which still exist in Asian politics today. He has described how Ayub Khan used the CIA operations as a trump card, and repeatedly threatened to shut them down if the US continued to side with India. The biggest consequence, however, was the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. He argues that Mao was paranoid about an India-US alliance and thought that it was this partnership which was fuelling the Tibetan rebellion. Mao wrongly thought that instead of Pakistan, it was India who was secretly helping the CIA and the Tibetan rebels. Riedel observes, “It is, of course, deeply ironic that the Chinese invasion of India prompted close American-Indian intelligence cooperation, because in part Mao's paranoia about American-Indian collusion in Tibet prompted the invasion.” (Riedel, 160) The Chinese invasion also led to Pakistan allying with China as Kennedy continued to support India while trying to keep the Pakistan operations going. The other covert operation that the CIA was carrying out with the help of Pakistan and which is mentioned briefly in the book involved flying U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union to collect intelligence about the communist state. This mission experienced a severe setback in 1960 when the Soviets shot down a U-2 aircraft and exposed the US operations to the world; the CIA subsequently stopped these reconnaissance flights after Eisenhower told the agency “it was too dangerous.” (Riedel, 41) The CIA continued its Tibet operation, however; it lasted throughout Kennedy’s presidency until it morphed into the agreement with India described on Page 4 even as Pakistan shifted its support from the United States to Communist China.

Riedel also analyses Pakistan’s foreign policies and decisions with great detail, which is only natural considering how important a role the country played in the Sino-Indian war and the conflicts India was dealing with at the time. He describes Pakistan as “eager to find a foreign protector” (Riedel, 28-29); he strongly suggests the country entered into two military alliances (CENTO and SEATO) with the US primarily to achieve this objective. He says, “By the mid-1950s, Pakistanis could claim to be America’s most allied ally.” (Riedel, 29) He also explicitly observes that “Pakistan had allied itself with the United States in the SEATO and CENTO alliances to strengthen its armed forces to fight India, not Russia or China.” (Riedel, 128) As mentioned earlier, Ayub Khan was increasingly upset about the American support for India and repeatedly tried to threaten the CIA that he would shut down their secret Tibet operations. One of the reasons the Pakistani leader slowly drifted towards China and away from the US was the Kashmir dispute; he desperately wanted Kashmir to be a part of his country. He even tried to create an exchange offer during the Sino-Indian war when he proposed that Pakistan would maintain a ceasefire on India’s western boundaries if India gave up Kashmir. He pressed Kennedy to make this offer an integral part of any Indo-Pakistan negotiations. Riedel gives immense credit to Galbraith here, who correctly advised Kennedy that Nehru would never consider this offer; as a result of this, Kennedy never considered Khan’s proposal and made no promises about Kashmir. Ayub Khan’s attempt to capitalize on China’s aggression failed.

This brings us to another key point in the book: Communist China. In what is otherwise a very neutral narration and analysis, Riedel gives credit to Mao for his brilliant strategy in winning its 1962 border war. He quotes a CIA report, saying that “China played on Nehru's Asian, anti-imperialist mental attitude; his proclivity to temporize, and his sincere desire for an amicable Sino-Indian relationship.” (Riedel, 26) This strategy used by China was a masterpiece; the country avoided making explicit border statements which would be controversial but did not retract any of its previous claims either. Riedel spends considerable time scrutinizing Prospects of Communist China, a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) delivered by the CIA in May 1962. He notes how the report described the economic slowdown China had experienced due to Mao’s aggressive policy known as “Great Leap Forward.” He also analyses the Soviet-China fallout at this point in the book. The two communist giants had disagreed on how to fight the cold war; and “virtually all Soviet technicians and advisers, both in economic and military aid projects, had departed suddenly.” (Riedel, 84) Riedel describes on several occasions how Mao spared no effort in occupying Tibet, and how he committed a huge number of troops to crush the Tibetan rebellion being sponsored by the CIA. Riedel quotes the CIA’s Tibet Task Force chief, saying “Mao refused to let bands of unruly border tribesmen deny him his dream of reuniting the greater Han empire.” (Riedel, 86)

The author thus uses these themes to narrate the Sino-Indian war. JFK’s Forgotten Crisis essentially seeks to tell the story of a largely ignored political crisis and bring its events to light. Riedel himself writes, “Kennedy’s critical role in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 has also been largely ignored. This book seeks to fill that lacuna.” (Riedel, 3) This was clearly his primary objective: to grab the attention of the American public and educate them about this important world event. From this historical aspect, Riedel succeeds spectacularly. He provides an immensely elaborate description of events leading up to the Sino-Indian tensions, the war itself and the aftermath. Towards the end, he uses descriptions of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 which saw active Pakistani-Chinese cooperation, and the 1971 war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, to transition into modern Asian politics and its relation with the 1962 war. Thus, he covers every event punctiliously and paints a clear picture for every kind of reader, whether it is a fellow diplomat or a complete beginner in foreign policy. Considering that he aimed to educate the general public about the Sino-Indian war and the policy decisions behind it, he has done an excellent job in making this book a simple yet diligent study.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis is also an intricate study of foreign policy. Riedel examines Communist China, its decisions and the reasons behind these decisions. He devotes an entire section to analyse why the Chinese withdrew from NEFA and retreated behind the McMahon Line (the border drawn by the British). He looks at China and its ambitions from Mao’s perspective and consequently develops sound, well-thought-out conclusions. He describes how Mao’s primary objective was to humiliate Nehru and India and to prove that communism was the superior system in “the contest for Asia between the People’s Republic of China and democratic India.” (Riedel, 142) By routing India’s inferior army in NEFA, Riedel points out, Mao had achieved his aim. He argues that by retreating and declaring a ceasefire, Mao achieved gains in the present and for the future. He says that Mao demonstrated “restraint” (Riedel, 142) by retreating, and supports this with evidence, saying, “China would later point to its restraint in November 1962 as a sign that it was a responsible member of the international community and should be given its seat in the UN Security Council.” (Riedel, 142) He notes that in addition to logistical issues, Mao must also have known that further aggression and an attempt to occupy all of North-East India “would have forced Kennedy’s hand.” (Riedel, 142) Riedel describes the US and UK military assistance that India received in detail and thus helps the reader envision the strong message that this aid sent to China, and Mao’s subsequent reluctance to continue the military aggression.

The book is heavily based on decision making. Through several examples, Riedel slowly helps the reader to build an accurate impression of how decisions are taken in different types of administrations and also notes how costly conflicts and misunderstandings within administrations can be. He uses the Bay of Pigs fiasco to describe the latter. He describes how Kennedy was certain about not using the Marines and the Navy as a backup for the planned invasion, and how the CIA did not believe he was serious about reducing American involvement. He writes, “Thus there was a complete policy disconnect between the White House and the CIA on the plan: Kennedy thought he was supporting an operation that was plausibly deniable if it went wrong, whereas Dulles was convinced his plan would be backed up by the U.S. military if anything went amiss. This fundamental difference between the policymaker and the covert operator doomed the mission.” (Riedel, 53)

Riedel devotes an entire chapter to Galbraith and additionally talks about his role in the other ones, a testament to Galbraith’s importance in the 1962 war, and in Indian affairs from an American perspective in general. He narrates Galbraith’s increasing influence in Kennedy and Nehru’s decision making and describes the ambassador as a straightforward, efficient and responsible diplomat. He gives several examples to demonstrate how Galbraith knew exactly how Nehru would respond to any situation and was able to accordingly send suitable advice to Washington and Kennedy. Thus, Riedel succeeds in providing an excellent insight into diplomacy as well.

Lastly, Riedel aims to study leadership. He extensively covers Kennedy’s presidency and analyses decisions made by him; when they were correct, he gives the reasons Kennedy took this decision, and when they were wrong, he narrates and examines what led to an incorrect decision. He feels it is important to study Kennedy’s leadership because in his opinion, “How Kennedy managed two crises on opposite sides of the globe holds lessons for decisionmakers today.” (Riedel, 5) Riedel closes his book by stating the important lessons learnt from Kennedy’s presidency. The first lesson, he says, is about carefully and personally picking their top intelligence officials from among their trusted aides. He says, “ “The truth will set you free” should be more than a motto: It must be continually put into action.” (Riedel, 177) He emphasizes the importance of intelligence officials who will prefer telling bad news as opposed to telling the President what they want to hear. Riedel earlier corroborates this by stating the example of the intelligence fiasco in the Korean War, and Kennedy’s mistake in the Bay of Pigs disaster. Another important lesson, according to him, is that Presidents must do all they can to make covert partnerships effective, like JFK appeased the upset Ayub Khan with a dinner at Mount Vernon in May 1961, resulting in the resumption of CIA’s clandestine Tibet operations. Riedel ends by praising Kennedy’s decision to not go to war in Cuba despite his experts telling him to, and also lauds Kennedy’s wisdom in trusting Galbraith and giving him the authority to handle the Sino-Indian crisis.

Riedel additionally examines Nehru and his leadership in the book. He credibly observes how many of Nehru’s decisions were based on his domestic political position. He keeps in mind that Nehru was fixated on remaining neutral in the cold war and that he wanted India to be self-sufficient. This allows him to understand as well as explain why Nehru seemed to be mentally exhausted towards the end of the Sino-Indian crisis: relying on the US was strictly against his principles; he “had fought for independence for so long from the West.” (Riedel, 128) Accepting Western support hurt Nehru’s pride.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis has a few missing elements, but despite this, Riedel has done an outstanding job. He himself avers that the book would have been much more complete if it had included references to Chinese official documents and their analysis. It is not the author’s fault that China does not release any policy documents, and he has done a marvellous job despite missing the official version of the story of one of the two main countries in the crisis. Likewise, the book could have included more inputs from the Indian side. Riedel does quote several works by Indians, including John P. Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder and B.N. Mullik’s The Chinese Betrayal, but interviewing more people close to Nehru and more importantly, people who have a more neutral view would have resulted in a wider and more complete narration. It is important to note that both Mullik and Dalvi were personally involved in the crisis: Mullik was the head of the IB while Dalvi was in charge of the Fourth Division of the Army protecting the North-East border. It is difficult to judge Riedel’s book given that it is arguably the first work which neutrally covers the Sino-Indian crisis. Regardless of this lack of precedent, it is fair to say the author has done a brilliant job to tell this extremely important story from four different perspectives: the US and the CIA, Pakistan, India and China. His work fills an important void in American foreign policy literature; as The Wall Street Journal said, “The greatest value in JFK’s Forgotten Crisis is the compelling answers it provides.” (Riedel, back cover)


Riedel, Bruce. JFK's Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War. Brookings Institution Press, 2015.