They were here too

In light of Barack Obama’s visit to India, we take a look at earlier American Presidents who visited India.

Updated - January 25, 2015 09:29 am IST

Published - January 24, 2015 04:07 pm IST

(Clockwise) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Dwight D Eisenhower, US President Jimmy Carter in conversation with Prime Minister Morarji Desai,Richard Nixon with Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

(Clockwise) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Dwight D Eisenhower, US President Jimmy Carter in conversation with Prime Minister Morarji Desai,Richard Nixon with Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi.

Dwight D. Eisenhower 1959

“Between the first largest democracy on earth: India and the second largest: America, lie ten thousand miles of ocean. But in our fundamental ideas and convictions about democracy we are close neighbours. We ought to be closer.” These were the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower the first American President to visit India 56 years ago in December 1959 at a public meeting on the Ram Lila grounds in New Delhi. This buoyant optimism marked the four-day stay of the U.S. President in India.

K. Balaraman, reporting for The Hindu from New York, noted that the magnitude of the warmth and welcome that President Eisenhower received staggered American imagination. He observed that correspondents covering the visit in the American press were cabling rapturous pieces. So much so that  one agency correspondent, who had covered the Presidential beat since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, claimed that he had never seen anything remotely matching what happened in New Delhi. He wrote, “It was the greatest welcome ever accorded to any American President anywhere.”

The historic significance of the visit was not lost on Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India either. He famously said, “…when the history of the present day is written this occasion will form a prominent place… not because the four days were full of merely big functions but also because the hearts of two big countries were opened to each other a little.”

Richard Nixon 1969

Ten years on, Richard Nixon, the 37th president, became the second American president to set foot on Indian soil. President Nixon’s visit came at a politically turbulent period with the U.S. trying to extricate itself from the Vietnam War and India being peeved with the American supply of arms to Pakistan. However, the visit was acknowledged as an effort to correct the distorted situation. Allaying India’s fears of an arms race being instigated within the subcontinent, Nixon spoke of a new American policy which focussed on facilitating Asians to help themselves with minimal intervention.

While leaving for the airport, Nixon said, “My talks with the Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) and you, Mr. President, and other members of your Government have been most helpful in establishing a new channel of communication, a new attitude with regard to the relationship between our two countries. This I believe will mean our working more effectively than in the past, transcending many national concerns, for the goal and desire that we mutually share: for peace and friendship…”

Jimmy Carter1978

With Prime Minister Morarji Desai leading the country’s first non-Congress government, a new chapter in Indo-U.S. relations was expected to be charted. Addressing a mammoth civic reception at the Ramlila grounds soon after he landed, Carter talked of how he inherited his abiding love for the Indian people from his mother who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in India. His rousing welcome was reminiscent of the memorable reception given to President Eisenhower.  

However a highly disconcerting leak of the President’s annoyance with Mr. Desai’s refusal to submit to the U.S. insistence on full-scale safeguards for all Indian nuclear installations threatened to derail the presidential visit. In a private conversation with his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, Carter was accidentally recorded as saying, “When we get back I think we ought to write him (Desai) another letter, just cold and very blunt.” The U.S. President’s Press Secretary salvaged the situation by interpreting the statement in the wider perspective of Carter’s crusade against the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Carter also had a glimpse of rural India by visiting Daulatpur, a village around 30 km from the capital. The American President spent an hour in the village and took a keen interest in the gobar gas plant established as an energy producer. He gifted the village, subsequently christened ‘Carterpuri’, with a slide projector.

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