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In this second and concluding part on the ‘India’ factor in America’s strategic calculations in the run up to the negotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we see how Delhi loomed large but was not the only potential proliferator. Others included Israel, Sweden, Germany and Japan, and beyond them was another ring of countries whose nuclear ambitions could not be accurately predicted beyond the mid-1970s…
17 August 2008
India headed U.S. list of countries likely to reject NPT
But Washington also feared nuclear ambitions of Israel, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Pakistan, Switzerland and Australia
New Delhi: Recently declassified State Department papers provide a compelling snapshot of Washington’s fears about a handful of countries most likely to develop nuclear weapons as the world moved towards adopting the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in the late 1960s.
But unlike today, when ‘rogue states’ loom large in the U.S. imagination, American anxieties about proliferation then centred around some of its closest allies. India, not yet an ally or ‘strategic partner,’ topped the list. But following right behind were Israel, Sweden, Japan and Germany, all of whom were described as “nuclear capable countries of principal concern” in a secret report of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council in February 1966. Of these, India and Israel were described as countries “where the problem is reaching acute proportions.”
Also mentioned as possible proliferators over a 10-year horizon were Pakistan, Switzerland, South Africa and Australia. The erstwhile United Arab Republic (of Egypt and Syria) was also considered a potential danger.
The report was declassified in June this year and recently made available online by the National Security Archive of George Washington University.
Though international negotiations on a treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons started in 1958, the NPT text was only finalised on July 1, 1968.
Aim of U.S. policy
The U.S. policy was aimed at securing the early ratification of countries with the technological capability of challenging the monopoly of the five established nuclear weapon states.
“Now pre-occupied with more immediate problems,” the report said presciently, “India may defer a decision for several years. However, the political and military challenge posed by Communist China will probably lead to an eventual Indian decision to join the ‘nuclear club’.”
The U.S. saw Israel’s motivation as driven by “fears that it will eventually be overwhelmed by its more populous Arab neighbours.” Sweden, the report said, “sees a possibility that nuclear weapons may be required to defend the principle of neutrality.” Stockholm “does not wish to lead a parade but might follow,” it noted. And the approach of Japan and Germany was being driven by problems related to collective alternatives to national deterrence and “the sense of discrimination and second class status.”
Barring “unexpected acts of careless generosity” by countries which have already tested nuclear weapons, the report did not believe there was a danger of proliferation in the near term beyond this “limited number of nuclear capable countries.” But what India would do held the key in more ways than one.
Pakistan was considered a derivative potential proliferator because its policy was tied to that of India. Apart from advising its leaders that its image “would be greatly enhanced worldwide” if it were to sign the NPT in the face of India’s refusal, Washington told Pakistan it could always quit the treaty if India ever developed nuclear weapons.
On April 8, 1968, the U.S. embassy in Rawalpindi sent a secret cable to the State Department saying the Pakistani Foreign Ministry had been told that “escape clauses of treaty would prevent GOP from being disadvantaged if it signed and GOI did not and GOI proceeded [with] development [of] nuclear weapons and means of delivery.”
As far as the Indian government was concerned, the 1966 Policy Planning document said China’s nuclear weapons programme “has been perceived by India as a direct blow to its own prestige and political position, and as a potential threat to its security.”
It noted India’s nuclear weapons capability was a “by-product” of its civilian programme and that India “might be ready to test a nuclear weapons device in perhaps a year’s time.” However, it said obtaining a suitable delivery capability would present more substantial difficulties. “It is likely that India would feel compelled to seek missiles. If they could not be procured, India would have to undertake a prolonged development program for which its industrial base is not well suited.”
The development of nuclear weapons was not a priority for the Indian government, the report said, but China’s growing capability would “probably bring the issue of India’s ‘going nuclear’ to a head earlier than in the case of the other nuclear capable countries.” This in turn would spur Pakistan towards nuclear weapons. “Although now lacking in the technical capabilities necessary for a nuclear weapons program, Pakistan would undoubtedly seek to acquire them … A new Pak alignment with Communist China could result.”
Having identified the India problem, the report said alternative ways had to be found “to meet the political and security incentives that are at the root of the ‘nuclear proliferation’ issue as it has arisen in India.” The secret report cited a “recent discussion between the U.S. representative in Geneva and his Indian counterpart” — presumably Ambassador V.C. Trivedi — in which “the latter said explicitly that a non-proliferation treaty would not be worth having if it focused on what he termed the hypothetical Nth Country problem rather than the real problem posed by Communist China’s growing nuclear capability.”
On the security front, therefore, the report urged U.S. “military aid … to strengthen India’s defence against the Communist Chinese conventional threat” and also “firm assurances against Chinese Communist nuclear attack.”
Since India’s domestic energies at the time were absorbed by the country’s development needs, the report urged the West’s cooperation in providing economic and technical assistance as a means of delaying the exercise of the Indian nuclear option. Ways should also be sought, it said “to make clear to India that she does not have to consider exploding a nuclear device to achieve … recognition” of its scientific and technical achievements.
The report regretted that India’s policy of non-alignment barred any “collective alternatives to national deterrence [involving] a closer nuclear relationship with the U.S.” The political basis for such arrangements did not exist at present, the report said, “and is not likely to materialize before many years have passed, if, indeed, it materializes at all.”
Despite this assessment, the U.S. tried tempting India with security assurances. The Bowles (Chester Bowles, who was U.S. Ambassador) cable of December 12, 1967 indicates New Delhi was unconvinced. (Then Prime Minister) Indira Gandhi asked what significance would such assurances hold for India. “If the Americans want to come to our aid against an attack by the Chinese, they will, even if we don’t sign the NPT. And if they don’t want to come to our aid, they won’t, even if we do sign the treaty,” the cable quoted her as saying.
But if an American nuclear umbrella was not acceptable to India, ‘collective arrangements’ held the key to preventing Germany and Japan from going nuclear.
Washington also believed at the time that this had to involve bringing British and eventually French nuclear weapons under some sort of pan-European nuclear-sharing arrangement. “The need for such arrangements is the more urgent since an Indian national nuclear program, which may prove difficult to avoid, could well have serious repercussions in two key allied countries: Germany and Japan,” the report stated. “It will be important to have developed a workable collective arrangement in Europe, which will meet German aspirations and — by subsuming the U.K.’s national capability — set a useful example for Japan, before India goes nuclear.”
India went nuclear in 1974, setting off a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ — the same kind Vikram Sarabhai had said every country had the right to do — in the desert sands of Pokhran. Washington’s prediction about India had come true, even if its wider fears about proliferation had proved unfounded.
Sweden signed the NPT in 1968. Germany signed it in 1969 but only ratified it in 1975. Japan, which signed in 1970, was ready for ratification by 1976.
There were, of course, dozens of holdouts, but by the end of 1990s, their number was down to three: India, Pakistan and Israel.