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Contempt with a Capital Tea

Oftentimes, high-level diplomatic exchanges are not characterized by the usual diplomatic niceties. Take, for example, a memorable meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Krishna Menon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The setting was the 1954 Geneva Conference, which ultimately passed the Geneva Accords, dividing French Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Menon was a talented diplomat noted for his brilliance, eloquence, and highly abrasive persona (President Eisenhower referred to him as “menace”). Dulles, on the other hand, was a staunchly anti-Communist diplomat who strongly disagreed with the Geneva Accords. 

Robert O. Blake was the Soviet Desk Officer during the Geneva Conference, and a member of the U.S. delegation. He was interviewed by Horace G. Torbert beginning December 1990.

See other examples of Diplomats Behaving Badly.

 

“You know nothing about tea, nothing about the British, and you’re a damned fool”

BLAKE: Krishna Menon was Foreign Minister, and the Indians didn’t have any official position on the Vietnamese conference. They were simply observers trying to be sure that they weren’t cut out. They felt that they should have been a member of the conference. They thought correctly that any subject as fundamental to Indian security as Vietnam, they were improperly being excluded. I don’t remember whether they ever made any formal protests.

Later, of course, they were made members of the Vietnam Armistice Commission that oversaw the results of the security arrangements which were established for each one of the Indo-Chinese countries. It may well have been that their insistence paid off for them in that.

But Krishna Menon was considered by all of us not only a terrible pain in the neck, but to be essentially very pro-Communist. And I have no reason, from everything we saw, to doubt that that’s exactly what he was. I don’t mean that he was a member of the Communist Party. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that. But he saw India’s interests as being very close to those of the Soviet Union. He’s quite anti-Chinese.

Foster Dulles was invited to tea by Menon, and I went with him. When Foster came in and sat down, Krishna Menon asked him if he’d like tea, Dulles said, “Yes.”

Menon said, “Would you like pepper in your tea?”

And Foster, thinking perhaps this was the way Indians did it, or there was some kind of special pepper, said, “Mr. Foreign Secretary if you suggest it, okay.”

And Krishna Menon laughed and laughed, and said to Foster, “It just shows that you know nothing about tea, nothing about the British, and you’re a damned fool. Anybody who would accept the idea of putting pepper in their tea must be crazy.” While this might not be exactly the way it was said, this was the thrust of it.

Foster Dulles was so put off that he really was ineffective in the rest of the interview. He considered this, I think correctly,  a personal insult, and sort of a sign of what Krishna Menon, and therefore probably the Indian government, thought about us in the whole affair.