Sixty years ago, on July 11, 1961, an extraordinary state visit occurred at Mount Vernon, the home of America’s first president, George Washington. It was a summit meeting that still reverberates today.
It was First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy who conceived of the summit at Mount Vernon between her husband John F. Kennedy and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Khan. She was inspired by the Kennedys’ visit to the Habsburgs’ Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna earlier in the year. She quietly approached the managers of the Mount Vernon estate, who eagerly agreed to host the Pakistanis. She also arranged for the jewelry store Tiffany’s to provide the flowers and decorations for the dinner.
Pakistan was an important partner for the United States in 1961, linked by treaty to the containment of the Soviet Union and China. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) flew U2 surveillance flights from Pakistani bases to monitor China’s emerging nuclear arsenal. The CIA also secretly supported Tibetan rebels fighting for independence from an airbase in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Ayub Khan had just suspended Pakistani cooperation with the Tibet covert operation because Kennedy had promised India a large economic aid package and signaled that a closer relationship with New Delhi was coming. The Pakistani dictator was against a closer American relationship with India. Shutting down the Tibet operation was a quiet behind the scenes way of expressing unease with Kennedy’s tilting towards India.
At the request of Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, JFK took Ayub Khan for a private one-on-one stroll in the mansion garden and asked the Pakistani leader to reopen the airbase for secret resupply flights to the rebels in Tibet. Ayub Khan agreed but asked for a commitment that no American military equipment would ever be provided to India without prior consultation with Pakistan. Kennedy agreed.
The dinner was a great success. The best and brightest of the new administration were there. The main course was poulet chasseur made in the White House and then reheated in a portable army kitchen in the grounds of the mansion.
The next spring Mrs. Kennedy traveled to India and Pakistan. It was the first trip abroad alone by a first lady in the television age. She dazzled viewers everywhere, including back home.
In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, China invaded India. As I have written in my book “JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and the Sino-Indian War,” Kennedy managed two huge and dangerous crises on opposite sides of the globe. The Indians appealed for American weapons, Kennedy ignored his promise to Ayub Khan, and a massive supply of arms flowed into India. Moreover, Kennedy made it clear that the United States would not tolerate Pakistani attempts to take advantage of India’s predicament in disputed Kashmir. The president was aided in handling the perilous crisis by his personal rapport with Ayub Khan created at Mount Vernon.
At the peak of crisis, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked Kennedy for American fighters, bombers, and their crews to join the fight against the Chinese. It was a momentous request. The United States would join in a war with China. Before Kennedy had to respond, the Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire.
The 1962 crisis set in train the dynamics that would lead decades later to the geopolitics of today with the United States aligned with India and Pakistan aligned with China. It helped spark the nuclear arms race in Asia. The crisis resonates throughout Asia today.
Today Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world, with one of the most active nuclear weapons programs. It is China’s closest and most important ally. Relations with India remain tense. Most immediately, Pakistan is supporting the Taliban offensive designed to topple the Afghan government in Kabul after the American withdrawal, though it publicly says it wants a political solution, not a Taliban military victory. The Pakistani army gives the Taliban safe haven, arms, training, and logistical support which are crucial to their ability to operate.
President Joe Biden has yet to talk to Prime Minister Imran Khan once since taking office. Imran Khan has recently spoken publicly about Islamabad’s close ties to Beijing, praising it as a role model and defending its oppression of its Uyghur Muslims. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has spoken with Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa more than once but has yet to meet with him in person. For the Afghan withdrawal, it is probably too late to change Pakistan’s policy to back the Taliban. The puzzle is why the administration is not engaging more actively with this important country.