Enterprise Incident Revisited
A new book on US foreign policy, The Forty Years War: The Rise and Fall of the Necons, from Nixon to Obama, by Len Colodny and Tom Shachtman, provides an opportunity to revisit President Richard Nixon’s decision to send the aircraft carrier, USS Enteprise, into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war.
It remains a source of suspicion regarding the trustworthiness of the United States as a strategic partner with India with an older generation of Indians. It remains, as well, a source of conspiracies still mooted in New Delhi about what the Nixon administration was planning to do – including attacking India.
The Forty Years War is a far from perfect book. It seems to conflate conservatives and neoconservatives for one thing. Its authors’ understanding of South Asia is so poor that it could have been improved by browsing Wikipedia. For example, the authors speak of “East Pakistani Bangladeshis” – as if Bangladeshi is an ethnicity. They speak of “fellow religionists” in India demanding action to save the “Bangladeshis” from Pakistani soldiers – as if West Pakistanis were of a different religion.
But it does put together the many US documents, memoirs and interviews that have been released over the past few decades and gives as complete a record of the decisions that led to the USS Enterprise sailing into the Bay of Bengal, what Nixon and Henry Kissinger hope to accomplish, how resistance from within the US system made a mockery of the policy and, indirectly, what lessons India should draw.
Here’s what the accounts makes clear:
1. This was about geopolitics with a capital G. Nixon and Kissinger didn’t really care a toss about India or Pakistan per se. They were obsessed, rightly, with splitting the Sino-Soviet bloc and aligning China with the US. Part of the wooing process included a promise that in case China intervened on Pakistan’s side, the US would support China. Kissinger had informed New Delhi – a key reason India signed the friendship pact with the Soviets a few weeks later. Nothing new here, but it is a reminder how much grand strategy perplexes the Indian public.
2. The US system didn’t support about the Pakistan tilt. Kissinger had summoned the Washington Special Actions Group to handle the 1971 crisis. The strongest opponents in the group to any US intervention were the US military. Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, is quoted as saying, “We were always behind events and our responses were as ineffectual as they were tardy.” Assistant secretary of defence, David Packard, was “adamant” that “if the United States could not do anything effective on the Indian subcontinent or in its adjoining waters, it should do nothing at all.” Zumwalt openly criticized the idea of tilting towards Pakistan, as Kissinger and Nixon wanted, as it would only help “the Soviets cement their position in India.” When Kissinger threatened to take Zumwalt to Nixon, the admiral said he would welcome the chance – and Kissinger beat a hasty retreat.
3. The carrier was there to try and stop West Pakistan’s collapse. The book confirms that the USS Enterprise task force, Task Force 74, had no orders to attack or engage India. Its purpose was to wave a fist at the Soviet Union, make Moscow worry about confrontation with its Indian Ocean ships and then pressure India into not attacking and humiliating West Pakistan. The idea was to “warn the Soviets not to let their ally India destroy Pakistan.” East Pakistan, modern day Bangladesh, was written off as a lost cause. The idea that the task force was about sending a message to Moscow and not to them may sound strange to Indians, but fit in neatly with a foreign policy that reduced everything to great power rivalries and alliances. Get the big picture straightened out and the small stuff will follow.
4. Lacking bureaucratic support, the policy was undermined from within. The 1971 tilt to Pakistan was a metaphor for the Nixon administration whose major foreign policy initiatives were done in secrecy and thus implementation was always a problem. So the tilt towards Pakistan was announced, the carrier sent to the Bay of Bengal. But the bureaucracy fought back. Zumwalt, the Joints Chief of Staff head Thomas Moorer and the Pentagon chief Melvin Laird thought the idea of deliberately looking for Soviet ships to confront was just plain dangerous. So the US military first delayed the carrier in Singapore for two days, allowing Indian army to begin the drive that would lead to the defeat of the Pakistani army in the east. They then “further neutralized Nixon’s orders by sending the force to a part of the Indian Ocean where it would have the least chance of bumping against the Soviet naval forces, rather than the best chance, as Nixon had wanted.” In other words, the decision to go into the Bay of Bengal was not about intimidating India it was about avoiding Soviet ships.
Curiously, the main consequence of the tilt in Washington was the discovery of a spy ring within the White House that was being run by the US Joints Chief of Staff. They had set it up, using a military liaison officer assigned to the White House, because of the secrecy with which the Nixon administration ran its foreign policy and the military’s desperate need to know what was going in their president’s head. The main consequence in India was to add to an already large Cold War corpus of anti-American sentiment and suspicion.
But the real lesson for India is that the USS Enterprise incident makes sense, and is less threatening, when understood as part of grand strategy. In other words focussing primarily on relations with one’s peer nations, putting everything else on a lower priority level. The US policy was about Moscow and Beijing. New Delhi was irrelevant.
The Indian public will need to understand this as its own country’s foreign policy interests and capacities grow. And, as a consequence, it develops its own grand strategy.
Being able to determine who is going to help you and how far depends to a large extent on that country’s worldview, especially when it comes to great powers. Understand that worldview and one can appreciate what the drivers of that country’s foreign policy are and how their grand strategy will mesh with one’s own.