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India and Pakistan – On the Nuclear Threshold

By Joyce Battle

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 6

For more information contact:
Joyce Battle 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu


Washington, D.C. – This briefing book contains material from the National Security Archive's project on U.S. policy toward South Asia, which is documenting nuclear developments in India and Pakistan from the 1950s to the present. The Archive is collecting U.S. government records that illustrate American policies and perspectives. Information is being collected from the National Archives and the presidential libraries, and through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Review requests, used to obtain the declassification of now- secret materials. A selective and focused collection of documents will be made available to researchers.

The project is creating a comprehensive history of nuclear developments in South Asia, including weapons programs in India and Pakistan, as well as international efforts to curtail proliferation in the region. Information about factors that influenced nuclear issues, such as the unresolved enmity between India and Pakistan, and India's perception of China as a security threat, will also be incorporated. The U.S. has generally opposed nuclear proliferation in South Asia, while seeking to preserve good relations with both India and Pakistan. At times, however, its commitment has been questioned, because it has seemed to subordinate nonproliferation policy to other concerns. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. provided massive levels of economic and military aid to its ally, Pakistan. The assistance was widely criticized, because Pakistan was demonstrably importing nuclear-related material, from China and other nations. Few doubted that it was engaged in an active nuclear weapons development program.

China's role as a leading provider of sensitive technology to Pakistan has repeatedly strained U.S.-China relations, and has complicated efforts to expand U.S.-China trade. The Archive's South Asia project is using the FOIA to seek the declassification of documents discussing this issue, and other contemporary and controversial topics. Materials collected for this project will, of course, reflect a U.S. perspective. As noted, non-proliferation policy is influenced by other concerns, including competition among the major powers. The Archive's efforts are directed toward enhancing understanding of U.S. decisions and the issues that influenced policy formulation. The analyst for the South Asia nuclear project is Joyce Battle, who prepared this briefing book. She is also the analyst for the Archive's documentation projects on the Persian Gulf and U.S. policy toward Iraq. Materials collected for the latter project were published in a document set, Iraqgate: Saddam Hussein, U.S. Policy and the Prelude to the Persian Gulf War, 1980-1994 (Chadwyck-Healey, 1994). She has an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard and an MS in Library Science from Columbia.

This project receives generous support from the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

 


Briefing Book Documents

The documents in the briefing book date from 1961 to 1983. In 1961, India had an advanced civilian nuclear program, while Pakistan's was in its early stages. In 1983, nine years had elapsed since India's explosion of a nuclear device, and Pakistan's nuclear weapons program was well under way.

During the early 1960s, India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strongly advocated global disarmament, but was apprehensive about China's nuclear weapons program. India's concern increased following its October 1962 territorial war with China. The stakes were raised by China's first nuclear weapons test in October 1964. Many observers thought it increasingly likely that India would respond to China's actions by seeking its own weapons capability. War with Pakistan in 1965 further alarmed India: it was angered by China's outspoken support for Pakistan during the conflict, and disappointed by what it viewed as insufficient Western attention to its security needs. The U.S. considered various options that might dissuade India from developing nuclear weapons, including scientific cooperation aimed at enhancing India's national prestige. It also joined in cooperative arrangements with both India and Pakistan to monitor nuclear and missile developments in China and the Soviet Union. India, for its part, launched a campaign seeking security guarantees to shield it from Chinese nuclear attack, arguing that such assurances might make a nuclear weapons program of its own unnecessary. Various options were proposed: U.S. guarantees, joint U.S.-Soviet guarantees, guarantees from all the nuclear states, British guarantees, or guarantees in conjunction with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, then being negotiated. U.S. policy makers seriously considered these proposals, although some doubted that they would deter India from developing a bomb.

The Embassy in New Delhi viewed India's overtures sympathetically, while the Defense Department opposed any commitment to India that would alienate Pakistan, a U.S. military ally. In 1967, both President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara supported the concept of guarantees during meetings with a visiting Indian representative. Later that year, U.S. and Soviet officials were still discussing security guarantees, hoping to induce India to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. No agreement was ever reached, however, in part because India itself concluded that such commitments would not guarantee its security in the event of actual nuclear conflict. In May 1974 India tested a nuclear device, although it called the event a “peaceful nuclear explosion." Its terminology did not forestall censure, both within the international community and from domestic critics. The test had serious consequences: India lost much of the foreign technical assistance that had till then sustained its civilian nuclear program. A Pakistani reaction to India's test of a nuclear explosive was predicted, and confirmed within a few years. By the mid-1970s, intelligence reports indicated that Pakistan had an active nuclear weapons program, and in 1983 the State Department noted that it had “unambiguous evidence" of this fact. Documents in this briefing book illuminate aspects of the internal debate among U.S. officials, as they attempted to formulate effective policies toward nuclear proliferation in South Asia while protecting sometimes conflicting interests and objectives.

 

Document 1: State Department Instruction: “Indian Capability and Likelihood to Produce Atomic Energy," June 29, 1961 (SECRET).

Source: Decimal File, 1960-1963; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The State Department asks its embassies to collect information about India's nuclear energy program and its intentions regarding the development of nuclear weapons. In 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was strongly opposed to nuclear warfare, although India had a very active civilian nuclear energy program. However, many foreign policy analysts considered it likely that India would eventually choose to develop a nuclear weapons capability. The U.S. used various means to monitor India's nuclear plans and activities.

 

Document 2: Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense: “The Indian Nuclear Problem: Proposed Course of Action," October 23, 1964, attached to Letter from Robert McNamara to Dean Rusk, October 28, 1964 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The Secretary of Defense sends the Secretary of State comments from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) regarding Indian nuclear issues, in the aftermath of China's first nuclear weapons test. The Joint Chiefs support earlier official statements providing assurances for non-nuclear states against nuclear attack, but oppose any measures on behalf of India that could alienate Pakistan. The memo notes that additional assurances under discussion are “general in nature" and permit U.S. “flexibility of response." The Joint Chiefs argue that the U.S. should not support Soviet guarantees, because they fear increased Soviet influence within India's armed forces.

 

Document 3: Letter from John G. Palfrey, Atomic Energy Commission, to Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, November 23, 1964, with attached report: “Discussion Paper on Prospects for Intensifying Peaceful Atomic Cooperation with India," including one redacted page (CONFIDENTIAL).

Source: Mandatory Review declassification by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.

The commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission sends the State Department proposals for U.S. cooperation with India on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, in the belief that enhancing India's scientific prestige might dissuade it from developing its own nuclear weapons in response to China's first nuclear test. Among the collaborative projects suggested are the recycling of plutonium as fuel for India's nuclear reactors, cooperative “Plowshare" projects (nuclear explosions for civil uses), and reactor construction.

 

Document 4: State Department Telegram, November 25, 1964 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Glenn Seaborg suggests that the Embassy in New Delhi coordinate exchanges of information between India and the U.S. regarding Chinese nuclear tests. Indian Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Homi Bhabha had suggested information sharing.

 

Documt 5: Memorandum from the State Department, Ambassador at Large: “New Delhi's 1862 of December 31, 1964," December 31, 1964 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Llewellyn E. Thompson, a principal participant in the formulation of Johnson administration non-proliferation policy, criticizes any suggestions to the Indians by the American ambassador to India that the U.S. would provide specific security guarantees to a non-aligned country. He says that policy regarding the issue has not yet been established.

 

Document 6: Memorandum from the State Department, Ambassador at Large: “Indian Nuclear Weapons Capability," January 30, 1965 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Thompson says that security assurances may be a major factor in determining whether India develops nuclear weapons, but adds that India's neutrality would preclude a formal U.S. guarantee. He suggests a statement from India indicating that it is confident that the major nuclear powers would react if it were the target of nuclear attack. It would also declare its intent not to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. would retain the freedom to determine how it would respond if there were an actual crisis.

 

Document 7: State Department Telegram for Governor Harriman from the Secretary, February 27, 1965 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

With information indicating that China will soon conduct a second nuclear weapons test, Secretary of State Dean Rusk asks Averall Harriman, on an official Asian tour, to sound out Indian officials on nuclear issues. He says that although Prime Minister Shastri has discussed security guarantees with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Indian representatives have yet to raise the subject directly with the U.S. He says that the U.S. does not want to go beyond general public assurances issued by President Lyndon Johnson in October 1964. However, he asks Harriman to review with Indian officials evidence demonstrating the U.S.'s capacity and intent to respond in the event of a Chinese nuclear attack.

 

Document 8: State Department Cable: “Possible Indian Nuclear Weapons Development," March 29, 1966 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The State Department says it has no evidence to indicate that India has decided to develop a nuclear weapon, but adds that if it decided to do so it could probably explode a device within one year. The Department summarizes the preparations that would be necessary, and suggests that India might be stockpiling plutonium from its CIRUS nuclear reactor in order to conduct a test. It asks the Embassy in New Delhi to gather information providing “even tenuous indications of nuclear weapons activity."

 

Document 9: State Department Telegram Regarding Estimated Cost of Indian Nuclear Weapon Program, May 24, 1966 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The State Department, seeking to influence the nuclear debate in India, wanted to persuade Indians favoring weapons development that a program would be more expensive than they anticipated. It provides the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi with cost estimates, recommending that the embassy emphasize the level of funding necessary for a credible program and delivery system, since testing a first device would be “well within India's financial capabilities."

 

Document 10: State Department Memorandum for the President: “NSC Meeting, June 9, 1966," June 7, 1966 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Acting Secretary of State George Ball forwards a background paper for a National Security Council meeting. It reports that India is almost certain to develop nuclear weapons, and argues that efforts to influence India's decision, including arms control proposals and a U.S. campaign emphasizing that a nuclear weapons program would be costly, are not likely to achieve more than a short-term delay in that outcome. The paper suggests other options to deter India, such as using U.S. economic leverage, or finding alternative ways to meet India's security concerns. The paper notes that India will only seek security guarantees that are consistent with its non- aligned status, because it depends on good relations with the Soviet Union for aid and support against China, and because it wants to maintain its stature among Afro-Asian nations. It argues that the U.S. should be willing to defend India if it were the subject of Chinese nuclear attack, but should not agree to a possibly entangling commitment. It recommends further discussions regarding a joint guarantee with the Soviets, although they presently oppose the idea. It also recommends consideration of a resolution calling for UN members to support any non-nuclear state subjected to nuclear aggression. The U.S. would then offer private assurances to India.

 

Document 11: State Department Cable Regarding Efforts to Influence Indian Nuclear Decision Making, July 28, 1966 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

 The U.S. wants to persuade India to continue its policy against developing nuclear weapons, but does not want to create a backlash by appearing to apply pressure. The State Department requests advice from the Embassy on disseminating the U.S. point of view discreetly.

 

Document 12: State Department Cable Regarding a U.S. Public Stance Nuclear Proliferation, October 27, 1966 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1964-1966; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The State Department provides guidance for a public policy designed to dissuade India from opting to develop nuclear weapons. It recommends abandoning rhetoric suggesting that nuclear powers have special prestige. Instead, it urges that the U.S. emphasize the wisdom of a national decision to forego nuclear weapons, and that it stress the benefits of civilian nuclear energy use. In order to mitigate India's concern about China's nuclear weapons capabilities, it recommends accentuating the U.S.'s capacity for retaliation. The guidelines also call for stressing the position that a comprehensive nuclear weapons program, including a delivery system, would be prohibitively costly.

 

Document 13: Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense: “The Indian Nuclear Weapons Problem: Security Aspects," January 4, 1967, attached to a Letter from Morton H. Halperin, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, to Douglas Heck of the State Department (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1967-1969; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The Joint Chiefs respond to a study from the State Department on Indian security problems. They reaffirm their view that the U.S. can do little to influence any nation's decision to seek nuclear status. They continue to oppose any security assurances for India that could alienate Pakistan, as they did in 1964 (see Document 1). They do not believe that the U.S. should provide private assurances, except in response to an initiative from India, suggesting that refraining might lead Indian leaders to reconsider opposition to “certain U.S. policies" (they are presumably referring to the Vietnam War). The memorandum indicates that the intelligence community expects that India will probably test a nuclear device “within the next few years."

 

Document 14: Memorandum from the State Department: “Security Assurances for India," April 20, 1967, with attached Memorandum of Conversation; “Rough Translation of the Revised Russian Draft;" and Memorandum for the President (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1967-1969; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The State Department provides background information for meetings between L. K. Jha, Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and U.S. officials, including President Lyndon Johnson. Jha was traveling to various capitols to discuss India's interest in security guarantees. A memo from Deputy Under Secretary Foy D. Kohler shows State Department support for parallel U.S. and Soviet guarantees associated with acceptance of the nuclear non- proliferation treaty, and indicates that a Soviet draft on the subject is considered promising. During their meeting, Johnson tells Jha that India's proposal regarding guarantees is “very interesting." Signaling his principal foreign policy preoccupation, Johnson then suggests that India support U.S. policy in Vietnam.

 

Document 15: Memorandum of Conversation from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense: “Meeting Between the Secretary of Defense and Mr. L. K. Jha, Tuesday, 18 April at 10 a.m.," April 25, 1967 (SECRET).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

At a meeting with Secretary L. K. Jha, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara says that the U.S. appreciates the importance of assurances against nuclear attacks, but warns India against overreaction to a perceived threat from China. He supports parallel assurances from the nuclear powers for non-nuclear states, in conjunction with their acceptance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). He comments that although signing the treaty might entail some risks for India, refraining from doing so would be even more dangerous. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Director of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, indicates that India is concerned about new U.S. sales of military spare parts to Pakistan. He says that his country is reluctant to give up the option of nuclear weapons if the NPT is not a step toward total nuclear disarmament by all nations.

 

Document 16: Memorandum of Conversation from the State Department: “Non- Proliferation Treaty; Assurances to Non Nuclear Powers; Latin American Nuclear Free Zone," June 23, 1967 (Secret).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1967-1969; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

During discussions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Secretary of State Dean Rusk says that a few problems remain, including security assurances for India. Rusk says that the U.S. wants any assurances to be provided via a Security Council resolution, and Gromyko says the Soviet position is also based on a UN role. Rusk, Gromyko and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara agree that a final treaty may be completed by October. (In the end, India abandoned its efforts to obtain assurances, having concluded that they would not necessarily be honored during a crisis. It has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.)

 

Document 17: Embassy, New Delhi Telegram: “Conversation with Senior GOI Nuclear Official," May 7, 1968 (SECRET).

Source: Subject-Numeric File, 1967-1969; Central Files of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Homi Sethna, Director of India's Bhabha Atomic Research Center, dismisses as useless an Indo-Soviet nuclear agreement, and says that the Soviets are not honest with India in nuclear matters. He believes that they want to collaborate with India in order to obtain information on China's nuclear tests. He does not expect India to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty “unless Mrs. [Indira] Gandhi wants to commit political suicide." (There was strong public opposition to signing because many Indians shared the view, widespread within the Indian leadership, that the treaty was discriminatory, and that India needed to reserve the option of developing nuclear weapons.)

 

Document 18: Mission to NATO: “Assessment of Indian Nuclear Test," June 5, 1974 (SECRET).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Two weeks after India's first explosion of a nuclear device, the State Department reports on evaluations of the test. It says that India may view even a rudimentary nuclear system as a deterrent to China, and suggests that domestic problems might have contributed to the timing of the explosion. It estimates that India could easily afford to conduct additional tests, but a sophisticated weapons program would require a large-scale diversion of resources. The State Department notes that the test has alarmed Pakistan and set back efforts toward regional reconciliation.

 

Document 19: Bureau of Intelligence and Research Intelligence Note: “India: Uncertainty over Nuclear Policy," June 13, 1974 (CONFIDENTIAL).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

A month after India's first nuclear test on May 18, 1974, the State Department assesses internal reaction in India. The Department reports that most Indians welcomed the test at first, but some now doubt their government's claim that its nuclear intentions are strictly peaceful. Some journalists say that foreign pressure regarding nuclear issues could strengthen Hindu nationalist factions. Others worry that the test will induce Pakistan to seek nuclear weapons, which would in turn increase sentiment for a full-scale Indian military program.

 

Document 20: State Department Background Paper: “Pakistan and the Non- Proliferation Issue," January 22, 1975 (SECRET).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The State Department reports that Pakistan is negotiating for facilities that will give it an independent nuclear fuel cycle and the opportunity to produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb. It says that Pakistan may already have decided to produce nuclear weapons. The paper adds that India's test gave Pakistan the incentive to produce a nuclear weapon, and that it could do so “with less world condemnation than might otherwise be expected."

 

Document 21: State Department Memorandum: “Demarche to Pakistan on Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing," January 30, 1976 (SECRET).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the State Department, intelligence reports indicate that Pakistan has undertaken “a crash program to develop nuclear weapons." It is trying to obtain a uranium reprocessing facility to produce plutonium, presumably for weapons use, since it does not need the plutonium for its civil nuclear energy program.

 

Document 22: State Department Briefing Paper: “The Pakistani Nuclear Program," June 23, 1983 (SECRET).

Source: Declassified in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The State Department reports that there is “unambiguous evidence that Pakistan is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons development program." It says that the U.S. has information indicating that Pakistan began to develop a nuclear explosive device “soon after the 1974 Indian nuclear test." Pakistan has obtained technology for its research in Europe, using procurement agents and front organizations. The U.S. has also concluded that China is assisting Pakistan's nuclear program: it believes that they have cooperated in the production of fissile material, and possibly also in “nuclear device design." (During the 1980s, the U.S. was criticized for providing massive levels of aid to Pakistan, its military ally, despite laws barring assistance to any country that imported certain technology related to nuclear weapons. President Ronald Reagan waived the legislation, arguing that cutting off aid would harm U.S. national interests.)

 

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