New Delhi: During the 2+2 ministerial dialogue attended by Indian and American foreign and defence ministers in Washington Monday, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made a reference to the first-ever summit level meeting held between an Indian and American head of state.
On 11 October 1949, former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arrived in Washington where he was warmly welcomed by former US President Harry S Truman. Nehru spent three weeks travelling across the US, meeting members of the House and Senate and addressing several meetings in which he laid out India’s foreign policy interests. According to Blinken, the visit marked the start of a “friendly and fruitful cooperation” between the two countries.
“Very soon after our countries established diplomatic relations, some 75 years ago, Prime Minister Nehru came to visit the United States. President Truman met him on the tarmac of the airport. And Prime Minister Nehru noted the importance of the moment, saying, and I quote: ‘I trust that these two republics of the Western World and the Eastern World will find many ways of working together in friendly and fruitful cooperation to our mutual advantage, and for the good of humanity’,” said Blinken Monday.
“So for nearly 75 years, we’ve done just that. And I’m grateful to our partners for making it possible for that ‘friendly and fruitful cooperation’ to continue and to deepen,” he added.
Blinken’s comments come at a time when differences have arisen between New Delhi and Washington amid the Ukraine war, whether over India’s oil trade with Russia or its decision to abstain from votes criticising Russia at the United Nations. Earlier this month, US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, Daleep Singh, had also warned New Delhi against continuing energy trade with Russia.
Nehru and Truman’s visit in 1949 also came amid frictions vis-à-vis changes in the international order. The Chinese Communist Party had just come into power and the Cold War had just started.
ThePrint explains the historic 1949 visit, the bonhomie between the two leaders and whether Nehru achieved what he sought to achieve from the visit.
As noted by most historians and media reports at the time, Nehru was given a warm welcome upon his maiden visit in Washington DC in 1949, flying in on Truman’s personal plane The Independence. This was the first of Nehru’s four visits to the US — returning in 1956, in 1960 and in 1961.
While on the tarmac at the Washington National Airport on 11 October 1949, both leaders made brief remarks. Truman referenced explorer Christopher Columbus by saying, “Destiny willed it that our country should have been discovered in the search for a new route to yours. I hope your visit, too, will be in a sense a discovery of the United States of America.”
Nehru, as noted by Blinken at Monday’s meeting, expressed hope that the two countries would embark on “friendly and fruitful cooperation” that would work to both their advantages, whilst also serving the “good of humanity”.
Popularly described as a “goodwill tour”, Nehru spent three weeks touring the US. He met members of the House and the Senate and also made trips to metropolises such as Chicago and New York as well as places like Tennessee Valley and Illinois in the countryside. He interacted with businesspersons, artisans and academics alike.
The former Indian prime minister was accompanied by the first secretary general in the Ministry of External Affairs, G. S. Bajpai, as well as Nehur’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who later became the country’s prime minister too.
Bonhomie between Nehru and Truman
Given the warm hospitality at Washington and Truman’s intent to help Nehru ‘discover’ his country, the two leaders developed a bonhomie during the 1949 visit. According to an archived report by The Hindu, Truman had remarked, “Pandit Nehru has made a profound impression on me…He is not only a fine gentleman but a great public servant”.
He hoped the visit would lead to more cordial relations between India and the US, the report added.
Before leaving, Nehru penned a letter dated 6 November, 1949, to the former American president.
“My dear Mr President, I am leaving the United States tomorrow on my way back home. On the eve of my departure, I must again convey to you my deep gratitude for your great kindness and hospitality. I have spent three and a half weeks in this great and wonderful country and have been greatly impressed by what I have seen and heard. Above all I have been moved by the generous and warm-hearted welcome that I have received everywhere from all classes of people and the goodwill that has been shown not only to me but to my country also,” read the letter.
“I am sure that my people have also been moved, as I have been, and that this visit of mine has led to a deeper understanding between our respective countries leading to closer bonds in future,” it added.
Truman’s subsequent correspondence reveals that Nehru had also gifted him a portrait.
“My dear Mr. Prime Minister, I have received with appreciation your gracious letter and your portrait sent upon your departure from the United States. You may be assured that your visit has been a source of great pleasure not only to me, but to the American people,” Truman wrote in a letter dated 23 November, 1949.
Did the visit achieve what it needed to?
Experts have noted that apart from starting a new chapter in bilateral relations, Nehru sought to secure commitments of food aid during his visit to the US in 1949, given the Bengal famine had occurred just six years earlier.
In this respect, some reports called the visit a “flop”. A Politico report noted, “Nehru’s session with Truman proved to be a flop; the president declined to offer US economic aid to a nation that recently emerged from British colonial rule and had proclaimed itself neutral in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.”
However, some experts felt the visit was important as it included an eye-opening meeting with farmers in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.
A 2018 blog post published in the Truman Library Institute, a presidential library, mentions how Nehru visited three family farms in Illinois and was “surprised to learn about gas-powered stoves, mechanical corn pickers, and milking machines”. This was in contrast to farming in India which was and is still mainly done by hand.
Though the commitments to food aid weren’t solidified on this visit, India and US eventually struck a loan deal for two million tonnes of wheat two years later.
Apart from food aid, the visit was critical from the lens of China, where the Chinese Communist Party had come into power just two weeks before Nehru’s arrival in the US.
The Truman Library Institute’s blog post claimed that US, at the time, viewed India as a possible “democratic and capitalist counterweight” to communist China.
However, a Brookings’ report titled ‘The Orientation in the Orient (1949–1952)’ said Washington didn’t consider India strategically important at all.
At the time, the US judged a country’s value in terms of “skilled manpower and industrial potential” capable of significantly changing the balance of world power. “In Asia, Japan met these criteria; China and India did not,” the Brookings’ report said.
It added that the administration considered India to be even less vital than China. “A CIA report in September 1947 placed it among the least important countries for the US. India had neither industrial-military capacity nor skilled manpower, and its resources were not indispensable,” the report noted.