Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia

Image of Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia
Release Date: 
October 16, 2018
Basic Books
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"Srinath Raghavan engagingly writes an epic narrative that gives the reader much to ponder about what might have been, and the United States' role in the world."

Americans generally have little knowledge of their country's involvement in the Far East, Middle East (although an American first used that name), or Southeast Asia but even less of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. The United States and South Asia, however, have a long history, Srinath Raghavan writes, starting with a young nation engaged with "power and hierarchy, race and religion, ideology and empire" in a "commercial world dominated by the older European empires."

"The British Empire had created structural links between America and India." American Elihu Yale, for example, made his fortune in India starting in 1672. He eventually became governor Madras and endowed the American university that bears his name. The first United States ship to reach India arrived there in 1784, the same year as the first American vessel to arrive in China, but it, too, had intended to reach China.

"In fact, the story of US covert action in the region goes all the way back to 1827," the author notes, when Josiah Harlan tried to start a rebellion in Afghanistan, the basis for Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.

Typically, Josiah Harlan became the first American in Kabul where he arrived in 1827, but J. C. Jewett became only the second American when he came there in 1911 to install an electrical power system, the parts of which had to cross the famed Khyber Pass on the backs of elephants.

The British East India Company tried "not to dilute its hold over the Indian economy," even to the exclusion of colonial American and other British interests. Yet "the American footprint in the India trade increased rapidly" and from 1795 to 1805 "exceeded the combined total for all of Europe by 25 percent."

Americans first formed their views of Indians from "the cities and towns along the coast" where they traded and not the diversity of the interior of South Asia. Raghavan warns that this history "is not one of smooth, sustained, and deepening American engagement" but "by raptures, retrenchment, and recalibration."

The author illustrates these differences in South Asia with views of prominent Americans. Mark Twain "concluded that India was the most interesting country on the planet." Other visitors made India a metaphor for imperialism, including Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Seward, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Jennings Bryan, among others. Cultural exploration to this day continues with "a dramatic shift in American cultural attitude toward India owing to the extraordinary success of Indian immigrants to the United States."

The relationship went both ways. Raghavan writes, "South Asians were pulled toward the United States—not least by the allure of American modernity and technical expertise" but especially in India.

Missionaries "played an important role in helping these communities in their dealings with the colonial state" and with medical work that "became something of a model for organized social work." They "were much less successful in their core mission of converting the heathen Hindus," however.

The subsequent trade between America and India would have colossal success but also failure with the War of 1812, the Bengal Mutiny, the American Civil War, World War II, and later. India sold from the common, such as jute, including diamonds and elephants.

Americans sent over even ice and textiles. Cotton highlighted the "competing considerations" in India-United States relations for more than a century.

Fierce Enigmas offers an outline of "the long and varied history of American involvement in South Asia" beyond just the Cold War. It belongs, the author writes, "against the backdrop of key trends in American and global history since the late eighteenth century," such as how the American war to end its slavery inspired the end of that institution and the call for independence in India and Pakistan.

"Colonial monopolies were also one reason why" both President Franklin Roosevelt and President Woodrow Wilson, among other Americans, "sought to prepare the ground for gradual decolonization in Asia and Africa." Mahatma Ghandi and India also contributed to the revolutionary 1960s social movements needed, among other reasons, for the United States to succeed in the Cold War.

Fierce Enigmas, Raghavan writes, covers "power, ideology, and culture" with clashes between the West and South Asia but also between South Asians themselves. The relationship between South Asia and the United States became victim of the local struggles for independence, famine, non-alignment, Kashmir, sterling balances in London, and economic development in conflict with World War II, the Cold War, the rise of China, fundamentalism, the environmental movement, and more.

Srinath Raghavan engagingly writes an epic narrative that gives the reader much to ponder about what might have been, and the United States' role in the world. It is the old story of the blind men describing an elephant by touch, but here either side could be the elephant or the blind men depending upon the circumstances. The book is well illustrated.