Nixon, Intelligence, and the Indian Bomb

23 Dec

‘The most peculiar and haunted of presidents’ is going to be a quixotic figure in any field of study.(1) Nixon and Henry Kissinger – the man most closely associated with the president and his policies – are sources of endless fascination for the scholar and layperson alike.

In my own field, the relationship between the two men and the idea of nuclear proliferation is no less enthralling than any of the other areas in which they involved themselves. Both had little time for the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and non-proliferation activities in general, as their sights were firmly set on the ‘big picture’ policies of détente with the Soviet Union, the normalisation of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the Middle East peace process, Vietnam, and the ‘Year of Europe.’

The Indian nuclear test (sometimes known as ‘Smiling Buddha’) of May 18, 1974, came as something of a shock to the Western nuclear powers (and – it must be said – an even bigger shock to Pakistan, key US ally in the region and arch-rival of India.) The intelligence community was put firmly in the firing line over a lack of warning about the test. A new set of declassified documents provided by the National Security Archive give a little more detail on this.

Much of the information contained in the document set is hardly new, many of the documents – in various forms – have been available for a while. However, the collated set does offer an insight into what happens when intelligence does not align with the priorities of the administration. As the preamble to the document notes, these papers

“illustrate how intelligence priorities generally reflect the interests and priorities of top policymakers. The Nixon White House was focused on the Vietnam War and grand strategy toward Beijing and Moscow; intelligence on nuclear proliferation was a low priority. Compare, for example, the India case with that of Iraq during 2002-2003, when White House concerns encouraged—some say even compelled—intelligence producers to cherry pick raw information to demonstrate the development of WMD by the Saddam Hussein regime.”(2)

The 1970s were, it must be said, a tough time for the intelligence community, particularly the CIA. Critics of covert operations had ensured that in the mid-1970s, the CIA found itself one of the leading political issues and public debate over the relationship between democracy and covert intelligence came to the fore as never before.(3) Central Intelligence also found itself manipulated by the Machiavellian Kissinger, who manipulated government institutions in order to further his ‘higher’ goals.(4)

In the wake of the Indian test, Kissinger – then engaging in his famous ‘shuttle diplomacy’ in the Middle East – ordered a clamp down on official comment about the event. The official position was to be

“the United States has always been against nuclear proliferation for the adverse impact it will have on world stability. That remains our position.”(5)

Neither he not the President offered an opinion on this quite momentous event. It was only after the initial hubbub, when people began to listen to informed senior figures arguing that a non-committal posture seemed to be doing more harm than good, that specific comment started coming out. The major proliferation worry that became apparent at this stage was – as Fred Ikle, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) pointed out – that if the US did not to something to react to this breach of non-proliferation, then the entire edifice of the NPT could come crumbling down, with West Germany, Japan, Italy, and others chosing to abandon non-proliferation and press ahead with nuclear weapons programmes of their own (a sentiment echoed by no less a figure than Sigvard Eklund, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].)(6) The days surrounding the test offer some very interesting angles on what motivates foreign policy decisions and it is a period that I will definitely comment on again in the future.


(1) The ‘peculiar and haunted’ description was applied to Nixon in Elizabeth Drew, Richard M. Nixon (New York, NY, 2007.)

(2) National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No.367 ‘The Nixon Administration and the Indian Nuclear Program, 1972-1974’,, accessed on 23 December, 2011.

(3) Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, The CIA and American Democracy, Second Edition (New Haven, CT, 1998), p.194. If you are interested in the history of the CIA and its involvement in American democratic institutions, I would heartily recommend Professor Jeffreys-Jones’ book.

(4) Ibid, p.188. For more on the CIA and its involvement in nuclear issues, you could do a lot worse than reading Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York, NY, 2006.)

(5) US Embassy, Damascus, to State Department, ‘Indian Nuclear Test’, telegram 1974DAMAS00764, 18 May, 1974, National Archives and Records Administration Access to Archival Databases system (NARA AAD.)

(6) State Department to US Embassy, Jerusalem, ‘US Position on Indian Nuclear Test’, telegram 1974STATE104621, 18 May, 1974, NARA AAD; US Mission to IAEA (Vienna) to State Department, ‘Indian Nuclear Test – Reaction by IAEA DG Eklund’, telegram 1974IAEAV04657, 23 May, 1974, NARA AAD.

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