THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE by Gary J. Bass

(the architects of American foreign policy from 1969-1974, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger)

When one considers the foreign policy pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decisions related to Southeast Asia and relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union come to mind.  In discussing Southeast Asia, the strategy pursued to end the war in Vietnam is front and center resulting in revisiting the “supposed” plan to end the war known as “Vietnamization” that emerged during the 1968 presidential campaign.  This promise to end the war was nothing more than the withdrawal of American troops and replacing them on the front lines with South Vietnamese soldiers and increasing American bombing.  As we know this policy also led to the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the “search” for North Vietnam’s headquarters in that war torn country.  The Nixon/Kissinger strategy resulted in prolonging the war in Vietnam and the facilitation of the rise of the murderous Pol Pot regime in Pnom Penh and the genocide of the Cambodian people.  Along with the foreign policy issues it resulted in domestic unrest symbolized by the deaths at Kent State, and illegal actions taken by Kissinger against his own staff to plug information leaks.  This was not the finest hour for American diplomacy, however once we turn to the 1971 opening with the People’s Republic of China and the Shanghai Communique of 1972, and the pursuit of linkage and Détente with the Soviet Union the Nixon/Kissinger realpolitik takes on a different hue.

When analyzing the Nixon/Kissinger approach to foreign affairs many seem to forget events in Southwest Asia, in particular, March 25, 1971 when the Pakistan army began its ruthless crackdown on Bengalis throughout East Pakistan in what today is called Bangladesh, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and ten million refugees.  Some would argue that the Nixon administration were following their Cold War calculations in arming the Pakistani army as the president and his national security advisor held India, a Soviet ally at the time in great disdain.  With Pakistan’s military dictator, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan helping to set up the opening with China the Nixon administration was not about to criticize Pakistan’s crackdown in Dacca, East Pakistan.  What resulted was an onslaught that lasted months rivaling other genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia.  While the United States was not involved directly in these two examples, in East Pakistan American culpability was high as it was supporting the murderous Pakistani regime with weapons and equipment.  Estimates range up to 500,000 deaths and reflects the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon administration.  Fortunately, Gary Bass has written THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE to remind us of what transpired.

Archer Blood was the United States’ counsel general in Dacca and he and his staff witnessed one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War and documented its horrific detail by informing the higher-ups at the State Department.  Despite the on the scene reporting of events, officials led by Nixon and Kissinger chose to ignore what was occurring and did little to ameliorate the situation.  What Bass has written is a detailed account of events and Archer Blood’s attempt to raise the consciousness of an administration that in many cases had none.  In his review of Bass’ book in The Wall Street Journal on September 20, 2013, a former chairman of Dow Jones and Company, Peter R. Kann argued that the atrocities that resulted from Pakistani actions in East Pakistan were unacceptable, but necessary because the Islamabad government headed by Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn was the conduit between the United States and Communist China that would culminate in President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.  For Kann and his ilk, it seemed it was acceptable to sacrifice the Bengali people in the hundreds of thousands to proffer an agreement that theoretically helped extricate the United States from Vietnam, deal a diplomatic blow to the Soviet Union, and undo twenty two years of American non-recognition of Communist China.

(Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

After reading Gary Bass’ excellent account of events this is an analysis that is hard to accept.  Bass lays out the lack of ethnic and religious viability that resulted from the 1947 partition of India that created East and West Pakistan and their Muslim and Hindu populations.  He explores the events that led to the West Pakistani invasion of the East in March, 1971 as elections brought the victory of the Bengali Awami League under the leadership of Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, who incidentally were very favorable to the United States.  Since it appeared that Mujib, a Bengali Hindu might form a government and replace Yahya, the Pakistani military could not sit back.  When the Islamabad government backed away from the election results Bengali nationalists and the Awami League began to demonstrate and it appeared that East Bengal might secede from Pakistan.  Negotiations failed and on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military under Yahya’s orders launched an attack against the 75,000,000 Pakistani citizens in the East.  The results were horrific.  By September over five million refugees poured into India and thousands of Hindus were killed, many were targeted and tortured and it appeared the disaster that resulted from the 1947 partition was repeating itself.

Bass’ narrative is an indictment of the conduct of foreign policy pursued by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.  Archer Blood and his cohorts in the American consulate in Dacca reported accurate description of the mass killings by West Pakistani troops in the east, particularly Hindus, who made up only 16-17% of the population, but were 90% of the refugees.  Blood’s “selective genocide” telegram spoke of the genocide against the Hindu population and recommended that the United States pressure Yahya’s forces to disengage from the killings and atrocities and use American economic aid and weapons as a wedge to gain compliance.  Blood and Scott Butcher his junior political officer couldn’t believe the “silence” that emanated from Washington to their reports.  For Kissinger and Nixon, Blood and Butcher represented the “bleeding heart liberals” who inhabited the State Department.  Bass describes in detail, using White House tapes and other documentation to provide the reader with a window into the Kissinger/Nixon mindset.  For Kissinger, Blood was a “maniac” who would destroy his plans to open relations with China.  Nixon refused to pressure Yahya since he was relaying correspondence between Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai that would lead to an invitation for Nixon to visit China.  Archer’s continued correspondence and support within the State Department angered Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers and led to Archer’s departure from Dacca and the ruining of his diplomatic career.

(Pakistani President Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn and President Richard M. Nixon)

The crux of the issue was that the United States was supplying the weaponry that the Pakistani government was using to crush any Bengali opposition in East Pakistan.  American F86 Sabre jet fighters, M-24 Chaffee tanks and jeeps mounted with machine guns were the weapons of choice for the Islamabad dictatorship.  In fact 50-80% of Pakistani military equipment was supplied by the United States.  The American response to the carnage was a resounding “no” to pressuring Yahya.  American intelligence and State Department analysis led by Harold Saunders and others predicted that there was no way that Yahya’s forces could prevent a Bengali victory in the emerging civil war and that the country would break apart in creating the new country of Bangladesh.  This evidence fell on deaf ears at the White House.

Bass does a commendable job exploring the role of India and its Prime Minister Indira Gandhi throughout the crisis which would eventually result in war.  Gandhi tried to couch events in terms of the humanitarian needs of the Bengali people.  However, Bass assiduous exploration of Indian documents reflects Indian plans for war against Pakistan early on in the crisis.  Bass quotes the leading figures in Gandhi’s national security establishment in reaching his conclusions.  Though India was the world’s largest democracy, Kissinger and Nixon despised Gandhi and held a marked antipathy toward India that bordered on racism.  They both held a high opinion of Yahya, so any rapprochement with Gandhi was a non-starter.  Gandhi’s opinion of Nixon was in kind and there meetings where stilted at best.

Bass’ descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides is heart rendering.  His portraits of the leading historical figures and reporters provides background information that enhance the readers understanding of events.  Bass’ discussion of the split within the State Department is fascinating as the American Ambassador to Islamabad James Farland castigated Archer, while Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India supported the American consul.  Everyone stationed in Dacca supported Archer, but those in Washington were pressured to toe the Kissinger line.

As Bass correctly points out the world’s response to events was also enlightening.  India, a country with its own issues of poverty and disease was ill equipped to deal with the influx of millions of refugees.  The outbreak of cholera killed 6000 people each day and the response of the United Nations and the world community was weak at best.  One must remember that events were occurring in the midst of the Cold War where the Soviet Union was a supporter of India, Communist China and the United States stood behind Pakistan, and India and Pakistan saw each other as the devil incarnate.  One must also remember that Pakistan and India had fought a war in 1965, and China and the Soviet Union had fought a nasty border skirmish in 1969.  Any diplomatic or military moves that might have been taken must be seen in this context.  In addition, India found itself supporting the secession of what would become Bangladesh from Pakistan, at the same time it was crushing its own Kashmiri secessionist movement in Kashmir.  History makes for some interesting dilemmas!  According to Bass, as the refugee crisis deepened by September, 1971 war between India and Pakistan became inevitable.

The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of denial of what was occurring in East Pakistan is a fantasy as a September, 1971 CIA report argued that over 200,000 had been killed and that an ongoing “ethnic campaign” showed that almost 90% of the almost 10 million refugees flooding into India were Hindus.  These figures were also verified by a Pakistani general so the administrations “supposed” ignorance was a fabrication.  As the situation became dire, Indira Gandhi had already decided on war, but postponed a final decision until winter arrived which would block any intervention by China.  Bass does an exceptional job describing the diplomatic maneuvering between the Soviet Union as it signed a Treaty of Friendship with India, the Nixon administrations belated attempts to get Yahya to control his military, and to its credit Nixon did increase economic aid for the refugees to the tune of almost $250 million.

The most fascinating aspect to the crisis as war approached was the dialogue between India and the United States.  Nixon was obsessed that a war between India and Pakistan could ruin his opening to China.  In fact, Kissinger suggested that the United States ask China to move troops to the Indian border to send a strong message not to attack Pakistan.  The meetings between Gandhi and Nixon in Washington in November, 1971 reflected the disdain the two leaders felt for each other.  The Nixon tapes highlight the President’s characterization of Gandhi as that “old bitch,” and the Indian Prime Minister’s view of the Nixon was reciprocated.

Bass describes the Pakistani attack on December 3, 1971 (India had planned to attack the next day), the conduct of the war, and the resulting diplomacy and what is clear from the book and its impeccable sources is that if the Nixon administration had handled Yahya differently, the crisis that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh might have evolved differently.  War may have ultimately ensued, but did 250-500,000 people have to die, along with the creation of over 10,000,000 refugees before full scale combat ensued?

This episode in American diplomacy seems to have been forgotten, but Gary Bass’ fine book brings it to light and forces one to question the cavalier attitude Kissinger and Nixon felt for the people of southwest Asia typified by the president’s characterization of Pakistan as “they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.” (216)  The tactics employed by Kissinger and Nixon to try and bend India’s will to US interests during the war were appalling as Nixon gave the Soviet Union deadlines, encouraged the Chinese to scare India, and dispatching the USS Enterprise task force into the Gulf of Bengal.  When Pakistani forces suffered the loss of equipment in large quantities, Nixon answered Yahya’s request for arms by gaining the support of the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan to transfer US equipment to Pakistan.  With shades of the future Iran-Contra travesty over Nicaragua, the US promised to replace the equipment once the war ended despite the fact that it was illegal.  As the war was finally brought to a conclusion, the vindictive Nixon reemerged as he wanted to punish India, liberals domestically, and anyone who had opposed his policies during the previous ten months.  Once a ceasefire was a foregone conclusion, Nixon said, “I’d like to do it in a certain way that pisses on the Indians.” (319)  Bass’ book is based on exemplary primary research and should be considered the most complete work on the events in southwest Asia in 1971, and should attract anyone interested in a largely forgotten topic that has not gotten its due.

(Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office)

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