BOSTON – Top advisers to President John F. Kennedy (search) warned him in 1963 that if he pledged to defend India against any attack by China, the United States would likely have to use nuclear weapons to enforce the commitment, according to a newly declassified tape recording.
George Ball, undersecretary of state in the Democratic administration, also warned in what today would be considered insensitive language that a nuclear response could subject the United States to charges of racism following the two atomic bombings of Japan that ended World War II (search).
"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 when we are talking about a different kind of strategy in Europe," Ball told the president during a May 9, 1963, national security meeting in the White House. "This is going to create great problems with the Japanese — with all the yellow people."
A six-page summary of the top secret meeting was released in 1996, but a tape of the conversation was made available only after it was subjected to a national security review based on updated federal guidelines.
The recording is the latest to be released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the official repository for Kennedy administration documents.
At the time of the 1963 tape, India was a fledgling democracy emerging from British colonial rule. China, bordering in part on northern India, was a firmly entrenched Communist country under the rule of Mao Zedong (search).
In one exchange on the tape, Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is heard telling Kennedy: "Mr. President, I had hoped before we get too deeply in the India question, we take a broader look at where we are coming, the attitude we're going to maintain versus Red China... 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."
Later, when Kennedy begins discussing the idea of guaranteeing India's security, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara steers the conversation back to China.
"Mr. President," McNamara is heard saying, "I think General Taylor is implying that 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."
The British government, then headed by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was reluctant to offer a similar security guarantee for India, which it granted independence in 1947. That vexed Kennedy, according to the tape, who asked Secretary of State Dean Rusk why it was important that the United States seek validation from its ally.
Rusk said: "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. We need to have those other flags flying on these joint enterprises."
Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, before he could issue such a guarantee.