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Leaked Cables: Allende, Kissinger, Moynihan, and the Indian Nuclear Bomb

What did the overthrow of the Chilean President Salvador Allende have to do with Indian nuclear weapons? More than you might suspect.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with Indian Prime Minister, October 1974. Source: Library of Congress cph.3b13867/Wikimedia Commons.

What did the overthrow of the Chilean President Salvador Allende have to do with Indian nuclear weapons?

At first glance, perhaps not a lot. However, archival documents from the Nehru Memorial and Museum Library in New Delhi reveal that there was indeed a connection made between the two in 1974.

In September 1974, details of the CIA’s operations in Chile became public when CIA director William E. Colby’s secret House Armed Services subcommittee testimony was leaked – thus confirming the role of the United States in the bloody removal of President Allende. This was reported widely in the Indian press, and India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, commented on the event several times.

Notably, Gandhi even referred to the foreign hand in the affair. In a speech in Madras on September 9, 1974, she reportedly said that “reactionary forces, helped from outside, were using the current difficulties to whip up the people against the government and in this context it had become necessary to make India strong…”

The reactions to Allende’s fate in India prompted Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the US Ambassador to New Delhi (and later a Senator from New York), to pen a strongly worded cable to the State Department titled, “The United States as a Counter-Revolutionary power – The Case of India and Chile.”

Moynihan condemned the CIA’s covert operations in Chile, believing that such actions would lead Indira Gandhi to “proceed to develop nuclear weapons…preaching nonviolence all the way.” Ambassador Moynihan stated that:

“…She [Gandhi] knows full well that we have done our share and more of bloody and dishonorable deeds. This as such is not her concern. She knows all too much of such matters. It is precisely because she is not innocent, not squeamish and not a moralizer that her concern about American intentions is real and immediate…”

Moynihan continued:

“…Do not think, fellow Americans, of beguiling Indira Gandhi with talk of cultural exchange, joint industrial undertakings or a few shiploads of cheap food. Her concern is not economic. It is political. Nothing will change here till she is satisfied that the United States accepts her India. She does not now think we do. She thinks we are a profoundly selfish and cynical counterrevolutionary power. She will accordingly proceed to develop nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system, preaching non-violence all the way.”

Moynihan’s cable was subsequently leaked to the press, possibly by the Ambassador himself. Unsurprisingly, the missive did not endear Moynihan to any party, and neither the United States government (especially then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) nor the Indian government took kindly to the cable.

On the US side, a serving ambassador publicly criticizing US foreign policy and the State Department was extremely poor form. And in India, the government was considerably displeased with the link made between Indira Gandhi’s speeches and nuclear weapons.

India had been strongly advocating its position that the May 1974 nuclear explosion was for peaceful purposes only and that there were no plans for weaponization. The United States Ambassador to India stating that this was not true, in an internal State Department document that was then leaked to the press, posed a problem for Indian foreign policy.

On  September 20, 1974, the Indian Ambassador to the United States, T.N. Kaul (who was also a former Foreign Secretary) wrote to Prof. P.N. Dhar, the then Secretary to the Prime Minister of India, with a press clipping of Moynihan’s leaked cable and associated reportage. Discussing Moynihan’s cable, Kaul wrote:

“…he has linked CIA activities in Chile with our determination to go in for nuclear weapons and means of delivery! I really do not see how he linked the two and this has definitely cast doubts on our various declarations that we are using nuclear technology exclusively for peaceful purposes. Such statements coming from a man like Moynihan naturally decrease our credibility and distort our image in the USA.”

Ambassador Kaul subsequently went to meet Kissinger to discuss the matter – what Kissinger called “Moynihan’s hysterical cable” – and reported the contents of the meeting in a personal note to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. 

Moynihan had suggested to Kissinger that during the latter’s visit to India, he should give Indira Gandhi some assurance about non-interference in Indian affairs. Kissinger tactfully told Kaul that he would not venture to presume that Prime Minister Gandhi needed any such assurance, while assuring Kaul that the United States was not conducting any “political or subversive anti-government work in India.” Furthermore, Kissinger added, “I know that it will take India 10 or 15 years to develop means of delivery and it is presumptuous of Moynihan to have said that India is going for means of delivery in nuclear weapons.”

When asked how such cables were leaked to the press in the United States, Kissinger reportedly replied, “That is always my headache…” and went on to assure Ambassador Kaul that America accepted Indira Gandhi as the leader of India and was “anxious to strengthen understanding and friendly relations.”

This curious and brief episode relating Moynihan’s leaked cable and the link between Allende’s overthrow and Indian nuclear weapons and subsequent interaction between T.N. Kaul and Henry Kissinger can be found in the personal papers of Ambassador T.N. Kaul at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

About the Author

Debak Das

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