Subramaniam on Raghavan, 'Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia'

Srinath Raghavan
Arjun Subramaniam

Srinath Raghavan. Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia. New York: Basic Books, 2018. 496 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-03019-4.

Reviewed by Arjun Subramaniam (Tufts University) Published on H-Asia (January, 2019) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

The United States in South Asia

Fierce Enigmas is an excellent hybrid narrative of applied history that offers a less-explored perspective on the engagement of the United States with South Asia over almost three centuries. The USP of Fierce Enigmas lies in two areas. First is its rather daring foray into the rather unremarkable and seemingly insignificant relationship between the US and colonial India. Second is a smooth-flowing narrative on the geostrategic engagement of the US with India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the post-WW II era based on a prescient understanding of international and regional geopolitics. Srinath Raghavan is arguably India’s leading ‘applied’ historian and has displayed consistent brilliance over the years with his expansive and holistic examination of war and conflict in contemporary India. Though an insight into British and US policies toward India and Pakistan features extensively in his previous works, War and Peace in Modern India (2010), 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013), and India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern Asia (2016), this is his first major work that looks at the region through a distant foreign lens. 

The book is neatly structured along three themes. The first theme is US engagement with an undivided India from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, when India and Pakistan emerged as independent states that would pose serious dilemmas for US foreign policy (chapters 1-3). Woven into this segment are interesting vignettes of forays by adventurous American entrepreneurs (largely inspired by the works of Rudyard Kipling) and their attempts to bring development to Afghanistan. Vignettes of Baptist and Presbyterian missionaries who made the long voyage across many seas to proselytize the Christian faith among "savage people" (p. 53) bring out the peripheral empowerment of education and medical care that the missionaries brought along. Gradually, the study of India and orientalism gained momentum in the United States as intellectuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau saw value in the Hindu scriptures and culture as a "correction to American materialism and Protestant dogmatism" (p.56). However, the dominant flavor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the acceptance by US leadership of Anglo-Saxon dominance in South Asia, with Theodore Roosevelt being an unabashed admirer of the British Raj. Raghavan offers rare glimpses of the impact that Indian thinkers, nationalists, and revolutionaries like Swami Vivekananda, Lala Lajpat Rai, and Mahatma Gandhi had on the American people in the early decades of the twentieth century and created a wave of support for Indian aspirations of freedom from colonial rule. There is also a heartwarming description of the Martandam Center, a  multipronged cooperative experiment in rural Tamil Nadu, and the vision of its creator, Duane Spencer Hatch, that "self-help with intimate expert counsel was only way of growth to a permanently happier state" (p. 78).

The second theme delves into the teething problems and contradictions that confronted successive US presidents as they attempted to forge enduring relationships with independent India and Pakistan (chapters 4-7). This part of the book displays Raghavan’s strong moorings in archival research as he mines unexplored excerpts from conversations, memos, and notes from declassified documents in India and the United States to add value to the existing narrative of the Truman and Eisenhower years. Particularly interesting are his analyses of competing and contrasting narratives of how US policymakers like John Foster Dulles, Chester Bowles, and John Kenneth Galbraith viewed India and Pakistan through the prism of the Cold War. While Bowles pitched for enhanced aid to accelerate a major Community Development Program (CDP) as a "dynamic, cooperative effort to raise living, health and literacy standards in all parts of India" (p. 179), Dulles, who was Eisenhower’s secretary of state, harbored a deep-rooted animosity toward India, which he viewed through a myopic lens of religion, race, and Cold War rigidities. His influence ensured that the 1950s remained a decade of lost opportunities as the US adopted Pakistan as its principal ally in South Asia despite strong opposition from Ambassador Allen in Delhi, who argued that India’s response would be "bitter and vigorous and color and perhaps change the course of United States-India relationship for a long time to come" (p. 197). Despite being the major international donor for infrastructure development across Afghanistan during the late 1950s, the US failed to draw the former into its orbit because of the Pakistan factor and the constant sparring with Afghanistan over the British-drawn frontier (the Durand Line). Consequently, its desire to control "the heart of the Heartland" in Eurasia and the southern belly of Asia was not bearing fruit (pp. 226-31). Raghavan neatly positions a likely rapprochement between India and the US in the backdrop of China’s aggressive posturing in Tibet and Aksai Chin. He argues that the Eisenhower administration saw this as a possible opportunity to build bridges with India, a policy that was taken forward by the Kennedy administration. 

India’s accession of Goa through a military invasion in December 1961 rankled the United States as Portugal was a member of NATO, but the US could do very little to justify the retention of one of the last bastions of colonialism. One wishes that Raghavan had spent some time dissecting US hypocrisy toward colonialism just as President Kennedy was waving the flag of American liberalism and altruism across the globe. The depth of despair in Nehru’s SOS to President Kennedy as PLA forces rolled over fragile Indian defenses during Phase 1 of their operations in October-November 1962 and the dilemma it created for the latter is extremely well brought in a few pages (pp. 247-55). Juggling the Cuban Missile Crisis, monitoring the emerging situation in Indo-China, and balancing India and Pakistan was indeed a tough ask for President Kennedy. To his credit, Kennedy did promptly rush some military aid to India even at the cost of antagonizing the Pakistanis. However, his expectations of brokering a peace agreement between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir came to naught as India and Nehru dug their heels in over what remains a seemingly intractable dispute. Raghavan’s treatment of this tumultuous period of contemporary Indian history is objective and he stays clear of needless criticism of Indian leadership as it faced its most serious security challenge after independence.

Raghavan makes it a point to plot the consistent delivery of US developmental and agricultural aid to India even through periods of extreme political and strategic divergence. He intersperses his geopolitical narrative with a few welcome cultural journeys that American singers and jazz artists like Mahalia Jackson, Dave Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington made to South Asia. After navigating past the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the early years of Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister which also heralded the arrival of the Nixon-Kissinger duo at the helm of affairs in the United States, he ploughs through the much-analyzed 70s in the chapter "The Dangerous Decade." Drawing extensively from declassified conversations between Nixon and his cabinet, Raghavan expectedly does not break any new ground, but very crisply analyzes the impact and consequences of the 1971 war on US policy in South Asia. Raghavan ends this section with a detailed examination of Jimmy Carter’s approach to South Asia and his moralistic approach to dealing with India and its nuclear and regional power aspirations—a hitherto rather underexplored phase.

Maintaining momentum in the last part of any voluminous narrative is always a challenge and Raghavan holds the attention of the reader with ease in chapters 8-10 as he swiftly moves from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the nuclear imbroglios and limited war scenarios that unfold in the subcontinent between India and Pakistan. His handling of the Global War on Terror and overthrow of the Taliban is brief and what catches your attention is his analysis of the transformation of mutual perceptions that India and the United States have of each other in the new millennium. Concluding with some punchy and prescient observations, he argues, "The remarkable rise of American power is one of the central developments of modern world history. I have argued that we cannot understand the character and power of this power solely by focusing on the core terrain it operated on. Rather, the regions of the margin and periphery provide an oblique yet indispensable view of American power, perhaps none more so than South Asia" (p. 412).

While it is not fair to expect Raghavan to have done more in a single volume, there are a few striking omissions in the book. Covert US involvement in Tibet had more steam than Raghavan suggests, and military agreement between India and the US during the early 1960s involved batches of Indian fighter pilots being trained on the F-86 Sabre at Nellis Air Force Base (Arizona) before India decided to buy the MiG-21 from Russia in 1963. The high-altitude face-off between India and Pakistan on the icy heights of Siachen Glacier has fascinated American scholars and policymakers and much effort has been made over the years to brainstorm a resolution to the problem.[1] Similarly, very few details are available about the Kicklighter Proposals in the early 1990s that catapulted the US-India military engagement to new levels after the end of the Cold War.[2] Since the book was meant to deal with US policy in South Asia, some mention of US involvement in Sri Lanka during the mid-1980s and its impact on India’s military intervention would have certainly added value. 

Notwithstanding these issues, Fierce Enigmas is still a superb work of academic rigor and narrated with sophistication, eloquence, and empathy. It is a valuable addition to the repository of writing on the complex relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and its most populous one. 


[1]. The Siachen Glacier is a 110-kilometer glacier that marks the edge of India's volatile northern border with Pakistan. In an audacious operation in 1984 called Operation Meghdoot, the Indian army occupied several posts on the Saltoro Ridge at heights of over 6,000 meters on the western flank of the glacier, thereby preempting a similar operation by the Pakistan army. Though a ceasefire was declared in 2003, the Indian army remains deployed in what is the highest battleground on earth.

[2]. Lieutenant General Claude Kicklighter was the commander of US Army forces in the Pacific who framed a set of guidelines in 1991 for expanded military-to-military training and engagement between the United States and India.

Covert U.S. involvement in Tibet had more steam than Raghavan suggests, and US attempts to forge a military relationship with Indiaengagement during the early 1960s included the training of batches of Indian fighter pilots on the F-86 Sabre at Nellis Air Force Base (Arizona) before India decided to buy the MiG-21 from Russia in 1963. 

Citation: Arjun Subramaniam. Review of Raghavan, Srinath, Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019. URL:

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