In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy and his aides discussed the feasibility of using nuclear weapons in the event China attacked India for a second time, according to newly declassified recordings released Thursday by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Over the crackle of the decades-old tapes, Kennedy and his advisers can be heard discussing how to prevent India from becoming, in the popular idiom of the day, another domino to fall to Communism.
Robert McNamara, Kennedy's defense secretary, is heard to say: "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 US, and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of US soldiers."
McNamara said in a telephone interview on Thursday that he could not remember the conversation, "but it is probably correct."
Minutes later, after hearing from McNamara and two other advisers, Kennedy says, "We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India" if attacked. It is not clear from the tapes whether Kennedy was speaking of using nuclear weapons or of defending India in more conventional terms.
"The context is that Kennedy was very, very pro-India," said Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on South Asian security. "He saw India as a natural balance to China," Cohen said of Kennedy. "That was not true of his advisers. My guess is that they didn't want to see American ground troops get involved in a war."
Cohen recalled the political climate of the time and suggested that Kennedy's aides might have had another motive for bringing up the possible use of nuclear weapons. "We were tied up in Korea; we were worried about the Russians," he said. "And, conceivably, they said `nuclear' because they didn't want him to do anything for India; that this was a way of raising the stakes so high as to make it not an option."
Indian analysts said they were stunned by the disclosure.
"I do not recollect in the public domain such an explicit commitment to nuke China," said C. Uday Bhaskar, a commodore in the Indian Navy who heads a research organization in New Delhi financed by the Indian Defense Ministry. "I'm sure it will have antennae up in China."
"Obviously, there are resonances between 1963 and 2005," said Sugata Bose, a professor of South Asian history at Harvard University. "How to contain China is the common thread."
In 1963, the US believed that China might have "expansionist designs," Bose said in a telephone interview from Calcutta, while in 2005 "the United States knows the Chinese leadership is consciously pragmatic and is eager to avoid the perception of being expansionist."
At the same time, Bose said, "The reality is that China is a much stronger power today, because the economic dimension has been added to the military and strategic one."
The deliberations in May 1963 are especially striking in light of their timing just seven months after two events that shook geopolitics: the Cuban missile crisis and an invasion of India by China, which sought to acquire disputed border territories.
In one section of the tapes, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is heard telling Kennedy: "This is just one spectacular aspect of the overall problem of how to cope with Red China politically and militarily in the next decade. I would hate to think that we would fight this on the ground in a non-nuclear way."
Also on the tapes, Dean Rusk, Kennedy's secretary of state, counsels that the use of nuclear weapons would have to have support from America's allies. "I think we would be hard pressed to tell our own people why we are doing this with India when even the British won't do it or the Australians won't do it and the Canadians won't do it," Rusk says. "We need to have those other flags flying on these joint enterprises."
George Ball, then an under secretary of state, warned Kennedy that the use of nuclear weapons against China could create a perception of American hostility toward East Asians.
"If there is a general appearance of a shift in strategy to the dependence on a nuclear defense against the Chinese in the Far East, we are going to inject into this whole world opinion the old bugaboo of being willing to use nuclear weapons against Asians," Ball says.
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