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How Nehru and India Helped Keep Peace in the Cold War Era

The Cold War was a combustible struggle for political power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It played out around the world from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A new essay collection, India and the Cold War, sheds light on the role India played in moderating that conflict.

With nuclear war as a serious threat whenever Russian and American interests clashed, “the world was in a very scary place in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s,” said the book’s editor, Professor Manu Bhagavan (Hunter College, The Graduate Center). “India played a very important role in tamping down violent situations, bringing down the temperature in hot conflicts like the Korean War, and with numerous peacekeeping operations around the world.”

Much of the credit for India’s outsize impact on world diplomacy goes to Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister after independence from England. Savvy, charismatic, idealistic, and realistic, Nehru was “backlit by the fading halo of Mahatma Gandhi,” and seen by many in the international community as “uniquely positioned to be able to intervene, to calm things down and keep a steady hand on the wheel” in the superpowers’ struggle.

The book, Bhagavan says, illustrates “India’s effort to position itself … between two warring powers that were powerful and rich. India was not militarily strong, and not rich, and yet the Soviet leadership and the U.S. leadership consistently called on India, not just out of admiration but also because they were trying to woo India.” India under Nehru’s guidance responded by “exerting influence through diplomacy, strategic public relations, poetic imagination, and its own internal development choices.”

Today India is one of the world’s largest economies, and its international political influence is on the rise. But what the country managed to achieve in the Cold War, “it has not ever since,” said Bhagavan, “and therein lies the primary lesson for those who wish to see present-day India achieve greatness tomorrow.”

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India and the Cold War
University of North Carolina Press, 2019

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Manu Bhagavan (Professor, History) | Profile 1 | Profile 2 | Profile 3