For most of its career as an independent nation, India has not had the happiest of relations with the United States of America. In the words of the historian Denis Kux, these have been two ‘estranged democracies’. The causes of the estrangement were various — America’s enchantment with India’s enemy, Pakistan; India’s affection for America’s enemy, the Soviet Union; the self-righteousness and moral hauteur of opinion-makers in both countries.

In these 60 years, there have been three short periods when the relations have not been chilly or cold. The first phase ran from 1949, when China became communist, to 1954, when the US signed a military pact with Pakistan. In those five years, American liberals — led by their ambassador in New Delhi, Chester Bowles — urged Washington to prop up democratic India as an alternative to a menacingly communist China. The third phase commenced with President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000, and has lasted up to the present day. It is fair to say that the thaw began with a (in my view very belated) recognition by Washington that it was time to move away from a partisan affiliation with Pakistan towards better ties with India.

I wish in this column to focus on the second, and now mostly forgotten, phase when relations between New Delhi and Washington looked up rather than down. On that occasion, it was we, rather than they, who sought to mend fences. In the winter of 1962, the Indian army was defeated in a border war with China. The humiliation was felt by the country as a whole, for the Chinese swept through thousands of square miles of Indian territory to reach the edge of Assam. That province was theirs for the taking, but, having made their point, Mao’s men declared a unilateral ceasefire and wended their way back home over the Himalayas.

On November 9, after the first wave of Chinese attacks, the American ambassador of the day, the economist, art collector, and bon vivant John Kenneth Galbraith, was called in to meet the Indian prime minister. A request was made for arms from America. This came at a cost that could never be measured in money alone. For, as Galbraith wrote to the then president, John F. Kennedy, all his life Jawaharlal Nehru had “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 [sic] readjustment. To a point we can, I feel, be generous on this…”

In the last week of November 1962, the arms began arriving, carried by planes bearing soldiers in uniform. As an American journalist wrote, this meant the “collapse of his [Nehru’s] non-alignment policy”. To many Indians, those dark blue uniforms carried “a special meaning”, contained in one single word: ‘failure’. For the American ambassador, however, those uniforms spelt the word ‘opportunity’. For this might be the beginnings of an entente to contain communist power potentially more threatening than Soviet Russia itself.

It must have been the economist in Galbraith that provoked him to identify China rather than Russia as the greater long-term threat to American interests.

 •  Entente with the east

On January 29, Galbraith wrote Kennedy a secret letter which contained this remarkable passage: “The Chinese are not quarrelling with the Soviets over some academic points of doctrine. They are, one must assume, serious about their revolution. The natural area of expansion is in their part of the world. The only Asian country which really stands in their way is India and pari passu the only Western country that is assuming responsibility is the United States. It seems obvious to me [that] there should be some understanding between the two countries. We should expect to make use of India’s political position, geographical position, political power and manpower or anyhow ask.”

It must have been the economist in Galbraith that provoked him to identify China rather than Russia as the greater long-term threat to American interests. Anyhow, in response to the Indian request, Kennedy sanctioned the supply of a million rounds for machine guns, 40,000 land mines, and 100,000 mortar rounds. This fell far short of the Grand Alliance that his ambassador was recommending; yet it was far in excess of what other Americans thought New Delhi deserved.

A bitter opponent of arms supply to India was senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia, the long-serving chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. A crusty old reactionary — doughtily opposed to desegregation and the like — Russell had previously termed India an “unreliable friend” and called Nehru a “demagogue and a hypocrite”. Now he told the Associated Press that he was “against giving India any of our modern weapons for the principal reason that we would be just giving them to the Chinese Communists. The Indians put on a disgraceful exhibition in permitting themselves to be driven out of what should have been impregnable strongholds in the border mountains. They seem incapable of fighting and if we supply them with weapons they will just fall into the hands of the Communists.” As things stood, he was opposed to giving “one dime of weapons to India”. However, Russell said he might have a re-think if India’s old rulers, the British, were prepared to “take over the matter of re-organizing and re-training their military forces….”

Russell’s remarks were widely reported in the press. While some liberals deplored his stand, he received much support from across Middle America. A correspondent from Wichita, Kansas, thanked the senator for warning that it was “very dangerous for the US to make a doormat of itself to a country whose leaders have shown little interest or support to the US except to take our money and aid and then vilify us at every turn”. A man from Plantation, Florida, thought that India’s troubles were “of their own consequences and making”; namely, the “Neutralist Policy” which they followed even while “the Communists have swallowed millions of people” the world over. An 85-year-old Democrat from South San Gabriel endorsed Russell’s “objection to this country saddling its taxpayers with the upkeep of four hundred million ignorant, starving people of India, whose leaders including Nehru and others are strikingly pro-communist and hostile to our form of government… Nehru’s so-called neutralism…should teach this nation to let India stew in its own superstitious and ignorant juices”.

From his compatriots, senator Russell received dozens of letters of congratulations, but (so far as I could tell from a trawl through his archives) only one of dissent. This was written by a Fulbright scholar based in Madras, who argued that it was time to undo the American policy of arming Pakistan while denying aid to India. India, said the scholar, was a “popular democracy”, whereas Pakistan was a military dictatorship which “exists as a political entity solely on its emotional antagonism to India”. Besides, it was not true that the Indian troops had simply fled. They had fought hard in parts, and had they been better armed, could have held their own. Now, “India is seeing to the recruitment of more troops; I should think that it would be in our best interests to see that they are properly armed”.

As it happened, the honeymoon between Washington and New Delhi did not last very long. John F. Kennedy was dead within a year, and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did not share his enthusiasm for democratic India. Even less favourably inclined was Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon. The relationship entered a downward spiral, from which it began to emerge only in the 21st century.

I have presented these historical materials for their intrinsic interest, but in conclusion, I may be allowed to point to an interesting paradox. When, in the Sixties, New Delhi and Washington began cosying up to each other, those most displeased by this were American reactionaries. Forty years later, when there is talk once more of the two countries being ‘natural allies’, the most vocal dissenters are Indian leftists.