As world leaders gather in Glasgow for COP26, it is worth reflecting on how such meetings are not always a success. On 7th November it will be exactly sixty years since Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, met President Kennedy in the White House. JFK later described the 1961 encounter as ‘a disaster – the worst head-of-state visit I have had.’

The nuclear arms race was accelerating. Nehru was walking a political tightrope, attempting to balance an alliance with the Soviet Union and a partnership with the Americans. He had to find a way of countering Chinese and Pakistani aggression, without offending either the USA or the USSR. How could he position India in this global chess game? Could India assume a policy of non-alignment, carving out its own independent political destiny in a way that would allow him to gain financial and technical support from both power blocs as he attempted to build India’s industrial base from scratch? A high-level meeting with the young and charismatic US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy seemed to present a possible way forward, but would it work?

The 71-year-old, Nehru was accompanied everywhere by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who acted as his official hostess, housekeeper, social secretary, amanuensis and almost inseparable companion. A senior political figure in her own right, Indira and her two sons Rajiv and Sanjay had lived with her father since her husband had died in 1960. 

In the fourteen years since independence, India’s relationship with its immediate neighbours had not improved. Mao Tse-tung had emerged victorious from China’s civil war and now governed a Communist state of 800 million people, vying for nuclear supremacy with the Soviet Union and America. Mao nevertheless regarded the USSR as a Communist ally in the fight against international capitalism. Meanwhile China was engaged in an angry quarrel over territorial issues concerning its long border with India. Pakistan, as an ally of America, could not side with Red China, but they were certainly not prepared to offer the hand of friendship to India and the Americans feared that they might begin to slide into China’s geopolitical orbit. Both China and Pakistan were in open dispute with India over Kashmir, a regional flashpoint.

Mindful of the pomp and grandeur with which the Americans had greeted his old foe the President of Pakistan - Mohammad Ayub Khan - Nehru had specifically requested that there be no “medieval splendour” during his state visit. Nevertheless, when Nehru arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, a naval air force facility in Washington, on 5th November 1961, accompanied by his daughter Indira Gandhi and his Foreign Minister and members of the Indian Cabinet, a guard of honour was waiting, with military bands and all the trappings of grandeur. 

It was an awkward start to a visit that would become increasingly difficult. Kennedy’s plan was to dispense with the formalities as quickly as possible and get Nehru and his entourage down to his wife Jackie’s childhood home at Hammersmith Farm in Newport, Rhode Island. He was convinced that in the more convivial surroundings of a Kennedy family enclave, meaningful discussions could take place. Kennedy planned a private luncheon where it was his intention to raise the question of Vietnam, China, Russia and the threat of nuclear war. He had decided that he should meet Nehru and his ministers in the dining room, while Jackie could host a luncheon for Indira Gandhi and the other ladies in the living room. 

This was a major diplomatic mistake. Indira Gandhi was deeply insulted. She felt her rightful place was with the men. Jackie Kennedy said later in a book based on a series of tape-recorded memos: "Well, of course, she hated that. She liked to be in with the men. And she is a real prune -- bitter, kind of pushy, horrible woman. You know, I just don't like her a bit. It always looks like she's been sucking a lemon." Kennedy’s attempt at hospitality backfired horribly. Nehru was cold and distant, while his daughter was visibly angry at being sent to join the women. Kennedy repeatedly tried to draw out Nehru on Vietnam, but the Indian Prime Minister remained stubbornly silent. The President was also uncomfortable with Nehru’s criticism of American nuclear tests. Kennedy said later that Nehru seemed to be more interested in talking to Jackie than to him. Nehru’s finger-tapping mulishness had begun to grate with the young President and Nehru, in turn, resented JFK’s attempts to lecture him on his border disputes with China.

The Indian Prime Minister was further angered by the knowledge that the Americans had cozied up to Pakistan, creating CIA air bases in Peshawar, from which U-2 reconnaissance spy planes could be deployed over Communist Chinese and Soviet territory. Indeed, one of them, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, had been shot down by the Soviets in May 1960, leading to a major international crisis and the cancellation of a summit meeting in Paris where a nuclear test ban treaty had been on the agenda. So, against this churning background, the encounter between JFK and Nehru at Hammersmith Farm in Newport was anything but successful. 

The violent skirmishes that had continued between India and China for months developed into a full-scale war in October 1962, when China launched a massive offensive in the Ladakh area of north-east Kashmir in the Himalayas. The invasion caught the Indian government by surprise and Nehru was forced to plead with JFK for American help. But the Americans and most of the world were transfixed by the unfolding nuclear stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union in Cuba. JFK refused to sell military equipment to India, forcing Nehru to turn to Moscow, who supplied him with MiG fighter aircraft. Before they could be deployed, however, the Chinese declared a ceasefire in November 1962 and withdrew its forces to an agreed ‘Line of Actual Control.’

Nehru’s health went into sharp decline after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, forcing him to spend much of 1963 convalescing in Kashmir. He died of a heart attack in May 1964, having outlived President Kennedy, felled by an assassin’s bullet, by only a few months.