I was working at the President John F Kennedy Library on a fellowship grant. My area of interest was the 1962 India China war and role played by the US in that conflict.
As the author of the official history of the conflict I was already familiar with most of the facts. But as I began to have a look at the various declassified documents of the period, it became crystal clear that Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, the then American ambassador in New Delhi, played a larger than life role in the evolving situation.
Kennedy had extraordinary interest in India, and saw the Indian success as a key to fight against Communism in Asia. Professor Galbraith was his chosen man for the job.
Professor Galbraith came to India with a formidable reputation. Earlier he had worked almost for a whole year in India at the invitation of Pandit Nehru and Professor (Prasanta Chandra) Mahalanobis (the originator of planned economic development and virtually the founder of the Indian Planning Commission). Nehru was impressed with his acute intellect and was on a very friendly terms with him.
It is to Professor Galbraith's credit that he persuaded Nehru to leave agriculture in the private sector. Seeing the collapse of Soviet agriculture and disaster of Chinese efforts at collectivisation, one could give credit to Professor Galbraith for dissuading Nehru from following that disastrous path. The later Indian success in the Green Revolution owes much to this policy orientation prescribed by Professor Galbraith.
That India did not have food riots like the Soviet Union or mega deaths like China, had much to do with this approach of leaving agriculture in private hands.
Professor Galbraith and Kennedy enjoyed an extraordinary relationship. As his former student Kennedy had immense respect for the professor's intellect and sought his advice frequently. The lengthy diplomatic telegrams that he sent to the president are a testimony to that.
When the India-China war erupted in September/October 1962, President Kennedy was totally preoccupied with the much more menacing Cuban Missile Crisis, and he virtually 'outsourced' American policy towards India and that conflict to Professor Galbraith.
All these facts whetted my appetite as a researcher and I was greatly delighted when the Professor gave me time to discuss the subject (Image: Colonel (Dr) Anil Atahle (retired), the author of this article, with Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife Catherine Galbraith)
As I made my way to Roosevelt House on the Harvard University campus, a booming voice (despite his 94 years) welcomed me. We were soon engrossed in an animated discussion of the professor's stay in India.
Going over the events of the 1962 India-China war, Professor Galbraith was candid enough to admit that he virtually ran the show since President Kennedy was fully occupied in tackling the missile crisis with the Soviet Union. "But for this I would have not been able to play such a major role," he said.
When the issue of military aid came up he frankly told Nehru that the perpetual America-baiter V K Krishna Menon, then defence minister, had to go before the aid could begin to flow.
He narrated to me a story of a delegation of US senators which called on President Radhakrishnan during those days of active conflict. During the course of the conversation, a senator asked President Radhakrishnan about the rumour then floating in Delhi that General B M Kaul (the architect of the military disaster of 1962) had been captured by the Chinese. Professor Galbraith, with obvious glee, recalled the Indian President's deadpan reply that unfortunately it was not true.
Turning to the issues of war and peace, Professor Galbraith felt that many conflicts were essentially a 'recreational' activity of the professional military, bored by a long peace. 'It (the war) also helps employment,' he said.
He then mentioned that 1963 saw the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam and President Kennedy had deliberately sent him there, knowing fully well that he would not support American involvement there. But Kennedy fell to assassin's bullets before he could act, Professor Galbraith regretted.
"In the old days, land was important as the giver of all things. That period is gone now. Technology and brainpower are all that matter and yet conflicts over land, specially one like on the India-China border, that yields nothing, continue," he said. "This is a burden of ancient history that we continue to carry. If tomorrow there is settlement on planet Mars, we will begin to worry if others are interested."
He then proudly mentioned it was he who established the first-ever computer science department in India at IIT Kanpur. The present strides taken by India in the IT sector owes much to this initial step.
The professor's love for India and Indians long outlived his tenure in India. At Harvard he was a godfather for Indian students. Every year after graduation, he held a reception for Indian students. In fact the day I met him he was just clearing up the mess of the previous day's Indian students party.
In July 1963, he was recalled to Washington as President Kennedy wanted him to work on GATT or General Agreement on Trade and Tariff), also famous as the Kennedy Round. Today's World Trade Organisation owes its existence to that early step, another of Galbraith's contribution.
But the Galbraith-Kennedy saga has more than mere historical relevance.
In 2006 again, as in 1962/1963, India and the US are on verge of forging a new relationship.
In his farewell letter on July 9, 1963, Professor Galbraith pointed out to Kennedy that he could achieve much because he had the president's confidence and direct access, bypassing the bureaucracy.
He predicted that his successor, the able Chester Bowles, would be thwarted by the State Department that has deeply entrenched anti-India lobbies. How true it was became apparent when Professor Galbraith's exit saw the slowing down of cooperation on the military front.
India-US relations saw a similar upswing when another Harvard professor-president duo worked (President George W Bush and Professor Robert Blackwill) There are indeed lessons to be learnt from these two episodes.
Professor Galbraith will always be remembered as a great friend and wellwisher of India who did much to put Indian agriculture on a sound footing and ushered in the computer revolution in India.
In his death, India will miss this friend from Harvard.