Monday, October 8, 2012

Half a Century Ago

No, not the Beatles invasion or the James Bond film debut that the media is now pushing and not the Cuban Missile Crisis that they will be pushing very soon. 

My memories of October 1962 are quite different.  At the time I was a 19-year old Pfc stationed in WestPac.  I still remember our Company First Sergeant, a WW2 vet and also a veteran of both Tsingtao in 46 and the Chosin Reservoir in 1950.  He ordered us to line up at the battalion supply hootch and draw our cold weather gear so that we could in his words:  <i>“go climb the Hee-ma-lie-ya mountains and defend Injia’s democracy from those g*dd*mm*d  ChiCom sons of beeches who were at it again”</i>.  This was soon after the Battle of Thag La Ridge.  We never went of course.  We were stood down a day later, as the situation resolved itself with a complete Chinese victory.  That was a good thing for us as most of the fighting took place at elevations well above 14,000 feet.

Never heard or thought much about it for decades.  My recollections were reborn lately because there is some interest in the press regarding the possibility of future Chinese naval hostilities with Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaya and the Philippines over territorial claims to the Senkakus, Spratlys, Paracels, Scarborough Shoal, Pratas Atoll, and the underwater reefs of the Macclesfield Bank.    And sure enough, India is in the game.  The state-run oil company ONGC Videsh is in an oil exploration partnership with Vietnam in the South China Sea in an area claimed by China.  There has also been some Indian military agreements with Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. And there have been a full slate of articles earlier this year on Indian defense spending including the Agni-V ICBM with range to Peking, which some in the Indian press have tagged the “China Killer”.  But some other Indian press gurus are going the opposite way calling for Hindee-Chinee-Bhai-Bhai (brotherhood).  Prior to 62 the two countries had a peaceful relationship since the Silk Road and thousands of years before that.  So I suspect a lot of the war talk is just talk and hopefully may never amount to anything.

Anyway those press accounts resparked my interest in that 62 war, and one day browsing in Andy’s fave bookstore in Denver I picked up an old copy of Neville Maxwell’s book “India’s China War”.  A hard read as the author spends well over half of the book discussing internal Indian politics and also the 19th century British border surveyors.  But the hard read gets better in the second half.  There he goes into the incompetent strategy of the Indian leadership, both civilian and senior army generals.  Needless to say, Maxwell has an infamous reputation in India as two of the Indian leadership he criticizes were Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon, fathers of Indian independence.

However Maxwell’s claims were backed up by some of the Indian Army generals involved.  They tell a tale of the best troops in the Indian Army, including crack Gurkha battalions, sent from sea level jungles to 16,000 feet in light summer khakis with just a basic load of ammunition.  No resupply.  Deployed to untenable positions by armchair bound brass who never saw the terrain and apparently did not understand contour lines on a map.  Little to no supporting artillery and zero air support.  Junior generals and colonels who had fought well and bravely in Burma and North Africa as young Lieutenants and NonComs, but in 62 were relieved of command because of their concern for their troops and their objections to the imposed tactics and the horrendous logistics situation. No military intelligence, just a national police run civilian intelligence agency more concerned with detection of suspected military coups that never happened, and whose Director told the Prime Minister and Defense Minister what he thought they wanted to hear (Hmmm, sounds familiar!).  Other generals gave good advice that was ignored, they were considered unreliable because they were non-Hindu Sikhs or Parsees, or because they were Anglo-Indian or too pro-Sandhurst.   A Chief of General Staff of the Indian Army with no combat arms experience deep selected over much better candidates for the job because he was a high caste Brahmin like Nehru and a distant cousin.  This was a real cautionary tale.

Meanwhile the Chinese Army was warmly clothed, well supplied, and not having to struggle against the terrain on the flat Tibetan plateau. They built their own roads as they fought their way down into India.  America never sent me and my company and our First Sergeant there to aid the Indians.  But according to Maxwell, America did send a great deal of arms and ammunition though it got there too late.  And we sent an Air Force C130 squadron to help the Indian Army move troops around, but there were no close by airfields anywhere near that part of the Himalayas.  And supposedly we sent a Carrier Task Group steaming towards the IO but it too stood down before passing the Straits of Malacca.  So much for our help.  But at the time America was just waking up to what was happening in the Caribbean and not focusing on Asia.  A good thing as we did not need a war in Asia.  We never needed one and should have heeded that a few years later.


  1. Nice post mike. It's interesting that we had made no commitment to support India at all from what little I've read. It was more the result of what Schelling talks about as what often comes down to "policy", that is not a "staffed out" plan at all, but more the nature of a prediction based on a whole series of interlocking means, motives and constraints. We had no treaty with India, but had the Chinese Army kept marching south . . . and of course the Chinese and Indians knew that . . .

  2. Don't forget that at the time India was a Soviet semi-client and one of the main forces behind the "non-aligned" movement that the U.S. of the day interpreted as (as Dubya might have said had he been in office) "if we're not with you we're against you."

    So I'm not entirely surprised that the U.S. didn't have an overt dog in that fight. As you say, seydlitz, there was a policy and I'm sure that the Pentagon was keeping an eye on things, but absent an invitation from the government of India, what would they have done, seriously?

    Likewise I wonder about today's tensions. Certainly the U.S. has an interest in who "controls" the South China Sea, or what occurs along the Indo-Chinese border; we have economic interests in the region and political connections with several of the nations in the area.

    But the bottom line is that we are not closely aligned with either "side"; our relations with India are fraught because of our need to snuggle up to the Pakistanis because of the Afghan war, and while we're not an obvious "enemy" of China we are clearly in a position of wanting to ensure that the Chinese do not become a peer competitor...

    So my thought is that I wish I believed that my government had a genuine ability to define its national interests in such a way so as to devise a flexible and workable policy towards this region. As it is, I suspect that we will continue to "muddle through" more through our overwhelming size and strength and the relative impotence of the regional powers than any sort of Metternichian brilliance on our part.

  3. FDChief-

    It seems there was an invitation by the Indian government to get involved . . .

    --At one point of time, Nehru got so worried that he sent two letters to then US President John F Kennedy requesting the support of US Air Force in fighting the Chinese. The letters, delivered between November 15 and November 20, 1962, are still classified.

    But S Gopal, in his biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, has summarised the content of the letters: "Nehru, without consulting anybody in his Cabinet, wrote two letters to Kennedy describing the situation as 'really desperate' and requesting the immediate dispatch of a minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters and the setting up of radar communications. American personnel would have to man these fighters and installations and protect Indian cities from air attacks by the Chinese till Indian personnel had been trained."

    "Nehru also sought two B-47 bombers squadrons from the US to enable India to strike at Chinese bases and air fields, but to learn to fly these planes Indian pilots and technicians would be sent immediately for training in the US," Gopal had written.

    But on November 20, 1962, China declared a unilateral ceasefire. India lost extensive territory. In NEFA, the Chinese captured huge territory, advanced nearly 200 km and almost reached the Assam plains. In the end, both the sides withdrew their troops 20 km from new boundary lines on December 1, 1962.--

  4. Interesting. I'll BET Nehru and Kennedy kept it a deep dark secret; Jawaharlal would have lost major face if his Congress buddies had known he was begging the Yankees to help save his ass.

    Here's a dramatic little account of the "Battle of Namka Chu" ( that may be what mike remembers...

    Frankly, I'd have been shocked if the Indians had managed to do better than a slow retreat against the PLA in 1962. Here was a force that had never really been tested in combat (as an army - individuals and small units might have had some veterans of WW2...), fighting in some of the worst terrain in the world, against a decent light infantry Army with fairly recent cold weather combat experience in Korea.

    If the Indian government hadn't been completely arrogant they'd have just pulled back and given up the Thagla Ridge and saved a bunch of guys.

    And here I just finished up discussing Sedan 1870 over at GFT; amazing how many pigheaded politicians through history have managed to get poor sad GI bastards killed fulfilling their little wet-dreams of Empire...

  5. Snd here's an intriguing what-if, from tapes reported by the Mumbai and Taipei times:

    "In a May 1963 National Security Council meeting, contingency planning on the part of the United States in the event of another Chinese attack on India was discussed. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor advised the president to use nuclear weapons should the Americans intervene in such a situation. McNamara stated "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. Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers."

    After hearing this and listening to two other advisers, Kennedy stated "We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India."

    It remains unclear if his aides were trying to dissuade the President of considering any measure with regard to India by immediately raising the stakes to an unacceptable level, nor is it clear if Kennedy was thinking of conventional or nuclear means when he gave his reply.

    By 1964 China had developed its own nuclear weapon which would have likely caused any American nuclear policy in defense of India to be reviewed.

    The Johnson Administration considered and then rejected giving nuclear weapons technology to the Indians."


  6. Seydlitz:

    I believe those formal November 15/22 letters you mention were a follow-up. John Kenneth Galbraith was Ambassador to India at the time. His personal ties to the Kennedys gave him direct access to the WH without going through the State Department, even bypassing Dean Rusk. The administration probably needed them as a cover for Congress or at least for the Senate and House Armed Service Committees.

  7. In all the question as to what the US response would have been to a second Sino-Indian confrontation is interesting, but what exactly would China have gotten out of it? Their interests were satisfied by giving the Indian Army a bloody nose, securing the border area, and ending the fighting while the US was focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Pakistan would have been on their side, but with India, the US and the USSR against . . .

    As to the use of nuclear weapons, we didn't use them against China in 1950-53, would we have used them against a nuclear capable China to assist India in the 1960s?

  8. Chief –

    Nice link on the Namka Chu Battle. The 7th Brigade Commander mentioned, John Dalvi, was a POW of the Chinese for six or seven months. He had been decorated for bravery by the Brits in Burma during the crossing of Irrawaddy river while under fire. G. MacD. Fraser, author of the Flashman series, was there too and said of the enemy on the other side of the Irrawaddy: "Bloody great Jap Imperial Guardsman - Aye, White Tigers, runnin' all ower the shop, shoutin' Banzai!"

    In 1969 Dalvi wrote the book, “Himalayan Blunder”
    That book was immediately banned in India. His accounts were in line with those in Maxwell’s book that I cited above.

    Dalvi accused General Kaul (Indian Army CofGS) and Krishna Menon (Minister of Defense) of gross incompetence. Menon comes across as a Rumsfeld on steroids. He meddled in every miniscule detail of the Army, installed yes-men like Kaul and others in key position, undermined or passed over any who dared to speak truth to power, and in 62 refused to take military and terrain factors into consideration. Kaul and other of high ranking Menon yes-boys in New Delhi gave orders down to the platoon level with no knowledge of the situation on the ground and ignored the concerns of commanders on the spot.

    More later. I need to run the bride to her appointment.

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  10. Chief –

    General Umrao Singh, Indian XXXIII Corps Commander was another victim of Kaul and Menon. Singh was a former field artillery havildar – a man after your own heart. He was a veteran of both North Africa and later Burma and was presented a Victoria Cross by King George.

    In September and early October of 62 Singh as Corps Commander backed up his subordinates and refused to be rushed into “…putting his troops where he could not supply them”.

    Menon initially screamed for him to be relieved of command. But then he (Menon) and the political generals recognized a danger to themselves if it became known to the opposition party. So they quietly displaced him instead. They simply assigned Singh and his Corps staff another mission to plan COIN against the Nagas but gave them no troops and formed a new IV Corps HQ to take over the units of the XXXIII. The 7th Brigade at Namka Chu and other units of XXXIII Corps at Wa Long, Tambang, Se La, and Bomdi La never did get their resupply and ended up getting kicked out of NEFA freezing and hungry, with no ammo.

  11. Seydlitz –

    Regarding your 4:45 comment: ”…ending the fighting while the US was focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

    Some at the time believed that China knew in advance of what was going on in Cuba and so timed their attacks when they knew we would be too busy to respond. Joe Alsop writing in the NY Herald Tribune in November 62 made that claim: ”China could easily have been warned unofficially by their important Cuban contacts or perhaps by their sympathizers in the Soviet general staff. It was hard to believe, at any rate, that it was just pure chance.” Throughout his journalistic career Alsop admitted to having contacts in the CIA. But whether that particular claim was speculation, or based on legitimate leaked intel, or whether he was passing on agitprop from the CIAs Operation Mockingbird is unknown.

    But Maxwell the author of my primary source that I mentioned in the post above does not put much stock in that idea. He feels that the Chinese attack went off when it did based on two things: 1] the developments at the time in the dispute with India and 2] falling water conditions in the Namka Chu river which allowed Chinese infantry to ford that normally deep and fast running river on foot.

    If Alsop’s claim was true then it would concede to the Chinese a tremendous foresight in predicting American reaction and then timing the attack so exactly.

  12. mike-

    You're right, putting together this whole set of interlocking and contingent situations to resounding strategic effect would have been a masterstroke by the Chinese, if in fact they had done so . . . if not, it was a success nonetheless. This would be interesting to compare to the Chinese-Vietnam conflict of 1979 . . .

  13. Seydlitz -

    The whole reason for the post was not to relive history. Rather I was curious about America's new policy shift, what some have called the 'pivot to Asia'.

  14. mike-

    OK, but as a result of such a 'pivot' it might be interesting to see how the Chinese have used military force in limited wars in the recent past, as you've done here. Comparing two historical examples might indicate something of a pattern which could be repeated in the future . . . You've got a good handle on this subject, and you do know something about Vietnam as well . . . just saying . . . Especially since the US hasn't got a very good track record in anticipating "strategic shocks" . . .

    So, take this for what it's worth. Classes have begun again and I'm on full "teaching mode" at this point . . . sorry. ;-)>

  15. Seydlitz -

    The pattern of their history since they took over in 49 seems to be limited as you mentioned - border wars primarily and over disputed boundary lines for the most part. You could make an exception for Korea but the Chinese view would be different. They claim in the Korean War that Chinese airspace was violated prior to their crossing the Yalu.

    Consider their other wars:

    1950 - Tibet they considered to be the 24th province of China since the time of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century.

    1954 - They invaded and occupied Ichiangshan and bombed the Tachen Islands forcing a Nationalist withdrawal. They shelled Quemoy and Matsu Islands. You could argue that this was an extension of the Chinese Civil War. True, but is was still about disputed borders.

    1958 - Quemoy again subjected to intense atillery bombardment with over 2000 Nationalist troops KIA.

    1962 - India, border disputes in both Ladakh and NEFA. China keeps Ladakh in the west, withdraws from much of their advance into NEFA but only to their version of the McMahon line.

    1969 - ZhenBao Island incident with the Soviets
    and later in the same year at Tielieketi in Kazakhistan. Both eventually resolved in favor of Chinese.

    1979 - Sino-Vietnamese War, the primary reason may have been Cambodia which does not touch Chinese borders. And that may have been the trigger. However the two countries had longstanding territorial disputes involving territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, sovereignty over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, and a small (60 square miles) of land on the Yunnan/Viet border.

    1988 - Johnson South Reef Skirmish. When Viet Navy re-occupied some of the Spratlys, the Chinese responded killing 70 Viet sailors and sinking or heavily damaging three Viet ships.

    The conclusion I draw is that the Chinese will defend what they claim as their territory. And perhaps they would only back down in certain cases as a bargaining chip for some other advantage. With their new economic clout they are perhaps less blatantly aggressive as in the past. So perhaps they will use more soft power rather than pure military force like in the past. Example, the PR battle in the Senkakus. Yet still, if confronted directly with force on one of these various territorial disputes they will probably respond in kind.

  16. Chief - Great post on your other blog Graphic Firing Table regarding the Franco-Prussian War.

    PS - where are you in the Olympics? In any case stay out of Forks during "Twilight Days".

  17. Nice work -- thanks. New here; found you via Ranger Against War.

    Minor quibble: "...and not focusing on Asia. A good thing as we did not need a war in Asia. We never needed one and should have heeded that a few years later."

    When JFK took office we had 900 troops in Vietnam -- by the end of '61, 3205; end of '62, 11,300. We were already well on our way to war in SE Asia.

    Meanwhile, in SW Asia, JFK had begun positioning Jupiter IRBMs hq'ed at Izmir in Turkey in November '61, conducting a Combat Training Launch for Turkey at Canaveral in April '62 -- a "last straw" which prompted Kruschev's May '62 decision to send IRBMs to Cuba.

    Anyway...please keep up the good work, and thanks again.