In 1963, after losing the governor’s race in California, Richard Nixon moved away from politics and his home state. He and his family relocated to New York City where he resumed his career in law. Few would be aware that during what would later be called Nixon’s “Wilderness Years” when he held no official post, he paid a private visit to Pakistan in 1966. The welcome extended to him by Pakistan was very different from that given to him in a similar visit to India a year later. It could well have been instrumental in making him an ally of Pakistan.
Nixon joined the Wall Street law firm Mudge, Stern, Baldwin and Todd as a senior partner and his name was subsequently added to its title. It was one of the top ten law firms in New York, which also represented Pepsi Cola, one of the US soft drink giants. Along with the royalties from his best seller Six Crisis, which recounts his role in six major political situations, he was earning over $200,000 a year.
This time away from his political career offered him clarity, intellectual preparation and perspective. It would thus become the great motivator for him to resume his life in politics, ultimately leading to his decision to campaign for the presidency in 1968. With an eye on the Oval Office, Nixon kept himself abreast of world affairs and in contact with world leaders. He and President Ayub Khan knew each other from the days when Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice president. Therefore, in spite of Nixon not holding any office, he was accorded the protocol of a state guest when he visited Pakistan in March 1966.
He arrived at Karachi from Tel Aviv early in the morning of 24 March 1966 and was received by Secretary for Foreign Affairs Aziz Ahmed, who also knew Nixon. Aziz had been the ambassador in the United States when Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice President.
He then flew to Rawalpindi where he met the President for an hour and the two discussed Kashmir, Vietnam, Pakistan-American ties and Indo-Pakistani relations. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as the Foreign Secretary, were present during the talks.
Over dinner Nixon admired some of the sculptures from Swat that Mian Gul Aurangzeb had gifted to my father
My father Shahid Hamid had retired from the army some years previously and Ayub Khan asked him to escort Nixon during his visit. Shahid Hamid received Nixon at the airport and after his meeting with Ayub Khan picked him up from the State Guest House situated at the beginning of the Mall in Rawalpindi. It was a beautiful mansion of red sandstone with large manicured lawns and prior to Independence was the residence of a very wealthy Sikh called Mohan Singh. He and his brother Sohan Singh, whose residence became the civil court, owned most of Rawalpindi but they vacated their residences in 1947 and sadly never returned.
Nixon was taken on a half-hour drive to visit the magical UNESCO world heritage site of Taxila. Situated in a picturesque and fertile valley surrounded by small hills, Taxila dates back to the Buddhist Gandhara period with the excavations spanning nearly a thousand years from 600 BCE to 500 CE. It comprises of three ancient cities, of which one has been excavated and more than two dozen Buddhist stupas, monasteries and Greek temples. It was unearthed in the beginning of the 20th century by the famous British Archaeologist Sir John Marshall who was the Director General of Archaeological Survey of India.
Nixon’s first stop was the museum, an aesthetically pleasing building dating back to 1928 that was covered in ivy and surrounded by tall Cyprus trees and a pleasant garden. The curator showed him some of the 4,000 artifacts on display, including stone, stucco, terracotta sculptures and ornaments of silver, gold and semi-precious stones. Nixon displayed a genuine interest but what he thoroughly enjoyed was the tour of the Greco-Bactrian city of Sirkap. During my teens, I visited Taxila numerous times as a tour guide for my father’s guests and was a familiar figure to most of the guards at the sites, as well as the hawkers hanging around there – trying to sell fake and occasionally genuine coins and sculptures to visitors!
I knew the locations and points of interest at all the sites and monasteries backwards like Julian, Bhir Mound and Mohra Muradu as well as the city of Sirkap but never tired of going again. Particularly so when I had the opportunity to join Nixon’s entourage and followed them in the comfortable warmth of a spring afternoon. Before a military industrial complex emerged in Taxila, very little had changed in the broad valley since the time it had been a centre of Buddhist learning and I saw Nixon enjoying his tour through the broad streets of Sirkap and being transported two millennia back in time. That evening my parents hosted a dinner and invited federal ministers and senior civil servants to meet Nixon. I believe Nixon was caught up in the magic of Taxila and over dinner he admired some of the sculptures from Swat that Mian Gul Aurangzeb had gifted to my father.
A year later he took a grueling tour of four continents where the former vice-president met leading political figures. (Imagine today’s inward-looking and aspiring presidential candidates doing that!). This time he briefly stopped in Delhi where Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had entered office only a year before. In sharp contrast to the courtesy and warmth with which he was greeted in Pakistan, the Indians received him with a “minimum of appropriate protocol”. Indira could scarcely conceal her boredom during her short meeting with Nixon at her residence. After about 20 minutes of strained chat, she asked one of her aides, in Hindi, how much longer this was going to take. Nixon may not have gotten the precise meaning, but he sure caught the tone. Dennis Kux in his book, Estranged Democracies, says: “This treatment presumably did nothing to lessen Nixon’s preference for Pakistan, the erstwhile ally of the United States, and his dislike for India and its policy of nonalignment”. Two years later before his inauguration on 20 January 1969, Nixon wrote to various Heads of State. To Ayub Khan he scribbled a few extra lines saying “I shall always be grateful for the courtesies extended to me on my visit to Pakistan.”
While Nixon had a degree of respect for Nehru, his daughter Indira on the other hand, had an extraordinary ability to get under Nixon’s skin and they held a mutual dislike
During his first year in the Oval Office, he came on a fast-track visit to the Far East and also swung through India and Pakistan. His “one-night stop” in India was a formality and with Indira Gandhi facing a revolt in the Congress and a possible loss of her premiership, the White House even considered postponing the visit. Nixon had never cared for Indira’s father Jawaharlal Nehru and his persistent criticism of American policies. Remember that the seven years commencing from 1953 when Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice president coincided with the first American military assistance package for Pakistan. Nixon characterized Nehru as “a great leader for India in India,” but could not accept his “contemptuous attitude towards the West.”
While Nixon had a degree of respect for Nehru, his daughter Indira on the other hand, had an extraordinary ability to get under Nixon’s skin and they held a mutual dislike. Kissinger states in his memoirs that the two “were not intended by fate to be personally congenial. Mrs. Gandhi’s assumption of almost hereditary moral superiority and her moody silences brought out all of Nixon’s latent insecurities. Her bearing toward Nixon combined a disdain for a symbol of capitalism, quite fashionable in developing countries, with a hint that the obnoxious things she had heard about the President from her intellectual friends could not all be untrue.”
The chemistry that emerged between Nixon and Yahya Khan who had taken over as President from Ayub Khan two months after Nixon’s inauguration, was entirely different. As Kissinger put it, “[…] these blunt military chiefs of Pakistan were more congenial to him [Nixon], than the complex and apparently haughty Brahmin leaders of India.”
According to Sultan Mohammed Khan, Pakistan’s foreign secretary at the time and a former ambassador to the U.S., Nixon made the trip to Lahore to informally become acquainted with Yahya Khan. Nixon departed from Delhi after breakfast and flew into Lahore where he was warmly welcomed just as the people of this city had received Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran and King Hussain of Jordan. In a statement released by his staff on his departure from Lahore Nixon said, “It is a great pleasure for me to visit Pakistan, where I always have found a warm welcome from a great and friendly people.” More significant was the mini-summit between the two leaders in Lahore which would eventually play a role in a historic event – Nixon’s visit to Communist China in 1972. Nixon mentioned to Yahya Khan that he was thinking of re-establishing contact with China, given it had been almost two decades since the U.S. broke relations and there had been no official contact. When the time is right, he said, he would like to get in touch with Yahya to help him and act as an intermediary in the establishment of relationship with China. Yahya agreed.
The matter was raised again in October 1970, when Yahya visited the White House and discussed China with Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger. Once again Nixon was drawn towards Yahya. In a Top Secret ‘Memorandum of Conversation’ Nixon recorded that, “Yahya is tough, direct and with a good sense of humor. He talks in a very clipped way, is a splendid product of Sandhurst [Incorrect. Yahya was commissioned from the Indian Military Academy Dehradun], and affects a sort of social naïveté but is probably much more complicated than this.”
The following month, Yahya Khan visited Beijing, where he was warmly greeted by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Yahya Khan conveyed President Nixon’s proposal for sending an envoy to China to meet the premier or some other Chinese leader to discuss problems between the two countries. Zhou replied “We have received many proposals from different sources for establishing contact with the United States but this is the first time a message has come from a head of state. The United States knows that Pakistan is a great friend of China and therefore we attach importance to the message you have given, and we accept the proposal to receive an envoy of President Nixon in Beijing.” It was nothing less than the personal relations that Yahya cultivated with Nixon that gave the US President the confidence to trust Pakistan in brokering a dialogue between US and China. The protocol and warmth extended to Nixon on his official or private visits was one of the main reasons for his soft corner for Pakistan which extended even into Pakistan’s darkest days in 1971.
On Nixon’s state visit to Lahore in August 1969, Yahya Khan wanted to present him with something memorable. He consulted his friend Shahid Hamid who told Yahya how much Nixon had enjoyed his visit to Taxila and been charmed by the remains of the civilization and suggested that a Gandhara sculpture would be a befitting present for the President of the United States The idea appealed to President Yahya and the Department of Archaeology had one artistically mounted and gave it to the President’s staff. Yahya Khan later told Shahid Hamid that Nixon was exceedingly pleased with the gift. Nixon also recollected his previous visit to Pakistan and Taxila and how warmly he had been looked after.
Taxila’s magic had worked. Or was it the magic of our past military leaders whom it is now so trendy to criticize?