A riveting history—the first full account—of the involvement of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the 1971 atrocities in Bangladesh that led to war between India and Pakistan, shaped the fate of Asia, and left in their wake a host of major strategic consequences for the world today.
Giving an astonishing inside view of how the White House really works in a crisis, The Blood Telegram is an unprecedented chronicle of a pivotal but little-known chapter of the Cold War. Gary J. Bass shows how Nixon and Kissinger supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship as it brutally quashed the results of a historic free election. The Pakistani army launched a crackdown on what was then East Pakistan (today an independent Bangladesh), killing hundreds of thousands of people and sending ten million refugees fleeing to India—one of the worst humanitarian crises of the twentieth century.
Nixon and Kissinger, unswayed by detailed warnings of genocide from American diplomats witnessing the bloodshed, stood behind Pakistan’s military rulers. Driven not just by Cold War realpolitik but by a bitter personal dislike of India and its leader Indira Gandhi, Nixon and Kissinger actively helped the Pakistani government even as it careened toward a devastating war against India. They silenced American officials who dared to speak up, secretly encouraged China to mass troops on the Indian border, and illegally supplied weapons to the Pakistani military—an overlooked scandal that presages Watergate.
Drawing on previously unheard White House tapes, recently declassified documents, and extensive interviews with White House staffers and Indian military leaders, The Blood Telegram tells this thrilling, shadowy story in full. Bringing us into the drama of a crisis exploding into war, Bass follows reporters, consuls, and guerrilla warriors on the ground—from the desperate refugee camps to the most secretive conversations in the Oval Office.
Bass makes clear how the United States’ embrace of the military dictatorship in Islamabad would mold Asia’s destiny for decades, and confronts for the first time Nixon and Kissinger’s hidden role in a tragedy that was far bloodier than Bosnia. This is a revelatory, compulsively readable work of politics, personalities, military confrontation, and Cold War brinksmanship.
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Gary J. Bass is the author of Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention and Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. He is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. A former reporter for The Economist, he often writes for The New York Times and has also written for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Slate, and other publications.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Archer Blood, the United States’ consul general in Dacca, was a gentlemanly diplomat raised in Virginia, a World War II navy veteran in the upswing of a promising Foreign Service career after several tours overseas. He was earnest and precise, known to some of his more unruly subordinates at the U.S. consulate as a good, conventional man.
He had come to like his posting to this impoverished, green, and swampy land. But outside of the consulate’s grimy offices, in the steamy heat, the city was dying. Night after night, Blood heard the gunshots. On the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army had begun a relentless crackdown on Bengalis, all across what was then East Pakistan and is today an independent Bangladesh. Untold thousands of people were shot, bombed, or burned to death in Dacca alone. Blood had spent that grim night on the roof of his official residence, watching as tracer bullets lit up the sky, listening to clattering machine guns and thumping tank guns. There were fires across the ramshackle city. He knew the people in the deathly darkness below. He liked them. Many of the civilians facing the bullets were professional colleagues; some were his friends.
It was, Blood and his staffers thought, their job to relay as much of this as they possibly could back to Washington. Witnessing one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War, Blood’s consulate documented in horrific detail the slaughter of Bengali civilians: an area the size of two dozen city blocks that had been razed by gunfire; two newspaper office buildings in ruins; thatch-roofed villages in flames; specific targeting of the Bengalis’ Hindu minority.
The U.S. consulate gave detailed accounts of the killings at Dacca University, ordinarily a leafy, handsome enclave. At the wrecked campus, professors had been hauled from their homes to be gunned down. The provost of the Hindu dormitory, a respected scholar of English, was dragged out of his residence and shot in the neck. Blood listed six other faculty members “reliably reported killed by troops,” with several more possibly dead. One American who had visited the campus said that students had been “mowed down” in their rooms or as they fled, with a residence hall in flames and youths being machine-gunned.1
“At least two mass graves on campus,” Blood cabled. “Stench terrible.” There were 148 corpses in one of these mass graves, according to the workmen forced to dig them. An official in the Dacca consulate estimated that at least five hundred students had been killed in the first two days of the crackdown, almost none of them fighting back. Blood reckoned that the rumored toll of a thousand dead at the university was “exaggerated, although nothing these days is inconceivable.” After the massacre, he reported that an American eyewitness had seen an empty army truck arriving to get rid of a “tightly packed pile of approximately twenty five corpses,” the last of many such batches of human remains.2
This was, Blood knew, the last thing his superiors in Washington wanted to hear. Pakistan was an ally—a military dictatorship, but fiercely anticommunist. Blood detailed how Pakistan was using U.S. weapons—tanks, jet fighters, gigantic troop transport airplanes, jeeps, guns, ammunition—to crush the Bengalis. In one of the awkward alignments of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon had lined up the democratic United States with this authoritarian government, while the despots in the Soviet Union found themselves standing behind democratic India.
Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the brilliant White House national security advisor, were driven not just by such Cold War calculations, but a starkly personal and emotional dislike of India and Indians. Nixon enjoyed his friendship with Pakistan’s military dictator, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, known as Yahya, who was helping to set up the top secret opening to China. The White House did not want to be seen as doing anything that might hint at the breakup of Pakistan—no matter what was happening to civilians in the east wing of Pakistan.
The onslaught would continue for months. The Dacca consulate stubbornly kept up its reporting. But, Blood later recalled, his cables were met with “a deafening silence.” He was not allowed to protest to the Pakistani authorities. He ratcheted up his dispatches, sending in a blistering cable tagged “Selective Genocide,” urging his bosses to speak out against the atrocities being committed by the Pakistani military. The White House staff passed this up to Kissinger, who paid no heed. Then on April 6, two weeks into the slaughter, Blood and almost his entire consulate sent in a telegram formally declaring their “strong dissent”—a total repudiation of the policy that they were there to carry out. That cable—perhaps the most radical rejection of U.S. policy ever sent by its diplomats—blasted the United States for silence in the face of atrocities, for not denouncing the quashing of democracy, for showing “moral bankruptcy” in the face of what they bluntly called genocide.3
This book is about how two of the world’s great democracies—the United States and India—faced up to one of the most terrible humanitarian crises of the twentieth century. The slaughter in what is now Bangladesh stands as one of the cardinal moral challenges of recent history, although today it is far more familiar to South Asians than to Americans. It had a monumental impact on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—almost a sixth of humanity in 1971. In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts in the same rough league as Rwanda. It was a defining moment for both the United States and India, where their humane principles were put to the test.4
For the United States, as Archer Blood understood, a small number of atrocities are so awful that they stand outside of the normal day-to-day flow of diplomacy: the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. When we think of U.S. leaders failing the test of decency in such moments, we usually think of uncaring disengagement: Franklin Roosevelt fighting World War II without taking serious steps to try to rescue Jews from the Nazi dragnet, or Bill Clinton standing idly by during the Rwandan genocide.5
But Pakistan’s slaughter of its Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments. There was no question about whether the United States should intervene; it was already intervening on behalf of a military dictatorship decimating its own people.
This stands as one of the worst moments of moral blindness in U.S. foreign policy. Pakistan’s crackdown on the Bengalis was not routine or small-scale killing, not something that could be dismissed as business as usual, but a colossal and systematic onslaught. Midway through the bloodshed, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department conservatively estimated that about two hundred thousand people had lost their lives. Many more would perish, cut down by Pakistani forces or dying in droves in miserable refugee camps. “The story of East Bengal will surely be written as one of the greatest nightmares of modern times,” declared Edward Kennedy, who led the outcry in the Senate. But in the depths of the Cold War, Nixon and Kissinger were unyielding in their support for Pakistan, making possible horrific crimes against humanity—plausibly even a genocide—in that country’s eastern wing.6
The ongoing Bengali slaughter led within a few months to a major war between Pakistan and India. In that time, the White House had every opportunity to grasp how bad these atrocities were. There were sober misgivings voiced in the White House, and thunderous protests from the State Department and its emissaries in Delhi and Dacca, with Archer Blood the loudest voice of all. But throughout it all, from the outbreak of civil war to the Bengali massacres to Pakistan’s crushing defeat by the Indian military, Nixon and Kissinger, unfazed by detailed knowledge of the massacres, stood stoutly behind Pakistan.
As its most important international backer, the United States had great influence over Pakistan. But at almost every turning point in the crisis, Nixon and Kissinger failed to use that leverage to avert disaster. Before the shooting started, they consciously decided not to warn Pakistan’s military chiefs against using violence on their own population. They did not urge caution or impose conditions that might have discouraged the Pakistani military government from butchering its own citizenry. They did not threaten the loss of U.S. support or even sanctions if Pakistan took the wrong course. They allowed the army to sweep aside the results of Pakistan’s first truly free and fair democratic election, without even suggesting that the military strongmen try to work out a power-sharing deal with the Bengali leadership that had won the vote. They did not ask that Pakistan refrain from using U.S. weaponry to slaughter civilians, even though that could have impeded the military’s rampage, and might have deterred the army. There was no public condemnation—nor even a private threat of it—from the president, the secretary of state, or other senior officials. The administration almost entirely contented itself with making gentle, token suggestions behind closed doors that Pakistan might lessen its brutality—and even that only after, months into the violence, it became clear that India was on the brink of attacking Pakistan.
This might give the impression of passivity, of a foreign policy on autopilot. Not so. Nixon and Kissinger actually drove their South Asia policies with gusto and impressive creativity—but only when silencing dissenters in the ranks, like Blood, or pursuing their hostility toward India. They found no appeal in India, neither out of ideological admiration for India’s flawed but functioning democracy, nor from a geopolitical appreciation of the sheer size and importance of the Indian colossus. Instead, they denounced Indians individually and collectively, with an astonishingly personal and crude stream of vitriol. Alone in the Oval Office, these famous practitioners of dispassionate realpolitik were all too often propelled by emotion.
The slaughter happened at the same time that Nixon and Kissinger were planning their opening to China—a famous historic achievement that has a forgotten cost. Everyone remembers Nixon and Kissinger’s months of clandestine Chinese diplomacy, followed by the amazing spectacle of the presidential visit to Mao Zedong. But what has been lost is the human toll exacted for it in Bangladesh and India. Nixon and Kissinger needed a secret channel to China, which they found in the good offices of Yahya—an impeccably discreet tyrant on warm terms with both the United States and China. While the Pakistani government was crushing the Bengalis, it was also carrying covert messages back and forth from Washington to Beijing. Archer Blood sent off his dissent telegram just three months before Kissinger took his first secret trip to Beijing, flying direct from Pakistan, which sped him on his way with hospitality, an airplane, and a cloak-and-dagger cover story. Nixon and Kissinger, always sympathetic to the Pakistani junta, were not about to condemn it while it was making itself so useful. So the Bengalis became collateral damage for realigning the global balance of power. In the bargain, Nixon and Kissinger also turned their backs on India: the strategic opening to one Asian titan meant a closing to another. Indeed, one of the very first things that the United States did with its new relationship with Mao’s China was to secretly ask it to mobilize troops to threaten democratic India, in defense of Pakistan. It is absolutely right that the normalization of the American relationship with China stands as an epochal event, but those who justifiably want to celebrate it should not overlook what it meant for the Bengalis and Indians.
Kissinger and his defenders often try to shift the blame to Nixon. But the record here proves that Kissinger was almost as culpable as the president. When dealing with the White House and State Department staff, Kissinger would entertain a variety of viewpoints, showing his trademark subtlety, although pressing an anti-Indian line. But when it was just him and Nixon alone, he cannily stoked the president’s fury. All the sophistication vanished, replaced with a relentless drumbeat against India. Although Kissinger billed himself around Washington as a vital restraint on Nixon’s dangerous moods, here it was Kissinger who spun out of control. In the most heated moments of the crisis, when Nixon lost his nerve for a superpower confrontation with the Soviet Union that at worst could have led toward nuclear war, Kissinger goaded him on.
Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis. This overlooked episode deserves to be a defining part of their historical reputations. But although Nixon and Kissinger have hardly been neglected by history, this major incident has largely been whitewashed out of their legacy—and not by accident. Kissinger began telling demonstrable falsehoods about the administration’s record just two weeks into the crisis, and has not stopped distorting since. Nixon and Kissinger, in their vigorous efforts after Watergate to rehabilitate their own respectability as foreign policy wizards, have left us a farrago of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies about their policy toward the Bengali atrocities.7
To this day, four decades after the massacres, the dead hand of Nixonian cover-up still prevents Americans from knowing the full record. The White House staff routinely sanitized their records of conversations, sometimes at Kissinger’s specific urging. Even now, mildewed and bogus claims of national security remain in place to bleep out particularly embarrassing portions of the White House tapes. Kissinger struck a deal with the Library of Congress that, until five years after his death, blocks researchers from seeing his papers there unless they have his written permission. Even if you could get in, according to the Library of Congress, many of Kissinger’s most important papers are still hidden from daylight by a thicket of high-level classifications, security clearances, and need-to-know permissions. Kissinger did not reply to two polite requests for an interview, and then, four months later, refused outright. But against Nixon and Kissinger’s own misrepresentations and immortal stonewalling, there is a different story to be found in thousands of pages of recently declassified U.S. papers, in dusty Indian archives, and on unheard hours of the White House tapes—offering a more accurate, documented account of Nixon and Kissinger’s secret role in backing the perpetrators of one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century.8
It was left to India, which did...
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