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A Giant of the Kennedy Era: John Kenneth Galbraith

With his impressive intellect, polarizing personality, close ties to the Kennedy White House and imposing stature, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith was a larger-than-life figure in American diplomacy.  Born in the Canadian town of Iona Station, Ontario in 1908, Ambassador Galbraith began his education at the Ontario Agricultural College, graduating with a degree in Agricultural Economics.

He later made his way to the United States, where he continued his studies in Agricultural Economics, eventually obtaining a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in 1934. He became a professor at Harvard University after graduating.

Ambassador Galbraith was known to be a close friend of President John F. Kennedy, who valued his intellect as well as his clarity of communication. In 1961 Kennedy appointed him ambassador to India and he remained there until 1963.

During his time in India, he formed a close relationship with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and remained a staunch supporter of the country after leaving his post in 1963. Ambassador Galbraith’s connection with the Kennedy family also meant that he had a direct line to the White House, often bypassing the State Department at the President’s request. At his suggestion, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited India in 1962.

Ambassador Galbraith was a prolific writer and became known as an influential economist and intellectual, but he was also known for his outsize ego and intolerance for those he did not get along with. These accounts, taken from six ADST interviews, are evidence of the lasting impressions—positive and negative—that he left on those who interacted with him.

Eugene Rosenfeld, reporter for International Press Service, discussed his experiences with Galbraith with Jack O’Brien in November 1989.  Lindsey Grant, Economic Officer in New Delhi was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in January 1990, and Kennedy also interviewed Kathryn Clark-Bourne, Political Officer in Bombay in August 1995.  Ray Ewing interviewed Jonathan Rickert, Consular Officer in London in December 2002.  Carleton S. Coon, Jr. was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October 1989.  Howard B. Schaffer was interviewed by Thomas Stern in March 1997.

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“He was fun to work with, stimulating, but he had absolutely no tolerance for people that he decided he didn’t like…”

Eugene Rosenfeld, reporter, International Press Service  

ROSENFELD: I think [the situation in India] deserves a little bit of attention in that it refers to an ambassador who was not particularly helpful in dealing with his staff. This was John Kenneth Galbraith, a highly intellectual man, a great economist, although economists say he is a great journalist and journalists say he is a great economist. I think he is both. I think he writes extremely well and I think he has a very good mind.

He was fun to work with, stimulating, but he had absolutely no tolerance for people that he decided he didn’t like or were not doing what he wanted them to do, by his lights. I think that in his first year there [the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi] he fired six counselors, embassy, just got rid of them, and he also got rid of a couple of USIA [United States Information Agency] guys who were good officers; he just did not want to have anything more to do with them.

I think this simply reflected the Kennedy attitude, the Kennedy style, which was basically that the bureaucracy — the State Department particularly they labeled a fudge factory — that they really did not understand it. They considered FSOs and bureaucrats as mealy-mouthed who always knuckled under, did not have any ideas of their own, just faceless types following a line that was set up for them and who did not have any original thoughts. Such was the Kennedy approach — in my view.

I realized that Galbraith was not easy to work for, so the first thing I tried to do was to straighten him out from my point of view, which was, you know, disagree with him at the first opportunity.

One thing that happened — this, again, is something that might be useful all around — at the time of this Chinese thing [Sino-India War of 1962] he would have a press briefing primarily with the American press to try to explain what was going on.

At this point a very top-level USG group had come in to “assess” the India-China situation — General Paul Adam, head of Strike Command, Paul Nitze, Averell Harriman (who headed the mission). It was top government action. It was the elite and they were in there talking about how they could provide support, with the British, to stop the Chinese from coming in any further [into territory disputed with India.]

So at one press backgrounder, which Galbraith gave almost every day, somebody said, “We hear that the Chinese are prepared to accept a cease-fire. What are you going to recommend to the Indians, that they accept it or they not accept it?”Galbraith said, “The Indians are big boys. They can make up their own minds about this.” They said, “Come on, you know this story. What is American policy? Do we want to have a cease-fire or do we want to keep just plugging in there? What is the story?”

Galbraith put on a bit of a show and he started yelling at whomever it was; I think it was Phil Potter of the Baltimore Sun. He said, “Don’t you cross examine me.”

Then he answered some more questions and finally wound up. He and Lane Timmons, the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], and I got together and so he said to me, “What did you think? How did it go?”

I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t like it.”

Timmons said, “What do you mean? He was absolutely right to tell these guys where to get off.”

I said, “No, you don’t tell these guys where to get off in front of their peers. If you want to take them aside and let them have it, okay, but don’t do it in front of everybody else. Don’t try to put on a show. It is just not good for you. All it does is create more anguish.”

So the next day, at the group’s airport departure, I see him talking to Potter and he is sort of apologizing to Potter, but I couldn’t go up to him and say, “Look, the American ambassador doesn’t apologize. You did what you did. You stick with it.”

Anyway, this is something — how you deal with an ambassador who thinks he is the smartest guy in the world is a problem every PAO [Public Affairs Officer] is going to have. I can’t give them any great advice except to be straightforward and don’t knuckle under.

“He was just dying to come down on the Indian side of this whole argument”

Lindsey Grant, Economic Officer in New Delhi, 1965-1968

Q: T

he Chinese were giving the Indians a bloody nose. Were you having problems selling the idea of a limited punitive engagement in India to others within the State Department or the Government?

GRANT: …What we had there was rather interesting. Galbraith, who was ambassador in India at the time, this is about the only time I’m aware of that he actually used his old White House connection effectively at all, but he was just dying to come down on the Indian side of this whole argument. He managed to force through a US Government position endorsing the Indian view of the border, whereas our view–and I think the India desk rather shared it–was that this was none of our business, that we should have left that whole question of borders for much longer resolution between them. So in that sense, even though Galbraith was associated with Kennedy and with this whole new school, his instinctive view–I guess it was probably “localitis”–he simply wanted to take the Indians’ position. He wasn’t about ready to give a nickel to the Chinese.

“My problem was that Galbraith was almost seven feet tall and the bunks on ships were short”

Kathryn Clark-Bourne, Political Officer in Bombay, 1962-1967

CLARK-BOURNE: [Previous U.S. ambassador to India] Chester Bowles was really liked by the Indians. He had two different tours there. Galbraith was something else. I remember, as consular officer, I was always the control officer for ship visits.

And COMIDEASTFOR, Commander of the Middle East Forces, [who was stationed in Bahrain], would drop by quite often. I remember Galbraith coming down once by train. I think he took over seven cars on the train for all of his friends and relatives. He arrived in Bombay and the COMIDEASTFOR had come down on his flagship. Then there was a destroyer…

Galbraith announced that he and his wife were going to stay on the captain’s ship during the visit. In that day, a woman staying overnight on a ship was practically unknown. The captain wasn’t very happy, but felt that he had to acquiesce to the Ambassador.

My problem was that Galbraith was almost seven feet tall and the bunks on ships were short. I remember sending a junior officer down to the bazaar to find big cushions to pile up at the end of a bunk so that he could sleep on it.

But he absolutely insisted. That’s the kind of person he was. And yet, he wrote magnificently. We loved to read his cables and his telegrams. We’d look forward to them. He really was very talented. But there were two sides to the character.

Jonathan Rickert, Consular Officer in London, 1965-1966

RICKERT: … I was sent out to the airport to meet John Kenneth Galbraith, who was passing through [London] on his way back to Boston. He was no longer Ambassador to India by that time but he had been sent when Prime Minister Shastri died unexpectedly. Galbraith headed the American delegation. He had a stack of exams with him that he had been grading and he left them with me to pouch back because – I don’t remember why – but he couldn’t take them with him. That was the easiest meet-and-greet I’ve ever done because he’s about 6’10…

“As an individual I find him enchanting. But this was a colossal error on his part.”

Carleton S. Coon, Jr., assigned to the India, Nepal, Ceylon Desk, 1965-1968

Q: Communist China had attacked India up in the Himalayas, and had defeated them rather soundly and we [the U.S. Government] were organized in an emergency arms aid program to them. Had this helped things with us with the Indians?

COON: It helped enormously for a little while. But John Kenneth Galbraith made one of the great classical misperceptions of South Asia. I don’t suppose you’ll get this coming out of him, but certainly it was my perception, from where I sat, and I think a detailed study of his policy messages to Washington would bear out that his basic approach was that, “We have built up capital with the Indians by arming them against China. We have built up capital previously with the Pakistanis by arming them against Russia. Now is the time for us to cash in our chips, and get a Kashmir settlement that once and for all will get rid of this animus between India and Pakistan.”

Well, you can see the magnitude of the misconception. The animus not being based solely on Kashmir — Kashmir being as much a symptom as a cause — and the sheer arrogance to think that we had enough chips to effect something this basic. But Kenji [refers to Galbraith – “Ken” plus the Indian affectionate honorific “ji”] for all his brilliance, and he is a brilliant man, and he’s a very likeable man, is a very articulate, and humorous guy. As an individual I find him enchanting.

But this was a colossal error on his part. And he has enough of an ego so he would not suffer being told that it was a colossal error. He somehow saw the Kashmir problem as a kind of fiendishly complicated jigsaw puzzle, which only he had the intelligence to solve.

So he sat there with maps, and charts, and generals, and statesmen, and so forth, and he snookered the British High Commissioner into joining his camp. And he cozied the Indians and the Pak[istani]s up to a certain point …

Nehru went along with this for quite a while just to keep Kenji happy and to keep the arms coming from America because he needed them badly at that point. But as soon as Nehru saw that Kenji was getting into a position where he could do something affecting Indian interests, basic interests, as India perceived them, Nehru wasn’t there anymore.

He pulled the rug out from under leaving Kenji spinning. And the dispute simmers on. The goodwill that we gained from arming India was very rapidly dissipated.

The other thing Kenji did, he did manage to ram this through to a successful conclusion, an air defense agreement between India and the United States where we could come to India’s defense. It was almost but not quite a treaty alliance, or a security treaty alliance relationship.

It wasn’t quite that because the Indians, even in their moment of maximum desperation, were not about to sign up as military allies of the United States. But it was a lot closer than they were comfortable with but Ken managed to get them to sign that…

…They had a top Indian general who was there talking to the National War College and the students gave all the pre-programmed questions. Then I asked him about the air defense agreement. He was totally startled, totally lost his composure, and he pretended he couldn’t remember it.

It became a dead letter, in other words, almost while the ink was still wet. So those were Kenji’s two achievements, and the way he blew the credit we got. It was by an unsuccessful attempt to ram a Kashmir solution down the throats of the unwilling Indians and Pakistanis, and through the conclusion of an air defense agreement that was dead the moment it was signed.

“He must have seemed to the Indians to be very close to Mrs. Kennedy and, hence, to the President”

Howard B. Schaffer, Economic Officer in New Delhi, 1961-1967

SCHAFFER: …I might at this point just interject a comment about Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit, which took place while Galbraith was still ambassador. It was a very interesting operation. According to reports that I believe are correct, Ambassador Galbraith had been one of the principal promoters of the visit, which (inevitably in those days) included Pakistan as well.

I believe he did this not only because he enjoyed these occasions – he loved being in the company of great people or their spouses — but I’m convinced that he also saw the visit, and his role in masterminding it, as evidence of his close ties to the Kennedy White House that would impress the Indians.

Since he was seen to be choreographing the visit of the First Lady, he must have seemed to the Indians to be very close to Mrs. Kennedy and hence to the president. Much of this staging was designed to show the Indians that he was a person to be reckoned with because he had full and meaningful access to the Oval Office.

The visit went off very well. The important aspect, from our point of view, was that the preparation for the visit became first priority for all embassy staff. Other work just had to take second place for months.

Officers were sent to various parts of the country. Some very remote indeed — to check out accommodations, scout sites that the First Lady might wish to see, and look for places appropriate for public relations purposes…

When Mrs. Kennedy came, I was still pretty much of a fledgling. But like everyone else in the embassy, I was drawn into the preparations. I was much impressed by the attention that was devoted to every detail by Galbraith. He even ran a rehearsal dinner designed to ensure that all would go smoothly at the official dinner, which was loaded with VIPs from Prime Minister Nehru on down. This visit was taken as seriously as a presidential visit. It was a very glamorous occasion…

It is important to note that during the Kennedy presidency, many Indians viewed the White House with great admiration. The Indians have a love of pomp and circumstance, for royalty. I think they saw in the Kennedys their image of a young, vigorous royal couple.

I use the words “young and vigorous’ quite advisedly because I do feel that part of the attraction the Kennedys had for Indians was their youthful beauty and exuberance. Indians compared this with the tired and aging leadership of Nehru and the other chieftains of the Congress Party.

The visit was obviously a public relations success. Mrs. Kennedy was photographed everywhere. But it was all fluff; there were no serious discussions. She sat with Nehru on the embassy stairs after dinner, but the visit had no lasting impact.

It did show the U.S. in a very favorable light and I think one can say that Indian public opinion moved in our favor–and it was wonderfully good for Galbraith in terms of his standing both with the White House and the Indian leadership.

Yet soon after Mrs. Kennedy’s departure, Indian-U.S. relations sagged once again.