Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Nov 29, 2011 in War College

How Not to Fight a War: Sino-Indian War of 1962

By Hans Johnson

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.

Disputed area between China and India. Click to enlarge.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.


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's prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Bundesarchiv.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.

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1946.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.



  1. Excellent quote: “Opponents do not share your morality” Everyone should be made to learn this.
    Do you feel this war, Kashmir, and the three (four) wars with Pakistan have caused India to move away from Ghandi’s ideals?

  2. “Opponents do not share your morality ?”
    How’s that quote even relevant to the account of the war given in the article ??
    1. From the account, assessment of Chinese morality had nothing to do with Nehru’s Forward Polcy. It was a guess that the Chinese would not respond (by some accounts because some Indian circles regarded Chinese military potential with contempt.)
    2. Nehru’s decision to “check mate” the other side into retreating, thus giving him land, could hardly have involved any moral consideration ? It was therefore a political war with a political result and the usual human tragedy for the soldiers on both sides who had to fight it.

  3. Too many 0ne-sentence paragraphs. “China destroyed Indian outposts and destroyred others.” Other what? Proof read more and wake the editor up.

    • Hi, Jim. Obviously, the writer meant to say “captured” in place of one of his uses of the word “destroyed.” That did slip past me in editing; sometimes the eye sees what the mind thinks is there. Thanks for drawing it to my attention so I could correct it. However, I don’t know why you would be seeing a lot of one-sentence paragraphs. The only one is the one that follows About the Author. If you are seeing others, it may be a browser issue.

  4. The greatest lesson from Nehru about how “not to fight a war” could perhaps be that idealism, self-delusion and complacency are the root causes of defeat. Nehru happily believed the Chinese at their word and tried to hold them to his “European” standard of conduct and diplomacy. But unlike the Europeans he was a naïve idealist and a romantic who thought his ideals would carry him through the day come what may! Even after hostilities began, Nehru was unwilling to commit India absolutely to war. He was hesitant and tried to use rhetoric and propaganda to force a political solution, where as the Chinese were not interested and committed themselves and their forces fully to the conflict.
    Nehru’s daughter Indira was far more aggressive than her father ever was and when she came to power, she used the military quite aggressively giving them wide latitude and willing to plunge India into war when she saw fit. She was responsible for the crushing of the Sikh insurgency, the liberation of Bangladesh and the destruction of feudalism in India. However, she was also the only Indian Prime Minister to be “removed” from office and jailed for her abuse of power. Her past unfortunately caught upto her and she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

  5. Another thing to remember about Nehru’s use of the military at the time was the size and cost of the army. The army was probably the biggest employer in India and had an officer corps still remembering their British training. Yet, the military was a huge expense for what was then a poor country. How do you justify something if you don’t use it?

  6. Funny that the author in the end said that the Chinese didn’t share the same morality with India. What morality? The Indians unilaterally moving into Chinese territory believing that the Chinese won’t counterattack them. Is it morally right to steal the land of your neighbor?

    It is also funny to read the Indian readers comment on how the Chinese betrayed India. The Chinese never said it wouldn’t counterattack if the Indian kept moving into Chinese territory. In fact, the Chinese had warned Nehru not to do that. But Nehru and its stupid generals didn’t listen. So who to blame?

  7. what stealing of land are you talking about………………..that land which chinese stolen from tiebet ……..china has border disputes with each neghbiour country…..cuse chinese dicttors wnt everything……..
    its only china to be blamed.

  8. I am an Indian. And I do say that Pt Nehru didn’t exactly come out clean on dealing with this issue in 1962. He was an adamant man for sure. But did he stand for the right thing or ideals based on false principles is still debatable. Despite what propaganda was spread in India, the fact cannot be denied that china pulled out unilaterally when they had a chance to overrun half of northern India before being stopped. Yet many in my country get emotional and blame it all on china for the 1962 debacle.