External Affairs

When Nehru Refused American Bait on a Permanent Seat for India at the UN

Letters between Nehru and India’s ambassador in the US shed light on his stand that while India was “certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the security council,” it would be dangerous for this to come at the cost of China.

Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) meets with Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India in January 1955. Source: United Nations Photo

Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) meets with Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India in January 1955. Source: United Nations Photo

This article was originally published under the Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center.

Introduction

The issue of India’s right to a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a controversial one in India today, but it is not new. The historical controversy has centred on the culpability of independent India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in not seizing several alleged opportunities for India to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member in the 1950s. Nehru’s critics, then and now, accuse him of sacrificing India’s national interest on dubious grounds of international morality. The question, however, goes beyond Nehru’s reputation, as it provides rare insights into India’s relations with the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the beginning of the Cold War.

A peculiar atmosphere of rumour surrounds India’s history as a possible permanent member of the Security Council. An online search will lead one to heated debates on the existence, or not, of an early offer to India of a permanent seat on that august body. In 2005, “This Day That Age,” a column in The Hindu, featured a reprint of a 1955 story on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s denial in Parliament of the rumours of a recent offer of a UN Security Council seat by the Soviet Union, showing both the interest in the topic in 1955 and 2005. Despite Nehru’s denial then, and online debates now, the 1955 offer from the Soviets is in fact well-documented, although perhaps not widely known. The angst over these rumours merges history and contemporary politics, with those arguing that such offers existed, and were refused, keen to ram what they consider to be another nail into the coffin of Jawaharlal Nehru’s reputation, India’s sometime socialist and avowedly secular first Prime Minister, who it is argued, in his idealism, failed to secure India’s national interest.

That the 1955 incident was publicly discussed in 2002 in print by A.G. Noorani, a major scholar  of modern Indian history and politics, has not ended the rumour-mongering. However, new evidence of an even earlier offer—by the US in August 1950—to assist India in assuming a permanent seat at the UN Security Council has recently emerged, adding substantially to what Noorani earlier wrote. Nehru’s rejection of the US offer underlined the consistency of his conviction that the PRC’s legitimate interests must be acknowledged in order to reduce international tensions. Integrating the PRC into the international community by conceding its right to the Chinese seat at the Security Council was in fact a central pillar of Nehru’s foreign policy. Nehru’s skepticism about accepting this offer, and thereby disrupting the dynamics of the UN, revealed the reverence he had for the international organisation, despite its flaws.  Furthermore, his principled rejection of the US’s suggestion indicates Indian agency in its difficult relations with the US at this time. Finally, Nehru’s sense that India deserved recognition as a great country was made plain, although this was qualified by his refusal to compromise core principles to gain such recognition. That the US made such an approach to India also suggests that the traditional emphasis on the US’s early attempt to pursue an even-handed approach to the subcontinent’s major powers and defer to the UK’s greater experience in the region ought to be reconsidered. Furthermore, this episode enriches our understanding of the US government’s internal wrangling over how to bend the UN to its interests in this early stage of the Cold War.

Integrating the People’s Republic of China into the international community by conceding its right to the Chinese seat at the Security Council was in fact a central pillar of Nehru’s foreign policy.

The documents critical to answering these questions are stowed away in the Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit papers held at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), New Delhi, India. The importance of Pandit’s papers lies in her relationship to her brother, the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and her high-profile diplomatic posts in the 1940s and 1950s, which included the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Nations. Furthermore, while the published Nehru papers contained in his voluminous Selected Works and Letters to Chief Ministers are a rich and under-utilised resource for studying the Nehru period, unfortunately they are still only a partial record and they cannot be supplemented by reference to his papers at the NMML, which are restricted. The status of Nehru’s personal collections amplifies the significance of the Pandit papers for understanding Nehru’s thinking on foreign affairs in the 1940s and 1950s. The Pandit papers have of course been used before for general histories of independent India and broad examinations of Indian foreign policy, but they have not been deployed thus far in studies focused on India’s relationship with China.

The 1955 Soviet offer

In 2002, A.G. Noorani wrote a defence of Nehru’s decision to reject Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin’s offer of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council in 1955. He wrote Nehru was right to do so, as really the offer was just a “feeler to test India.” Noorani was reviewing the new, and then most recent, volume of the second series of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mr. Andrei Y. Vyshinsky, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Permanent Representative of the Soviet Union to the United Nations, in April 1954. Source: United Nations Photo

He was also taking aim at those political figures who had attacked Nehru’s decision to reject this offer based on a reference in the well-known Sarvepalli Gopal biography of Nehru (1979) in which Gopal wrote: “He [Jawaharlal Nehru] rejected the Soviet offer to propose India as the sixth permanent member of the Security Council and insisted that priority be given to China’s admission to the United Nations.” (p. 248)  Utilising the new evidence available in the Selected Works, Noorani argued that Nehru was correct in making little of this offer, as the offer was in fact unlikely to materialise in reality; and even if the Soviets were sincere about facilitating India’s accession to the Security Council as a permanent member, this would have caused major problems for India’s overall foreign policy strategy by complicating its relations with China and the major powers. Noorani quoted the following exchange offered in the Selected Works to bolster his claims:

[Nikolai] Bulganin: Regarding your suggestion about the four power conference we would take appropriate action. While we are discussing the general international situation and reducing tension, we propose suggesting at a later stage India’s inclusion as the sixth member of the Security Council.

JN [Jawaharlal Nehru]:  Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it. Further, we are opposed to pushing ourselves forward to occupy certain positions because that may itself create difficulties and India might itself become a subject to controversy. If India is to be admitted to the Security Council, it raises the question of the revision of the Charter of the UN. We feel that this should not be done till the question of China’s admission and possibly of others is first solved. I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted. What is Bulganin’s opinion about the revision of the Charter? In our opinion this does not seem to be an appropriate time for it.

Bulganin: We proposed the question of India’s membership of the Security Council to get your views, but agree that this is not the time for it and it will have to wait for the right moment later on. We also agree that things should be taken one by one.

Noorani suggested that Bulganin’s response to Nehru’s reservations indicated that the “offer” was not a real one, but more a means of sounding out India’s views, as Bulganin agreed with Nehru that the time was not right for pushing a new permanent member into the Security Council.

Furthermore, the exchange shows that India had already rejected a similar suggestion made by the US. Nehru ascribed the American offer to its desire to disturb Sino-Indian relations. The status of the People’s Republic of China in the UN, Nehru argued, should take priority, before any consideration be given to the necessary revision of the UN Charter required for the admittance of any new permanent members. What exactly Nehru meant in terms of “others” whose admission possibly also should be settled prior to India is unclear, but he probably had in mind the newly independent nations not yet admitted as members of the UN.

The status of the People’s Republic of China in the UN, Nehru argued, should take priority, before any consideration be given to the necessary revision of the UN Charter required for the admittance of any new permanent members.

Noorani also referred to a note penned by Nehru while still touring the USSR in June 1955, which provided more detail on the earlier offer from the US:

Informally, suggestions have been made by the United States that China should be taken into the United Nations but not in the Security Council and that India should take her place in the Security Council. We cannot of course accept this as it means falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the Security Council. We have, therefore, made it clear to those who suggested this that we cannot agree to this suggestion. We have even gone a little further and said that India is not anxious to enter the Security Council at this stage, even though as a great country she ought to be there. The first step to be taken is for China to take her rightful place and then the question of India might be considered separately.

Noorani drew attention to the fact that volume 29 of the Selected Works not only clarified the nature of the Soviet offer of 1955, but unearthed tantalising evidence of a previously little known earlier offer by the Americans to similarly assist India assume a permanent seat at the UNSC.

The 1950 American offer

What was the context of the US offer for India to join the UN Security Council? Nehru’s reference to the USA’s offer is frustratingly vague with no hint of the circumstances or timing in which it was made. However, research done in the correspondence of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, and holder of various major diplomatic positions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, illuminates the subject. In late August 1950, Pandit wrote to her brother from Washington, DC, where she was then posted as India’s Ambassador to the United States:

One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place. I have just seen Reuter’s report of your answer to the same question. Last week I had interviews with [John Foster] Dulles and [Philip] Jessup, reports of which I have sent to Bajpai. Both brought up this question and Dulles seemed particularly anxious that a move in this direction should be started. Last night I heard from Marquis Childs, an influential columnist of Washington, that Dulles has asked him on behalf of the State Department to build up public opinion along these lines. I told him our attitude and advised him to go slow in the matter as it would not be received with any warmth in India.

Nehru’s response within the week was unequivocal:

In your letter you mention that the State Department is trying to unseat China as a Permanent Member of the Security Council and to put India in her place. So far as we are concerned, we are not going to countenance it. That would be bad from every point of view. It would be a clear affront to China and it would mean some kind of a break between us and China. I suppose the state department would not like that, but we have no intention of following that course. We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council. I suppose that a crisis will come during the next sessions of the General Assembly of the UN on this issue. The people’s government of China is sending a full delegation there. If they fail to get in there will be trouble which might even result in the USSR and some other countries finally quitting the UN. That may please the State Department, but it would mean the end of the UN as we have known it. That would also mean a further drift towards war.

India because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the security council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.

The context for this discreet move by the US State Department towards India needs to be emphasised. The tensions of the Cold War were spreading to East Asia, while Europe appeared to be in deadlock. Specifically, the emergence of an apparently communist government in control of China had created a new fault-line. The other mega-state of Asia, democratic India, was burnishing its independence from the democratic camp by refusing to acknowledge this fault-line and had gone as far as transferring its diplomatic recognition of China from the defeated nationalists on Taiwan to the unknown revolutionary guerrillas in Beijing.

In mid-January 1950, the USSR had walked out of the UN in protest of the People’s Republic of China being blocked from taking the Chinese seat at the UN. Therefore, when the Korean crisis exploded on 25 June 1950, the United Nations Security Council, unimpeded by the threat of a Soviet veto, passed a US sponsored resolution to condemn the aggression. India willingly supported this resolution, as it naturally opposed North Korea’s decision to use force to unify the peninsula.

“India because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the security council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.”

US leaders would have been pleased that India, having so often talked about the value of non-alignment, was in fact lining up with Washington to thwart communist aggression. For the Americans there was also other evidence that Nehru was starting to take a more reasonable approach towards communism. The State Department had watched with approval the Indian Prime Minister’s June 1950 tour of Southeast Asia and concluded:

Nehru’s statements are to be interpreted as an extension into the international field of his domestic campaign against Communist tactics. If Communism does not change its tactics in South and South-east Asia he may continue to take the offensive against it, not only in India but elsewhere. In speaking so frankly Nehru served our interests admirably. Following Nehru’s visit to Indonesia our representatives were informed that Indonesia had no intention of recognising Viet Minh or of convoking an Asian conference on Indonesia.

However, this was only a temporary convergence of interests between India and the United States. The second US-sponsored resolution at the Security Council, which proposed to offer whatever help was necessary to South Korea to resist the north, was backed only very reluctantly by India, and under great pressure from the UK. Soon after, on 7 July, India refused to vote in favour of a third resolution which gave the US full command over UN forces in Korea. India’s commitment to America’s prized theory of international collective security was therefore thrown into doubt.

UN Security Council vote on the Sanction Resolution presented by the US, thus opening the way for unreserved military operations by the 59 UN members. With U.S.S.R. absent, and Yugoslavia voting against, the vote was seven to one in favour of the Resolution (Egypt and India reserving their vote until reception of instructions of their government). A general view of the Security Council conference room during the voting on the Sanction Resolution on Korea. On the picture, at left, the seven hands in favour of the resolution are shown raised, they stand for China (Taiwan), Cuba, Ecuador, France, Norway, United Kingdom, and USA. 27 June 1950 United Nations, Lake Success, New York. Credit: UN Photo

UN Security Council vote on the Sanction Resolution presented by the US, thus opening the way for unreserved military operations by the 59 UN members. With U.S.S.R. absent, and Yugoslavia voting against, the vote was seven to one in favour of the Resolution (Egypt and India reserving their vote until reception of instructions of their government). A general view of the Security Council conference room during the voting on the Sanction Resolution on Korea. On the picture, at left, the seven hands in favour of the resolution are shown raised, they stand for China (Taiwan), Cuba, Ecuador, France, Norway, United Kingdom, and USA. 27 June 1950. United Nations, Lake Success, New York. Credit: UN Photo

Thereafter, the differences between the US and India developed even further, as is revealed by the correspondence between Pandit and Nehru. Another letter from Pandit, dated June 29, 1950, captured competing Indian and American concerns at this time. She had told the Americans that the Korean conflict should not have been linked up with other Asian issues such as Taiwan, Indochina, and the Philippines, and that this widening of the issue made it difficult for Asian governments to support the US. Meanwhile, she noted that the US President regretted that India was “holding aloof from the democratic nations and still desired to preserve an independent and neutral foreign policy.”

July saw further divergence between India and the US, as Indian diplomacy focused on persuading all parties that international tensions could best be diffused—and the Korean crisis localised—if the PRC were to take the Chinese seat in the UN. Indeed, India’s Ambassador in Beijing optimistically briefed Zhou Enlai that they believed the UK and Egypt would support the PRC’s assumption of China’s Security Council seat, giving it majority support. India only needed Beijing and Moscow’s support for this attempt to solve the problem of Korea by pushing for Beijing’s admission to the UN. Furthermore, US belligerence unnerved the Indians, as can be seen from Pandit’s letter to Nehru on July 13, 1950, in which she complained about US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s references to possible use of the atom bomb.

Nehru’s conviction that the best solution was to have the PRC enter the UN would only have been strengthened by Pandit’s communication in late July with rogue elements of the Chinese Nationalist movement who, having severed links with Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek), wanted to help India achieve PRC entry to the UN as a way of containing the Korean conflict. Meanwhile, Acheson made it clear to Pandit that though he appreciated the “moral tone” which India brought to the UN’s resolutions, his policy was constrained, he pleaded, by US public opinion. Then, on August 1, 1950, the USSR returned to its seat in the UN, ending the US advantage in the Security Council.

India’s Ambassador in Beijing optimistically briefed Zhou Enlai that they believed the UK and Egypt would support the PRC’s assumption of China’s Security Council seat, giving it majority support.

So it was in the context of Washington’s continuing regard for India’s moral stature, and despite the still-born hopes for Indian diplomatic support and anti-communist solidarity (and also the Soviet return to the Security Council), that Pandit was approached by the State Department about the UNSC. While she did not say when the conversations with Dulles and Jessop took place, we can infer that it was sometime in early or mid-August, as she wrote to Nehru on 24 August.

This approach to India by the US State Department, though informal and not quite at the highest level, should nevertheless be regarded as quite sincere. Mrs. Pandit was well respected in the US and with good reason was seen as a reliable channel to her brother. Even if, as with the Soviet “offer” a few years later, the prospects of this offer actually coming to fruition were unlikely, it could still be seen as a significant display of a desire in the US for a more trusting relationship with India. India had backed the US resolutions at the UN calling for collective action to thwart North Korea’s aggression. This support had, to some extent, restored hope in the US that India would align with it in the emerging Cold War, despite Indian insistence earlier in 1950 that it would recognise the new communist government of China, which the US government could not bring itself to do.

The US was undoubtedly disappointed that India’s initial support for it at the UN diminished over time, and that Washington and Delhi’s prescriptions for resolving the Korean crisis had diverged so much. However, Dulles’ August 1950 démarche suggests at this point that at least the US State Department still saw the potential for closer Indo-US relations and genuinely desired to demonstrate this with a gesture, and perhaps draw India more closely to it. Andrew Rotter’s argument that US-Indian relations in the early Cold War era lacked a culturally sensitive “gesture” of goodwill from America to India is therefore challenged by this episode. However, the exchange between brother and sister Nehru showed that this gesture was not well received in India, leaving one to wonder what sort of gesture might have been more successful. Besides demonstrating a continuing hope that India could yet be prevailed upon to more firmly link hands with the US-led camp in the Cold War, this initiative also challenges the assumption that the US was committed to a strategy of equidistance from Pakistan and India as suggested by some. Clearly, Pakistan would have felt somewhat alienated from the US if it had found out that Washington was assisting India’s assumption of a permanent seat at the Security Council, giving it significant advantages in the Kashmir issue.

This initiative also challenges the assumption that the US was committed to a strategy of equidistance from Pakistan and India as suggested by some.

This communication between Pandit and Nehru also sharpens what we know about US thinking regarding the UN in the aftermath of that body’s decision to intervene in the reignited Korean civil war. The early action at the UN to counter North Korea’s military move into the South, including the two resolutions of 25 and 27 June 1950, were regarded by the US and others at the UN as a positive example of collective action to thwart communist aggression. However, although India had voted with the US on these resolutions, appearing therefore to choose sides in the Cold War, it had then continued to follow its policy of supporting the PRC’s right to the Chinese seat at the UN. Then, in August, the Soviets returned to the UN, ending the US’s advantage there. In the months prior to and following this approach to India, there were various discussions occurring within the US about how the UN could best serve US interests, in particular regarding the subject of China’s seat at the UN Security Council and in the UN more generally.

US officials debate how the United Nations could best serve American interests. Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Volume II, The United Nations; the Western Hemisphere (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1976), 8-9.

The idea was certainly being proposed by some that the US move to have the Chinese Nationalists excluded but still keep the Communists from taking the vacant seat. The Pandit-Nehru exchange of late August suggests how far these sorts of discussions had gone. Rather than reorganise the UN entirely, Indian admission to the UNSC might make it a body more amenable to US interests. Alternatively, the US could have been trying to trade support for India joining the UNSC with an end to India’s policy of proposing the PRC’s rights in the UN. However the move is to be interpreted—and more evidence of specific US discussions on this topic is needed—it certainly adds to an overall picture of the US wrestling with the challenges of maintaining and extending the UN’s ability to serve its interests as it had in the immediate response to North Korea’s attack on the South. Hence, the approach to India could be seen as part of on-going diplomacy at the UN to mould that organisation to US interests of which the September “Uniting for Peace” resolution proposed at the General Assembly also formed a part.

Nehru’s rejection of the US offer

Nehru’s determined rejection of the US plan to place India in China’s seat at the UN Security Council reflected the particular reverence and centrality placed on the UN by what one might call a “Nehruvian” foreign policy. The UN was important to Nehru because he regarded it as the venue for the resolution of international conflict on the basis of sustained dialogue and attempts at internationalism; to keep this effort up was to forestall war. So the sound development of the UN was an essential component to his foreign policy emphasis on dialogue and inclusiveness.One need not go as far as Mithi Mukherjee to accept that the UN was viewed as critical by Indian policy-makers in the 1950s.

Representatives of the People's Republic of China arrive at the United Nations in November 1950. Source: United Nations Photo

Representatives of the People’s Republic of China arrive at the United Nations in November 1950. Source: United Nations Photo

Nehru’s argument for rejecting the State Department’s plan was strongly influenced by his concern that it would undermine the integrity of the UN to the extent it would cease to exist “as we have known it” and marking therefore a “further drift towards war.”  Nehru had strong hopes that the UN would prove to be a body that would, through dialogue, provide a forum for peaceful resolution of conflict and mitigate the growing tensions of the world. One cannot underestimate how imminent Nehru and others felt a conflict of at least an equal degree to the Second World War was. He also valued the UN as an arena to condemn and even constrain immoral action by states, and this hope had in fact been partly realised through Indian action over nascent apartheid legislation concerning citizens of Indian origin in South Africa. What is interesting is that Nehru’s hopes for the UN had not suffered overly at this stage, despite Indian frustration of seeing what was considered India’s just cause over Kashmir being obstructed by US and UK meddling in the UN. Pandit had even wondered in 1949 if Kashmir would be the price of a seat in the Security Council.

Nehru’s determined rejection of the US plan to place India in China’s seat at the UN Security Council reflected the particular reverence and centrality placed on the UN by what one might call a “Nehruvian” foreign policy.

The crucial role Nehru believed the UN could play in international affairs meant he was loath to destabilise this venue with moves which would fundamentally change its charter, as would be necessary for India to take China’s seat. He pointed out to his sister that the forthcoming General Assembly session, to begin in September 1950, could well see a final crisis at the UN with divisions over China splintering the organisation beyond repair and leading to an ever increased risk of war. He would do nothing to exacerbate those dangers.

To Nehru’s mind the sound development of the UN required that it was truly representative of the world’s nation states. Hence it was logical that Chinese representation was held by the PRC and this was a key component of Nehru’s UN policy.This was, however, part of a wider priority placed on China by Nehru. Nehru did not want India to come into conflict with China, and felt China’s international “socialisation” and integration would help prevent any turmoil. Nehru believed that international divisions could be solved not by drawing up armed camps to guarantee the balance of power, but rather by displays of trust that brought everyone into the international community and reduced the prevailing sense of paranoia. The West had erred, according to Nehru, by encircling the Soviet Union in its early history to the detriment of that state’s sense of security, and in many ways had created the bipolar confrontation. This Nehruvian reading of history drove the Indian Prime Minister to seek accommodation with China on behalf of India and the world.

That Nehru so adamantly made clear that India did not want to replace China in the UN Security Council, and furthermore, that the issue of China’s representation in the UN must take priority over any possible consideration of India gaining a permanent seat in that body underlines the centrality of China to Nehru’s foreign policy. If there was an identifiable core to Nehru’s foreign policy it was that China, whether it was communist or not, was going to be central to the post-war international world. This was a fact that could not be ignored whether one welcomed it or not because it was an aspect of the general resurgence of Asia that Nehru welcomed and hoped to spur forward. Any attempt to confine China, simply because of its allegiance to any particular political ideology, was misguided and bound to incite resistance and lead to international instability.

That Nehru so adamantly made clear that India did not want to replace China in the UN Security Council, and furthermore, that the issue of China’s representation in the UN must take priority over any possible consideration of India gaining a permanent seat in that body underlines the centrality of China to Nehru’s foreign policy.

Nehru’s position was clear even before the PRC was founded. In July 1949, he had written to Pandit in Washington instructing her to decline an invitation to join a “Pacific Pact” with anti-Communists in Asia:

“As a realist, one has to recognise that Communists control the greater part of China and may, before long, control the whole of that country. In broader interest of international peace, it is not desirable that we should do anything that would make cultivation of normal friendly relations with the new China difficult, if not impossible.”

In August 1950, India had only recently recognised the PRC and was very anxious to improve relations. Nehru’s whole foreign policy was based on demonstrating to the world that China could be an international partner and thus reduce Cold War tensions, just as Nehru argued that if the West had not been so paranoid about the Soviet Union when it was first established they might well have developed a less confrontational relationship.

Conclusion

Before concluding, one could add that the exchanges with Pandit still demonstrated Nehru’s unambiguous view that India was a great power and should receive the designation of a permanent seat on the Security Council. He added, almost as an afterthought to his 30 August 1950 letter to his sister, that there were “many factors” that meant India was “certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the security council.” India’s centrality to Asian and even international affairs was a constant refrain of Nehru’s and he pointed to historical, geographical, and even moral justifications for this.

Nehru’s detractors, then and now, tend to agree with his assessment of India’s greatness, but it was his principled conditions that drew their ire: the concern that India would not take a place in the UNSC “at the cost of China.” Therefore it would be interesting to examine further evidence, if it exists, of discussions on the Indian side about this offer. It would also be valuable to know the origins of this gambit on the American side, or if there was more communication about this with the Indians. Nevertheless, as confirmation that some discussion was initiated by the US and was rejected by India, it is very welcome.

During his visit yesterday at U.N. Headquarters, the Prime Minister of India, Jawarhalal Nehru, met with representatives of the Commonwealth group of nations in Conference Room 8. Mr. Nehru listens to Sir Pierson Dixon, the United Kingdom's Permanent Representative to the U.N. on December 21, 1956. Credit: UN Photo

During his visit yesterday at U.N. Headquarters, the Prime Minister of India, Jawarhalal Nehru, met with representatives of the Commonwealth group of nations in Conference Room 8. Mr. Nehru listens to Sir Pierson Dixon, the United Kingdom’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. on December 21, 1956. Credit: UN Photo

Knowledge of this episode adds to our understanding of various aspects of US and Indian attitudes and foreign policies in the middle of 1950. It is evidence of the US making a major attempt to draw India closer to it at a crucial stage of the emerging Cold War. This challenges both the notion of the US taking a balanced subcontinental approach prior to the military agreement with Pakistan that emerged in late 1953, and also suggests the initial policy of leaving Cold War management of subcontinent affairs to the old-hand, Great Britain, was being reconsidered prior to China’s intervention in the Korean War. This offer should also be seen as an important event in the US’s struggle to bend the UN to the purposes of fighting the Cold War. The US fear of communist China was so great that Washington considered the risky move of expelling its spent ally Jiang Jieshi and instead anointing India at the highest table of global politics, thereby inoculating it against further troublemaking and tilting the Security Council, to which the Soviets had just returned, irreparably beyond Communist influence.

Nehru’s response to the US’s offer underlined Indian agency in its difficult relations with the US.

Nehru’s response to the US’s offer underlined Indian agency in its difficult relations with the US. He rejected what might have been perceived as a very generous US proposal to support India’s national interests on grounds of principle, indicating the difficulty the US would have in finding a common diplomatic language with India through the 1950s. The exchange revealed Nehru’s continuing respect for the institution of the UN as a critical aspect of his foreign policy, even following the perceived disadvantage that India felt it had been put to in the UN forum on the question of Kashmir. More than anything else however, Nehru’s letter to Pandit confirmed the centrality of China to a “Nehruvian” foreign policy, seen again later in the 1955 exchange in Moscow, but shown to be firmly in place also in 1950. Nehru was neither a fearful nor blindly infatuated “panda hugger,” but pursued a foreign policy constructed around the responsible view that the PRC was too big for the international system to ignore. Finally this demonstrated Nehru’s conviction that India did deserve a seat on the Security Council, but this was not to be gained at the cost of firm principle.

The ultimate isolation of the PRC from the world, India, and even its closest ally, the USSR, by the time of Nehru’s death in 1964 suggests his policy of engagement and socialization had failed. Indeed, it has been said that the 1962 war with China “killed” Nehru. However, to argue that Nehru’s reputation must be assessed in light of this failure it to ignore that he was powerless to hold significant influence over Beijing, where the leadership was under the sway of a powerfully radical ideology. The PRC’s continued distance from the West and the growing disputes with India in the late 1950s, followed by the Sino-Indian War in 1962, all seemed to prefigure the eventual split with Moscow, an event riddled with the esoteric imperatives of the socialist bloc’s competitive interpretations of ideology. On the contrary, Nehru must take some credit for the earlier period when Beijing pursued a broad engagement with the world, despite the US’s attitude. It is quite possible that, without Nehru’s accommodating approach to the PRC, Beijing might have turned its back on a suspicious world far earlier than it did in the end.

Anton Harder is a PhD candidate in the International History Department of the London School of Economics. His dissertation is on Sino-Indian relations from 1949-1962.

This article was originally published under the Cold War International History Project at the Wilson Center and is republished here with the permission of the author and the Wilson Center.

  • Agam Kapur

    And what exactly did we get in return for this ‘centrality’ towards China? A bloody war. Like, are you seriously trying to tell me Nehru did all this out of ‘morality’? Seems to me that back in the day, while everyone was looking out for their interests, Nehru was the one trying to play the good neighbour. He did the whole ‘morality’ thing for J&K as well. And look what it is today – a festering wound.

    The US was actually looking for an ally in our region. Had we accepted the offer, they would’ve found one. Bangladesh would’ve been liberated much earlier (since the Pakis wouldn’t have US aircraft carrier support), J&K would’ve been solved and who knows, even Balochistan and Sindh would’ve achieved their rightful status of independent nations by now.

    This was a classic, A grade, blunder.
    Thank you very much.

  • Agam Kapur

    “It is quite possible that, without Nehru’s accommodating approach to the PRC, Beijing might have turned its back on a suspicious world far earlier than it did in the end.”

    Give me one reason why, me, a common Indian, should care about China turning its back towards the world.

  • sai krishna

    Very well written

  • si91

    Still doesn’t change the fact that China’s foreign policies are not India’s problem. Nehru, as the Indian PM, should have looked out for India’s interests primarily. Instead, he behaved like he was China’s PM, not India’s, and look what happened.

  • Agam Kapur

    Answer me this. What do you think is more important to the people of the nation – Nehru’s international reputation or the national interest? The only things China has given us are wars, border tension and heavy trade imbalances. And they got into the UNSC because of us holding back. What utterly useless foreign policy.

  • Agam Kapur

    So you mean to say we should pander to China like it is a little child? Just because China throws a tantrum, we give in to their demands?

    And moreover, this ‘security dilemma’ you speak of – if it alludes to the military or terrorist threat posed by China, are you asking us to be afraid?

  • R. Singh

    Plenty.

    Look up historian Shiv Kunal Verma’s book – 1962, the war that wasn’t

    Investigative Journalist Claude Arpi’s blog. for hard verifiable data.

    See telegrams from Indian Embassy in Peking to PMO office in India.

    That should assist you in your inquiry.

  • R. Singh

    or worse- bad faith!