Nehru’s pride, Indo-American relationship and the Indo-China war


Pic courtesy

Gurcharan Das, in his book India Unbound, makes a pithy statement. When individuals make blunders, it’s sad but when leaders make blunders, it’s a tragedy. He was referring to Indira Gandhi but the statement applies equally to her father too. Nehru’s socialist leanings are well-known. What’s less known is that he was more attached to his personal ideology than the national interest. This letter from John Kenneth Galbraith (to JFK), in Ambassador’s Journal, illustrates that clash.. in the midst of the Indo-China war when India fervently requested (and the US obliged) with timely military aid. Nehru’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge America’s/JFK’s help is shocking and tragic.. especially when there was absolutely no anti-Americanism on the ‘Indian street’.

New Delhi, India

November 13, 1962

Dear Mr. President,

I have been waiting for the past ten days to give you a more detailed and intimate account of our affairs here. I have been sending rather full dispatches to the Department, some of which you have doubtless seen. But as you will have discovered, few Ambassadors have ever been completely candid in such reports. There is truth and there is also what one must have believed. I merely try to minimize the difference.

These past three weeks have brought great change here – no doubt the greatest change in public attitudes since World War II. The most treasured of preconceptions have been shattered. The disillusion with the Chinese is of course total. So, save at the top, is that with the Soviets. And the other unaligneds are not very popular. Nehru remains an exception. Even he is now hoping only for friendly neutrality from the Soviets rather than actual support. But with him there is another factor. All his life he has sought to avoid being dependent upon the United States and the United Kingdom – most of his personal reluctance to ask (or thank) for aid has been based on this pride. Now nothing is so important to him, more personally than politically, than to maintain the semblance of this independence. His age no longer allows of readjustment. To a point we can, I feel, be generous on this. …[Footnote#1]

One thing much on my mind these last days has been the American press. We have had a great influx of correspondents plus a large itinerant delegation covering the arms lift. … Were they bottled up here, the Indians would  get a bad press and so, inter alia, would we. I have now pretty well broken through on this, though I had to go to the Prime Minister himself. There will be many stories on the infirm character of his leadership, but that is not our business. I think Nehru is still playing down our role to protect the sensitivities of the Soviets and perhaps, more especially, to protect his own feelings. I have told him this was something we couldn’t take and have pictured the repercussions in the American press. We cannot decently help someone who is afraid to be seen in our company. There will be some damage along these lines, I fear.


long paragraphs on what China intends to accomplish with the war, followed by paragraphs on opportunism showed by Pakistan/Ayub.. Ends with comments on America’s Kashmir policy.


[Footnote #1]: There followed a long discussion of Indian political personalities which, along with some later references, I have deleted for reasons of taste. Another change has been made in this letter. In the private language of the State Department, the Pakistanis are sometimes referred to as “the Paks.” It is not, I think, an agreeable usage.


Saigon and its women


Saigon, 1961 (Pic courtesy Life/

Saigon has a curious aspect. It is a rather shabby version of a French provincial city – say, Toulouse, as I remember it. Life proceeds normally and it has the most stylish women in all Asia. They are tall with long legs, high breasts and wear white silk pajamas and a white silk robe, split at the sides to the armpits to give the effect of a flat panel fore and aft. On a bicycle or scooter they look very compelling and one is reminded once again that an ambassadorship is the greatest inducement to celibacy since the chastity belt.

Saigon, 1961 (Pic courtesy

Restaurants, nightclubs and hotels flourish as they seem always to do in cities in extremis. Yet one moves around with an armed guard and a group of gunmen following in a car behind. The morale of the Americans seems to be rather good although I wonder a little bit about our technical assistance program. The people assigned to the country are confined almost exclusively to Saigon since travel has become too dangerous. I can’t imagine that the agriculturalists, for example, are of much value under these circumstances. The Ambassador there, a decent man who is trying to obey orders, has been treated abominably by the State Department. He first heard of Max’s mission on the radio. I would reluctantly tell you who is responsible for this management were steps taken to overcome my natural grace and charity.

The above extract is from a Nov 28, 1961 letter — from John Kenneth Galbraith to President John F. Kennedy — a few weeks after Galbraith’s visit to Saigon. This, and many other interesting stories, recounted by Galbraith in Ambassador’s Journal about his tenure as US Ambassador to India.

Curious superficial pugnacity about the American people


Pic: courtesy

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about many interesting things during his tenure as US Ambassador to India. In an Oct 9, 1961 letter to President John F. Kennedy, he writes the following about The Right, Democrats, Republicans, foreign policy, bipartisanship and pugnacity. Some of these observations are relevant even today.. and not just in the American democracy.

I do worry a good deal about the domestic political position in which our foreign policy will be placing us. Ahead of us, in fact, are the same difficulties that beset the Truman Era. The Right, in the United States, will always criticize reasonableness as softness. To be sensible is to appease. And to knock the Soviets or the Chicoms into the gutter is not the least bit warlike. It is the only thing they understand and respect. Democrats are warlike because they are weak-kneed.

The Truman Administration never developed a way of dealing with this dialectic. Sometimes it brought Republicans, including Dulles, into the Administration with the hope that this would blunt the attack. Sometimes it tried to show that it could talk as pugnaciously as the Republicans. Neither worked.

The answer, I am sure, is to pin the label of warrior firmly on these . . . [people]. This is not an emotional reaction but a sound political tactic to which they are vulnerable. When they speak of total victory they invite total annihilation. They aren’t brave but suicidal. There is a curious superficial pugnacity about the American people which, I am persuaded, does not go very deep. They applaud the noisy man but they reconsider if they think him dangerous. We must, I feel, make it clear that these men are dangerous. They survive because we have let them have the best of both worlds: they could appeal to the pugnacious as defenders of the peace.

These are matters which, of course, should be handled by craftsmen below your office. One of the major problems with foreign policy, as distinct from domestic policy, is the silence it imposes on almost all its defenders. Secretaries, under-secretaries and ambassadors, the natural debaters on these matters, are all silenced by tradition plus the myth of bipartisanship. So the attackers have it all to themselves. Sometime I would like to offer some thoughts on how to even the game.

Bipartisanship, incidentally, is a booby trap for Democrats. We make concessions to the Republicans and appoint them to office. We refrain from nailing the extremists to their nonsense. We mute our own defense or stand down. And, in the end, not only Goldwater but Eisenhower does not hesitate to attack. Cuba is a classic case.


Unspecialized and rotating authority of civil service


In an earlier post, Rebooting IAS an essential part of Reforms 2.0 on my other blog, I had summarized a LiveMint article which outlined the key systemic problems with the IAS cadre. A few fixes have been proposed by Columbia University Arvind Panagariya — one of which was to encourage greater specialization.

Pantnagar University (Uttaranchal) – Pic courtesy

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about many interesting things during his tenure as US Ambassador to India. In this journal entry (Sep 8, 1961), he astutely observes the utter mismatch between the responsibilities of a university’s Vice-Chancellor to the IAS cadre. He’s talking about two problems — the lack of specialization and the unpredictably short nature of the administrator’s tenure.

The Vice-Chancellor, a civil servant, K.A.P. Stevenson, is able and alert, although being a civil servant, there is always the possibility that he will be dispatched next week for another task. Placing these positions under the unspecialized and rotating authority of the civil service is unwise. No one is permanently and professionally associated with a task and with the assurance that the handiwork will be his.

The institution in question is the Uttar Pradesh Agricultural University — popularly known as GB Pant University or simply “Pantnagar” — India’s first agricultural university and regarded as the harbinger of Green Revolution.


Prime Minister is like the great banyan tree…


No – not the current ‘great’ Dr. Manmohan Singh.

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about many interesting things during his tenure as US Ambassador to India. The journal entry from Jul 1961 captures a slice of the Nehruvian Prime Ministership.

July 26 – New Delhi


Mr. SK Patil (Food & Agriculture Minister, Nehruvian years) – Pic courtesy

Later in the day I saw M. J. Desai who asked me what the “personal” invitation I had given to Indira Gandhi to accompany her father meant. I said the personal was in effect superimposed on official. He warned me in a friendly way to warn Chester Bowles (US Ambassador to India – 1951-53 and again from 1963) to pay a visit to Pakistan while her. Someone else should have thought of that first.

Finally tea with S.K. Patil (then Minister for Food and Agriculture) who gave me an exuberant and valuable account of his trip to the U.S.S.R., US and South America. I reproached him for saying in London that India had solved her food problem. He denied saying it. Or anyhow the papers had quoted what he didn’t want quoted. He recalled an earlier press interview in England when he was asked who would be the successor to Nehru. He had replied, “No one can say. The Prime Minister is like the great banyan tree. Thousands shelter beneath it but nothing grows.” He told me that, in consequence, his relations with Nehru had been strained for weeks.

Only “weeks”, I wondered. Had Patil been a minister in any recent Congress administration and committed a similar affront to the ‘Family’, he would probably been finished.



When Bokaro Steel Plant and America almost had a date…


Bokaro Steel Plant main gate (Pic: courtesy

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about many interesting things during his tenure as US Ambassador to India. The snippets on Bokaro Steel City (where I was born) caught my attention. All Bokaro residents are aware of the Russian collaboration and the ‘many things Russian’ about Bokaro (stations inside City Park, Russian Colony, etc.) What will be news to most is that, during the Kennedy years, American aid and collaboration — for Bokaro Steel Plant — was a distinct possibility.  Below are relevant extracts from Galbraith’s various journal entries.

April 21, 1961 – New Delhi

I had my first press conference yesterday morning.

Then we did get into economics. I put the fourth government-owned steel plant at Bokaro within the range of American aid. I had no instructions but one should use what freedom he has, for it is evidently a rare blessing.

(Within the footnote, Galbraith adds the following) This became a highly controversial matter. My position — that public sector plants could be financed by the United States and that this one was eligible in principle — was strongly supported by President Kennedy, strongly opposed by Republicans and a source of great nervousness in the US bureaucracy which, at one time, reversed the President’s approval on the grounds that he was running undue political risk. This is discussed on several later occasions.

May 26, 1961 – New Delhi

Later we saw Swaran Singh, the Steel, Mines and Fuel Minister. I had indicated our possible willingness to finance the new Bokaro steel plant in the public sector. The Indians, as I have told, had then laid down a variety of conditions under which we might be allowed to do so — technical direction by Americans and management of projects by Indians and other interesting dualities. This is a hangover from the day when we seemed so anxious to help that we agreed to anything. I made clear that if we were providing the money — if we do — we must be able to ensure that a good job is being done. Today at the meeting we got a paper indicating agreement on this point. Diplomacy is easier from a strong bargaining position. The harder test would have been to make these arrangements if we were not the prospective source of the money.

Inside look at Bokaro Steel Plant (Pic: courtesy

Sep 13, 1961 – Washington

From lunch, I went to see Frank Coffin (Former Congressman from Maine. Then Deputy Administrator of AID and the Managing Director of the Department of State’s Development Loan Fund. Now a Federal Judge.) to weigh in on Bokaro – evidently they thought I was getting too far ahead. I urged its importance; the unwisdom of letting the Russians get the jump  on us; and the diffused and anonymous nature of our aid in the absence of such projects. I believe I made an impression.
I forgot to say that I had tea with B.K. Nehru last evening. He showed me a letter describing the Nehru-Khrushchev talks. Nehru asked Khrushchev if he would guarantee our access to Berlin.; K. said he would. He was agreeable about Kennedy, thought he had been handicapped by his small majority and attacked Adenauer.

Sep 23, 1961 – New Delhi

By a combination of persuasion, threats, blackmail, promises to resort to higher authority, appeals to patriotism and promises of what the Soviets will do, I seem to have a provisional approval of our financing of the fourth steel mill at Bokaro. Now we must find a way of building it with competence and distinction.
This project is very important. It is needed, useful and symbolic. Many of the things we are doing are rather anonymous — we provide copper and other nonferrous metals which are needed and useful but not very dramatic. And our past help to private-sector plants, such as Tata’s, has evoked the comment, “The Americans help the Tatas and Birlas who are already rich. By contrast, the Soviets or British build plants that belong to the people.” Now we are in the same league — provided that we can perform.
Oct 24, 1961 – New Delhi
Ty Wood has returned from Washington with a proposal for getting U.S. Steel in on the Bokaro mill as a private enterprise operation. Of the $500 million required, $100 million would be subscribed in common stock and the rest as a loan, possibly guaranteed, from the U.S. and India. One-third of the $100 million of common stock would be held by each of U.S. Steel, private Indian capitalists and the Indian Government. Half of U.S. Steel’s investment would be cash, the rest in technology and “know-how.” This means they would get control of a $500 million firm for ten years — their control is guaranteed for that time — for an investment of $16.7 million. A real bargain.
Jun 23, 1962 – New Delhi
Yesterday I met with the U.S. Steel team which is investigating the Bokaro steel mill and had them to lunch. Their appearance here is a ritual. (In the footnote, Galbraith later mentions “This was not so. Their work proved valuable.”). One or two good men could have gone over the engineering and clerical data and passed upon the plausibility and need for the mill in a couple of weeks.
Oct 8, 1962 – Chandrapura-Raipur
At six this morning we stopped at Chandrapura and picked up a covey of Damodar Valley Corporation and Hindustan Steel (what came to be known as “SAIL”) officials, the latter headed by J.M. Shrinagesh, the Chairman and one of the distinguished tribe hitherto encountered which functions in various parts of Indian life with additional members in the United States and Germany. The train then proceeded to the proposed site of the Bokaro steel plant, a half-hour distant, where we disembarked. The air was fresh and almost cool and the countryside, which is gently rolling, was a bright lush green. After an introduction to the various young engineers who are being assembled for the project and a lecture on plant layout, sources of raw material and the like, I went with Shrinagesh to a flight strip whence we took off for a half-hour trip over the site and the Damodar Valley. The Valley is underlain with coal and scarred by open cast pits, tipples and piles of waste but nonetheless rather attractive at this time of year. We circled an adjacent mountain about 5,000 feet high, the back and saddle of which are spotted with tiny white temples.
Oct 20 – Nov 20, 1962: Sino-Indian war
(Dates inserted here only for completeness. I haven’t read Galbraith’s account of the war yet. Don’t believe this war had any bearing on the Bokaro American aid decision.)
Feb 7, 1963 – New Delhi
General Clay is heading a committee to review the AID program. He has decided that there must be no assistance to Bokaro as long as it is in the public sector. In other words, for blatant ideological reasons, he is going back to the policies of the Eisenhower Administration. These were a grievous failure. Nothing substantial was done to advance private investment; and they talked about it enough to cause everyone to suppose our concern was to sustain capitalism rather than help the Indians. I have shifted to a purely pragmatic policy of whatever works. This even relaxes the tension on private enterprise.
I have written a careful rebuttal to Clay making it clear that he would lose sadly in any effort to carry his case to the public. I sent the message unclassified so that he won’t be in any doubt as to my willingness to do so. He has just joined Lehman Brothers in New York and will not want to start his banking career there with a public brawl. As for me, I would welcome it.
Feb 20, 1963 – New Delhi
The last three days have been intensely busy, much of the time with superficialities. I got off a long airgram to the Department putting General Clay right on Bokaro which I again sent unclassified so that it would have the greatest possible readership with every possible threat of leakage. I noted again that the previous administration had talked about supporting private enterprise while financing the public sector. They thus got the worst of both worlds. We were stopping the talk, cooling the debate over private and public enterprise, and had done very much better as a result.
Apr 15, 1963 – Ahmedabad-Baroda-Veraval-New Delhi
My life is currently divided between Kashmir and Bokaro, two problems inherited and on my hands for nearly all of these last two years. Today or tomorrow I’m seeing Nehru for the climactic session on Kashmir. I have prepared the way in every possible fashion, and I have some hopes of a fairly generous and forthcoming proposal for the Valley.
On Bokaro, my problem is Lucius Clay. He has come out against aid to publicly owned enterprises. So over the weekend I issued a statement to the American press that there was no such commitment and that the issue should be decided on its merits. I left no doubt what I believed these to be.
I have written a long memo on the subject which I would also like to have Washington release. Their hope, as always, is that the controversy will blow away. I can’t see why people are so afraid of a little fight. It does wonders for my disposition.
May 10, 1963 – New Delhi

The other occurrence of the week was much more pleasant. The President came out strongly on the side of helping the Indians build the Bokaro steel plant and he said it should be supported in the public sector. It was a marvelous no-nonsense statement. For weeks, the AID people have been worrying about Congressional reaction. Characteristically they have been seeking to protect the President on matters where he doesn’t need or, one gathers, especially want protection. Now he has moved in and settled matters. He made the statement in a press conference. I followed it up here with a brief press conference in which I drew attention to the President’s answers. I also noted that the Congress still had to act and there were many technical and administrative details to be worked out. The papers this morning are full of it.

For the last few days, Blitz, Link and the left generally have been busy assuring India that the U.S. is seeking to undermine Indian socialism. The President’s action is an unfair blow to these constructive thoughts

The previous (May 10, 1963) entry is the last Bokaro-specific journal entry in Galbraith’s memoir. Galbraith’s term ended on Jul 12, 1963 and the new ambassador’s (Chester Bowles) term started on Jul 19, 1963. I’ve tried to cobble together a few other article links relevant to this story.
Jun 28, 1963
Time article on American aid: Foreign Aid: The Bokaro Issue
Nov 22, 1963: Assassination of JF Kennedy
May 27, 1964:- Death of Jawaharlal Nehru
Aug 13, 1965
Time article (one of 3 articles that match “Bokaro” search query – requires TIME subscription)  India: Pride & Reality
From this SAIL web page, the Soviet collaboration seems to have been announced sometime in 1965. It will be interesting to fill the gaps in the Bokaro-America/Soviet narrative from 1963 to 1965.

Beirut in April (circa 1961)


Khalil Gibran parc in Beirut

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about his 3-day layover in Beirut, enroute to India — where he would begin his tenure as US Ambassador to India.  Below are selected extracts from April 5,6,7 journal entries.

We arrived in Beirut about 7:30pm, were met by a formidable delegation from the Embassy and went to a pleasant dinner with Ambassador and Mrs. Robert McClintock. Lebanon looked much as before — partly Mediterranean and partly Oriental. There is much new building out of oil money. The currency is strong, the gold cover huge and there are lots of cars and tourists. After the troubles of two years ago, the political situation is stable with the top jobs carefully divided, in the manner of a New York political ticket, between the various religious claimants — Sunni and Shi’a Moslems and Christians. The Lebanese are the least temperamental of the Arabs — there is a story that at the outbreak of the Israeli war in 1948, they pulled back their army several miles since wars raise the danger of death by shooting. The Ambassador says this is not so.

By day, Beirut is busy, untidy and reminiscent of a half-finished city in Southern California. The sky is clear and the water outside our hotel is very blue. The people have an aspect of well-fed rascality which may not be entirely misleading.

Roman bridge over the Dog River in Beirut (Pic: courtesy

A bright blue Mediterranean day and one of the most relaxed of recent memory. We did some shopping and then drove out along the coast road to the Dog River to see the old Roman bridge — of three light stone arches — and the inscriptions cut in the rocks. These inscriptions, cut by all the passing armies of history from Darius to the Free French, are in a narrow passage between the hills and the sea. The instinct to immortalize oneself by writing on a wall seems basic; excavations of the primeval privy no doubt prove the point. Actually, much of the romance has gone from the Dog River. The ancient road once wound along a narrow corniche. It was here, at the narrowest corner, that the armies shaved a space on the rock and carved their names. Even five years ago the place had sparse, barren and romantic aspect. Now a highway tunnel has been cut under the hill where it juts out to the coast, and future armies will write their names on the inside of an underpass.


Diplomacy 101 – blast from the 1961 Galbraith archives


Pic: courtesy

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith shares a Diplomacy 101 aphorism (“don’t do anything”) in his February 18, 1961 journal entry.

February 18-Washington-Cambridge

… (skipped several paragraphs) …

Thursday night we were guests of the Indian Embassy at The World of Appu, by Satyajit Ray. It needs cutting but is obviously a superior film. Afterward there was a pleasant party at the Embassy. Good food; quite good wine; very pleasant company. And many handsome women in handsome saris. Last night I went to a party for a visiting German delegation, an occasion of unrelieved tedium. Germans and Americans, one after another, made speeches of unbelievable awfulness. All were concerned with improving understanding by one country of the other. Leave each country to its own devices; treat the other’s ideas with dignity and respect, whether right or wrong. No one ever worries about relations with Switzerland which is why everyone has good relations with the Swiss. Start doing something about them, and this would mean that they needed improvement, ergo were bad. It was one of my greatest undelivered speeches.


John F Kennedy’s Presidential Desk


Possibly the Presidential desk being referenced (Pic: courtesy

In Ambassador’s Journal, John Kenneth Galbraith writes about the origins of JFK’s presidential desk in his February 14, 1961 journal entry.

Yesterday the FBI invaded Cambridge. If my loyalty is imperfect, it will be one of the most dangerously delayed discoveries in modern history.

Meanwhile my diplomatic career continues to be subordinate to the price of hogs. I went to a long meeting last night at the Department of Agriculture, followed by one with Mike Feldman and Freeman this morning, followed by a lengthy session with the President.

… (skipping a paragraph on corn, pork and soybean prices) …

The President looked relaxed and rested. His new desk, made from the timbers of a sunken ship (H.M.S. Resolute *) is massive and elegant, and the office is beginning to look rather more agreeable. The bookshelves still contain the public papers of F.D.R. and the complete volumes and testimony of the Temporary National Economic Committee of the late thirties. Such was Ike’s reading — just possibly.

* The desk was presented to President Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria.


When hard liquor was served at a White House party for the first time


I recently started reading Ambassador’s Journal – John Kenneth Galbraith’s personal account of the Kennedy years. It’s a 500+ page heavy tome but my pal (@zenrainman) tells me why it should be a fun read:!/zenrainman/status/187195027158609921

After the first 20 pages itself, I can see that he’s right. I’ve transcribed the Jan 29, 1961 journal entry where he talks about the first time hard liquor was served at a White House party.

Pic: courtesy

January 29 – Washington

I worked all morning – Sunday – on drafts for the balance-of-payments message. What prose! Meaning was everywhere elaborately but not deliberately concealed. I finally got a new and more tolerable version.

This afternoon there was a big party at the White House. I was invited verbally and arrived without a ticket – since I had a White House car, I was waved into the grounds. After some telephoning, it was concluded that I belonged. The mood was gay and agreeable; I found I knew almost everyone; Jackie looked tall and soignee. For the first time in the White House at a public function, hard liquor was served. There was also smoking but, I believe, no smutty stories. The Republic may be in decline, but more likely it is only becoming less stuffy. Afterward there was an agreeable party at the Lippmanns’ and thereafter dinner with the Harrimans and the Murrows. I doubt that Ed is going to be a success at USIA to which he has just been appointed. He is too inclined to act when he should think — and plays for effect. But after dinner he settled down and talked quite rationally.

Footnote (on Ed Murrow): Ed Murrow had been a news analyst and commentator with CBS for some twenty-six years before heading to the United States Information Agency. In my initial reaction, I could scarcely have been more mistaken. I soon came to think of im as the most effective of the New Frontier appointments.