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The Kennedy-Nehru story

India was as much shocked as the rest of the world when the news of the tragic assassination of the US President John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963.  Kennedy’s 15th death anniversary was recently celebrated with the top leadership of the Democrats including President Obama and former President Clinton and his wife Hillary present on the occasion.

 There are many who believe that had Kennedy lived longer, the Indo-US relations would have bloomed and taken a different direction. During his brief tenure, besides food aid, there were several US projects that emerged including the Tarapur plant, Kanpur IIT and Nagarjuna Sagar project in Andhra Pradesh. 

As the veteran US diplomat Dennis Kux points out in his book Estranged Democracies, Kennedy’s love for India began from his days as a senator. When he became president in January 1961, Kennedy had brought Indo-US relations to an entirely new qualitative level from where they had been under the Truman and, especially, the Eisenhower Administrations. This was during the Cold War when India was seen to be closer to the Soviet Union.

It is interesting to see the chemistry between Kennedy and Nehru. Kennedy praised him in the State of the Union address on 31 January 1961 which no other US President had done for any Indian prime minister.

Just prior to the invasion of Goa, Nehru had paid his last visit to the US. B K Nehru, the then Indian Ambassador to the US writes in his Nice Guys Finish Second, Kennedy wanted to have special relations with Panditji and broke the protocol by receiving him when Nehru visited his private home at Hammersmith Farm. During their informal talks, while Kennedy tried to evoke some response from Nehru on the Vietnam issue, the latter remained silent throughout. However, later Panditji told his private secretary 
M J Desai, ‘Tell them, Tell them not to go into Vietnam. They will be bogged down and they will never be able to get out.’
B K Nehru observes that if only the prime minister had conveyed this to Kennedy, things might have turned out to be different.

Arthur M Schlesinger, a close aid to Kennedy, notes in his book A Thousand Days, ‘Reminiscing about the meeting, Kennedy described it to me as ‘a disaster – the worst head-of-state visit I have had’. Kennedy’s vision of India had been much larger before the visit, than it would ever be again. Nehru obviously is in decline.’ 

All hell broke loose when three weeks after Nehru returned to India, Goa was ‘liberated’ from the Portuguese on 19 December 1961. This was condemned by the US and the UK while the Soviet Block hailed it. A resolution condemning India’s role was vetoed by the Soviet Union in the Security Council. Kennedy was miffed that Nehru did not discuss Goa with him. He wrote in a letter to Nehru on 
18 January 1962, ‘One difficulty was, of course, that the action followed so soon after your visit. I had naturally hoped that the candor of our exchange might have extended to all of the problems with which we were mutually concerned. I confess to a feeling that we should have discussed this problem; it is at least possible that if we had talked about it, our efforts to help prevent a solution by force could have been more helpful. ‘Kennedy ends the letter saying, ‘Meanwhile, you can count on me to do all that I can to ensure that any damage to our common interests is temporary. ……………. I believe we can and must get back on this high road, and I shall work steadily toward this end.’
When Jacqueline Kennedy visited India in 1962 March. Nehru moved her into his own house and played host as the US embassy was under renovation, according to the US Ambassador Galbraith, who said the visit went off quite well.

Months later, Kennedy kept his word when China attacked India on 20 October 1962 leading to a month-long war between the two Asian giants over territorial issues.  The Indian military was not prepared to meet the Chinese challenge. As Kux points out, when thing were gong out of hand, Nehru wrote to Kennedy informing him the war situation was desperate and sought more comprehensive US military aid. In The Cold War On the Periphery, Robert J McMahon notes ‘It must have been a moment of supreme humiliation for the proud Nehru, a man who had always insisted that India follow the path of independence and self-reliance.’ Kennedy promptly ordered the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal in the event of an invasion by Chinese forces. He also had plans to deploy US forces stationed in the Philippines in case the war expand. In a book Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy written by Ted Widmer and Caroline Kennedy, the President declared at a meeting in the Oval Office with defense aides, including McNamara: ‘I don’t think there’s any doubt that this country (US) is determined that we couldn’t permit the Chinese to defeat the Indians. If we would, we might as well get out of South Korea and South Vietnam.’ After the 1962 war with China, Nehru allowed American U-2 spy plane over flights of Tibet and border areas, including a re fuelling track over India, according declassified CIA documents.

India should express its gratitude for the timely help provided by Kennedy. It would be a fitting tribute to remember Kennedy at his 50th death anniversary.     IPA 
Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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