CIA’s eggnog diplomacy in New Delhi

There was a time the American spy agency used to do its skulduggery under a cloak of civility. It was a study in winning friends and influencing people.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

January marks the gastronomic anniversary of Indian families being introduced to chocolate cake and eggnog cocktails by an American couple posted decades earlier to the US embassy in New Delhi. The unique sponge cake—soft on the inside, with an even softer chocolate coating outside—was devised by Barbara Rositzke and first introduced to Indian guests on New Year’s Day in 1959.

Barbara was married to Harry Rositzke, the first secretary (political) at the embassy. She liked to tell Indian friends how she was Harry’s student at Rochester University. After she graduated, they married and Barbara loyally supported her husband during his many diplomatic postings, including Delhi, to which he was supposedly assigned by the State Department.

In many ways, they were the typical Western diplomats: reasonably well-paid, hospitable and always interested in their local friends. Barbara, with her thick-rimmed glasses, used to laughingly dismiss her “dull professional life” as an occasional secretary at various US embassies. Harry rarely spoke about his work.

What neither revealed was how they were the eyes and ears of the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA in Delhi.

During the Second World War, both had served with the US Office of Strategic Service, the CIA’s predecessor. Barbara, like Harry, was a much-respected intelligence professional. In New Delhi, her quiet demeanour masked a razor-sharp mind and sense of humour that always helped put guests at ease.

The Rositzkes’ son, Brock, was one of my best friends. Before he went to Woodstock school in Mussoorie, he taught me how to ride his bike in Chanakyapuri and l introduced him to the games of ‘gilli danda’ and ‘patang’ on the streets of Defence Colony. Our treat at his place on Saturday nights was shinning up the kitchen ladder to grab what we could of the chocolate cake baked the night before.

We were never told off, although strict limits were applied when it came to the eggnog cocktails liberally doused with bourbon, which Harry and Barbara served to their guests as pre-dinner cocktails. The eggnogs were an instant hit—no other diplomat had ever heard of them. By the time dinner was finished off with Barbara’s sublime cake, most guests were like putty in the Rositzkes’ hands.

Add to that the easy informality of Harry and Barbara, their insistence on being addressed by their first names, their can-do attitude, and the guaranteed entry to their house of every Indian they happened to have encountered. Barbara called her friends “honey” and Harry addressed the younger men as “sir”. Indians, still recovering from the miseries of colonial rule, did not ask about human rights or the blatant racist discrimination against blacks in the US.

Between them, they depicted their own country as a paradise full of jobs, money and scholarships for all. One Saturday morning, Harry announced to me, “I’ve got you a full scholarship to the George School in Pennsylvania. After that you can go to Harvard or Princeton.” I chose not to accept his generous offer.

In theory, the Rositzkes were answerable to Harry’s ambassadors, Ellsworth Bunker and John Kenneth Galbraith. In practice, they were answerable only to themselves and given a free hand to pursue what they wanted. As it now turns out, their social gatherings were a façade for covert activity and part of a larger intelligence operation.

Their social get-togethers were the tip of the iceberg when it came to Harry’s tactics of getting to know India and Indians. Delhi socialites craved to be invited if only to savour the eggnog and chocolate cake, as did some outsiders. Barbara liked to tell the story of a politician from another state who arrived unannounced one Saturday evening and, by way of explanation, said, “Because l want to see for myself these parties for which you and your husband are so famous.”

Since Harry’s death in 2002, more has emerged about the hardcore group of five other CIA officers who served under him and recruited diplomats from the Soviet and East European embassies. Indians were also hired with instructions to penetrate and disrupt local communist parties.

Harry inevitably kept some of the best out-of-town assignments for himself and his family. One weekend, we travelled from Delhi to Jaipur in the family Chevrolet and ended up at a dilapidated Rambagh Palace, part hotel and part royal residence. Visitors had access to the swimming pool with trapezes but were told it was off limits between noon and 2 pm, when it was for the exclusive use of Gayatri Devi and other royals.

Harry was succeeded by David Blee, who has now faded into obscurity. But his predecessor was the colourful, larger-than-life Jack Curran, husband to the American business heiress Cathie Gamble. During his lifetime, Curran was identified as the CIA specialist who commissioned a Taiwanese terrorist to sabotage Air India’s Kashmir Princess plane that Beijing had hired to carry a Chinese delegation to the non-aligned summit in Bandung in April 1955. The bomb exploded just off the Indonesian coast, leaving only three survivors. The CIA’s intended target was Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who changed his mind at the last minute and took a different flight.

Fast forward to the present day. The once-secretive CIA operations have given way to a more open diplomatic landscape. Tens of thousands of Indians now travel to the US annually, pursuing opportunities and contributing to the global technology industry. The once-hidden identity of the CIA station chief is now public knowledge. A top-level Indian official with access to classified documents is the father of a senior State Department staffer in Washington; however, US officials insist that no conflict of interest is involved in such a case.

Harry died aged 91 and Barbara at 88. They would be astounded at what has evolved from the foundations they laid between 1958 and 1962. Chocolate cake and eggnog have long given way to a more complex tapestry of diplomatic, economic and cultural connections meticulously nurtured under successive US administrations.

(Views are personal)

Shyam Bhatia, Foreign policy commentator and author of Brighter than the Baghdad Sun, Goodbye Shahzadi and a forthcoming book about the colonial era

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