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Different Worlds: The United States and India in Asia During the Nehru Years

Francine Frankel, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, and Founding Director, Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Date & Time

Mar. 21, 2007
4:00pm – 5:30pm ET


Francine Frankel, an academic expert on contemporary India, spoke at an Asia Program event on U.S.-India relations during the years of Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership as India's first prime minister and foreign minister (1947-64) following its independence from Britain in 1947. The talk examined the broader cultural and historical factors that prevented U.S. and Indian policymakers from achieving a mutually satisfactory partnership. Frankel discussed how Nehru's attitudes and beliefs became the basis of India's foreign policy in a context of polarization between blocs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. Nehru sought to distance India from the power politics of the two blocs, which could lead to war and larger disasters in the nuclear age. Frankel clarified how Nehru became increasingly concerned at the ambivalence of American support for nationalist struggles in Asia when confronted with competing demands to conciliate European allies still attempting to retain control of colonies. Nehru warned the U.S. that its actions caused many Asian countries to conclude that America was trying to become the new imperial power in countries emerging from western domination. The Truman administration hoped to "overcome Nehru's suspicions that the U.S. was attempting to buttress colonialism and is indifferent to the nationalism sweeping through Asia."

Frankel recounted how discussions between Nehru and Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state, foreshadowed persistent disagreements in two key areas. The first was on the need for a quick settlement of Kashmir, reflecting U.S. hopes that an end to this conflict could strengthen a common front against communism. The second concerned the recognition of and policy towards the new People's Republic of China (PRC). Frankel asserted that while Nehru distrusted the motives of Soviet-supported communist parties in the national movements of Southeast Asia, he favored a quick recognition of the new China and a friendly approach, including China's membership in the Security Council, in order to encourage Peking's greater independence from the Soviet Union. Nehru's policy toward China was adopted before the Korean War and it reflected the disparity in power between the two countries as China claimed sovereignty over Tibet, and put into question treaty rights inherited from the British, including the northern border of the McMahon Line. Acheson, who initially shared Nehru's perspective that policy should get on the "right side of nationalism", and move toward cooperation with China, was overruled after the onset of the Korean War in which the Soviet Union and China acted together. The State Department continued to recognize Chiang kai-shek's Taiwan, and India's policy of advocating China's membership in the U.N. and the return of Formosa (Taiwan) to China, was perceived by the U.S. as appeasement.

Bhumika Muchhala, Program Associate, Asia Program, Tel: 202 691 4020

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program


Hosted By

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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