Michael KreponOne War, Two Bombs?

The 1971 war between India and Pakistan ended in a decisive victory for India and the vivisection of Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program began shortly thereafter, when President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gathered the best and the brightest of his country’s nuclear establishment at Multan on January 24, 1972.

The 1971 war may also have given a boost to the Indian nuclear weapon program. This seems counterintuitive, given New Delhi’s huge victory, but here’s the argument: President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger “tilted” toward Pakistan during this war. To dissuade Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from overrunning West Pakistan after routing the Pakistan Army in the East, they ordered the deployment of the U.S.S. Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal. It is unlikely that Prime Minister Gandhi had such intentions. But by conveying a thinly veiled nuclear threat in the form of the Enterprise – the very same carrier that came to India’s aid during its disastrous war with China nine years earlier – Washington may have given impetus to a second nuclear weapon program.

Here’s what K. Subrahmanyam, India’s premier strategic analyst, concluded from the Nixon administration’s behavior during the 1971 war:

The experience in Vietnam, and the circumstances that led to the use of nuclear weapons on Japan when compared with the experiences of confrontation in the central European line and the Sino-Soviet border, suggest that mass destruction agents like nuclear weapons, ecocidal agents, etc., tend to be used only when there is no fear of retaliation and when there is no sense of mutual deterrence.

[K. Subrahmanyam, “India’s Nuclear Policy,” in Onkar Marwah and Ann Schulz, eds., Nuclear Proliferation and the Near-Nuclear Countries, (Cambridge: Ballinger, 1975), pp. 128-135.]

“Subbu” was more explicit in his “personal recollection” of the Indian nuclear program which appeared in Nuclear India, a volume edited by Jasjit Singh published shortly after the 1998 tests:

Now we know that there were no specific operational directions to the Enterprise mission. But at that stage, the Indian government could not but assume the worst and treat it as an act of nuclear intimidation…. This experience of nuclear intimidation must have influenced Mrs. Gandhi in giving the green signal to the Atomic Energy Department to go ahead with the nuclear test in 1972.

Subrahmanyam recounts having dinner at Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel in late August, 1971 with Vikram Sarabhai, the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Sarabhai, unlike Subbu, was not eager to test a nuclear device, but he strongly hinted that night that Mrs. Gandhi would grant his dining companion’s wish.

The “one war, two bomb” thesis is highly debatable. Raj Chengappa’s insider account, Weapons of Peace, finds some credence to this story. But George Perkovich, who has written the most detailed account of India’s nuclear program, India’s Nuclear Bomb, The Impact on Global Proliferation, is unconvinced. Likewise, Vijai Nair, who wrote Nuclear India, isn’t buying this story. Itty Abraham’s book, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb, also finds other reasons for the timing of India’s “peaceful nuclear” test in 1974.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    I haven’t studied the history in as much depth as I would like – having all the books and papers, and having memorized and internalized them being two very different things – but the Israeli experience with Russian threats in 1967 might be analogous to India’s response.

  2. RAJ47

    The US VII Fleet had maneuvered into Bay of Bengal during Dec 1971. That was an unambiguous threat to India. The VII Fleet’s posturing did worry the entire nation. But I don’t suppose that was the only reason for developing the nuclear technology by India.
    Pak PM Z A Bhutto had walked out of the UN in 1972 (when he saw that the motion had not gone into Pakistan’s favour) stating “We will eat grass, but we will have the Bomb”.
    China had already tested their nuke in 1964.
    The power generation requirements were very important for India.
    Neither Vikram Sarabhai nor his successors have ever tried to turn the Indian Nuclear Program into anything other than for peaceful purposes.
    Even today when India has the capability, India maintains a very clear and declared NFU policy.

  3. Lurking Observer (History)

    the very same carrier that came to India’s aid during its disastrous war with China nine years earlier

    The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) was deployed to support India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war? That’s an interesting claim.

    The USS Enterprise was part of the quarantine of Cuba in October 1962. The Enterprise deployed to undertake that mission on October 19, and was part of that mission through December.

    http://www.mooj.com/rx-deployments.htm or

    Prior to this, it was on its shakedown cruise to the Mediterranean, but had returned to the US by October 11.

    The Chinese invaded India on October 20, 1962. They declared a ceasefire on November 20, 1962.

    The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) did not deploy again until February, 1963.

    So, perhaps the “thinly veiled nuclear threat” is even thinner?

  4. Rajesh Rajagopalan (History)

    The reasons why Mrs. G decided to test in 1974, I agree, are still not entirely clear. But I do not think that anyone can dispute that it was her decision alone: both the initial decision to prepare for a PNE sometime in 1972 and the final go-ahead for the test. The idea that the ‘strategic enclave’ (as Itty, and to some extent, Perkovich argues) created conditions that made the test more or less inevitable is questionnable. Even much weaker prime ministers (Rao in 1995, and Gujral in 1997) were able to resist the pressure from the ‘strategic enclave’ to test. It seems odd that Mrs. Gandhi would have given in simply because some preliminary preparations had been done. Remember that by the 1990s, even the test sites had been prepared. The strategic enclave was and is powerful, but not so powerful as to cause a prime ministerial political decision to conduct a nuclear test.

  5. MK (History)

    Dear Lurking:
    You appear to be relying on an abridged history of the USS Enterprise. Keep googling. Or have a look at John Kenneth Galbraith’s memoir. He was the US Ambassador to India during the Sino-Indian war.

  6. Frank (History)

    That the U.S. Enterprise was part of the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade is indisputable. See the Chief of Naval Operation’s history of the blockade:

    It must have been a different carrier that was deployed to the Indian Ocean during the 1962 China-Indian war.

  7. Cameron (History)

    I’m seeing that the Carrier was requested Nov. 20 and then canceled Nov. 21 after a ceasefire went into effect. I haven’t been able to find any information on which carrier was tasked to the mission, but if it was only deployed on paper, I’ve run out of places to check.

    Clearest information was found at:

  8. Azr@el (History)

    According to Neville Maxwell, after the rout of the Indian army at Walong and the fall of Se La, Nehru begged US direct intervention to save neutral India whom would not at some future date return the favour. Kennedy was alleged to have ordered a carrier group diverted from the Pacific Theater to Indian Ocean only to have it pull a U’y 24 hours into its steaming. Since Enterprise was in the Carib enforcing the blockade ‘till the 28th of october, this could not have been the carrier in question.

    Krepon is most likely echoing Dennis H. Kux’s 1994 book, “Estranged Democracies; India and the United States”, in which he first makes the assertion that the carrier was USS Enterprise, the same one that 9 years later would show the flag on behalf on West Pakistan in the bay of bengal, in the service of guaranteeing the evacuation of their army and cautioning India against further adventurism. The problem with this is that Mr. Kux is not a historian, rather he is ex foreign service officer who spent most of his career in Pakistan before becoming a one term ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire. Not exactly a first choice source in regards to an accurate unbiased history of US intervention in the Sino-Indian border spat.

    India since Independence, well since ever considering there was no unified Indian before the Mughuls and the Limey’s, has been a whiny brat of nation with a chip on its shoulder. India coddled the PRC since its consolidation of governance on the mainland. For a decade+ it chases after the CCCP like a girl who wishes to punish her father chases after a motorcycle gang. India builds up a non aligned movement to sap the strength of capitalist bloc. Then it goes and on basis of British-Tibetan treaties, which even the Brits disowned claims chunks of Tibet/China. The PRC even let that slide in the name of good neighborliness, but New Dehli further inflames relations by granting asylum to the Dali Lama’s government in exile and then start poking Beijing with probing actions north of the McMahon line. After the PRC decides enough is enough and come downs the Tahg La to slap the Indian army silly, then India starts crying for help. Moscow tells it to great real, the non aligned movement, save for Malaysia & a couple others ,snub it, and lo and behold it’s the capitalist bloc that comes swinging to the rescue with military and diplomatic aid.

    The US actions in 1971 were not provocative, they were meant to stabilize a dangerous situation and prevent turning the subcontinent into a raging inferno. The so called peaceful nuclear weapon India tested was not directed against the US or US intervention, afterall task force 74 in 1971 aborted their mission for fear of CCCP sub packs and thus US power in the Bay of Bengal was effectively checked by Moscow’s patronage of India. India’s nuclear program has always been about Britain, the colonial experience and feelings of national inferiority vis a vis the west; the Indian Republic’s nuclear weapon program is not grounded in the reality of its security concerns but rather in the pain and suffering of its formation and its need to rectify what it feels are historical wrongs against it in an imaginary history that would put Tolkien to shame.

  9. MK (History)

    Cameron & Azr@el:
    Many thanks for digging. I stand corrected.

  10. user_hostile (History)


    Was task force 74 withdrawn over the presence of a Soviet Sub pack? For what I’ve Goggled, Task 74 hung around till the 7th of January; the war had concluded on December 16th. In addition, they weren’t exactly going at top speed to the Bay of Bengal when it seemed like India was wrapping things up. The presence seemed to serve two reasons: 1) Keeping things from escalating, and 2) cold war strutting. After which Task 74 left because it had better things to do; I would guess that the presence of Soviet subs would have enhanced concluding the mission, but would not be the sole reason for exiting the Bay. Is there more to the story? Looking forward to some enlightenment here.

  11. Rajesh Rajagopalan (History)

    The only reason that Nixon ordered Task Force 74 into the Bay of Bengal was to show to the Chinese, their new allies, that Washington was a dependable ally. In the event, Nixon failed, as did the Chinese bluster about coming to the aid of their genocidal ‘all weather allies’. There is little to indicate that Mrs. G had any plans in the western sector except in Nixon’s fertile imagination.

    As for India’s nuclear motives, its a bit odd that India’s feelings of inferiority vis-a-vis the West suddenly popped up in 1972.

    “Imaginary” history? Seriously?? Let me know when somebody finds a “real” history!!

  12. Azr@el (History)


    Nixon and Kissingboy may have had their own peculiar logic for why they deployed and withdrew TF74, but to the rest of the world it was a check of a US carrier force primarily by Soviet submarines and secondly, after 31st, a soviet naval presence. TF 74 entered the BAy of Bengal a day before hostilities concluded in East Pakistan and way out of position to influence events in the west save thru psychological pressure on New Delhi, thus their perceived goals were deemed to be related to the restriction and settlement of the conflict.

    And had the TF 74 remained in the Bay of Bengal and had the Indians taken its presence as a credible threat then TF 74 would have contributed to Islamabad garnering better terms in the peace accords. And thus I must also conclude that their mission was aborted by Soviet intervention on behalf of the Indian Republic, either that or accept that TF 74 had no well defined mission and that a few thousand US sailors and marines were swung into harms way by a US president acting on a lark.

  13. Cameron (History)

    @Azr@el: wouldn’t the carrier have been needed back on Yankee Station? It had to transfer flight crew and planes to another ship. As soon as the conflict showed signs of cooling, the ship would have been more useful back on station.

    That’s not to say that the soviet submarine threat was not a consideration. But as the conflict was cooling off there would be no desire to remake it as a superpower conflict through an accident involving one or both groups.

    MK – glad to help

  14. Azr@el (History)


    A robust US naval presence could have theoretically pressured the Indian Republic into granting more favorable terms to Pakistan as opposed to the rough ride Islamabad received in the Simla treaty. And if I recall back in the day, we weren’t exactly suffering a dearth of carriers such that a few months of gunboating in the bay of bengal by Enterprise would have proven detrimental to the fill out of Yankee or Dixie stations.