In Fierce Enigmas, prize-winning historian Srinath Raghavan argues that we cannot understand the US’s entanglement in South Asia without first understanding the long sweep of American interaction with the nations and peoples who comprise it. Starting with the first attempts by Americans in the late eighteenth century to gain a foothold in the India trade, Raghavan narrates the forgotten role of American merchants, missionaries, and travelers in the history of region. For these early adventurers and exploiters, South Asia came to be seen not just as an arena of trade and commerce, but also as a site for American efforts-religious and secular-to remake the world in its own image. By the 1930s, American economic interests and ideals had converged in support for decolonization; not only should the peoples of the region be free to determine their own governments and futures, but they should be fully integrated into a liberal capitalist global order.
These dreams were partially realized after the Second World War, with Indian Independence and Partition in 1947-and with Britain no longer in the picture, US involvement in the region steadily increased, in the form of short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive policies. In the 1950s, the Truman administration centered its approach to South Asia on the containment of communism, thereby helping split the region in two: while Pakistan was eager for American weapons and military support, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to align with either the US or the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, the US chose to support Islamists in Afghanistan, seeing them as a bulwark against communist advance. Yet Pakistan would become a formidable adversary for the US, while the militants in Afghanistan would eventually be using their arms against American troops. Time and time again, India, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan have each managed to extract commitments and concessions from the US that have served mostly to fuel the fires of nationalism and sectarianism, even as signs of liberalization have continued to entice American policymakers.
Drawing on a vast and diverse array of official documents and private correspondence, Raghavan has written a sweeping, definitive history of the US in South Asia that at the same time suggests the many challenges ahead.