On December 16, 1971, the war between India and Pakistan on the eastern front ended with the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka. Soon after, Indira Gandhi announced a ceasefire on the western front as well. On learning of this announcement, the American president, Richard Nixon, was rather pleased. His national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, piped up: “Congratulations, Mr. President. You have saved W[est] Pakistan.” This bout of self-congratulation underscored the extent to which these self-professed practitioners of realpolitik were also prey to self-deception. As Gary Bass shows in his most admirable and thorough book, The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, Nixon’s and Kissinger’s handling of the Bangladesh crisis was an unmitigated failure on all counts: moral, political, and strategic.
An accomplished scholar of human rights, Bass draws on a mass of documents and tapes to shed light on the United States of America’s involvement in the crisis of 1971. Nixon and Kissinger did nothing to prevent the Pakistan military led by General Yahya Khan from overturning the verdict of the first general elections held in the country. Once the Pakistan army cracked down on the Bengalis of East Pakistan, they were loath to urge their ally to exercise restraint. They refused to contemplate even minor measures such as telling Pakistan to stop using American arms and ammunition against the Bengali population. This, Bass writes, was “one of the worst moments of moral blindness in U.S. foreign policy”.
Bass’s account, however, is not particularly moralizing. In his detailed narrative of the US’s handling of the crisis, Bass excavates a number of factors that drove its policy. For a start, there was the deep-seated bias Nixon and Kissinger had against India and in favour of Pakistan. Their conversations are replete with snarling references to Indians in general —“a slippery, treacherous people”, “devious”— and Indira Gandhi in particular —“bitch” and “witch”. Yahya Khan, by contrast, is repeatedly proclaimed to be an “honourable” man.
It is tempting to explain their stance on the crisis simply by referring to their prejudices. Bass rightly insists that there were other — more pressing — considerations in play. Pakistan was an important US ally in the Cold War. India was seen as being much closer to the former Soviet Union. More important, Yahya Khan was playing an important role as an intermediary in Nixon and Kissinger’s secret effort to reach out to China. Kissinger made a furtive visit to China (via Pakistan) in July 1971; thereafter Nixon’s own trip to Beijing was formally announced. Acknowledging the historic importance of the opening to China, Bass argues that the slaughter of Bengalis was “the forgotten cost” of this initiative.
More intriguing are the reasons why Nixon and Kissinger persisted with their policy of coddling the Pakistanis after July 1971. Following Kissinger’s visit to Beijing there was no need for any intermediary between the two countries. Bass shows that in the wake of Kissinger’s trip a fresh set of considerations reinforced the earlier policy. Kissinger believed that Zhou Enlai had told him that China intended to stand by Pakistan and that the Chinese would draw their conclusions about the US’s credibility based on US policy towards Pakistan during the crisis. Further, following the treaty between India and the Soviet Union in August 1971, Kissinger and Nixon regarded the crisis from the prism of superpower politics. They believed that if a Soviet stooge was allowed to humiliate an American ally, their reputation in the eyes of the Chinese would be irreparably damaged. Finally, they believed that if the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was allowed to get away with this in South Asia, it would be emboldened to stir the pot in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East.
These largely illusory concerns led Nixon and Kissinger to adopt a series of reckless steps once war broke out in the subcontinent. They cut off economic aid to India; threatened the Soviets with dire consequences if India was not reined in; sought unsuccessfully to goad China to launch military operations against India; and dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal to cow the Indian leadership. They also managed to persuade themselves that India’s war aims included the destruction of West Pakistan. The only result of this awful muddle was that they could console themselves for having “saved” West Pakistan.
Bass suggests that US policy could have struck a balance between interests and values if only Nixon and Kissinger had been willing to heed other voices in the administration and beyond. The title of the book alludes to a series of powerful and poignant telegrams send by the US deputy high commissioner in Dhaka, Archer Blood, detailing the atrocities visited upon the Bengalis and expressing strong dissent from the White House’s policy. Blood was soon recalled to Washington and banished to an insignificant administrative position. More influential were voices in the US Congress led by the senator, Edward Kennedy, who visited refugee camps in India and spoke out against the Nixon administration’s callousness.
Kissinger, Bass writes, was “almost as culpable as the President”. On the rare occasion when Nixon was responsive to the realities of the situation, it was Kissinger who ensured the continued march of folly.
Bass’s cumulative indictment of Nixon and Kissinger is formidable. Yet his intense focus on US policy can suggest that they were uniquely wicked. Take the case of a country like Canada. The second largest provider of economic and military aid to Pakistan, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau took a stance very like that of the Nixon administration. Nor was there was any support in the United Nations for intervening in the “internal affairs” of Pakistan. This is not to condone Nixon and Kissinger’s policy, but merely to suggest that their attitudes were mirrored in most chanceries of the world. Even a country like Britain that took a different stance from the US did so because it perceived greater interests in maintaining its ties with India than with Pakistan — and not because it sympathized with the plight of the Bengalis.
Similarly, Bass’s assessment of Indian policy during the crisis is debatable. The evidence for India’s “real humanitarianism”, he writes, was that it “did not stop masses of Bengali refugees from flooding into India”. But the assumption that India could have stopped the inflow is mistaken. From August 1947 to August 1970, 5.1 million refugees from East Pakistan entered India — much against New Delhi’s desires. Bass also argues that it “was left to India,which did not have the option of ignoring the slaughter of the Bengalis, to stop it”. The fact remains that by the time India intervened in December 1971 much of the massacre had already taken place. The intervention, as Bass’s own account shows, was aimed at ensuring the return of 10 million refugees who had entered India. If the aim was to stop the butchery, an intervention should have been undertaken much earlier — perhaps by mid-May 1971. The possibility of an early intervention was considered by the Indian government in April, only to be discarded on dubious grounds.
These points do not detract from the wealth of detail and the range of insights available in this fine book. As a study of American decision-making in the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, it is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon.