Journalist | Writer | Analyst
From promises of aid against China to “full treatment” during junkets to Washington, declassified documents reveal American quest to get India to drop its “irrational” opposition to the treaty… [Part 1 of 2]
17 August 2008
On eve of NPT, U.S. knew India would go nuclear
Declassified documents reveal Chester Bowles’ junket diplomacy
New Delhi: So simplistic was America’s understanding of Indian nuclear policy in the late 1960s that Ambassador Chester Bowles believed sending the country’s top atomic official on a junket to Washington could help make New Delhi sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — under negotiation at the time — as a non-nuclear weapon state.
As the NPT talks neared completion in 1967 and 1968, Delhi loomed large in Washington’s sights because it considered India the country most likely to make nuclear weapons in the “near term.”
In a secret cable to the State Department on December 12, 1967, Bowles said Vikram Sarabhai, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was “one of the primary architects” of the Indian government’s position on the NPT. “One of Sarabhai’s main weaknesses is his vanity. We wonder if it might be worthwhile inviting him during his next trip abroad to stop in Geneva (and perhaps Washington) for the ‘full treatment’ by [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency head] Ambassador [William] Foster and his associates. Conceivably, his emotional and somewhat irrational position on NPT might be modified by such an exposure.”
The Bowles cable is one of dozens of U.S. documents, in the run up to the NPT, declassified in June 2008 and recently made available onlineby George Washington University’s National Security Archive.
Describing Sarabhai as “a nationalist first and scientist second,” Bowles said the AEC chair’s influence on then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was rising. The cable gives an account of a meeting Canada’s High Commissioner in Delhi had with Mrs. Gandhi where he warned of economic “repercussions” if India chose not to sign the NPT. “Mrs. Gandhi reportedly replied she was fully aware of the implications non-accession held for India,” Bowles’ note says. But with “China at her back, and Pakistan lurking on the sidelines, she foresaw no alternative but to keep open her option on the production of nuclear weapons.”
That foreign trips had no effect on Sarabhai’s approach to the NPT is apparent from another secret cable, sent to the State Department by the U.S. mission in Geneva on April 3, 1968. The cable, a record of discussion between Sarabhai and Myron Kratzer of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, lists the changes India said must be made in the treaty text before it could think of signing the NPT.
“Sarabhai stated four requirements,” the cable notes. First, was “complete freeze on current posture of nuclear powers,” second, “equality of treatment with regard to nuclear explosions, i.e. all nations should be permitted to design and manufacture PNEs [peaceful nuclear explosions] or none should.”
Sarabhai also said stronger security guarantees were needed and that there would have to be “non-discriminatory application of safeguards to all signatories.”
Bowles’s December 1967 cable reveals that after being rebuffed by Indira Gandhi, the Canadian High Commissioner tried his luck with Rajeshwar Dayal, who was Foreign Secretary at the time. “Our informant characterized Dayal’s reaction to the High Commissioner’s approach as ‘shocking’,” notes Bowles.
“Dayal reportedly said India would never give up an iota of hard-fought independence by signing the NPT… Let everyone stop their aid. India would survive. The important thing was to protect the nation’s freedom and independence from foreign domination, whatever the source and whatever the guise.”