India's UN Delegate Krishna Menon Urges Collective Peace

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Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, left, tucks his chin in his hand as he confers with V. K. Krishna Menon of the Indian delegation at the Bandung Conference on April 24, 1955.

Krishna Menon, Chairman of the Indian delegation to the United Nations, answers questions from the foreign press in this 1956 edition of International Interview. Menon, an architect of the new nation's foreign policy, was considered Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's chief confidante or "evil genius," depending on one's point of view. Here, his talent for lucid argument and maintaining an inscrutable neutrality when confronting the two superpowers of the day is much in evidence. Asked about Nehru's recent criticism of Western alliances (which was clearly aimed at SEATO, the American-backed anti-Communist league in Southeast Asia) Menon speaks in more general terms about how such organizations, though advocating of "collective security," do not always foster "collective peace."

His recent lauding of the new Soviet leaders and their de-Stalinization program was not meant as an endorsement of that country. Rather, when there are "signs of progress…it's an error to be cynical about it." He rejects the characterization that he is being "charitable." He is being "factual and realistic." He stands by the dictum that "you cannot establish right ends by wrong means." He defends the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands who have asked that nuclear testing near their home be stopped. When challenged about the economic exclusionism practiced by some newly freed former colonies, he points out the very real danger of ongoing economic rather than political colonialism. He contends that fear is the great driving force in world politics today, and the most destructive. Menon comes across as an admirable debater and diplomat, untangling and restating questions, managing in his answers to seem both reasonable and yet somehow…elusive.

Krishna Menon (1896-1974) came from a wealthy family and spent the years leading up to Indian independence in England where he formed close ties with the Labor Party. His friendship with Nehru propelled him to the upper echelons of the newly formed government. The website reports:

Brilliant, astute, and point blank, V.K. Krishna Menon was undoubtedly one of the most successful yet aggressive diplomats and statesmen from India. He served at several top positions as the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s close political confidante. The power he held was so immense that it is no surprise that the ‘Time’ magazine called him the second most powerful man in India, after the then Prime Minister Nehru himself! Such was the power he commanded. He was very outspoken and did not think twice before uttering politically incorrect comments if he felt he was right. He was often seen as a bold champion for India in the Western world where he left no opportunity to speak up and defend his motherland.

This unwillingness to fall in line, to instead attempt charting a middle course between the United States and the Soviet Union, was partly based on Menon's understandable aversion to his country's sufferings under colonialism and its partitioning at independence. tells how:

…Virtually all of Menon's thoughts and actions on foreign policy were infused by a deep and pervasive distrust of the United States, which he saw as the primary agent of imperialism, racism, and capitalist exploitation in the modern world. These views were an outgrowth of Menon's political philosophy and his emotional reaction to India's colonial experience. For these reasons he also deeply hated Pakistan. He held that Pakistan was created by British imperialism and supported by United States imperialism and, as a theocratic Moslem state, was a historical threat to a secular India. Pakistan's collusion with China simply strengthened his distrust. His uncompromising position on Kashmir derived from his view of Pakistan and a fear that Kashmir might be the first step in Pakistan's effort to recontrol the sub-continent. Although some of these positions were less than productive in serving India's interests, Menon made significant contributions to world diplomacy and to India's role in international affairs. His representation of nonalignment as an external form of India's national independence and his efforts to expand the "area of peace" in the world, to press for wider disarmament, and to encourage conciliation in and out of the United Nations were all positive efforts. 

Despite his professed loathing for most British institutions, Menon is credited with having the idea for Penguin Books, the cheap paperbacks of highbrow literature that revolutionized publishing and changed the reading habits of millions. One could even argue that he unwittingly laid the groundwork for what is now seen as that country's "cultural imperialism." However, his attitude towards India's former overlords remained one of deep suspicion. As a retired journalist who covered Menon recalled in his blog My Take by GVK:

Known for his carping comments the man had a delightful way with words. He was fond of telling his British friends, “You know why the sun didn’t set on their empire? Because God didn’t trust the British in the dark”.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150220
Municipal archives id: LT7091