The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 brought the world close to a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But the Kennedy-Khrushchev drama eclipsed another momentous event that occurred at the same time: a border war between the world’s most populous countries, China and India. A new book by Bruce Riedel, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and Sino-Indian War [Brookings Institute Press], uncovers how the U.S. managed this Asian conflagration and was drawn into the conflict after Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru requested military supplies. China halted its advance before Kennedy had to decide whether to send bombers to attack the Chinese invasion force.

Yet, in important respects, the relationship among China, India and Pakistan is more threatening today than it was then, because all three now have nuclear weapons. Knowledge at Wharton asked Riedel, director of The Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and a former 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, about the lessons to be drawn from that “forgotten” crisis and the dangers the world faces today in South and East Asia. For several years, Riedel was on the international advisory board of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: The world in October 1962 was on the brink of a nuclear precipice. At the same time, China was at war with India. I can’t think of a less safe time since 1945, can you?

Bruce Riedel: No, I can’t. The fall of 1962 was the most dangerous period in the entire post-World War II era. It was a time when we faced Armageddon in the Caribbean. In contrast, China’s confrontation with India would not have led to Armageddon, but it did lead to profound shifts in the balance of power in Asia, many of which remain important today.

China and India in 1962 were regarded by many as roughly at the same level of development. But China went on to have a remarkably prolonged period of rapid economic growth, outrunning India over the course of the next half century and becoming a superpower. India is only now catching up with China. There are many reasons for this; one of them is China’s victory in the short border war in 1962.

Knowledge at Wharton: How so?

Riedel: China came out of that war with a great deal of confidence. Previously, after China’s civil war, it had gone on to a military stalemate in Korea and then decisively defeated its major Asian competitor. India was not only defeated, it tried to understand why it lost this race. Nehru, the prime minister at the time, was discredited. It was the beginning of moves toward acquiring nuclear-power status. There was another important consequence: China’s victory in 1962 and U.S. support for India in the war turned Pakistan away from its earlier policy of trying to be America’s “most allied ally” and towards aligning more with China.

“If you put Pakistan anywhere else, say, in the Middle East or Africa, it would be the dominant power…. It has 200 million people; it has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal.”

Knowledge at Wharton: How well did President Kennedy manage these twin crises of 1962?

Riedel: President Kennedy has rightly been credited with showing remarkable judgement and thoughtfulness in how he handled the situation in Cuba and how he looked for a way to get the Russians to bring missiles home while providing them with an honorable exit. As he was dealing with this huge problem, he was contending with an enormous issue in the Himalayas. China’s invasion looked briefly as if it would dismember the eastern part of India.

In retrospect, we know that didn’t happen, but at the time, not only the Indians, but also the Americans, including the ambassador in Delhi, thought it was a serious possibility. So here you have a president dealing with two very significant crises simultaneously. This was multitasking at the highest levels of decision-making and it really was Kennedy’s finest hour.

Knowledge at Wharton: India, China and Pakistan have since become nuclear powers. This fact alone would seem to make the world less stable than when they did not have nuclear weapons. Do you agree?

Riedel: You are absolutely right. We had a bipolar system in the Cold War that proved remarkably stable in retrospect. Now we have multiple power centers. China and India are both equipped with nuclear weapons, and we have Pakistan, which is often forgotten because it is smaller than India and China.

But if you put Pakistan anywhere else, say, in the Middle East or Africa, it would be the dominant power in the region. It has 200 million people; it has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. By some estimates it will have 350 nuclear weapons by 2020. It’s also a very unstable country, after a series of failed military dictatorships and failed civilian governments. India and Pakistan have fought four wars with each other and the situation there remains very tense.

Then, there is the axis between China and Pakistan that goes back to 1962. Today it is one of the most dynamic alliances you can find anywhere in the world. China intends to invest $46 billion in Pakistan over the next few years. The long-term goal is to build a superhighway from Western China across Pakistan to the Gulf of Oman and the entrance to the Persian Gulf. This is one of the most grandiose economic development projects in the world.

So, we have three power centers in that region. And the U.S. is also a relevant player. It’s too simplistic to describe it as a China-Pakistan axis versus a U.S.-India axis, but there is an element of truth to this. I don’t think there is a chance of another Sino-Indian war, but there’s a significant chance of another Indo-Pakistan war. China and the U.S. would inevitably be drawn in, to try to prevent the war from getting completely out of control.

Knowledge at Wharton: This being the case, I wonder whether you think the U.S. pays enough attention to relations with, and among, the three of them? And if not, how should its policy change, if at all?

“China’s long-term goal is to build a superhighway from Western China across Pakistan to the Gulf of Oman and the entrance to the Persian Gulf — one of the most grandiose economic development projects in the world.”

Riedel: After the Sino-Indian War, India and Pakistan fell off the American radar screen for a very long time. This changed in 2000, when President Clinton went to India. Then George W. Bush visited, and President Obama is the first president to go to India twice during his terms in office. But he has never gone to Pakistan, which has become the “bad boy” of U.S. foreign policy for understandable reasons.

The question is how well do we understand the triangular relationship, and here I think the U.S. has a problem. We usually look at China from a Pacific perspective, we look at Pakistan from the point of view of the Middle East and we look at India in isolation.

Knowledge at Wharton: How often have U.S. presidents had to deal with two major crises at a time?

Riedel: President Roosevelt dealt with a global conflict. That was multitasking to a remarkable degree and I will put that in a separate category. In the years since then, there have been many crises, but none have approached the character of the fall of 1962. In the Cuban case, Kennedy set up an “excomm” of the smartest people in his admin and let them deliberate and provide recommendations. In the end, he really didn’t listen to this committee, because it tended to find the lowest common denominator, which was to use force. Kennedy wisely said force didn’t make sense in the missile crisis.

In the Sino-Indian conflict, he turned to his ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, a Harvard academic and somebody he’d known for a long time. Galbraith advised him to take a nuanced approach: recognizing the China threat, urging that the U.S. should respond toughly to China, while keeping Pakistan neutral.

There is a great “what if” in all this. What if the Chinese had not unilaterally stopped their advance? What would Kennedy have done? He receives these two extraordinary letters from Nehru, at the tail end of the Cuban missile crisis. Nehru asks the U.S. to send an expeditionary force of 350 warplanes to defend Indian airspace and bombers to attack China.

In the end, Kennedy never had to answer the request because the Chinese unilaterally stopped fighting. But if China had not stopped, it is my judgment that JFK probably would have had said “yes” to Nehru, because he did not want to let China dismember India. The U.S. would have intervened more forcefully than it already had. We had already begun an air resupply mission for India along with the British; we were not a neutral player.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is there any possibility of a repetition of a Sino-Indian war? How do you think the U.S. would react if a military conflict broke out between China and India, or if there was another war between India and Pakistan and China were drawn in?

Riedel: Well, the stakes have gone up exponentially. What was a conventional-war nightmare in the 20th Century has now become a nuclear nightmare in the 21st.

Knowledge at Wharton: What are the lessons of 1962 about how the U.S. should deal with more than one crisis at a time?

Riedel: One is that leadership and experience really do count. Kennedy came to the White House an extraordinarily young man, but he had had a lot of experience, including having served in the navy in World War II, as well as experience in Congress. His family background exposed him to a lot as well.

In contrast, neither Clinton nor George W. Bush nor Obama have ever fought on a battlefield. Even for JFK, his first year was a steep learning curve — he made one mistake after another. But he learned how to deal with multiple crises. So experience and learning on the job count for a lot. You need somebody who is not going to his or her first rodeo in the Oval Office.

“I don’t think there is a chance of another Sino-Indian war, but there’s a significant chance of another Indo-Pakistan war. China and the U.S. would inevitably be drawn in….”

Knowledge at Wharton: You seem to be saying that in the absence of that kind of experience, you have to have an organizational mechanism of experienced people to support decision-making.

Riedel: Well, 1962 showed how a president listened to advice, particularly of his military team. Military leaders are more likely to use the means they have spent their career developing. In the U.S. in the past two decades, we have learned that the premature use of force can get you into a quagmire. And it’s fair to say that Obama has learned the limits in the use of force, but may be overcompensating the other way. I don’t see the presidency being able to come up with institutional checks and balances. It should, but in the end, it’s really a lot about the quality of the guy at the top of the totem pole.

Knowledge at Wharton: What does the Sino-India war tell us about China’s diplomatic and military stance since then, especially in the South China Sea?

Riedel: Of course, China today is not the China of Mao Zedong. Unlike today’s leadership, Mao was an absolute dictator in the starkest terms, but there are some important continuities. China was determined in the 1950s to regain what it perceived as lost territory in Tibet. It was determined to maintain territorial unity and the integrity of its vision of what China was. And in many ways, what we are seeing in the South China Sea today is that same vision, that these are China’s territorial waters.

Knowledge at Wharton: The South China Sea, though, is much more strategically important than remote territory on the Sino-Indian border.

Riedel: Yes, the South China Sea is more of a global focal point. Major shipping routes cross it and it’s a place where a number of significant powers are jostling for influence.

Knowledge at Wharton: Kennedy asked in 1959 whether India or China would be the first to gain great-power status. China seems to have won hands down, at least in terms of the size of GDP. Is there any yardstick by which you would reckon India is more powerful than China today?

Riedel: I think there is one yardstick by which India is more powerful and that’s in the realm of soft power. With all of its many flaws, the democratic process is the best kind of governance you could have. In that sense, the Indian experiment of taking a large, complex country and making it work as a democracy means that in the long-term, India will outdo the Chinese vision of leadership, composed of an unelected self-appointed party.

We are awestruck by China’s economic expansion, but we can already see that a lot of Chinese development raises serious questions. And China will continue to be the last significant Communist party system. In that sense India does have a soft-power advantage in the long run.