74. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Morarji Desai, Prime Minister of India
  • Jagat Mehta, Foreign Secretary
  • V. Shankar, Private Secretary to the Prime Minister
  • A. Madhavan, Joint Secretary, America Division, Ministry of External Affairs
  • Robert F. Goheen, American Ambassador
  • David T. Schneider, Deputy Chief of Mission


  • Tarapur: Indian Nuclear Policy

During the course of the Ambassador’s first call on Prime Minister Morarji Desai, the Ambassador mentioned that President Carter had asked him to address certain nuclear issues.2 The Ambassador asked the Prime Minister if he should do so on this occasion. Desai readily agreed.

The Ambassador said the President wanted him to speak to Desai personally. The President had declared his goal as ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons and is trying to move the US and other powers in that direction. At the same time, the Ambassador said, the President is deeply concerned about the second generation of plutonium use. The Ambassador then told Desai that the Executive Branch was prepared to approve and recommend to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the pending license for Tarapur as requested by the Government of India, but in this connection, he said that the President had asked him to get certain assurances. First, as the Prime Minister is aware, US nuclear fuel used at Tarapur is under IAEA safeguards. Also, India has agreed not to use this fuel for any purpose except generation of power at Tarapur without prior agreement. The Ambassador explained the US people were very suspicious of any supply of nuclear materials because of the Indian explosion of 1974. Consequently, the President had asked the Ambassador to ask the Prime Minister for his personal confirmation that any material the US had supplied would not be used in a nuclear device.

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The Prime Minister replied vigorously and emotionally saying there was no question about that, India stood by its agreement. “Are we breaking the agreement—no, it is the US which is doing that.” Desai said India would carry out all safeguards out of self respect despite its feelings about the NPT. In regard to the NPT he said that if “they do away with weapons we will sign.” Desai then spoke about India’s explosion. He said his predecessor had not been wise in the way she carried it out. He said it had been done with the help of Canada and was only for peaceful purposes. India should have taken Canada into confidence on this he said. Then there would have been no problem. There was no question of India’s “trying to be clever” about the explosion. Desai said he feared his predecessor was trying to make an impression within India. As a result Trudeau was upset. The Prime Minister said he would speak to him in London.

The Ambassador then asked if the GOI would agree to enter into discussions with the US on nuclear matters. Desai said he would be very glad to do so. Even if the US refused to supply more fuel for Tarapur he would agree he said. But the US had to make the proposal first. The Ambassador said there were two levels of discussion. First technical matters such as fuel storage and second, more important, how the US and India can move forward in parallel to prevent nuclear misuse. Desai replied “most certainly”, saying he saw a great danger if atomic weapons continue. He said India was not interested in any way in the use of nuclear energy for warfare. He recalled his statement to the press that nuclear weapons were no good for defense; they only demoralize. India’s conventional arms can defend the country. He said he was not going to touch nuclear weapons. India has said that for 30 years; it will remain honest. Even if the country is destroyed it will not go to nuclear weapons.

Ambassador Goheen said he thought the President knew and appreciated Mr. Desai’s view and therefore wanted to open a serious dialogue. In some ways our policies were not the same. We wanted to discuss how we could bring them together. The Prime Minister again said he was glad that the Ambassador had raised this as he could not suggest it himself. There ensued some discussion of the spent fuel storage problem during which it was mentioned there were three ways of handling the spent fuel. Desai said he was agreeable to all three. He said that he had no intention of using the spent fuel (apparently for an explosion). He said he was not sure an explosion had been necessary. The Prime Minister then explained that he had not expressed doubt in public regarding whether the explosion was necessary as that was a reflection on Mrs. Gandhi. She had no intention to develop nuclear weapons but was more politically minded. The Prime Minister said he was not politically minded. Mrs. Gandhi had been basically [Page 191] wrong but Desai did not want to pass public criticism on her. The Prime Minister said there was no question of having another explosion. Even if it were proposed he would not do it—he would carefully consult people—he would consult the US. The Prime Minister went on to say that he didn’t like “this space business”, asking “why do it?” He said that he was reconsidering what to do about the space program. He wondered if any useful purpose had been served by the trip to the moon. India did not want to go into things like that; it must first feed its people.3

Ambassador Goheen then explained that the President had stressed that the US wants to be helpful in the development of energy, including nuclear energy. The Prime Minister said we must do this otherwise what was the use of India “asking for your help.” The Ambassador then explained our desire that India join in the fuel cycle evaluation program4 and mentioned nuclear exports. The Prime Minister replied that India “did not want to keep these things secret.” It wanted to “make it available to those who seek it but for peaceful purposes only.” He then carefully explained “we do not want to pass on knowledge in any way in which it will be misused.”

Mr. Shankar then interrupted to say that Dr. Sethna had wanted him to raise the question of reprocessing for experimental purposes. The Prime Minister asked why and Shankar explained for peaceful purposes. In that case, the Prime Minister said, that was all right. The Prime Minister then said if India received nuclear material from the US, how could it misuse it? Shankar explained his meaning, saying that our agreement provides for how it is to be used and the Prime Minister concluded this portion of the conversation saying that India was bound to carry out this agreement.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Thornton Country File, Box 93, India: Nuclear: 5/77–4/78. Confidential. Drafted by Schneider on June 2. The meeting took place in the Office of the Prime Minister.
  2. See footnote 3, Document 72. Telegram 118926 to New Delhi, May 23, provided Goheen with instructions on how to proceed with discussions first with Desai and then Vajpayee about Tarapur fuel supply. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, N770003–0482)
  3. An unknown hand underlined the words: “must first feed its people,” and put an asterisk in the left-hand margin next to these words.
  4. The International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation Program (INFCEP) was a U.S. initiative that was formally established in October 1977. Its purpose was to identify ways to guard against nuclear weapons proliferation while promoting nuclear energy production. See footnote 2, Document 267.