The Day India and the US Didn’t Ally

There has been some mild excitement, in a nice academic sort of way, about the recent declassification of two letters Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to US President John F. Kennedy in 1962 asking that squadrons of the US Air Force be committed to defending India against China. In the second letter, Nehru is clearly panicked at the likelihood of the advancing Chinese army capturing “the entire Brahmaputra Valley” and “the whole of Assam.” The Indian prime minister said India had been unable to provide air support to its soldiers and asked for a “minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters” and a “modern radar cover [which] we don’t have.” He accepted that US Air Force personnel “will have to man these fighters and radar installations while our personnel are being trained.” He also asked for US fighter cover for Indian cities and installations in case of Chinese air attacks spreading to mainland India.

Though the letters were only recently declassified by the US, that Nehru asked for such military assistance and, in effect, accepted the burial of nonalignment has been well-known for years. I remember reading about it in college while perusing the India journal of the then-US ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, and later finding stray mentions of it while reading declassified US documents of the Kennedy administration when researching an undergrad paper. And a number of Indian books about the Sino-Indian War have referred to it as well.

Galbraith’s Ambassador’s Journal is pretty explicit about Nehru’s request. It doesn’t give the details, but it is clear in understanding the implications. Galbraith wrote in the journal (and expanded in the footnotes) that on November 19, 1962, India sent two “pleas for help.” The second one “sought full defensive intervention by our Air Force.” New Delhi, he wrote, wanted the US Air Force “to back them up so that they can employ theirs tactically without leaving their cities unprotected.” He also understood what this meant in terms of Indian foreign policy: “The nonalignment I was asked about at lunch is far out of date; the Indians are pleading for military association.”

I don’t have any particular problems regarding Nehru’s request. The Chinese had swept through the Northeast Frontier Agency (modern-day Arunachal Pradesh) and the prime minister had to assume that they would continue their advance. Nonalignment as a foreign policy was designed to keep India out of the way of the storms and stresses of the Cold War, allowing it to concentrate on its economic development. Clearly, it wasn’t working too well at that point. Nehru concluded that he needed to change his foreign policy to something closer to a military alliance with the US. In the end, China withdrew and Nehru was able to salvage nonalignment, at least as a rhetorical concept — though 1962 was to take India down a path that eventually led to a soft alignment with the Soviet Union.

What I think is more interesting is what the US response to India’s request for a de facto military alliance was: Washington refused. Even these days, one often hears warnings against India forming a military alliance with the US, that the US has been seeking such an alliance for the past 50 years, and so India must watch out.

Well, in 1962, the US was offered such an alliance by India. And Washington said, in effect, “Let’s not be too hasty.” Galbraith is quite clear on this point. He thought India’s idea of calling in the US Air Force was silly: “I am not sure that there is any useful conception back of this.” In fact, hours before Nehru had sent his letters to Kennedy, Galbraith had  made a speech in New Delhi saying the US wasn’t in the business of signing military alliances any more — it hadn’t signed one in the past eight years. The Kennedy types were particularly scornful of the whole treaty alliance system that Eisenhower had set up. One of them, Roger Hilsman, whom I met in Calcutta in the 1980s, still scornfully spoke of “pact-o-mania.” As Galbraith wrote, the State Department response to Nehru’s “second midnight letter” was full of questions about how to get someone else to bail out India. “What about mobilizing the resources of the Commonwealth, etc? What about the United Nations?” The issue of alliance didn’t come up.

Galbraith’s subsequent memoir, if I remember correctly, also speaks of his alarm at the idea of having an expensive and large country like India as a US ally. The subsequent Harriman Mission sent by Kennedy to evaluate the situation after the Chinese withdrawal, about which about 60 pages were declassified, only concerns how to use the 1962 war to try and get India and Pakistan to forge an alliance against communist China. Nehru, to his credit, was prepared to at least take the first step in this direction. Pakistan had no interest whatsoever and scuppered the idea.

Anyway, Nehru’s midnight letters are a parable about how this entire Indo-US alliance business is the stuff of urban myth. The US was fleetingly interested in the 1950s, but after that the idea simply faded away. And if Washington was so unenthusiastic about such an idea during the height of the Cold War, one can only calculate how less excited it is about a formal alliance with anyone in the present day. I am not too certain, but I suspect the US has probably not signed any formal military alliance with any country since the 1950s, at best one or two.



Copyright © 2010 the Hindustan Times

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