President Kennedy’s Nepal Policy: US-Nepal Relations vis-à-vis India (1961-1962)


President Kennedy with Nepal’s Ambassador M P Koirala, August 3, 1961

Photo- Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Dr. Anil Sigdel — Citation or copying with permission only 

Comments are welcome to improve

June 16, 2020

This article is based upon declassified State department documents

Source: Files, January 1961-August 1962. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

The United State’ policy on Nepal has mostly aligned with Nepal’s desire to have more independent profile but at the same time tried to keep that alignment to a level that would not have repercussions in New Delhi. In the meantime, due to China-India rivalry, China showing an “unusual friendliness” toward Nepal and the complexities of Nepal’s domestic politics had posed a formidable challenge for India. And such dynamics caused complications for the United States, forcing it to consider getting involved in Nepal’s security matter which was dominantly India’s.

Nepalese Ambassador to the United States M. P. Koirala: “The basic reason is the Chinese dispute with India as a result of which China is trying to show unusual friendliness toward Nepal. He cited as an example current Chinese-Nepalese negotiations to settle boundary problems.

August 03, 1961Department of State, Presentation of Nepalese Amb Credentials




As Nepal’s King took the executive power and political parties were increasingly agitated, US Ambassador to Nepal Henry Stebbins, in his telegram to the Department of State in 1961, writes that although India has the role to secure Nepal’s independence, the US might have to take the share of that responsibility. Americans observed that King Mahendra was not satisfied with India’s arms supply for various reasons and his “anti-Indian” attitude was there since longtime.

“Major responsibility for Nepal’s remaining independent has been India’s, but it may be, in view of recent events, desirable for US take greater share in this responsibility.”

Nov 4, 1961, Incoming Telegram by US Amb Stebbins, Department of State


Note: It is a matter of debate that how Nepal became India’s responsibility after the end of British era in India and Rana era in Nepal – in usual explanation given by leaders and scholars in Nepal was they were tricked by Nehru that time.

However, although Nepal would like US to supply equipment, US would not do that without a a military assistance agreement, and Nepal would not find it prudent to have such agreement because of its sensitive geo-strategic location between the “two predatory states.” Besides, US hesitated to provide equipment without the agreement fearing sharp reaction from India and US also sensed that Nepal was trying to lead the US-Nepal ties independent of India.

I am opposed to granting this request as Indian reaction would doubtless be sharp and involvement [of] this type of activity at this time inappropriate […] this may be attempt on part of GON [NEPAL] to maneuver US into taking line independent of India.

January 17, 1962,US Amb Stebbins to Secretary of State


From the establishment of diplomatic relations since 1947 US followed the following broad policies: cultivating friendship, unconditional support for Nepal’s sovereignty and independence, support for Nepal’s entry into UN vis-à-vis Russian veto. US wanted to see atmosphere of trust between Nepal and India that would be in the interests of both, and would refrain from any intervention into Indo-Nepal relations although the realities were complex – US was aware of the fact that even pro-China faction of Nepalese Communist Party were operating from India against the king, presumably in India’s protection.

“Also operating from India against King’s regime is pro-Chinese communist faction of Nepal Communist Party.”

March 9, 1962, US Amb Stebbins and Galbraith to Secretary of State


Although Delhi and Washington were consulting on the disturbances in Nepal between Mahendra and the popular forces like Congress’s B P Koirala, and the communists parties, Washington was aware of the sensitivity of Nepal when India was involved. State department instructed Ambassador to not hint those consultations and just on “purely personal plane” suggest Mahendra to have people participation in his government. Besides, US did not deny that geography dictates that Nepal has to rely on India for trade. However, given the souring relations between King Mahendra and Nehru, the US also considered operating separately with Nepal which could have repercussions in India.

“Against this contingency we may find it in our interest to operate with Nepalis more independently of India than has been our traditional pattern.

January 30, 1962, Outgoing Telegram to Embassy, Department of State

As far as building physical connectivity was concerned, the US deplored the scenario that India’s influence in Nepal would deplete, but was not as concerned as much regarding the strategic importance o f the new road connectivity between Tibet via Kodari and Kathmandu aside of the psychological aspect of China-Nepal proximity.

For Nepal’s part, it tried to keep the Indo-Nepal relations in workable terms to maintain American confidence. In the words of Mahendra’s then Finance Minister Rishikesh Shah (1960-64), as he talked to American Ambassador that he was able to keep the Indo-Nepal realtions on “mutually satisfactory basis,” and as a result a “hitherto anti-Nepal” Times of India group of newspapers “carried editorials and news items favorable to Nepal and to himself.” But for the US either way there was fear – one was prolonged disturbances, thereby communists seizing power, or already considerably growing Chinese influence after King Mahendra took the executive power.

Nevertheless, President Kennedy had conveyed his message to King Mahendra that America “appreciate the King’s situation in its complexities […] trust the King in his wisdom to be able to work them out in the best interests of Nepal. ‘I am much  interested in your country and I want you to know if we can help you in any way  to meet your problems we shall be glad to try to do so – I don’t mean that as an idle statement.”

                                                             May 2, 1961, Call of the Nepalese Amb on the President


For Citation (with permission) : Anil Sigdel, “President Kennedy’s Nepal Policy: US-Nepal Relations vis-a-vis India (1961-62),” US-Nepal Relations Series-1, Nepal Matters for America, June 2020. 

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