VK Krishna Menon (1896-1974) – An undiplomatic diplomat

It is not often that you come across people who create an impact on you, especially so if they are long gone and belonged to an era before your teens. I discovered one such person a week back. While his name is familiar to all, most today won’t know of his tremendous influence in geopolitics.

I studied in a Sainik school and one of the first things I picked up was that the whole concept of Sainik schools came from Mr VK Krishna Menon. I used to wonder about this great guy now & then, but never really bothered to figure out. Yes, conversation sometimes brought up his name, over the years, about associations of his with Jawaharlal Nehru and so on; eventually I thought it could be a good idea to dredge some stuff on this person. There was a lot of information available, but mostly polarized in support or against him. I have not read his biographies, understood his ideology or digested his famous 8-9 hour UN lecture on Kashmir, but my study will go on, for he is such a fascinating persona.

Today there are Krishna Menon Margs, statues, schools, stadiums, buildings & houses, books, memoirs, trophies…he was one of the first Indians to grace the front page of Time, he has books about him & his ideology written by non Indians…Some guy this!! He had been branded a communist, a traitor and what not…But then, in his heydays he hobnobbed with Kennedy, Kruschev, and all the big guns of that era. He was apparently instrumental in spearheading solutions for the Suez crisis, the Korean Crisis and even the French (Algeria) UN standoff. When he spoke, the world listened, when he gave press conferences, reporters asked questions fearing crisp retorts, but they always got a newsworthy interview at the end. Above all, he made more enemies than friends with his direct and probably arrogant outlook on life and lesser mortals.

The US always thought that VKKM was the one responsible for the Indian tilt towards Russia and (in those days) China. The AHR US stated: Krishna Menon, the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, was second to none- not even communist delegates to the organization -in the vituperativeness of his attacks on the United States.What did the international media have to say about him?
Menon was dubbed as "Mephistopheles in a Saville row suit", "the devil's incarnate", "the bad fairy of the UN", the "old snake charmer" and also as a diabolical combination of all "three witches of Macbeth".

So what did he have to say to that? Read this from Narasimhan

V.K. Krishna Menon, India's Defence Minister, was the leader of the Indian delegation to the General Assembly in 1961. He knew he was not very popular in the U.S. He also had a macabre sense of humour.
In September 1961, he had to undergo major surgery at a hospital in the Bronx which involved making an incision in his skull. When I went to visit him at the hospital, he said: "Narasimhan, your American friends think I am a lunatic. You can now tell them on good authority that you had indeed seen me at hospital and I am a man with a hole in the head."

But take this example written comparing
Galloway’s visit to Washington to Menon’s.

Nearly, half a century ago, when Krishna Menon was in USA, he was similarly expected to be pulverized for his views and the Indian embassy specifically advised him against appearing on a live radio program hosted by an extreme conservative host. Menon, typically, rejected the advice. He was given a lecture by the aggressive host and asked if it was true that Menon was a communist. Without batting an eyelid, Menon returned the lecture and concluded it with a question to the host: But tell me, is it true that you are a bastard?? For once, the radio host was silenced, at least momentarily by a visiting host.

Or this

Krishna Menon, the Indian nationalist leader, sums up the attitude perfectly: "There is no use in asking whether you would choose British imperialism or Nazism, it is like asking a fish if he wants to be fried in margarine or butter. He doesn't want to be fried at all!"

He was considered the liberator of Goa from the Portuguese after taking up the issue to the UN. In a UN debate, V. K. Krishna Menon described the Portuguese overseas territories as a "slave empire" and declared that the "liberation of Goa" was "part of the unfinished task of liberating India.". He eventually convinced Nehru to send troops into Goa and liberate it..

VK Krishna Menon belonged to the wealthy
Vengalil family of Calicut, studied at Presidency College Madras and then the University College & the London Business School, thence obtaining a PhD from Glasgow and joining the Labor party. He became a barrister, supporting the cause of poor ‘laskars’ who needed legal assistance and lived a number of years in England. He seemed to have had a very interesting and busy life there, for example did you know he was the founder & editor of Penguin books? And that he was the Councilor of St Pancras in London? It was in UK that he met J Nehru (they went on a dangerous trip to Spain to study the fight against Franco & fascism…and became fast friends after that) and post independence went on to become the UK high commissioner.

I stayed a couple of times at the YMCA - Fitzroy square in London. Little did I know that there was a VKKM statue out there. He did have his share of misfortune while he served and after he died. Twice they erected statues of him and in both instances they were stolen.

It is said that Nehru and Krishna Menon neglected the defense of the Northeast under the belief that China would never attack a fellow Socialist country like India; for which the country ended up paying a heavy price in 1962. Following that and loud opposition from all and sundry, VKKN was deposed (resigned) from the Defense minister post, taking the blame, to shield Nehru perhaps? I am not sure, I have also read reports that VKKM egged Nehru to take on the Chinese based on Gen Kaul’s advise and that this led to the problem, rather than the assumption that the Chinese wont attack.,

Unfortunately VKKM was disliked by many and the
reasons are put so succinctly by V Nevrekar. ‘It is however true that because of his arrogance, if not downright rudeness, Mr menon did not need much of an effort to irritate , anger and even antagonize people, especially those he considered below his intellectual level. This one article by Navrekar gives one much perspective, and shows us a different person from the submissive one that India presents at all kinds of international floors these days - people with hardly any oratorical skills or personality. He showed the white man, his place as Navrekar puts it…I enjoyed reading that…It was here that I saw some parallels between Menon with todays Rumsfeld!!! Just like Rummy, Menon, along with Nehru, apparently caused havoc in the army's working, disregarding professional opinion and advice, violating all channels and levels of communication and encouraging the same within the army hierarchy, which ended with disastrous results in the Sino-Indian conflict. Like his boss, Menon believed in giving verbal orders and disliked records.

His best friend arguably was Jawaharlal Nehru though it is possible that Menon finally became the fall man for Nehru’s Himalayan Blunder. However Nehru states the following while replying his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s complaint that Menon was always snubbing, ridiculing & rude to her (Rummy and Condy rice scenario!!!)

I have known Krishna now for a long time and have a fairly good appreciation of his abilities, virtues and failings. All these are considerable. I do not know if it is possible by straight approach to lessen those failings. I have tried to do so and I shall continue to try. This is a psychological problem of some difficulty and has to be dealt with, if at all successfully, by rather indirect methods. I propose to deal with it both directly and indirectly. "I hope I have the capacity to judge people and events more or less objectively. I am not swept away by Krishna; nor would I like my affection for you to influence my judgment to any large extent, though to some extent, of course, affection does make a difference and indeed should. Krishna has often embarrassed me and put me in considerable difficulties. If I speak to him, he has an emotional breakdown. He is always on the verge of some such nervous collapse. The only thing that keeps him going is hard work.

Besides "hard work" and cups of tea (he admitted to drinking about 38, not 40 cups of tea as frequently rumored, daily), Krishna Menon was "living for years on the drug Luminal ( Arthritis cure perhaps?), frequently fainting, or speaking incoherently in public".

Did you know that Nov 14th is a children’s day thanks to VKKM? I guess he could do so much in the UN, the ‘terror from the east’ as they called him. He wanted to be the secretary general. He knew he would never be that, though. It took many more years for another Malayali to step near the UN stage, i.e. Tharoor this year.

Menon was responsible for the term Menonism in politics. For those who are interested, A new word, "Menonism," has been coined by the American press to characterise the peace efforts of Mr. V.K. Krishna Menon. Explaining what "Menonism" means, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published an article saying that it was an "attempt to return to the great tradition of 19th century diplomacy."


Like I said before, there is so much more to know about this interesting person, his personal side, his post defense ministry years, his relationship with Kerala…my ongoing project!!

A newer article of mine covering menon's defense ministry days, the MI5 files, the jeep scandals etc can be found at this link.

A good article in the Hindu – by Supreme Court justice VR K Iyer
Kushwant Singh worked for
him and states…about his relationship with Menon


Pictures - Hindu, Time....

Comments

Jiby said…
good post...it did help to remove a lot of misconceptions about VKKM. infact until your post i had never read a good word spoken about him. we certainly need more ministers of his calibre, fearlessness and attittude if india has to make its presence felt/heard in international circles again.
Maddy said…
thanks a lot Jiby and nice of you to drop by...I am in total agreement with you.
John P Matthew said…
HiMaddy,

You have done a lot of work on this interesting person. Good work! I read your writing with interest. Keep it up!

I will give your blog a link on my blog in exchange for a link of my blog on yours, what is called a reciprocal link.

best

J
Maddy said…
thank you john...most definitely..
Sasi Kumar said…
very informative article. thanx n keep up the good work.
John Iyer said…
Keeping apart the temptation to defend if not to glorify fellow Keralite, the elitist class of Indian political leaders of 50’s has done irreparable damage to India’s strategic interests.
Nehru, VKM are all part of that class, it seems they were “Gold Flake communists”, interested in self-glory and legacy. Most of these guys have some sort of western education, usually come from upper middle class families. My guess is these guys turned to left for a) as an outlet to the alienation and humiliation felt by brown man in the white world b) Because it was fashionable to do so. The latest addition to this crop is Shashi Tharoor; these people lust for grandiose but seldom achieve anything in real terms.

I am not dismissing the many service and sacrifices done by Nehru. But in balance the negatives seems to out weigh the +ves, loss of Tibet (source of most of Indian water, also the buffer between China & India), 62 debacle, embracing of socialist economic policies, lack of emphasis on population control, primary education… the list goes on.
Maddy said…
John,
thanks a lot for dropping by and making a candid comment. In many ways it is quite valid.
remember that it was a different time, if we had to make sensible conversation with the gora then and get some place, it had to be by somebody they saw as well educated and on par. these chaps, gandhi included fitted the bill. that is why nehru, gandhi and menon shone in those days unlike a kamaraj, or patel.
about their leftist leanings, i have no idea, it was probably a non conforming vs conforming situation, rebellion or whatever..i have tried to take a neutral stand in this menon discussion.
Roshan said…
Maddy,
A very good post on KM and also an apt comparision to Rumsfelt for his acidity and contempt to press. I dont think you can blame one person for the China debacle and KM with his personality was a easier target for every one to blame.
Maddy said…
Thanks Roshan, yes, there are many parallels between these outspoken men...Politics is afterall a difficult game.
Agn! Sharman said…
Hi Maddy,

Thought you may be interesred in these links..

A movie being made on V.K.K Menon and scripted by Shashi Tharoor http://www.agnisharman.com/malayalam/malayalam/forum_posts.asp?TID=66

My comments on your posting http://www.agnisharman.com/malayalam/malayalam/forum_posts.asp?TID=65

Thnx buddy!

-Agni Sharman
chennai
Maddy said…
Thanks Agni - I had actually done a blog on the movie as well.

http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2007/06/krishna-movie.html
Agn! Sharman said…
I target just mallus across the world into my site. The types who do not do much search into details. I picked up some details of the move and also included the flash version of the site into my blog

So a BIG thanks to you too... for giving me an opportunity to show the otherside of VKK to common mallu public.

LOL

-agnisharman
www.simplymalayalees.com
Shyam S Pillai said…
heyyy i was looking for such not so serious and neither so trivial writings on VKK Menon, thanks for uploading! do post when you're done with your research...i'd like to have the whole cake! :) kudos!
Thomas said…
May be you would like to read this write up about Menon in the Life magazine. I guess shortly after his famous UN speech, in 1954. Link attached.
http://books.google.co.in/books?id=oFIEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA156&dq=travancore&lr=&as_pt=MAGAZINES&rview=1&cd=1#v=onepage&q=travancore&f=true

Also would like to mention that the Indian Society of International Law was founded by him and its library has the personal collection of Menon's.
Maddy said…
thanks Thomas
that I have not seen - one more addition to the collection of material on this interesting man!!!
Tejo Panini said…
Hi Maddy,
Wanted to know why Nov 14th was Children's day?
I heard there was a talk to make Janmasthami as Children's day but later Menon want to please Muslims/Indira changed the date to Nov 14th.
Do you have any article supporting this? Just checking.
thanks.
shalabh said…
Mr. Menon!!! Yes he did some fine work like speaking out against 'goras' in UN general assembly very loudly. Though diplomacy is something quite the opposite.

But when we judge a person or when we make a opinion about somebody, we have to take into account what is his net contribution.
Do you have any idea about the huge failure of the indian government (read nehru and menon) in tackling China for which we are still paying the price.

I completely agree with Mr. Iyer in earlier post. There is no greater sin than to let the people die who are protecting you.

Perhaps the anguish of 1962 defeat can be summed up in following lines:
'The Battle of Namka Chu is a place where the decisions made by a pacifist Prime Minister, an arrogant Defence Minister and a politically connected General caused the rout of a proud Brigade with many of its men dying like animals in a cage.'
Maddy said…
Thanks Shalabh..

You have voiced what I would call popular sentiment. I have covered this aspect of menon's life & career in some detail at

http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2008/03/lynching-of-krishna-menon.html

In politics as well as corporate life there is always a fall guy. That simply is how life is
Maddy said…
hi Tejo Panini..

I missed replying this altogether until today - apologies..

If I recall right, Children's day is celebrated in many countries on 20th. Menon mooted the idea in 1954 at the UN of celebrating it universally.

We have it on 14th in India as it is Nehru's birthday.But I am not so sure if Menon had anything to do with it
senna said…
because of this man we lost a lot of land in J&K . there is no need of praising him.
in 1962 sino-india war he didn't give command to the airforce oficers to attack china , since airforce was very strong even in that period . he should have given the orders.... we lost 1/3rd of J&K because of this man .
PLEASE DON'T PRAISE HIM.
Maddy said…
Senna..
regretfully i do not agree with your rant. thanks for the comment anyway!
vkratos said…
Whatever is said about VKKM, it was the decisions of leadership right or wrong the country pays for. Arrogance is not a virtue but a great hindrance to correct decision making--by all accounts VKKM had plenty of it--hence the faulty decision making on China. Some of the famous ones are
1. He had stated that the Armed forces should be disbanded and ordnance factories should make agricultural equipment.
2. As defence minister in 1962 he ordered the closure of the NDC after the third courses because acourse officer asked him some embarrassing questions on China. It survived due to JLN and the new defence minister YB Chavan.
3. It is amply recorded VKKM had a soft spot for communist/socialist agenda. The 1962 war fiasco was his and not JLN's doing. JLN followed the advice of trusted minister whose arrogance never allowed him to hear reason and hence detached himself form reality. It was his specific input that prevented Air power form being used in 1962.
4. VKKM anti American rhetoric and Arrogance cost us 62 ooo sq km of territory and the beginning of the tilt of USA towards Pakistan consequence of which India is still dealing with.
Maddy said…
thanks vkrataos
you are entitled to your opinion..
suggest read this as well..
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2008/03/lynching-of-krishna-menon.html
SUBASH NAMBIAR said…
I have come across a key observation. The father of Krishna menon belongs to the Nambiar household of Kolathiri rajahs. He has probably inherited his arrogance and supercilious nature from this domain. pos@newyorkemail.net
Maddy said…
hi subash..
krishna menon had no relation with the kolathiri family, his father was vengola komath krishna kurup.
phantom363 said…
http://www.scribd.com/doc/20783364/Reminiscences-of-the-Nehru-Age-by-M-O-Mathai-Part-2of2

here is another view of menon. by m.o. mathai - nehru's personal assistant, from circa 1946 till 1959. very fascinating!!
Maddy said…
of course phantom..
yes, if u choose to believe Mathai who doled out a huge amount of BS in that book about all and sundry - including Indira G (that part was i think deleted)
phantom363 said…
hi maddy,

i did not say i subscribe to m.o.mathai. all i said was that it made fascinating reading. i was surprised that mathai was not sued. but i hear that the book is banned in india :)
kimalayil said…
Reminded me of VKKs speech at St. Thomas College Kozhencherry Kerala, after his resignation from the post of Cabinet Minister for Defence in Nehru Ministry ,which I attended as a student of nearby High school.I still remember that he declined the lemon Juice arranged by the college authorities but preferred the tea.If my memory is correct, Sri John Thengumchery was the College Union Chairman then and Sri Radhakrishnan the General Secretary.
Maddy said…
thanks phantom363..
the less said about mathai's book the better - i suppose.

thanks kimlayil.
it was only recently that i saw a video interview of VKKM from some US archives..finally put some flesh & blood into the person..that i had been researching for so long
Kunal Gaurav said…
by the authors admission, he has not researched properly on mr. vkmm. It is probably on this account or his allegiance to the founder of his alma mater that negative role of VKMM is watered down to insinuation of "shielding of Nehru". I would humbly request the author to carry on further research. In addition to the above, I would like to point that if Sino-India war proved to be a debacle for the country , how on earth, was Mr. VKMM not responsible for the same, if not the only culprit.
Maddy said…
Thanks Kunal
this was posted in 2006 and a number of other posts on VKKM followed, perhaps it would be nice if you perused them. Take a look at this if you would like to read my take on his affair in the China war..
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2008/03/lynching-of-krishna-menon.html
Anshul said…
This is what I am looking for, I was just browsing about Nehru and got Menon name, After some more browsing I came to know that he was a amazing personality with great views.your article is really very nice. Great job man.thanks.
Anilkumar said…
Have a look at V.K.Krishna menon's profile on geni.com at:
http://www.geni.com/people/V-K-Krishna-Menon/6000000002865041618
Maddy said…
thanks anil..
hope you also had a look at the other VKKM posts on this blo
Shiven said…
thanks dude for so much info
Unknown said…
Ultimately it was YB Chavan who caused the downfall of Menon by means of treachery. Menon was lured to speak in Mumbai by Chavan, then Chief Minister of Mumbay, on a day when Chinese were knocking at out door. The unsuspecting Menon flew down to Mumbai and spoke at length of the efforts we are taking to push back the chinese and various aspects of China's strategy etc.

At the fall of Sela pass ( if I remember correctly) thye raging Nehru asked for Menon, who he was told speaking t a function in meeting. He was summoned him to airdash to Delhi, which he did, only to learn that he was threw out of the Defence Minister's post and relegated to Minister of Defence Production.
As the drama of treachery unfolds, Chavan was made successor to Menon. And ultimately all the credits of ending the war was bagged by the 'able' Chavan.

Vaikom Madfhu
Maddy said…
thanks Mr Madhu..
hope you had a look at the other VKKM articles.
I am in actually the process of studying Chavan's story in Debacle to revival - RD Pradhan..
rgds
Karthik said…
I think you should read Kushwanth's Singh's impressions of Menon.

He ends it with a quote

"Krishna Menon was a bachelor..Just like his father"
Maddy said…
Thanks karthik
for the comment
if you have the time and inclination please read
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2009/10/two-facets-of-krishna-menon.html
http://maddy06.blogspot.com/2008/03/lynching-of-krishna-menon.html