New York: Close students of the dramatic arts like to argue that today’s greatest actor is not Sir Laurence Olivier or Sir John Gielgud but India’s chief delegate to the UN, V. K. Krishna Menon.
News that Menon is about to speak invariably fills the UN galleries. Even the most jaded delegates turn in their seats to stare when the gaunt Indian with curley silver hair, worn theatrically long stalks into the Assembly chamber leaning on his cane. (Menon uses the cane for mere than sheer effect; for years he has suffered from arthritis in his back, legs and joints.)
People whisper, nudge one another, then sit back in happy anticipation of a brilliant performance.
Few delegates leave the room when Menon is speaking, not only because he is a major orator, but because India — in large part as a result of his efforts — has become a major power in the UN and one whose position on any issue is of real importance.
Nobody in the eighty-one nation UN can put on a show as ably as Menon. He can talk glibly for hours without consulting note (A reporter seeing him in the UN Delegates’ Lounge studying a manuscript, said: “I thought you were famous for talking off the top of your head.”).
Menon, flashing the infrequent smile that displays his big, glisteningly white teeth, cracked; “One should at least do a text the courtesy of looking at it before throwing it away.”)
He is celebrated for his snarling manners; yet, he can be charming and conciliatory when he chooses.
He can switch effortlessly from merciless invective to deliberately legalistic discourse. Usually, however, Menon is insistent, aggressive and notoriously fond of having the last word.
Such characteristics, joined by a barely concealed belief that the other diplomats of the world are distinctly his intellectual inferiors, have made Menon the most enthusiastically disliked representative at the UN.
In the Delegates’ Lounge, where much of the average day’s work is accomplished over drinks and coffee, the controversial Menon is a steady subject of conversation.
At one time or another, he has been described as the bad fairy of the UN, a man who eats his young, “the old snake charmer,” the ‘swami,” (the phrase most often applied to him by ex-Secretary of State Dean Acheson), a combination of the three witches in Macbeth, and a camel about to spit.
One of the more charitable diplomats, desperately thinking of something nice to say about Menon, blurted out: “Well, I guess you could call him an acquired taste.”
Menon’s bursting vanity, rudeness and superciliousness have also antagonised many of his own countrymen, large numbers of India’s top officials dislike him some, no doubt, because of envy of what has been called Menon’s “Peter and Christ relationship” with India’s Prime Minister Nehru.
After the Bandung Conference., in which Menon played his usual significant role, an American reporter who covered it was telephoned by G. L. Mehta, India’s Ambassador to the United States.
“What did you think of Menon?” asked the Ambassador.
“I thought he was a remarkable man,” said the reporter, “easily the brightest and most impressive at the conference.”
After a long silence, Ambassador Mehta said icily: “Well, I see he has one friend, anyway.”
Members of the American delegation to the UN, who must worse intimately with Menon, are inclined to take a sympathetic view of him.
“Menon isn’t difficult just for the hell of it,” says one delegate. “It takes somebody like a Menon to accept opprobrium and bully the UN into accepting India as a great power.”
Millions of Americans who know Menon only through television ‘or an almost uniformly press think otherwise.
Remembering his advocacy of the admission of Red China to the UN, his proposal to ban all hydrogen-bomb tests, his readiness to attack shortcomings of the Western democracies and his reluctance to lash out against the Communist nations, they see him as a fellow-traveller and threat to UN aspirations.
Staring on TV at his sharp features and his glowing zealot’s eyes, listening to him lash gloatingly at other UN delegates in his clipped British accent, Americans hate and fear him.
He is, to them, a Mephistopheles in a Saville Row suit. Even his cane takes on a menacing aspect.
“I’m sure he keeps a sword inside it,” insists one woman who follows every Menon appearance as avidly as she does a Marlon Brando movie.
Says Ellery Sedgwick, the distinguished eighty-five year old ex-editor of The Atlantic Monthly: “Why, the man’s the devil incarnate! He’s got it written all over his face. If he isn’t that bad, don’t tell me; I have nothing left but my prejudices and I want to keep them.”
The American public, with its tendency to think of diplomacy in terms of personalities, has come to regard Krishna Menon as an object lesson of what is wrong with India. There is widespread feeling — intensified by Nehru’s visit to Washington — that Nehru is “good” and Menon is “bad” and that, if only Nehru could be parted from Menon, India would shed its unhealthy “neutralism and join the U.S. camp.
Americans were delighted by reports from high administration sources that, in the course of Nehru’s private talk with President Eisenhower at Gettysburg, the President told Nehru bluntly that Menon had proved a poor representative of his country, and had sowed mischief and resentment in the U.S.
Menon insists that Eisenhower said nothing of the kind. “I certainly would have heard about it from my Prime Minister if he had,” Menon claims.
“On the face of it, the story is ludicrous. You don’t ask a head of stale to travel across the world to visit you and then denounce one of his subordinates. By the same token, the Prime Minister could have been guilty of the same discourtesy and told the President quite truthfully that a great many Indians were extremely unhappy with John Foster Dulles. But he didn’t.”
However unpleasant the tact may be to many Americans, Menon does speak for Nehru.
Menon, who has never wavered in his loyalty to Nehru, has the Prime Minister’s complete confidence.
At one time, he lived in Nehru’s house, moving across the street in New Delhi ‘only when he became a Cabinet Minister without portfolio.
Menon felt he would be taking unfair advantage of his Cabinet colleagues if he maintained a position of such intimacy.
Incidentally, Nehru insisted when Menon set up bachelor quarters that he accept the $500 a month Cabinet Minister’s salary.
Until then, Menon, a man of Spartan tastes, had always refused to take a pay-cheque for his government assignments.
No less an authority than Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper, former US Ambassador to India, believes that one valid explanation of Menon’s barbed and belligerent personality is that Nehru uses him as a sounding board and as a releaser of trial balloons.
“That’s true of diplomacy the world over,” says Senator Cooper.
“Somebody has to draw the fire; and on occasions, Dulles has had precisely that role in terms of US policy, If the same thing backfires, the head of state can always smooth things over.”
Menon insists he is merely Nehru’s lieutenant: “Do you think I’m such a fool as to come to the UN and not represent my government? I assure you, the Prime Minister is much too intelligent and strong-minded to let me do his thinking for him.”
Senator Hubert Humphrey adds: “I think Menon quite sincerely thinks of himself as a compromiser working for world peace. He’ll admit that he deals with the Russians, sure: but his point is that somebody has to. Otherwise, it’s the U.S. on one side of the street and the Russians on the other, and what happens to everybody else.”
Menon himself is cryptic when asked about his political ambitions. “I think the successor to Nehru is Nehru,” he says.
Meantime, one fact is unmistakably clear: as long as Nehru is in power, Menon is an enormously significant force that must be reckoned with, not rejected out of hand, by the U.S.
As Senator Cooper says, “We have to live with Menon; we’d better get used to that and start understanding him.”
Selections from Swarajya's 40,000 pages of archives since 1956.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!