Six months after the 1962 Chinese aggression on India, the then US administration headed by President John F Kennedy even contemplated using nuclear weapons to prevent the Communist state from defeating India.
Kennedy, at a meeting with his top military aides on May 9, 1963, had expressed clear determination not to let Beijing defeat New Delhi, with his defence secretary even talking about using nuclear weapons against China if it launched another attack against India.
These disclosures have come in a just released book ‘Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy’ co-authored by Ted Widmer and Caroline Kennedy.
“I gather we’re coming to the defence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. What I think we ought to think about is, (unclear) it’s desirable (?) for us, to give India a guarantee which actually we would carry out. I don’t think there’s any doubt that this country is determined that we couldn’t permit the Chinese to defeat the Indians,” Kennedy said.
“If we would, we might as well get out of South Korea and South Vietnam. So I think that’s what we’ll decide at the time. Now, therefore, I don’t mind making, seeing us make some commitments. Now, if it is politically important,” he said.
Kennedy was quoted by the book as making these remarks in the White House meeting with his Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Davenport “Max” Taylor.
The book is a selection of audio recordings of Kennedy’s conversations and meetings at the White House. These recordings have been selected from the hidden recording systems in the Oval Office and in the Cabinet Room installed by Kennedy in July 1962, in an effort to preserve an accurate record of Presidential decision-making in a highly charged atmosphere of conflicting viewpoints, strategies and tactics.
“The result is a priceless historical archive comprising some 265 hours of taped material. JFK was elected president when Civil Rights tensions were near the boiling point, and Americans feared a nuclear war. Confronted with complex dilemmas necessitating swift and unprecedented action, President Kennedy engaged in intense discussion and debate with his cabinet members and other advisors,” the book says.
In the book, Kennedy seems to be determined to defend India in the case of an attack from China, asserting that the United States cannot let that happen.
Defense Secretary McNamara said that in doing so the US might even have to use nuclear weapons against China.
When Kennedy was making these comments, Gen Taylor interrupted the president by saying that before making any call on India, the US should develop a broader policy against China.
“Mr President, I would hope before we get too deeply in the India question, we take a broader look at where we’re, the attitude we’re going to maintain versus Red China, all the way from Manchuria to (unclear). This is just one spectacular aspect of the overall problem of how to cope with Red China, politically and militarily, over the next decade,” he said.
“It seems that India is the only place where they’ve got the manpower to really do it,” Kennedy responded according to the transcripts of the secret audio recording.
“I would hate to think we’d fight this on the ground in a non-nuclear war, if indeed Red China came in and matched us in any part of Asia,” Taylor said.
Kennedy observed that the chances of China attacking again would be less if they knew that the US would intervene now. “That’s right, I think the chance would be much less if they knew we were clearly committed,” he said.
“Maybe they know by our actions last fall that we are, and by our actions in South Vietnam. What I was thinking is, whatever restraint we impose on them, and whatever assistance it would give us politically, we should be prepared to go some
distance to give a guarantee, because I think it’d be just like, an attack on India in force would be just as much a red flag as the North Korean attack on South Korea was in 1950,” Kennedy said.
It is at this point McNamara brought in the option of nuking China.
“Mr President, I think General Taylor is implying that before any substantial commitment to defend India against China is given, we should recognize that in order to carry out that commitment against any substantial Chinese attack, we would have to use nuclear weapons,” McNamara said.