Washington was caught on the wrong foot when India conducted the peaceful nuclear explosion of May 1974, and again when its intelligence agencies were unaware of India testing the nuclear bomb for a second time in 1998, according to declassified U.S. documents posted on the Net by the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project and the National Security Archive.
The State Department's Intelligence and Research (INR) wing had felt that India was preparing for a nuclear test from 1972 onwards but Washington's focus on Vietnam and its preoccupation with China and the Soviet Union perhaps led it to give India low priority. As a result, the U.S. was taken completely by surprise when India tested the nuclear bomb in 1974.
The U.S. was partly to blame because despite the wealth of assessments, barely five months before the test, its Embassy felt India might not test because it was facing grave economic problems and there were no rumours of a test as in 1972.
The documents also give the impression that top-level policymakers at that time were not overly concerned about the dangers of proliferation. The intelligence community gave scattered assessments and the government was prone to scaling down their warnings when reports to the contrary came from other sources.
INR first voiced its suspicions in early January 1972 and barely a fortnight later the U.S. Embassy here saw “straws” suggesting an underground test “some time in future.” But after the Canadians said they had warned New Delhi of the implications of using raw material supplied by them for making nuclear bombs, the doubts subsided. The doubts resurfaced after the Canadians felt that as Indian nuclear scientists were capable of combining “guile” with “technical proficiency,” they could easily have “easily misled” them.
The Americans were still not sure and became further baffled when the Canadians and the British did not detect any Indian intention to test though they seemed to have the capability.
By mid-1972, the suspicions were back again after a Japanese Embassy official said the “Indians have decided to go ahead with a nuclear test” which could occur at “any time” in the Thar Desert. But subsequent cables cast doubt on the diplomat's assessment.
The conflicting reports prompted National Security Assistant Henry Kissinger to go in for a high-level study memorandum on the implications of an Indian nuclear test for U.S. interests. The study and the response, however, remained unattended for some time in Mr. Kissinger's office, indicating that the U.S. government's attention was on other issues and it did not give much importance at that time to nuclear proliferation issues. Assessments continued to swing one way or the other but after the test was made, the U.S. felt it had missed the signs.