A Matter of National Security

As I was reveling in earlier, Indian mangoes are coming to the United States. As I mentioned in my last post, Indian mangoes had essentially been off-limits ever since the invention of jet airplanes would have made it feasible for them to be imported, with only a small number of grey-market mangoes getting into the country. It's not surprising that it's been mostly illegal for Indian mangoes to come to the United States; Until about forty years ago, it was mostly illegal for Indian people to come to the United States.

Though the justification for the prohibition on mangoes was never explicitly articulated, it's pretty clearly a classic case of trade protectionism, and was only remedied in the name of national security. Predictably, when I told some friends that we traded nuclear fuel for mangoes, they were a little startled; Sure, these might be some great-tasting fruits, but was this really a fair trade? My quick take's pretty obvious ("Trust me, Indian mangoes are the bomb.") but there's a deeper point about what it takes for the U.S. to embrace the opportunity of engaging with India. We've been most willing to open our eyes to India when we've felt U.S. security was at stake, as my own family's history shows. That lack of vision may have cost us some fantastic opportunities, but at least we can revel in the ones we've got today.

Madhur Jaffrey, the maven of mango, the ambassador of Alphonso, made the case eloquently in the New York Times a month ago.

Whatever anyone else might say, America's new nuclear and trade pact with India is a win-win deal. India gets nuclear fuel for its energy needs and America, doing far better in what might be called a stealth victory, finally gets mangoes.

Most people I talk to don't know that until 1965, when President Johnson signed the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality act, Indian immigrants were officially undesirable according to U.S. law. My father came to the United States in 1963, and I've seen estimates that there were fewer than 50,000 Indians living in the U.S. at that time.

My dad was able to enter the country before the Immigration law was reformed because he was entering as a student; He got his PhD just a few years after entering the country. But I suspect at least part of the reason he was given permission was his area of study: He is a civil engineer, working (as he still does today) to help build the Interstate highway system. Along the way, he's helped with foundational work for thousands of miles of highways, and his career even in its early stages was occupied with helping in the construction of projects ranging from Sea-Tac airport to Disney World.

The thing many people forget, though, is that the Eisenhower Interstate System was presented as much as a security initiative as a resource for business and recreation. So unusually talented young students who could help in the expansion of the highway system during that first decade of its construction were considered especially valuable, regardless of their countries of origin.

One of the lessons here, of course, is that we make laws to keep the foreign influences out so we'll be safe, until we realize that we need to make exceptions to those laws in order to keep ourselves safe. But after thinking about this a bit on Father's Day, the more profound lesson for me was about the fact that some people are so talented and ambitious that even barriers like law and prejudice aren't enough to contain them.

And of course, some mangoes are just so damn tasty that their availability is a matter of national security.