Department of American and Canadian Studies

Review of Paul McGarr's new book 'The Cold War in South Asia'

Review of Paul McGarr's new book 'The Cold War in South Asia' in 'History Today'

by Rudra Chaudhuri

British academic interest in post-colonial South Asia has long lacked the rigour found in works dedicated to the region and its people prior to 1947. Essential questions around the relative influence of Britain (and later the United States) in the history and making of independent India and Pakistan remain cloudy at best. In fact, for South Asia, there is no ready comparison to the likes of John Lewis Gaddis (The Cold War) or David Hoffman (The Dead Hand). In some ways this is a curious state of affairs. After all, the common assumption was that Britain ‘got’ South Asia. Years of imperial rule, it was once thought, provided Britain with a unique opportunity to understand India and Pakistan’s respective approaches to a world divided by ideological creeds. 

This was the view of American elites and President Truman in the late 1940s. Yet, in a little more than a decade – by the early 1960s – the Democratic Kennedy administration was convinced that the United States had replaced Britain as the most influential western nation in South Asia. ‘The Cold War in the Periphery’, as the historian Robert McMahon once described American engagement in the region, is largely a narrative about America, India and Pakistan. Scant references to Attlee, Churchill, Eden and Macmillan underscored the point about Britain’s apparent loss of influence. Until recently, the historical account of British influence was limited to Anita Inder Singh’s The Limits of British Influence, published 23 years ago.

Therefore, Paul McGarr’s monograph is a welcome addition to a body of literature that, for one reason or another, escapes the imagination and scrutiny of contemporary historians. The detailed narrative is easily accessible and immaculately researched. The use of rarer primary documents from Indian archives, as well as South Asian newspaper articles dating back to the 1950s, is especially noteworthy. McGarr’s book surveys a series of episodes highlighting Anglo-American engagement in South Asia and includes innovatively constructed chapters on Kashmir, India’s expulsion of Portuguese authority from Goa and the 1965 India-Pakistan War.

The central conclusion is that Anglo-American approaches between 1947 and 1965 were, in essence, ‘misguided, ineffectual, and counterproductive’. Rather, according to McGarr, strategies of action adopted by Beijing and Moscow were ‘carefully calibrated’.At first glance, such generalities might be discounted as being offered without much attention to nuance. Yet each chapter tells well the intricate story of how personalities and national governments in Britain and America sought to advance what they considered to be their nation’s respective interests in South Asia.  

McGarr gently but effectively surveys the relative importance of domestic politics and, as importantly, domestic opposition to executive decisions. He focuses on the inescapable importance of towering actors like Nehru, Macmillan and Kennedy, as well as the lesser known but vital role played by a handful of British and American envoys, who often found themselves sparring with policy elites in Whitehall and Washington. The key difference with the few comparable works in the market place is that McGarr places his arguments in a context that is as relevant today as it was between 1947 and 1965, the period of his study. The elegant writing style lends itself to a general readership, including those who may have a vaguer interest in South Asia but a greater appreciation for a subtle accounting of Anglo-American rivalry and a bid for influence. Further, The Cold War in South Asia should be considered required reading for all western diplomats preparing to work for their countries’ interests in a part of the world that is arguably at centre-stage of contemporary international politics. 

Rudra Chaudhuri is author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947 (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Posted on Wednesday 15th October 2014

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