The Duck of Minerva

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US Contemplated Giving India Nuclear Technology in 1961

February 7, 2010

Two days ago the National Security Archive released a fascinating State Department document from 1961. In the document, US officials recommend passing nuclear technology to India in order to take the steam out of the anticipated nuclear tests by Communist China.

Ultimately, of course, Secretary of State Rusk vetoed the recommendation to pass America’s nuclear secrets on to India. China would go on to hold its first test three years later. India would not test its first nuclear device (i.e. the “Smiling Buddha”) until 1974. Nevertheless, the document reveals a great deal about how the US State Department understood the psychological and strategic issues surrounding nuclear proliferation in 1961. Moreover, it shows that the Americans properly understood India’s nuanced position on nuclear technology despite Nehru’s public pronouncements against nuclear weapons. And Ambassador Galbraith’s strong advice against approaching Nehru directly in favor of working indirectly through Dr. Homi Bhabha was certainly wise.

While the National Security Archive discusses the relevance of the document for the current debate on Iranian nuclear weapons (I frankly don’t see the connection), I think it is more interesting to ponder what would have been the effects of a nuclear armed India in 1961.

The most obvious implication would have been that the 1962 War between India and China would have been rather unimaginable if India had nuclear weapons while China did not. Similarly, one could speculate whether the 1965 India-Pakistan War and subsequent wars would have been imaginable in this strategic context.

Of course, the potential burden of a nuclear arms race in Asia at a time when India still suffered from food shortages is a sobering thought… to say nothing of the horrific scenario of a nuclear exchange in the heart of Asia…

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia