When Nehru and Mao met
The Mao-Nehru conversation of 1954 can remind present leaderships in the two countries that the founders of both nations had wished for a future where their mutual rise was a possibility
The autumn of 1954 is fascinating and a record of history for it was in this year that four-and-a-half hours of conversation, between Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao Zedong, revealed how two strong-willed leaders tried to make sense of the post-Second World War world.
The minutes of the three meetings, that were made public by the Chinese side ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference, on April 18, present a compelling picture of two equals trying to analyse changing power equations between the great powers. In this, Mao candidly admits that China’s economic development was “lower” than that of India and it would take “ten to twenty” years for industrial development to achieve tangible results. The records are available at the Digital Archive of the Wilson Center, Washington DC, that provide unprecedented insights into the history of international relations and diplomacy.
In fact, within seconds of their first meeting on October 19, 1954 in Beijing, Mao gets straight down to business, talking about how the people of the East had been “bullied” by Western imperialist powers. “In spite of differences in our ideologies and social systems, we have an overriding common point, that is, all of us have to cope with imperialism,” he says.
Both show themselves to be keen analysts of the international situation — exchanging notes on foreign affairs and the likely fallout of a possible third World War on their two countries, the region and the world.
Focus on imperialism A common enemy, imperialism, with a special focus on the United States, is a visible thread through all the three meetings, on October 19, October 23 and October 26.
When Nehru suggests that India and China, which had a population of one billion between them, should play “more important” roles in Asia, an issue being discussed to this day, Mao responds: “But the United States does not recognise our two countries as great powers.”
Nehru, in turn, says: “The ruler [scale] that the United States uses to measure other countries will no longer be useful in future.”
When Nehru talks about the U.S. being both powerful and afraid, Mao remarks, “It is inconceivable that any country would march its troops into the United States.”
Nehru doesn’t take a fully blanket view and points out to Mao that some Americans were against British and French colonialism, but adds that since the U.S. had “vested interests”, it was nervous and afraid.
In response, Mao reveals that U.S. defence lines extending to South Korea, Taiwan and Indochina had made China’s sleep “unsound”.
Meeting in the backdrop of the Manila conference in September 1954 that set up the U.S.-led Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), Mao also appreciates the fact that India chose to stay away from the conference despite receiving an invitation.
Nehru says: “Although we are not powerful, we are not afraid of another country. Such an attitude on our part offends other countries.”
Considerable time was spent on discussing the impact of the two World Wars and a possible third one, with Mao arguing that success for communist and nationalist parties came as a consequence of the two Wars.
“If a third world war is fought, the number of casualties will not be tens of millions, but hundreds of millions. China, so far, has no atomic bombs, and I do not know whether India has them. We have begun research in this respect, yet building the atomic bomb requires financial input. We may not have one for some time to come,” Mao says.
In effect, a full decade before China conducted its first nuclear test in September 1964, Mao had shared a critical piece of information with Nehru – that China had every intention of building a nuclear bomb. Intelligence agencies the world over would have given their right arm for such a piece of information, which Mao casually mentions to Nehru in conversation.
Mao is convinced that it was World War Two that led to China’s independence – like in the case of the Russian Bolsheviks in World War One. “In China, we had fought for 22 years, yet…not until the end of World War II did we have the opportunity to stand up.”
However, Nehru takes a different line — saying that he agreed with the Chairman (Mao) on most points, but had reservations on a few, which he then goes on to refer to. “…even without the Second World War, India would have still attained independence. As a matter of fact, when the Second World War began, India already had almost attained independence,” he says, adding that the War was used as a “pickaxe” by Britain, prolonging its rule.
Mao also took a curious line on war and “tension”. He argues: “I think that not only war, but even a tense situation will benefit and at the same time harm those who create tension…a tense situation would awaken the people and make them prepare to resist pressure.”
While discussing the possibility of another war, Nehru feels that with every passing year, the chances of war were receding. “My guess is that if 15 years pass without a war, the possibility of war will be very remote. Not that it is the people would have changed, but the weapons will have developed to such an extent that nobody dares to use them.”
Interestingly, Mao remarks that if another war were to break out, no one could “sink” China (or India) to the ocean floor completely.
In their third and last meeting, the Chairman and Nehru discuss their “differences”, with Mao referring to a Chinese saying, “to seize somebody’s pigtail”, and then stating that India and China don’t do that — seize each other’s pigtails.
At another point, Mao says there was no need for India and China to “quarrel”, which has Nehru responding: “Sometimes we have differences, but we do not quarrel.”
India-China war Tragically, within eight years, India and China were at war. However, the conversation between Mao and Nehru shows clearly that the 1962 war was far from inevitable given the commonalities and frank nature of dialogue between the two sides.
It displays, in rich detail, the fact that there was nothing inevitable about the conflict that was to ensue. Mao does make a reference to the agreement on Tibet in a positive manner, revealing that the issue was very much on his mind.
Far from confrontationist, both leaders had cooperation on their mind; there’s a long discussion on technical help from the Soviet Union, in which both countries were interested.
Given that their analysis was crisp and had their basis in the real world, it’s sad that the two leaders did little to ensure that their differences did not get out of hand. Actually and ironically, both sides made a grab for each other’s pigtails.
Today, large bits of the world stand reordered, but China and India remain big countries, with interests that should remain rooted in cooperation and sorting out their boundary dispute.
The Mao-Nehru conversation can remind present leaderships in the two countries that the founders of both nations had wished for a future where their mutual rise was very much in the realm of the possible.
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