November Surprise: U.S. Reaction to Chinese Communist Restraint during the Sino-Indian War

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:50 PM
Marriott Balcony A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jeffrey Crean, Texas A&M University
Partially overlapping in duration with the far more perilous Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1962 Sino-Indian War has been largely overlooked by Cold War historians. When it is discussed, the standard conclusion drawn has been that Communist China’s invasion of Indian territory confirmed that polity’s image as an aggressor nation among its many American detractors, and disenchanted those few individuals who at the time advocated U.S.-P.R.C. rapprochement. However, the archival record, as well as writings in contemporary periodicals, reveals this was hardly the case. Chinese actions did shock American political leaders and opinion makers. They were shocked that Mao Zedong acted in such a calculating and rational manner, fighting a limited war with limited means for limited goals. By abjuring the opportunity to further exploit his victory, and ordering PLA forces to retreat from the edge of the Assam Plain immediately after achieving a decisive tactical victory, China’s leaders contradicted their prevalent image as belligerent and unpredictable. Coming in the immediate aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, and during the acrimonious Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese shocked the western world by displaying impressive power projection capabilities, even when at their weakest. The victory was not without its costs for the Chinese, particularly its catalytic effects on their deteriorating relationship with their former Soviet patrons. It proved less beneficial to U.S. interests than American leaders anticipated, due to the difficulty of fitting South Asian security concerns into a cookie-cutter Cold War mold. But it played far less of a role than Chinese rhetoric in aggravating U.S. Sinophobia. Americans noticed Communist China’s loud barks far more than its small bites.