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When India sought covert United States help to tackle the ‘triple squeeze’ of 1965

India feared Chinese military action to help Pak and Indonesian designs on Andaman, US cited Vietnam in turning down request

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: August 25, 2015 12:47:16 pm
India US military, Chinese threat, Lal Bahadur Shastri, India China threat, US China threat, Chinese movements, Nation news, india news Johnson with Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara (far right), with whom he discussed the possible Chinese threat.

At the peak of the 1965 war with Pakistan, India had asked the United States to covertly provide experts to work with Indian military officials to tackle the Chinese threat. This request was made to the US Embassy in Delhi by L K Jha, principal secretary to prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, on September 18, 1965, after India detected Chinese movements in battalion strength on the eastern border of Ladakh and in Chumbi Valley.

Worried by indications that China was getting ready for military action against India to relieve the pressure on Pakistan, Jha stressed to the embassy that providing military planners “need not imply favourable US response to India’s request for help if Chinese attack. However, if an attack should come it could speed up effective assistance by several days”.  His request “on strictly covert basis to authorise US personnel to consult with Indian military planners on contingency basis” is mentioned in a telegram sent by the US embassy to the State Department. That telegram, since declassified, is in the US National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66.


The embassy recommended a favourable response to Jha’s request, but the State Department instructed the embassy with a return telegram that the “decision taken at the “highest level” was to avoid commitment of any sort “pending the unfolding of the situation”. The embassy was asked to tell the Indian government “that the US commitment in Vietnam was heavy and increasing”.

The US too had been worried about the possibility of China opening a front against India in support of Pakistan. On September 8, China had sent India a note protesting violations of Chinese territory by Indian troops and warning that if these did not cease, “India must bear responsibility for all consequences arising therefrom.”

That very day, US President Lyndon Johnson and secretary of defense Robert McNamara discussed on phone what they saw as dangerous possibilities.  According to the Recording of Telephone Conversation of September 8, 1965, 6 pm (Tape F65.02, Side A, PNO 1 held with Johnson Library), Johnson told McNamara about the Chinese note to India: “And looked like she [China] was threatening to today, didn’t she?” McNamara responded: “She’ll threaten and we ought to know what we’d do if she did move. We’d be in a terrible jam if she did and we didn’t have plans. So we’ll be working on that.”

Indian ambassador to the US B K Nehru had also raised Delhi’s concerns about China and Indonesia when he met Johnson for an off-the-record meeting on September 9. Nehru handed over PM Shastri’s letter to Johnson and said that Delhi “felt there was a clear Chinese-Pakistani-Indonesian understanding ‘to put a triple squeeze on us’.”

President Johnson said the thought that the Chinese could attack India was “giving us gray hairs right now”. Nehru said India “thought the Indonesian contribution might be to take the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India couldn’t stop this; it had no navy”.

On September 17, Nehru handed another letter from Shastri to Johnson and requested the secretary of state, Dean Rusk, for a formal statement warning China “that US will intervene if Chicoms [Chinese Communists] attack India”. Nehru also requested Rusk that the US “come to India’s assistance if Chicoms attack”, though the nature of such assistance would be for the US to decide.

Rusk said only the President could take such a decision and any formal warning “would have no credible deterrent effect if not backed by decision to act”. He told Nehru that the US had used the Cabot-Wang talks, held on September 15 in Warsaw, to warn China about interfering in Indo-Pak fighting.

The war between India and Pakistan ended with a ceasefire on September 22, 1965.

The requests made to the US in 1965 differ from those made during the 1962 Indo-China war in one significant way. In 1965, these requests were made to the US verbally, by both Jha and B K Nehru. However in 1962, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had written to President John F Kennedy seeking “comprehensive assistance”, which included 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters and a modern radar system, from the US against China.

The decision to make only verbal requests for US help can be traced to what happened in Parliament in March 1965. Shastri had then threatened Sudhir Ghosh, a Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal, with expulsion for accusing PM Nehru of something no one saw possible.

Rudra Chaudhauri, senior lecturer at King’s College, London, told The Indian Express that “Sudhir Ghosh chanced upon these revelations some time after Nehru died. Kennedy in fact mentioned the request made by the erstwhile prime minister. In turn, Ghosh repeated Kennedy’s summary of Nehru’s request for direct US military assistance. Shastri was speechless.”

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