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In Memoriam: John F Kennedy

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Ambassador Prabhat P Shukla

The historical record sheds positive light on JFK

It is fifty years since the assassination of President Kennedy, and time to explore his Presidency for what it might have done for Indo-US relations, had he lived longer. What follows is an Indian perspective dealing with JFK’s role in South Asia. He was President at a critical time, particularly because of the India-China War of 1962, and what follows is an examination of his policies in a crucial period in the subcontinent’s recent history.

Life is full of ironies, and one was on display in an unlikely venue, very early in JFK’s Presidency – in March 1961 in Soviet Russia, in the city of Novosibirsk. The US Ambassador, Llewellyn Thompson, was calling on Khrushchev, to deliver a letter from JFK. Having read the letter, Khrushchev asked the Ambassador to convey his thanks and good wishes to the President. He added that he was not conveying the usual wishes for a long life for JFK, which was the Russian custom, since he was so young. Such a wish was not needed for a young man like Kennedy.

One leader who did not particularly like Kennedy was Ayub Khan in Pakistan. Even before Kennedy was elected President, indeed before he was a declared candidate, Ayub had complained against him. This happened during a meeting in Karachi with President Eisenhower in December 1959. Ayub complained about the opposition to military aid to Pakistan from then-Senator Kennedy, and then-Congressman Bowles – the latter was to be appointed Ambassador to India by Kennedy to succeed Galbraith in the job. This was an unusual diplomatic step on the part of Ayub, but the Pakistani leaders have usually been both outspoken and petulant in their dealings with the Americans.

Once Kennedy was elected, however, Ayub was off the blocks early, and met Kennedy at the White House a few months after he assumed office on a July afternoon for a long, leisurely talk. Earlier, the State Department had discussed the drift in US-Pakistan relations, and an internal note had pointed out that relations between India and China were facing renewed tensions, and there was scope for Indo-US military cooperation. The problem, according to the State Department officials, was that any improvement with India was bound to alienate Pakistan. It could shut down intelligence cooperation, or even leave SEATO and CENTO, and this the US could not afford. Not for the first time, and not for the last, the Department concluded that the best way forward was for the US to reassure Pakistan by taking on a more active role over Kashmir.

This background is important to appreciate how the US-Pakistan summit talks proceeded. Kennedy led off with a detailed survey of global affairs, including his recent meeting in Vienna with Khrushchev, the situation concerning Germany, which remained a priority for him throughout his Presidency, and other problem areas of the world.

Ayub came straight to the point – India.

With the help of maps of Kashmir and Punjab, he explained to Kennedy that India was militarily threatening Pakistan, which needed all the help that America could give. On the other hand, India did not deserve any help from America, because of its aggressive intent towards Pakistan. Kennedy replied that he did not believe India was going to attack Pakistan – it already had what it wanted in Kashmir. When Ayub persisted, Kennedy observed that he could understand India’s, particularly Nehru’s, desire to hold on to what they had. He could also understand the Indian military deployment, to keep out Pakistan, which had “irredentist feeling”. Any other leader would have got the message, but Ayub was not for stopping. He persisted, and advised Kennedy that India would disintegrate within fifteen or twenty years. As for Kashmir, Pakistan would have to have all of the state up to River Chenab, and a little beyond. Failing this, Pakistan public opinion was beginning to turn in favour of China. Finally, Kennedy agreed to raise the issue with Nehru when the latter visited the US later in the year. Some further vituperation against Afghanistan, Russia and “those bloody Hindus” and Ayub was done.

True to his assurance, Kennedy did raise the subject with Nehru when the latter visited the US in November the same year. From all accounts, the meeting did not go as well as Kennedy would have liked: Nehru was tired and uncommunicative, except on the subject of Kashmir. On this, Nehru told him that there was a fundamental error in thinking that, because the majority of the population in Kashmir was Muslim, it should go to Pakistan; this ignored the reality of the presence of 45 million Muslims in other parts of India. He was willing to legalise the current status quo, with minor changes, said Nehru, and added that the former Prime Minister of Pakistan had agreed with this formula. Unfortunately, the military had stepped in, and matters had grown worse since Gen Ayub took over. Nehru concluded by saying that it would be difficult enough to get approval for the partition of Kashmir along the current ceasefire line, any territorial change to the detriment of India would not be saleable in the country. Kennedy did not press any further, though some of his aides present at the meeting did try and probe a little more.

Thus, Kennedy’s understanding attitude was already in evidence in the early months of his Presidency. So was his personal admiration for Nehru, whom he had hosted at Hammersmith Farm, Mrs Kennedy’s parental home, the previous day for a family affair. It was further displayed in his readiness not only to press on with economic assistance for India, but even to discussing the possibility of providing military assistance – something that had not been seriously considered earlier. As already mentioned, the State Department had already been discussing internally the possibility of military cooperation with India in the context of tensions with China, but had essentially concluded that antagonizing Pakistan was not worth the benefits that might be gained with India.

The test came soon enough. Kennedy really came into his own on the India relationship during the China war in October-November 1962. But first, a little bit on what preceded this in the summer of the year would be in order. Two issues were noteworthy. The first was a brief discussion on Kashmir at the UN Security Council [UNSC]. Kennedy had assured Ayub that if other approaches did not work with India, he would support Ayub in raising the matter in UNSC. The US had suggested the name of Eugene Black – who, as head of the World Bank had worked with India and Pakistan on the Indus Waters Treaty – as an intermediary for Kashmir. India had rejected the proposal, and the Pakistanis were therefore moving the UNSC.

America did not want to sponsor any such resolution, and so had asked some of the non-permanent members to sponsor it. One by one, after initially agreeing, UAR, Chile, Venezuela, and Ireland had backed out under pressure from India. Finally, Kennedy himself approached the Irish again and they agreed to sponsor the resolution alone. In the vote that followed, the US and the UK voted in favour of, and the USSR vetoed, the Resolution. This had led to some frictions at the top leadership level, and Kennedy had himself expressed irritation at the strong speech Nehru made in Parliament against the US and the British following their UNSC votes. Naturally, the Soviet Union came in for considerable praise, including in the media.

The second issue was the Indian plan to acquire supersonic fighter aircraft. This was essentially in response to the sale by America of F-104 aircraft to Pakistan, a decision that was made by the previous Eisenhower Administration. President Eisenhower, who was to warn his country three days before demitting office, of the possible danger from a too-powerful military-industrial complex, had done a great deal to push the arms race in South Asia by arming Pakistan under military assistance programmes once Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTO. And so it was that India was searching for viable response to the Pakistani and Chinese military strength. One option was the indigenous HF 24, for which an engine needed to be outsourced with the British in competition with their Orpheus engine. In the end it was the USSR that won the contract, but it was never implemented.

But India was also in need of a short-term response to the military build-up, and was negotiating with the USSR for the MiG-21; also in the fray were the British Lightnings, the French Mirages and the American F-104 itself. However, the latter was ruled out by the Americans, principally because they were concerned that the Pakistanis would react negatively – and shut down the intelligence facilities that America had on its soil. Since India was also keen to obtain the rights to license production, and wished to buy against Rupees, there really was only one serious option and that was the USSR. Although Kennedy tried hard to get an attractive package behind the British, it was clear that the latter did not seriously hope or try to clinch the deal. Even after forcing the US to undertake to meet 75 percent of the cost of the deal, the British did not pursue the project in earnest – and were happy enough to let Krishna Menon kill the offer.

This, then, was the backdrop to the fighting that began as small skirmishes in September-October, and then flared up into large-scale fighting along the entire frontier. Very early after the war began [on 20 October 1962], two diplomatic moves made by the US Administration revealed their stance. The first was to authorise Ambassador Galbraith to issue a declaration that the US recognised the McMahon Line as the border between India and China, and that it fully supported India’s position in this regard. The second was to approach Ayub and advise him not to make any military moves against India, and instead, to call off his own talks with China on the border. He reluctantly – and conditionally – agreed to the former, but ignored the latter request.

Inevitably, the question of arms for India had to be faced. The US had begun emergency arms supplies to India on 3 November, within a few hours of the formal request for such assistance. On 14 November – Nehru’s birthday – the two countries also signed a formal agreement, in the form of an exchange of diplomatic notes, for such an arms supply arrangement, the first such in the history of independent India with the US. However, the bureaucratic system was arrayed against a long-term arms supply agreement for India. In a Note prepared by the State Department, with the Defence Department and the CIA concurring, it was argued that military assistance to India would need to be weighed against its negative impact in Pakistan. The implication was that such a decision should not be taken.

In putting up this Note to the President, the NSC, presumably more in tune with the President’s thinking, recorded a comment that deserves to be quoted at length, as much for its contemporary resonance as for the appraisal of the Kennedy Administration:

I would add one comment on section 3 of the memorandum. Section 3-b (page 5) is devoted to difficulties that the new situation in India will raise for our relations with Pakistan. It seems to me that the problem could be stated a little more sharply in a somewhat different way. We are now faced with the necessity of making the Pakistani [sic] realize that their alliance with us had been of immense value to them. This comprises not only the substantial economic and military assistance we have given, but also the general support that the alliance provides in their relations with India. They are obviously the weaker power, and they have been able to maintain as strong a line on Kashmir as they have in part because of the existence of our support in the background. We are now beginning to confront them with the fact that we are really not able to support their demand for a settlement via plebiscite, and that their best opportunity for settlement on terms something like ratification of the status quo may be passing from their grasp. This will be a difficult and painful process, but it is one we must push through. [Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XIX, South Asia, Doc 190 of 3 November 1962.]

Kennedy was later to take the same position vis-à-vis Pakistan in cabinet discussions, but that was to come later. During the war itself, the first of the senior-level meetings took place on 19 November, when the US cabinet met to discuss the course of action to be followed after the initial airlift of emergency requirements. Defence Secretary McNamara wanted to send out a military mission urgently to assess the situation and India’s military needs; Secretary of State Rusk was opposed, suggesting that the British should take the lead, as a fellow Commonwealth country. JFK ruled in favour of a stand-alone US mission, while suggesting that the British be kept in the loop to see what they were planning to do. Meanwhile, the airlift of equipment that began as early as mid-October continued, despite Pakistani protests.

Anyway, on 20 November, exactly a month after the war began, the Chinese declared a cease-fire and began to withdraw from most of the areas they had occupied. However, Kennedy continued to give thought to what needed to be done in order to establish a new relationship with India. His thinking was crystallizing over the next few weeks, and became clear in a series of messages he sent to his subordinates and peers, such as the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

The first and most significant of these conclusions was that India had finally woken up to the reality of the Communist threat, and this had opened prospects of a new relationship between America and India. In these early weeks even after the ceasefire, the Soviet Union had not taken a clear-cut stand as between India and China, and had not responded favourably to the Indian requirement for MiG’s. Therefore, Kennedy was looking to a long-term defence relationship with India, and seeing it in the context of the Cold War – that is, to confront China, and keep the Soviets out of India.

The second was that the US could no longer turn a blind eye to the difference in objectives between America and Pakistan over the purpose of their alliance. America was in it for containing Communism, Pakistan was in it for support against India. Pakistan would have to be carried along, but it could no longer hold a veto over what the US did with India. This was recognised as being difficult, but, in his mind, Kennedy was clear that Pakistan would be told clearly that it needed to settle its disputes with India, Kashmir principally, but that the US could not compel India to follow a certain course for such settlement. At the same time, Pakistan would also need to back away from its growing ties with China, as well as control the anti-US sentiment that was finding ever wider expression in the media.

Third, to give expression to the new defence cooperation, Kennedy intended to step up air defence assistance. In his opinion, India had failed to use its Air Force in the war with China because it feared a counter attack from the Chinese Air Force. He therefore suggested to the British Prime Minister that America could supply the hardware – radar and other ground equipment – while the British and other Commonwealth countries could offer to deploy active fighters with crew in case of need. The implication was that the latter would not be permanently deployed in India, but be available in case of need. This insistence on involving the Commonwealth and the British, even in the lead role, called forth from Ambassador Galbraith the tart comment that there were only two-and-a-half capitals in the world that took the Commonwealth seriously – London, Washington, and Canberra.

What broke this scheme was that the accompanying demand for a settlement on Kashmir proved a bridge too far. In the first place, although the idea had been clearly formulated that Pakistan would not be allowed to hold the military cooperation with India hostage to its own demands on Kashmir, in practice, that is exactly what did happen. And, further, in the negotiations on Kashmir that started in December 1962, the Pakistani territorial demands were so high that no Indian Government could possibly agree to them. And, for all his personal reservations, Kennedy could not carry his team with him, and disregard Pakistani objections to closer military cooperation with India. This is abundantly clear from a message from the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, to the Embassies in New Delhi and Karachi instructing Ambassador Galbraith that it should be stated without ambiguity to the Indian leaders that it was “untenable for us to continue for long [to] give extensive military assistance to India while it [was] expending efforts on quarrel with Pakistan.” No such condition was imposed on Pakistan.

What further angered the Indian establishment was a direct intervention by the Americans, and the British, in the India-Pakistan talks. This took the shape of a document covering the “elements” of a settlement, jointly authored by the US and the UK. This was injected into the discussions on the eve of the fifth – and penultimate – round of the talks, as a result of the growing concern among the US and British policy makers that the talks were not making adequate progress, and needed more hands-on involvement. The two “elements” that caused Nehru to reject the proposals were the demand that both countries had to have a substantial position in the Vale; and that Pakistan had to have its interests in the Chenab recognised. Neither was acceptable to India, even its demoralized state after the war with China.

An equally important factor for the failure of the India-Pakistan talks was that the Soviet Union moved swiftly, once the Cuban crisis was out of the way, to restore ties and trust with India, even though its principal ally in the Government of India – Krishna Menon – was gone as a result of the military debacle. The Soviets offered the MiG’s, and also agreed to provide for licensed production in India, all to be paid for in Rupees. All these steps enabled India to call off the talks with Pakistan on Kashmir by the middle of 1963.

It is also noteworthy that Pakistan played a predictably dubious role throughout the course of the talks. On the eve of the first round, in late December 1962, they announced that they had reached agreement with China to settle their boundary in the Xinjiang-POK area. And on the eve of the fourth round – on 2 March 1963 – Bhutto travelled to Peking to sign the border agreement. This was done in the teeth of opposition not only from India but the US as well. India had registered a formal protest, which was ignored by both China and Pakistan by pointing out that the agreement was of an interim nature, and could be reviewed when the J&K issue was finally resolved. The US had registered its own doubts at the growing closeness between Pakistan and China, but this was also brushed aside by Bhutto and Ayub.

Once the India-Pakistan talks on Kashmir had finally collapsed by mid-1963, the Americans, now willing to cut loose from the British connection, were confronted with determining the way forward with India and with Pakistan. Kennedy was clearer in his mind by this time that the Pakistan connection was not all that it was cracked up to be. The first inkling of his new assessment of the worth of the Pakistan connection was in evidence already in December 1962, at the Nassau Summit with the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. At a plenary session devoted to India-China issues, he asked what the Americans got out of Pakistan. He was told, as per the official line, that Pakistan was an ally under SEATO and CENTO, and if America leaned too far towards India, Pakistan could leave these two bodies. Not satisfied, he persisted: what would happen if Pakistan did leave? Iran would also quit, and that would be the end of CENTO, he was informed.

Clearly, this kind of thinking had been developing further in Kennedy’s mind, and his conviction and confidence in his own thinking became clearer after the failure of the talks between India and Pakistan. A note recorded by McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser, on Kennedy’s views on India, spells out the following:

  1. Given the declining prospects for a Kashmir settlement, we should not hold off so long on aid, in order to get leverage on Kashmir, that we jeopardize the developing relationship between the US and India.

  2. As to the magnitude of further military aid, we should try to get the Indians down to a realistic program, but should regard $300 million (including defense production aid) over three years from the US and UK as a floor rather than a ceiling.

  3. …our policy should be not to let the UK restrain us from moving to the extent we think desirable.


6. We must make clear to Ayub that we can't hold off indefinitely on aid to India because of Kashmir.

[FRUS Vol XIX, Document 285 of 26 April 1963 - excerpts]

This line of thinking only got sharpened as the summer of 1963 wore on, and Kennedy grew in confidence and took on the entrenched views not only of the British, but also his own establishment, in State, the CIA and Defence – though this last was less negative on India. In the final event, the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, bowed to the inevitable and recommended to Kennedy that the US, apart from other measures of defence cooperation, should enter into an executive agreement with India to consult in the event of an attack by China. In a full meeting of the National Security Council to discuss these recommendations, Kennedy asked whether a commitment to “consult” meant a commitment to defend India; on being assured by Rusk that it did, he gave his approval. For good measure, he also said that he would also favour a “flat guarantee of the territorial integrity of India”.

Kennedy’s assessment of Pakistan was also evolving rapidly by the summer of 1963. In August, the US Under Secretary of State was to visit Pakistan, and was seeking instructions from his principals. When there was talk among the officials of the need to reassure Pakistan, Kennedy observed that he “didn't think that Ayub was really scared of India. What would the Indians get out of attacking Pakistan? They'd lose a billion dollars in Western aid. What Ayub was really worried about was that he was losing the capability to attack India successfully or at least to get his way vis-a-vis India.” And once again he asked his team what exactly the US got from Pakistan – his question seemed to imply that the answer was, at best, very little.

Thus, Kennedy had brought Indo-US relations to an entirely new qualitative level from where they had been under the Truman and, especially, the Eisenhower Administrations. And yet, it is ironic that many of the issues that Kennedy grappled with, in particular Pakistan and China, do not seem to have changed all that much since those days fifty years ago.

And so it is that India has reason to regret the untimely killing of a President who might have made a difference to relations between the two countries. As it was, Johnson succeeded Kennedy on 22 November 1963, and with a week of taking over, he had made his position clear: Pakistan had been neglected, and this needed to change. According to a memo recorded in the NSC:

The President expressed the greatest of confidence in Ayub and a feeling that we had not been forceful enough with him, had not given him a feeling of confidence in our motives and that he had drifted into the thought that we would abandon him in favor of India. He stated that he wished this corrected in a most positive manner.

To wrap up the narrative, the record shows that Kennedy came to office with an understanding of the importance of India, and a sense that the military ties with Pakistan were of limited value. However, in the early period, he was still feeling his way forward, and was not ready to take the hard decisions that were needed to translate his vision into reality. It should also be remembered that South Asia was not a priority those days, and that he had his hands full dealing with the USSR, the Europeans, and Cuba. The Bay of Pigs had been a disaster, as had the summit in Vienna with Khrushchev. It took the success of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which played out even as the India-China war was taking place, for Kennedy to acquire the dominance over the system that would allow him to drive the changes that he wanted in South Asia. It is hard not to be impressed by the fact that he was able to get the system to recommend an executive agreement for the defence of India, and for him to offer a commitment – a “flat guarantee” - for the territorial integrity of India. Sadly, by the time he was beginning to assert himself, he was assassinated – and that ended what was a very promising start in Indo-US relations.

New Delhi,

November 2013.

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