How Not to Fight a War: Sino-Indian War of 1962
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sat with his head in his hands. His India in the fall of 1962 was in a panic and very scared of a Chinese army rapidly advancing through her north. Nehru swallowed his pride and prepared a secret appeal.
The two nations share a long border along the Himalayas with Tibet in the east and a territory known as Aksai Chin in the west. The eastern border was known as the McMahon Line. China particularly resented the McMahon Line as it had been imposed upon her when the British ruled India.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Nehru tried to settle the matter but failed to agree. Nehru believed that India was morally right, a great nation basking in her Gandhian pacifist past. Abroad, India pursued a policy of non-alignment, that is, of not aligning herself with either the capitalist West or communist East.
- Subscribe to Armchair General Magazine
- Subscribe online and save nearly 40%!
Nehru implemented “The Forward Policy” in 1961. This policy was based on a firm conviction that no matter what India did China would not attack her. India would envelop the Chinese outposts with ones of her own. Since China would not fight, she would simply have to retreat from her posts once they were surrounded. India could then back up her claim militarily.
Deploying the Indian troops was quite difficult. The terrain was very high, over 4,000 meters in many areas. India did not have roads anywhere near the border; the troops walked instead.
The Indian Army created the new posts all the same. Simply getting into position exhausted the troops. They suffered from altitude sickness. Supplies were scarce. The Indian Air Force tried to re-supply them through airdrops but the weather prevented the drops much of the time.
China objected to the Indian outposts and repeatedly warned India. India pursued her policy, further convinced of her righteousness and a belief in no Chinese retaliation. India did not receive any intelligence that challenged this policy. With no real sources and poor analysis, her intelligence chief concluded that China would not fight India—based solely on his intuition.
India brought in more troops in 1962. She even established some positions north of the McMahon Line. The Chinese threatened to take action and simply were not going to let her positions fall through maneuver. Clashes broke out and there were casualties on both sides.
Chinese roads ran close if not up to the border so her troops were well-supplied. Her battle-tested army had fought the Americans, Japanese, and Nationalist Chinese over the previous two decades. They were accustomed to the terrain and had proper clothing.
The Indians were in disarray both militarily and politically. Nehru proclaimed that the Indian Army would forcibly push the Chinese back in the east, yet his military did not have the power to do so. But to not attack was political suicide. To withdraw from posts or even move them for military reasons was tantamount to defeat.
A general with no combat experience commanded India’s overall effort. He had no heavy artillery and scarcely any light pieces. Ammunition was limited to what the men had carried with them, usually about 50 rounds. The Indian troops were on hard rations and lacked many basic items such as barbed wire.
Following Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s dictum to never start a war you could not win, China made a number of moves. Through clever diplomacy, she determined the US had no plans to attack China or have the Nationalist Chinese attack China via Taiwan. China got assurances of Soviet backing in any conflict with India, perhaps with the Soviets believing they would get Chinese backing in the Soviet-American crisis over Cuba.
Mao wanted to force India to the negotiating table, or at least stop her movements on the border. The Chinese then struck hard with infantry and artillery on October 20th. Neither side used its Air Force. Chinese units destroyed some Indian outposts and captured others. The Chinese pressed on and the Indians simply could not stop them.
India tried to make a stand but could not get her troops to where she needed them nor move very many. The lack of roads hampered the arrival of reinforcements and any lateral movement. India did not have airstrips of any size in the area and very few helicopters. Airdrops could not supply her troops any better here than she could when they were in the border outposts.
Nehru abandoned his non-alignment policy. An urgent appeal went out for American and British aid. The small arms started to flow in. They never made it into action, although Chinese troops did capture some unpacked crates of American rifles.
Zhou Enlai tried again to negotiate with Nehru. He refused, demanding that the Chinese withdraw instead. The Chinese made another push in the middle of November in the east and advanced right to the Indian foothills, decimating three Indian infantry brigades in the process.
India panicked. The local government closest to the Chinese advance fled town, opening the prison and burning currency before they left. The Indian Army headquarters in the same town also pulled out. Government buildings were sandbagged in the capital of Delhi. People looked to the sky for Chinese paratroopers.
Nehru sent his secret appeal to US President John F. Kennedy on November 20th. Nehru requested American airstrikes and air cover over Indian cities.
But the war ended as quickly as it had begun. The Chinese started a unilateral ceasefire the next day. They gave up their gains and pulled their troops some 20 kilometers behind the McMahon Line. China told India to do the same. India complied.
Talks restarted. Nehru and Zhou Enlai sparred back and forth, but the border remained unsettled. To negotiate with the Chinese now on their terms was to admit defeat. But Nehru had lost a war, abandoned his non-alignment policy, and his political invincibility. He was a broken man and died two years later. The Indian-Chinese border remains disputed.
India did build up her Army, imported more weapons and developed an indigenous arms industry. These steps paid off, and India handled herself well in three wars with Pakistan.
India and China, two Asian giants, remain rivals. China exploded her first atomic bomb in 1964, India a decade later. The competition also extends to the Indian Ocean. This ocean is important to both nations. It is in India’s backyard but astride Chinese trade routes. India maintains a large navy with plans for at least two aircraft carriers and numerous submarines. China is developing naval bases in both Burma and Pakistan.
The Chinese record is mixed. Even in defeat, India refused to settle the Sino-Indian border. India also became much more of a military threat to China after the war.
Nehru and India blundered terribly. India considered her experience in dealing with the British for Indian independence but forgot that of fighting Japan in the Second World War: Opponents do not share your morality.
Rhetoric may change from non-violent to bellicose, but talk is meaningless without the strength to back it up. India learned a lesson—but it took losing a war to do so.
About the Author:
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.