Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

Apocalypse Then

A look back at how the Nixon White House helped to choreograph a genocide in Bangladesh

Lloyd Gardner


From the beginning of the South Asian crisis that culminated in the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, argues Gary J. Bass in this impressively researched book about a “forgotten genocide,” the major responsibility for what happened falls on two men—Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. While the president and national-security adviser directly collaborated in the secret bombing that touched off another genocide in Cambodia, the Bangladeshi crisis was more a study in conventional Cold War intrigues and personal piques than the Cambodia bombing had been—one reason, perhaps, that the full details of the US response are only now coming to light. Vietnam and Cambodia provided the headlines that eventually led to the Watergate scandal and the process of impeachment that came to an end with Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Kissinger, on the other hand, was made secretary of state and received a Nobel Peace Prize. Such are the whims of the gods that oversee foreign-policy decisions and evasions of responsibility. Bass refuses to allow the episode in Bangladesh to go unremembered, however, and offers his book as an indictment of the shortsighted decision making that abetted the genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of Hindus in the final days of East Pakistan.

In one sense, the author’s analysis of this tragic episode boils down to a case of bureaucratic neglect, albeit one motivated in no small part by personal and ideological preference. Had Nixon and Kissinger heeded the pleas of American diplomats in Dhaka—the US consulate in what was then East Pakistan headed by a rising star in the State Department, Archer Blood—the Americans could have stymied the Pakistani crackdown on the breakaway nationalist movement for Bangladeshi independence, and thereby averted the worst parts of the regional conflict: the mass murder of Hindus, and a refugee crisis that pushed millions fleeing the brutality of the Pakistani military into an overburdened India.

Bass, a professor of political science at Princeton University, has made use of the famous Nixon Oval Office tapes, recently declassified documents held in the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and archival collections in India to reconstruct the volatile story of the Bangladeshi crisis. The central event, Bass argues, occurred when Kissinger and Nixon both agreed to punish Blood for daring to endorse a telegram that the members of the Dhaka consulate drafted about American responsibility for the developing crisis. Here was a classic case of shooting the messenger. The Blood telegram of the book’s title had been signed by most of the Americans in the consulate, and was greeted with such hostility in the Oval Office that Blood was marked for almost the rest of his career as unreliable, and unsuitable for any important position in the State Department.

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Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Washington, 1971.

The communiqué went well beyond the guarded, polite dissents that had turned up in similar cables sent to Washington in past years. It bears noting that the Nixon administration had ostensibly encouraged such frank assessments as part of the newly created dissent channel—a result of the Vietnam War’s impact on diplomatic lockstep reporting designed mainly to please Washington’s self-assured “deciders.” But the Blood telegram clearly eclipsed the White House’s tolerance for heterodox views. Indeed, it reads something like Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. It listed the failures of “our government” one after another in serial order: Our government had failed to denounce atrocities carried out by West Pakistan; it had failed to denounce the suppression of a democratic election; it had failed to protect its citizens. “Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya [Khan] a message defending democracy, condemning arrest of leader of democratically elected majority party (incidentally pro-West) and calling for end to repressive measures and bloodshed.”

The Nixon White House had tangled with Democratic critics such as Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy, who warned early on that the Pakistani crackdown could result in widespread political violence against the Hindus. But Nixon also went after his own ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, a former Republican senator who likewise dissented from the White House’s hard-line support for Pakistan’s Yahya Khan. Nixon was so incensed by Keating’s defense of the Indian position that he accused him of going native. He did not want to see the ambassador in the Oval Office, and he groused to Kissinger that “like all of our other Indian ambassadors, he’s been brainwashed.”

There was, unsurprisingly, a personal tinge to Nixon’s distrust of India. Nixon had harbored a grudge against the Indian government—whoever led it—since the early 1950s, when he did a grand tour around the fringes of the Cold War as vice president for Dwight D. Eisenhower. He felt the welcome he got in Pakistan was much warmer than the one he received in New Delhi. Nixon always hugged these little slights close to his chest until he could act on them as payback. But his anti-Indian posture was also related to the global politics of the American state in the Cold War years. India had never been willing to follow the American line when it came to signing on to the alliance empire that Washington started building with NATO. Pakistan, on the other hand, was an eager partner with US diplomatic aims and was seen as a key ally in the battle against what John Foster Dulles had famously labeled “international communism.”

Assisted by generous military aid from Washington, Yahya Khan had played his designated role as a strong-arm keeper of domestic order to the hilt. But calling the Bangladesh movement a matter of internal security was something else altogether. When the crisis of 1971 came, nevertheless, Washington tried to defend Khan’s brutal methods in suppressing pro-independence movements in East Pakistan as another instance of the need to contain internal subversion under the regime of a critical Cold War ally.

But as the crisis deepened, and India became deeply worried about the outcome, Indira Gandhi—whose country was still recovering from a disastrous 1962 war with China—decided that she needed to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union in order to guard against the possibility of a new China-supported offensive in the East. And that was all Washington needed to turn the situation into a full-blown Cold War crisis—with all the usual analogies to pre–World War II appeasement. “I consider this our Rhineland,” Kissinger would cry out in the Oval Office and downstairs in the basement where the National Security Council met. Kissinger ticked off the likely outcomes of standing aside: The Indo-Soviet treaty would mean that if Khan’s forces were defeated, and East Pakistan was stripped off, the fledgling nation would inevitably become a Soviet or Indian satellite. And in the eyes of Nixon and Kissinger, this would all amount to the same thing—with the loss of all South Asia likely in the future. This was the Domino Thesis II.

But there was yet another rationale for treating Yahya Khan with gentle persuasion—and this one had to do with an entirely new stage of Cold War diplomatic thinking in the Nixon White House. Khan had become one of the intermediaries in the great China adventure Nixon planned to spring on the world during his second term. Indeed, for a time Khan was the most important such figure, because Pakistan would be the jumping-off place for Kissinger’s preliminary visit to Beijing—after the secretary of state was to be hidden in a country house in the hills supposedly to recover from indigestion, he was to be whisked away to the Chinese capital. There he would find Zhou Enlai just as eager as he and Nixon were to block any Indian bid for South Asian supremacy. In their dreams, the opening to China meant total victory in the Cold War. (So much, in turn, for the rationale—or myth—of the Vietnam War as a deterrent against Chinese supremacy in Southeast Asia.)

In early December, the crisis finally led to open warfare between India and Pakistan. The United States rushed to the United Nations to whip up support for a Security Council resolution condemning Gandhi’s aggression, meanwhile urging the Chinese during secret side meetings in an obscure safe house to move troops along the Indian border. Indian diplomats were flummoxed by this maneuvering, which had forced the Soviet Union to use its veto power. How could the world ignore what had happened in East Pakistan? they demanded. The United States moved its greatest warship of the time, the Enterprise, close to the Bay of Bengal. And Nixon and Kissinger broke the law—despite warnings from the State Department and even the Department of Defense—by urging Jordan and Iran to send American-supplied jets to Pakistan.

For all the bluster and faux gunboat diplomacy, the military outcome in the East was pretty much a foregone conclusion, with India largely hemmed in by America’s opposition to Gandhi’s accord with the Soviets. Still, Nixon and Kissinger believed that they had saved West Pakistan, despite Dhaka’s fall, and despite the sudden collapse of the 1947 experiment of maintaining Pakistan as a country divided by India in the middle. India and Pakistan signed a peace treaty in 1972, and Bangladesh became a reality. The nation’s future was darkly clouded by the events leading to its founding, and only now, argues Bass, has it begun to achieve something after years of chaos and dictatorship.

Things did not go well for any of the parties to the crisis—but by far the worst outcome of the debacle was the genocide of Hindus that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It might not have been possible to avoid the partition that produced Bangladesh, but Bass makes a powerful argument that Nixon and Kissinger were responsible for the conflict veering into a full-scale genocide. They dismissed Blood’s telegram for both political and personal reasons, yet the document still stands as a powerful historical indictment of what happened—not simply in the 1971 crisis in South Asia, but also over the next two decades of the Cold War, during which the world’s two rival superpowers continued exercising their prerogatives as arms suppliers to their chosen alliance “partners” to maintain themselves in power.

Lloyd Gardner is Professor Emeritus of History at Rutgers University and the author of Killing Machine: The American Presidency in the Age of Drone Warfare (New Press, 2013).

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