On Oct. 11, 1949, at 4:40pm, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru stepped off US president Harry Truman’s plane Independence onto the tarmac at Washington’s National Airport.
Time called it “one of the century’s most important visits of state.” It was Nehru’s first visit to the United States and the first summit level meeting between the American and Indian heads of government. Truman, along with three cabinet ministers and a 19-gun salute, greeted Nehru at the airport.
The skies were cloudless; from Truman’s perspective, however, the state of the world was not. Just ten days earlier, Chinese Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong had announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This “loss” of China shaped the welcome Nehru received in the US, put the subject on the Truman-Nehru agenda and affected how India and her prime minister were seen in the US.
Despite the sunny beginning that day, China cast a dark shadow on the US-India relationship in the few years after the Truman-Nehru meeting. From 1949 to 1956, American and Indian policymakers differed over the nature of the China threat, its urgency, and how to deal with it—and this posed a major challenge for US-India relations.
American officials saw China as hostile and sought to contain it. The dominant view in India, however, was that China did not pose an external threat in the short to medium term; Delhi consequently sought to engage Beijing.
This US-India difference had an impact on their bilateral relationship because each country came to see the other’s China stance as, at best, hindering or, at worst, harming its own strategic priorities. Moreover, as the US focused more on Asia, and India played a larger role on the global—and especially Asian—stage, the two countries crossed paths frequently on the China question.
Simultaneously, however, each country’s strategic framework, including vis-à-vis China, envisioned a role for the other. This perception prevented a complete US-India breakdown.
From the American perspective, China had two key effects on the US-India relationship. On the one hand, communist China’s emergence made India a bigger blip on Washington’s radar—one that stood out because of its size and potential as well as its non-communist and democratic character.
On the other hand, Delhi’s disagreement with American perception of and policy on China contributed significantly to tensions in the US-India relationship and, especially, the negativity or indifference India faced in the US Congress between 1949 and 1956.
China also shaped the US-India relationship in two key ways from India’s perspective. Differences on China led key Indian policymakers to see the US more as part of the problem in Asia than as part of the solution. Nehru thought the American attitude and actions toward China were destabilising Asia. The resultant insecurity would require higher Indian defence expenditures and disrupt development, which was a key priority for his fledgling government.
Simultaneously, however, Delhi saw the US as indispensable to facilitating Indian economic development—which Nehru believed was essential for India’s long-term security, including against China
In 1947, while the elements of containment were falling into place in the US, the Truman administration was preoccupied with Europe. Asia was generally an afterthought. The idea of strongpoint defence—“concentration on the defence of particular regions and means of access to them”—prevailed. Most policymakers did not believe that the loss of Asian territory to communism would make the US insecure. Besides, as Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett argued, the US did not have the means available to “underwrit[e] the security of the whole world.”
Officials such as George Kennan, director of policy planning in the State Department, stressed the need for the US to distinguish between vital and peripheral interests. Kennan and Secretary of State Dean Acheson judged a country’s value in terms of possession of “skilled manpower and industrial potential capable of significantly altering the balance of world power.”
If the Soviet Union directly or indirectly took over countries that were valuable according to these criteria, it would adversely affect US interests. In Asia, Japan met these criteria; China and India did not. The administration considered India to be even less vital than China. A CIA report in September 1947 placed it among the least important countries for the US. India had neither industrial-military capacity nor skilled manpower, and its resources were not indispensable.
Developments in 1949, however, would bring Asia, in general, and India, in particular, to Washington’s attention. Two events—the Soviet nuclear test in August and the Chinese Communist Party’s establishment of the People’s Republic in October—shook the faith that strongpoint defence would be sufficient to ensure American security. The weakening of the American nuclear deterrent and China going communist would make not just Europe but also Asia seem more vulnerable. And with the perception of a shift in the power balance, Kennan’s view that China was not vital would became less resonant.
Initially in 1949, as the Guomindang (GMD) regime in China, led by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), was collapsing under the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s onslaught, Truman and Acheson perceived no good options. They supported Jieshi’s regime, but they believed it was partly responsible for the situation and the GMD’s imminent collapse.
And they had no desire to increase aid that was unlikely to help. In July 1949, summarising the administration’s China White Paper, Acheson asserted, “It is abundantly clear that we must face the situation as it exists in fact. We will not help the Chinese or ourselves by basing our policy on wishful thinking.” While there was public opposition to recognising the communists as China’s leaders, there was little pushback to this cautious policy. That also gave Acheson the space to consider fostering a wedge between Moscow and the Chinese communists, including by continuing contacts with the latter.
This approach was complicated, however, by growing congressional opposition to the administration’s China policy in the summer and fall of 1949. Members of the China bloc in Congress, part of a China lobby consisting of academics, businesspersons, diplomats, labour, media persons, and military officials, strongly advocated for support and aid to the GMD, and even direct US military intervention. Their views, however, did not gain traction at that stage.
But India did gain traction as China seemed to be “falling” to communism. Rhetoric from both conservatives and liberals linked China and India. GMD supporters, including Senator William Knowland (R-CA), Representative Walter Judd (R-MN), former diplomat William Bullitt, and retired general Claire Lee Chennault, who had served in the China-Burma-India theatre, warned that if China fell, then all of Asia, even India, would fall to communism. Among others, the idea of India as part of the solution to the Asia problem took hold, with some suggesting that the US not only increase aid to the GMD but also offer military assistance to countries like Burma and India.
Thus, by the time Nehru landed in Washington in October 1949, India had been assigned a role in the US strategic framework—a role that was highly derivative of that of China. This came with benefits. The press declared Nehru to be the “number one man in Asia” and the “strongest figure in a troubled continent.” India was “potentially a great counterweight to China.” Time put Nehru on its cover and declared India the “anchor for Asia.” Along with public adulation, Robert J McMahon has argued that India’s new value also “led a growing number of administration strategists to accept India’s intransigence [on issues like Kashmir] with equanimity.”
Excerpted from Tanvi Madan’s The Fateful Triangle with permission from Penguin Random House India. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.