During President John F. Kennedy’s brief tenure as leader of the free world he had a number of important dealings with India at a particularly critical juncture in the South Asian nation’s history.
Only fifteen years after independence, the new republic of India faced a very dangerous world as Communist giants Russia and China posed a grave threat to the United States, placing Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the uncomfortable position of trying to carve out a non-aligned stance.
However, before Nehru could deal with mid-20th century Cold War realities, he had to attend to some remnants of the days of European colonization and empire – namely, the province of Goa, on the western coast of India, which still belonged to Portugal.
France had already relinquished what few Indian territories it once possessed, including Pondicherry, but the Portuguese were determined to hold onto Goa – at any price. After Nehru ordered a blockade of Goa in order to force the expulsion of the Portuguese, by mid-December 1961 Indian soldiers invaded Goa and won the unconditional surrender of the remaining Portuguese presence there within three days, on December 19.
That decision to invade Goa by force was condemned by the United States and United Kingdom (but endorsed by Nehru’s allies in Moscow). In Goa, December 19 is now celebrated as ‘Liberation Day.’
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Just prior to the invasion of Goa, Kennedy beseeched Nehru not to use force on the Portuguese territory in a personal letter (the two had formally met in Washington DC about six weeks earlier).
According to a report in the Times of India at the time, Kennedy did not question India’s territorial rights to Goa, but rather opposed the use of force to acquire it. Reportedly, Kennedy warned that aggression by India would make it look “belligerent” and would violate the peaceful principles espoused by Nehru’s mentor, Mahatma Gandhi who had died thirteen years prior.
"To the United States, India's efforts to bring the Goa question to a head at the present moment when bigger and more consequential problems are facing it appear somewhat inopportune,” TOI commented then. “It may harm [the western] allied cause, thus promoting [the] Communist cause elsewhere. The United States would like to see this possibility avoided.”
The report also noted that US officials were also pleading with Portuguese government figures in Lisbon to quietly withdraw from Goa. As a partner in NATO, Portugal (then ruled by dictator António de Oliveira Salazar) was a strong US ally.
Clearly, Nehru rejected Kennedy’s pleas, causing the latter to subsequently complain to the Indian ambassador to the U.S., Braj Kumar Nehru (a cousin of the other Nehru): "You spend the last fifteen years preaching morality to us, and then you go ahead and act the way any normal country would behave ... People are saying, the preacher has been caught coming out of the brothel."
But the imbroglio over Goa was minor compared with a much greater worry for both the U.S. and India – the looming specter of Communist China.
In October 1962, as much of the world gazed fearfully at the nuclear stand-off between the U.S. and Soviet Union in Cuba, China attacked India, leading to a month-long war between the two Asian behemoths over territorial issues along their lengthy border and the asylum that New Delhi provided to the Dalai Lama of Tibet, among other factors.
During that border war, Kennedy became popular in India when he ordered the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to help India in the event of an invasion by Chinese forces. He also apparently had plans to deploy US forces stationed in the Philippines to assist India should the war expand. Historians have suggested that China’s quick ceasefire may have been the result of such threats made by the U.S. against Beijing. (There is also evidence that Nehru asked Kennedy for military help during the crisis).
By May of the following year, after the Cuban missile crisis had eased and the Sino-Indian war ended with a ceasefire, Kennedy remained deeply worried about the potential threat of another war between Delhi and Beijing.
According to a report in Press Trust of India, in May 1963, Kennedy and his senior military aides, including defense secretary Robert McNamara, floated the idea of using nuclear weapons against China if it launched another attack on India -- as part of the White House’s goal to prevent the spread of Communism.
In a book called “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy” written by Ted Widmer and Caroline Kennedy (the president’s daughter), Kennedy declared at a meeting in the Oval Office with defense aides, including McNamara and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Davenport Taylor: "I don't think there's any doubt that this country [U.S.] 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.”
McNamara answered his boss by clearly advocating the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese.
"Before any substantial commitment to defend India against China is given, we should recognize that in order to carry out that commitment against any substantial Chinese attack, we would have to use nuclear weapons," McNamara stated on the audio recordings.
"Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers."
Shortly thereafter, Kennedy seemed to agree with the sentiment behind McNamara’s statement, but it is unclear if the president advocated the use of atomic weapons to protect India.
"We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India if she were attacked,” the president said.
Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and an expert on South Asia, told the New York Times that Kennedy definitely harbored a pro-India position, although he suggests that McNamara proposed using nuclear weapons to shock the president into not doing anything on India’s behalf, or perhaps to avoid using any US soldiers in the region.
“[Kennedy] saw India as a natural balance to China,” Cohen told the paper. “That was not true of his advisers. My guess is that they didn't want to see American ground troops get involved in a war. We were tied up in Korea; we were worried about the Russians. And, conceivably, they said ‘nuclear’ because they didn't want him to do anything for India. That this was a way of raising the stakes so high as to make it not an option."
Indeed, in the tape, Taylor expressed his opposition to using US ground forces in any Indian-Chinese conflict, while asserting the expansionist dangers China posed.
"This is just one spectacular aspect of the overall problem of how to cope with Red China politically and militarily in the next decade,” Taylor told Kennedy: "I would hate to think that we would fight this on the ground in a non-nuclear way."
But other senior officials were clearly appalled by the idea of deploying nuclear weapons. Secretary of State Dean Rusk is heard on the tape telling the president that use of nuclear weapons would not be viewed favorably by allies in the west.
"I think we would be hard pressed to tell our own people why we are doing this with India when even the British won't do it or the Australians won't do it and the Canadians won't do it,” Rusk warned. “We need to have those other flags flying on these joint enterprises."
In addition, the under-secretary of state, George Ball, feared that any nuclear strike on China would alienate other East Asians.
"If there is a general appearance of a shift in strategy to the dependence on a nuclear defense against the Chinese in the Far East, we are going to inject into this whole world opinion the old bugaboo of being willing to use nuclear weapons against Asians," Ball said, referring to the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during the end of World War II.
Kennedy expert and author Robert Dallek explained to the Times that Kennedy likely feared the repercussions of the US using its nuclear arsenals, only 18 years after the devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However, despite Kennedy’s apparently favorable geo-strategic attitudes toward India, he and his wife, Jackie, did not get along well with neither Nehru nor his daughter, Indira Gandhi.
In a book called “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” which essentially consists of interviews with Jackie in early 1964, she claimed, among other things, that her husband bristled in Nehru’s company and called the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Washington in November 1961 one of the worst ever by a foreign head of state.
Jackie, in particular, disliked Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who accompanied her father to Washington.
Referring to a decision by JFK to separate the men from the women during dinner, Jackie said of Indira: "Well, of course, she hated that. She liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune -- bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don't like her a bit. It always looks like she's been sucking a lemon.”
Strangely, just four months later, in March 1952, John and Jackie Kennedy visited India, where they were treated like royalty.
But if Jackie disliked Nehru and Indira, she was quite taken with Indian fashions, particularly the saris.
In a book entitled “What Jackie Taught Us: Lessons from the Remarkable Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,” author Tina Santi Flaherty wrote that Jackie’s 1962 visit to India left a permanent impression on her.
“Jackie never forgot how elegant the women in India looked in their diaphanous saris gracefully draped across the contours of their bodies,” Flaherty wrote. “Extremely feminine, this flattering garment is both demure and seductive at the same time. Jackie decided that the style suited her.”
According to various unconfirmed accounts, Jackie kept a large stash of saris in her wardrobe, and loved wearing them, although rarely in public apparently. Other reports suggest that she visited India every year and purchased even more saris for her private pleasure.