The assertion by former foreign secretary MK Rasgotra that the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru cold-shouldered US President John F Kennedy’s offer of helping India detonate a nuclear device much before China did in 1964 at a big cost to the country has raised many hackles.
The seasoned diplomat has reasoned that had Nehru accepted the offer, India wouldn’t have had to scurry from pillar to post for a membership of the exclusive nuclear suppliers group (NSG). It is another matter that the NSG was founded in 1975, primarily as a response to India conducting the nuclear test a year before.
Accepting Kennedy’s offer, reckons Rasgotra “would have deterred China from launching its war of 1962 and even imparted a note of caution to (Pakistan’s) Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s plans for war in 1965.”
But these assertions seem to contradict the known narratives of the era besides challenging the well-articulated positions of both Nehru and Kennedy on nuclear disarmament.
Unlike it is often made out to be, Nehru’s disarmament ideals were more rooted in pragmatism than anything else. He was unwilling to commit India to be part of any international regimes that he found discriminatory—a position all his successors earnestly followed since then. Examples are many.
In 1954, then US president Dwight Eisenhower—the first American president ever to visit India later in 1959 — sought India’s support for the idea of international control of fissile materials under the UN. Nehru found it a strategy for “atomic colonisation”.
Kennedy seems to have made the offer at a time when there was very little in common between India, a non-aligned, closer-to-Soviet Union-country and the US, with Pakistan among its staunchest Cold War era ally.
“Alas, we have only Mr Rasgotra’s version available today. Nonetheless, I am afraid his version doesn’t sound credible. The fact of the matter is that the US and the (former) Soviet Union had been engaged in extensive negotiations for more than eight years before signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963 banning all atmospheric tests,” says former career diplomat and writer MK Bhadrakumar. That, he insists, would have amounted to “undercutting the work of the American diplomats at that time”.
A wealth of available records shows Kennedy was a staunch advocate of nuclear disarmament from 1956. He had gone out of the way to convince the Russians, including his meeting with then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, just five weeks after the humiliating defeat of the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. It is another matter that President Kennedy was unsuccessful in his efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement and reluctantly announced the resumption of atmospheric testing on April 25, 1962.
Contends Bhadrakumar: “Of course, these are extraordinary times in New Delhi when a bit more Nehru-bashing may not only do no harm, it may even be rewarding. But what Mr Rasgotra has alleged is completely baseless, as it contradicts the historical facts relating to the history of Soviet-American negotiations over banning atmospheric nuclear tests culminating in the landmark 1963 treaty.”