Declassified: Nixon Caught Off-Guard By India’s 1974 Nuclear Test
By Srinivas Laxman | Top News
December 7, 2011
The Nixon administration in the 70s was caught off-guard by India’s first nuclear weapon test on May 18,1974, say declassified intelligence documents made public by the American National Security Archive.
AsianScientist (Dec. 7, 2011) – The Nixon administration in the 70s was caught napping while India was making preparations to conduct its first nuclear weapon test at Pokhran in Rajasthan on May 18,1974.
This startling revelation has been made in declassified intelligence community staff post mortem documents which were made public on December 5, 2011 by the American National Security Archive and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project.
“India’s peaceful nuclear explosion on 18 May, 1974 caught the U.S. by surprise in part because the intelligence community had not been looking for signs that a test was in the works,” the documents state.
According to the documents which number more than 20, Nixon administration policy makers had given a low priority to the Indian nuclear weapon program, with intelligence production (analysis and reporting) “falling off” during the 20 months prior to the tests.
The first Indian nuclear weapon test – codenamed “Smiling Buddha” – was conducted at 8.05 a.m. on May 18, 1974 at Pokhran. Its key players were Raja Ramanna who lead the atomic bomb team, R. Chidambaram, and P. K. Iyengar.
The documents state that in early 1972, two years prior to the test, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) had predicted that India could make preparations for an underground test without detection by the U.S. intelligence.
The INR report warned that the U.S. government had accorded a “relatively modest priority to relevant intelligence collection activities,” which suggested that a concerted effort by India to conceal such preparations may well succeed.
According to the documents, the Nixon White House was focused on the Vietnam War and a grand strategy towards Beijing and Moscow. The documents also suggest that Nixon’s trip to China during that time may have also prompted India to conduct the nuclear weapon test.
Significantly, the INR had prepared its India report at a time when secret sources were telling U.S. intelligence that New Delhi was about to test a nuclear device.
The small spate of reports about a nuclear weapon test had such “congruity, apparent reliabity and seeming credibility” that they prompted a review of India’s nuclear intentions by INR and other American government offices.
“In the end government officials could not decide whether India had made a decision to test although a subsequent lead suggested otherwise,” the documents state.
Relations between New Delhi and Washington were already cool during the Nixon administration which treated India as relatively low priority.
“That India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was a non-issue for Nixon and Kissinger, who had little use for the NPT and treated nuclear proliferation as less than secondary. While the State Department cautioned India against nuclear tests in the late 1970, concern did not rise to the top of the policy hill,” the documents stressed.
Source: The National Security Archive.
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