Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited India October 28, 1974 to discuss its nonalignment policy, which aimed at preserving India’s post-colonial freedom through refusal to join any coalition, including the U.S. or Soviet blocs. Relations between New Delhi and Washington were anything but cordial at this time. The 1971 refusal of Nixon and Kissinger to support India during the Bengali Genocide, combined with India’s testing of a nuclear bomb in May 1974, set the scene for a tense visit.
From denying his speechwriter access to the speechwriters’ office to demanding that his plane turn around to giving a speech he hated, Secretary Kissinger managed once again — despite everything — to score the jump-start of a diplomatic success.
Mark Palmer, then Kissinger’s speechwriter, recalls the begrudging efforts of the Secretary to repair relations with India, which were met with overt snubs by the Indians. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Palmer in 1997.
“So he had invited Moynihan to come to Moscow and then told people to not allow him any access”
Mark Palmer, Policy Planning Staff, 1971-1975
PALMER: We went to India and gave a nonalignment speech. Henry hated nonalignment. As a history, as a group, everything about nonalignment drove him crazy. A number of people in his inner circle, Hal Sonnenfeldt and others, fought against even doing this speech. But it was my perception and others that he had to — if he was going to go to India, to make up for the tilt in ‘71, Pakistan and stuff — that we had to address the issue of nonalignment….
Anyway, he spent a lot of time on that speech, a speech that he hated giving. But he worked on it right up until just minutes before he gave it….
We’d been working on the speech. Pat Moynihan was our Ambassador in India, and therefore the host ambassador for where this thing was going to be given. Pat’s a wonderful writer and so he and I kind of co-wrote this speech. Pat flew up to Moscow because we were coming to India from Moscow.
Henry knew that he was coming, and he had a certain kind of rivalry with Moynihan. So he ordered our security people to tell the KGB people that if somebody named Moynihan showed up at the guest house in the Lenin Hills where we were staying, that he should not be admitted.
So he had invited Moynihan to come to Moscow and then told people to not allow him any access. So I was in the guest house with Henry and Moynihan arrives and he’s told to go away by the gate guards.
So he goes back to the hotel, a dreadful hotel in Moscow, and he calls me. And he says, “You know I’ve come here to work on this speech with you and I’ve been told that I’m on the list of people not to be given access. How can this be?”
And I was dumbfounded even though I’d worked for Henry for a fair amount of time. At that point, I still was dumbfounded that he had done this. So I looked into it. I thought it was a mistake. No, it wasn’t. I found out he had done it personally. So anyway, I went down to the hotel and worked with Pat in the hotel.
“Turn this plane around! We’re not landing!”
We got on the plane and we were flying into Delhi. We were half an hour out of Delhi, or about an hour out when we got this message from the embassy. The message was that Mrs. Gandhi, who was Prime Minister, had just given a press conference in which she made the following points:
— That Henry Kissinger thought his visit was of real importance and she didn’t think that this was correct.
— That the United States thought that Indians were beggars and she was not going to beg.
— That she was only going to be there for a brief time and was then going on vacation.
We had scheduled three days in Delhi. So Kissinger gets this thing from the embassy, you know, a flash message to the plane saying these things. And he goes ballistic, and he starts bounding around in the aisles and screaming, “Pat, this fucking woman…Where’s the pilot?… Am I the Secretary of State? Turn this plane around! We’re not landing!”…
So Pat and I looked at one another and Pat then sends a message to the embassy saying, you know, “Is this correct?” hoping that somebody in the embassy is going to have the wit to… you know.
Boom! comes back a message from the embassy.
“Yes, that that was verbatim what she said.”
Oh, Christ! At that point we were only about 15 minutes out, we were still flying in. So Kissinger again goes ballistic and starts screaming. He realizes that he’s got in his hand my arrival remarks and he looks down and he starts screaming at me, “Just because you’re married to an Indian doesn’t mean you have to write this drivel about India.” And, “this God awful woman” and “we’re not landing!” And boom, we land!
The doors open. There’s Henry Kissinger standing at the top of the steps. Down below at Palam Airport is half of India, you know, the Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister and the press. It’s a big event. We hardly ever go to India in those days.
And here’s Henry Kissinger, and he has this really terrible expression on his face. And I remember Pat and I looked at one another and sort of said, “Oh, Christ! This is it! It’s the end of the relationship!”
He marches down the steps, marches out to the microphone. All of a sudden this sort of stupid expression comes on to his face and he says, “India and America are the two greatest democracies in the world’s history. Indira Gandhi is one of the greatest, wisest women in politics in the history of statehood. I am so delighted to be here to take her advice on how we should be doing our role as leaders, etc.”
And he goes on and on with stuff I never would have dreamed of writing. So positive! Unbelievable stuff comes pouring out about how wonderful she is. Christ!
So we go in and he has this meeting with her. Forty-five minutes and she goes intentionally on vacation. Henry obviously thought that, well, he’ll do his best, he’d send all the right signals, and things will work. Well, they didn’t work. She was determined to show that she was who she was and that he was just some visiting Secretary of State.
“Henry Kissinger was born in the year 1827”
So then the next act in this drama: the next day he’s giving this nonalignment speech. So the head of the Indian Foreign Policy Council or Institute or whatever is this ancient man. He’s almost 90 and is basically “gaga.” The Indians were hosting the speech, they were providing the forum.
A variety of Indians tried to persuade this old man that he really should be there but let somebody else do the introductions and run the event, but he was determined. The morning of the event he fell down and broke his arm. And so everybody thought, “Oh, well. At least he can’t come.”
Well, sure enough, he’s there in the sling and everything. He gets up in front of this crowd. Henry’s sitting there with the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, etc. Everybody is sitting on this dais. He has cards in front of him to introduce Kissinger and he says, “Henry Kissinger, whose only other trip to India was when he was an assistant professor at Harvard and he was of course of no importance…” the same thing that Mrs. Gandhi had said.
“No importance.” Henry starts to bristle.
Then he says, “Henry Kissinger was born in the year 1827.” And the crowd starts to laugh, you know. So anyway, this old man goes on says, “He’s become Secretary of State.” All of a sudden, he gets the cards mixed up. He starts all over again and I swear to God he says, “Henry Kissinger was born in 1827.”
At this point the crowd starts to roar. This old man was sort of only slightly there with you. He gets really mad because everybody’s laughing; and he wants to know why they are laughing because, for him, being born in 1827 wasn’t inconceivable, I guess.
So he starts shouting at the crowd. “Shut up! Shut up! Why are you laughing? This is an outrage! I’m insulted! You be quiet and let me introduce him. There were people who did not want me to introduce this man, but I’m up here now and I’m president of this thing and you shut up and you let me finish my remarks!”
At this point, the Defense Minister gets up and literally picks up this old man. He picks him right up off the ground and moves him sideways, seats him and says, “Now we’ll have the remarks of the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.”
Henry gets up and he’s just livid, you know. He’s livid with Mrs. Gandhi. He’s livid that this charade has just happened. He’s livid with a speech he doesn’t want to give which acknowledges nonalignment’s existence. And he gives it like a machine gun, like he’s just going to get it over with.
It was a disaster of a visit. It was just terrible, but we did all the right public things. We gave all the right signals and I think, in a sense therefore, it was the beginning of our healing of our relations the Indians….