A fuller understanding of Nehru’s China-related policies is not possible without close examination of the security environment and potential loss of territory in the areas which are now part of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. India’s relationship with Sikkim too could have evolved on a different trajectory if China had taken a decidedly anti-India attitude from the mid-1950s onwards.

Despite Nehru’s overtures of friendship towards China, the relationship deteriorated to the point of a war with that country in 1962. All things considered, Nehru was too sensitive about Chinese concerns that India may be siding with the West.

Eisenhower visited India in December 1959. No other US President had visited India till then. Nehru had visited the US in October-November 1949 and again in December 1956. A return visit by the US President was due and it is also likely that that the US was mindful that Soviet assistance in heavy industry was influencing Delhi. Negotiations between India and the USSR on arms purchases had also probably started in the latter half of the 1950s.

President Eisenhower came to Delhi after visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan. Large crowds greeted him, and the discussions he had with Nehru centred on China. As Bruce Riedel suggests, the US President was well aware of the ground-level situation on the India-China border because of the reports he received on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) covert operations and the U-2 surveillance flights.

BK Nehru was the Indian ambassador to the US for seven years from 1961 to 1968. He was Nehru’s nephew and his autobiography has ample references to Nehru’s meetings with JFK during the Indian PM’s last visit to the US in November 1961. Nehru was accompanied by Indira Gandhi and the visit began with a stay at Jacqueline Kennedy’s home in Newport, Rhode Island. President Kennedy joined for informal meetings with Nehru at Newport and it appears from the time and attention that JFK paid to Nehru’s visit that he was serious about India outstripping communist China as a successful democracy.

Unfortunately for India, Nehru’s meetings with Kennedy did not go well. According to those who were present at these meetings, Nehru was distracted and responded to JFK in monosyllables.

John K Galbraith was the US ambassador in Delhi in 1961 and had direct access to JFK. Nehru, a cerebral head of government, Galbraith, an erudite ambassador and Kennedy, a Democrat who was inclined to temper the pro-Pakistan line of earlier US administrations, was a good combination to improve India–US relations. This triumvirate could have set India on the path that China took ten years later in 1971.

For the reasons spelled out in the section on China below, it should have been clear to India by 1961 that China was an imminent military threat. That is, it was high time to set India–US economic and defence ties on mutually agreed platforms which would not be shaken much by changes in political leadership in either country.

However, Nehru was probably uncomfortable about the CIA-supported April 1961 Bay of Pigs attempt to dislodge Cuban President Fidel Castro and the growing involvement of the US in Vietnam. During the same visit to the US, Nehru happened to meet some of the heads of the largest US companies. At this meeting, Nehru was told by one of the businessmen, in a self-congratulatory manner, that Nehru was in the presence of fifty billionaires. A billion dollars was a lot of money in the early 1960s, but Nehru was appalled and did not react favourably.

Nehru’s qualities of self-abnegation and indifference to wealth were necessary for him to make the contributions he did to the Indian freedom struggle. However, this mindset was a serious handicap in dealing with self-important US business tycoons. As a result of the April 1956 Industrial Policy Resolution, defence and heavy industries were mostly the preserve of the public sector. In comparison, most heavy and armaments industries in the US were in the private sector.

It was difficult for the public sector in India to do business with the private sector in the US. It may have been possible to dilute the pro-Pakistan tilt of the US if India had made significant volumes of arms purchases to feed the “military-industrial complex” in the US after JF Kennedy became President. All things considered, the time between Nehru’s visit to the US 6-10 November 1961 and JFK’s assassination on 22 November 1963 could have been better used to place India–US relations on firmer ground. Opportunities for closer economic ties were lost and as the much poorer of the two, in per capita income terms, India was the bigger loser.

The border war with China in 1962 ended in a humiliating defeat for India, and Nehru’s reputation at home and abroad was in tatters.

In panic mode, Nehru wrote two letters to JFK on 19 November 1962. In the first letter, Nehru thanked JFK for the small arms and ammunition already received and sought “air transport and jet fighters to stem the tide of Chinese aggression”. Nehru mentioned in this letter to JFK that he was writing a similar letter to the British PM Harold Macmillan.

In Nehru’s second letter to JFK he emphasised that Chinese forces were threatening the entire Brahmaputra valley and that he was concerned about aggression into Kashmir. Nehru felt that the only way of checking the Chinese was to use air power, and India needed twelve US squadrons of supersonic all-weather aircraft. And that the US personnel would have to fly the fighters and man the radar stations till Indian personnel could be trained.

Nehru also sought two squadrons of B-47 bombers and confirmed that these fighters and bombers would be used only against China, not Pakistan. Just two days after Nehru had sent these written requests to the US President, China declared a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November 1962. We will never know whether the US would have sent the fighters and bombers and air force personnel if Chinese forces had moved southward into Assam.

It is likely that China’s decision to declare a unilateral ceasefire was influenced by their assessment that the US and other Western countries were on the verge of providing substantial military and technical assistance to democratic India against communist China.

Excerpted with permission from The Promise of India: How Prime Ministers Nehru to Modi Shaped the Nation (1947–2019), Jaimini Bhagwati.