I read Galbraith's book, An Ambassador's Journal, when I was in my 12th standard or High School. It was a languidly written easy flowing book which reflected the confidence of the old man. I found him a very attarctive public figure, attractive in his non assuming, erudite manner and definately an old world scholar/teacher, the kinds who just rock. I read his other book about travelling to China, a sort of a journal too, I cannot seem to remember the name. This obituary is focussed on India, that book merely introduced me to the man, I do own some of his books on economics but havent read them as yet. In my opinion, Galbraith was one of those liberal giants who mixed academics and bureaucracy very well..
A friend of India
from The Hindu, 1 May 2006
TO STATE the obvious, John Kenneth Galbraith, who died on Saturday aged 97, was the greatest American friend of India. No American Ambassador to India, before or after him, brought so much empathy and appreciation to his job as did Professor Galbraith. And no one enjoyed the job so much as he did; nor was anyone else as effective (both in New Delhi and Washington).
By far the most academically brilliant of the U.S. envoys (with Patrick Moynihan running a close second), Ambassador Galbraith had a robust and sensible understanding of India's problems. His association with India began years before he came as President John F. Kennedy's Ambassador. He was among the brilliant group of economists gathered by Professor P.C. Mahalanobis at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta to help in the formulation of the Second Five Year Plan. Prof. Galbraith was there along with other distinguished economists and statisticians such as Ragnar Frisch, Gunnar Myrdal, Richard Goodwin, Oscar Lange, and Charles Bettleheim. By the time he took up his ambassadorial assignment, Prof. Galbraith had a fairly good idea of what needed to be done to help India achieve the Nehruvian dreams of industrialising a backward economy.
As Ambassador, he was effective for the simple reason that he was a personal friend of President Kennedy. Besides being a friend, adviser, and occasional speech-writer for the President, Prof. Galbraith was also part of the innermost core of the presidential crowd — Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Bundy brothers, Walt Rostow. As Ambassador he felt comfortable and friendly enough to compliment his President, in August 1962, as "the most Keynesian head of state in history" and advised that he should hang a portrait of the master "in your bathroom or some other suitably secluded place."
Being friendly meant direct access to the President; no other American envoy has had this privilege before or since. Others such as Chester Bowles, Harry Barnes, or Patrick Moynihan could at best boast of being a friend of this or that Secretary of State. This access did not necessarily mean that Ambassador Galbraith was able to get the better of the State Department and its entrenched anti-India biases. His relationship with the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, was not particularly cordial because he was always flaunting his access to the White House. On the other hand, Dean Rusk was not a particularly imaginative Secretary of State, and subscribed fully to the Eastern Establishment's prejudices about Nehru, India, non-alignment, etc.
Prof. Galbraith was also perhaps the only Ambassador to earn the confidence and respect of Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed no other envoy has enjoyed that kind of relationship with any of the Indian Prime Ministers. His Ambassador's Journal, a delightfully-written diary-like account of his stay in New Delhi, tells the reader of the easy relationship with Nehru and even easier access to Teen Murti House. When the India-China war broke out, Prof. Galbraith had an unprecedented role and voice in India's war campaign. Senior army generals and Ministry of External Affairs officials were in and out, keeping the Ambassador briefed. In fact, an unsympathetic historian of that war, Neville Maxwell, described him being both American Ambassador and "in effect a privy councillor to the Indian Government, a role [Galbraith] played with zest and tact." But Prof. Galbraith was never indiscreet, as is the wont of the current American Ambassadors in New Delhi.
Though an enthusiastic admirer of Nehru and Indian democracy he was never overly sentimental. When he began interacting with Nehru in 1961, he was quick to realise the great man was past his prime and was gradually fading away. In his elegant book, Nice Guys Finish Second, B.K. Nehru, who was India's Ambassador to the United States, recalls that Prof. Galbraith had come over to Washington to prepare for Nehru's visit in November 1961. B.K. Nehru records that Galbraith told him that the schedule prepared for the Prime Minister was too heavy; and the Indian envoy replied that Nehru was a bundle of energy. Prof. Galbraith, unsentimentally, told B.K. Nehru that "the Prime Minister was a very tired man." B.K. Nehru added: "I did not unfortunately realise till much later how true that statement was."
Prof. Galbraith left Roosevelt House in July 1963, but he remained concerned and interested in India and Indians. Though his economic ideas ceased to be respected much in the United States since the 1980s, his basic argument remains valid: "Economics does indeed concern the fundamental issue of how societies and civilisations work." His concern for "equality" and "justice," are best reflected, according to his authorised biographer, Richard Parker, in Amartya Sen's works.
Very few Americans — and only a handful of American envoys — have endeared themselves to Indians, partly because of the U.S.' record of "dirty Americanism." Prof. Galbraith was an honourable exception.