The Making of a ‘Ship-to-Mouth’ Nuclear Power: The Johnson Administration and India’s Nuclear Tilt, 1964–1968*

Published date01 June 2014
Date01 June 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Jayita Sarkar, Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow, Belfer
Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, USA.
The Making of a ‘Ship-
to-Mouth’ Nuclear
Power: The Johnson
Administration and
India’s Nuclear Tilt,
Jayita Sarkar
This article explores Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s nonprolifera-
tion policy toward India in light of China’s nuclear program. It argues
that although the administration prioritized nonproliferation, it was
unwilling to undertake the necessary steps to prevent an Indian pro-
bomb decision. This was owing to downgrading South Asia as a United
States (US) foreign policy priority at the time, and the shared belief
within the administration that India will go nuclear anyway in the long
run. At a time when the US–Indian diplomatic relations had reached a
nadir and India’s regional security environment was highly precarious,
Washington’s wait-and-watch policy proved counterproductive to its
own nonproliferation goals. New Delhi demonstrated its tacit decision
for the bomb with its 1968 refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty, and gravitated more toward Moscow.
Jadavpur Journal of
International Relations
18(1) 1–29
2014 Jadavpur University
SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/0973598414552748
* Earlier versions of this article have been presented at the 106th Annual
Meeting of the American Historical Association’s Pacific Coast Branch in
Denver, CO, at the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative Workshop in Austin,
TX, and at the Yale International Security Studies Colloquium in New Haven,
CT, in Summer–Fall 2013.
2 Jayita Sarkar
Jadavpur Journal of International Relations, 18, 1 (2014): 1–29
US foreign policy, Johnson administration, nuclear proliferation, India’s
nuclear policy, China’s nuclear program
From the very onset, South Asia proved to be a difficult spot for the
Johnson administration. Pakistan, a United States (US) ally, was gradu-
ally inclining toward Beijing, while India, a large nonaligned democracy
and a potential counterweight to the People’s Republic of China, along
with Japan, continuously frustrated policymakers in Washington. The
Johnson administration found it unacceptable that a country which faced
Chinese aggression in October 1962, and sought the US military help to
counter it, also supported Chinese entry into the United Nations (UN)
against the US will, a few years later.1 This apparent South Asian tilt
toward the Chinese communists or the ‘Chicoms,’ while depending on
the US for economic and defense aid, was highly vexing for Washington.
It is in that vein that National Security Council (NSC) staff, Robert W.
Komer, wrote to National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, ‘We have
got to convince them (the Indians and the Pakistanis) that they can not
have their American cake and eat it with chopsticks too.’2
While frustration with South Asia was high, with an administration
overstretched in Vietnam, tackling a balance of payments deficit at home
and Congressional opposition to the US aid overseas, the resources and
capacity for maneuver were already limited for Washington. The region,
while of strategic relevance to the US to prevent the loss of Asia to China,
became less than a top US foreign policy priority at the time with the war
effort in Vietnam intensifying (McMahon 1994b: 135–172). In addition to
this, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) kept his White House aides always guess-
ing about his next move. In deep frustration, Komer complained to Bundy:
But the town is paralyzed, because no one knows the President’s mind, not
even we…the lack of leadership in State on this matter is appalling. Neither
Rusk, nor Ball, nor Mann, have either particular interest or competence…
What we need instead is to do some serious skull practice and hash out the
affair with the President. Surely this is worth 1/100th of the time that has
already been spent on Vietnam.3

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