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.
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 not have the option of ignoring the slaughter of the Bengalis, to stop it. The gargantuan democracy was entwined with the tragedy next door in countless ways, from its own shocked Bengali population to its bitter confrontation with Pakistan. Indira Gandhi’s government was motivated by a mix of lofty principle and brutal realpolitik: demanding an end to the slaughter of a civilian population and upholding the popular will of voters in a democratic election, but also seizing a prime opportunity to humiliate and rip apart India’s hated enemy.
Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister and the great Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, would later claim she acted “first of all, for purely humanitarian reasons.” India’s ambassador at the United Nations declared that his country had “absolutely nothing but the purest of motives and the purest of intentions: to rescue the people of East Bengal.” But there was nothing pure about the protection of human rights. Some eminent political theorists and international lawyers have pointed to India’s intervention as a singular and important case of an Asian postcolonial country launching a humanitarian intervention—a kind of war more commonly associated with Western military campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. But there has been no proper chronicle of India’s real motives.9
In fact, Indira Gandhi and her top advisers were coldly calculating strategists, even if their actions served a humane cause. India put itself in a position of breathtaking hypocrisy: demanding freedom for the Bengali people in East Pakistan, while conducting its own repression of restive populations under Indian control in Kashmir, as well as lesser-known groups like the Mizos and Nagas and—with painful irony— leftist Bengalis within India’s own volatile state of West Bengal. While the Indian government emotionally spoke out on behalf of the millions of Bengalis who fled into India, its officials privately worried that these exiles might be radical subversives who would fuel more unrest and revolt in India’s already shaky border states, especially West Bengal. India, in other words, was driven not just by sympathy for Bengalis, but also a certain amount of fear of revolutionary Bengalis.
While Indira Gandhi’s government professed its unwavering desire for peace, she almost immediately turned to aggressive options. From the early days of the Pakistani crackdown, she had the Indian military covertly prepare for a full-scale regular war against Pakistan. India secretly had its army and security forces use bases on Indian soil to support Bengali guerrillas in their fight against the Pakistani state. India devoted enormous resources to covertly sponsoring the Bengali insurgency inside East Pakistan, providing the guerrillas with arms, training, camps, and safe passage back and forth across a porous border. Indian officials, from Gandhi on down, evaded or lied with verve, denying that they were maintaining the insurgency. But in fact, as India’s own secret records prove, this massive clandestine enterprise was approved at the highest levels, involving India’s intelligence services, border security forces, and army.
In the event, Pakistan rashly struck the first blow of a full-scale conventional war, with a surprise air attack in December 1971 that brought fierce combat in both West and East Pakistan. But while Indians today generally remember the war as outright Pakistani aggression, India’s actual path to war shows a great degree of Indian responsibility as well. India knew it had a fearsome military advantage, and Gandhi’s government used that ruthlessly. According to senior Indian generals, Gandhi wanted her forces to go to war not long after the start of Pakistan’s crackdown, and had to be persuaded to wait for cooler fighting weather and more time to train. While the Indian military waited for winter, the Indian-backed insurgency bled the Pakistan army, leaving it demoralized and stretched thin. India’s support for the Bengali rebels led to border clashes with Pakistani troops, and, as winter approached, to several substantial Indian incursions onto Pakistani territory. It is a patriotic delusion to imagine, as some Indian nationalists do today, that Pakistan’s airstrikes were unprovoked. Still, Pakistan’s air attack was a final act of folly for the military dictatorship. The war, fought in just two weeks, ended with a resounding Indian victory, and created the fledgling state of Bangladesh.
The president and the prime minister, in Washington and Delhi, were united by their need to grapple with their own democratic societies. As much as Nixon and Gandhi loathed each other, they shared a common exasperation at how their policies could be thwarted by their own people—a frustration that would in time lead both of them down their own different but alarmingly antidemocratic paths. In these two great democracies, it was not just governments but also peoples who had to confront one of the worst events of their century. Americans and Indians were challenged to make policy in a way that expressed their national sense of morality, not just their strategic interests.
The United States and India are radically different societies, in everything from wealth to ethnic composition to sheer size of population; but they do share some basic similarities in their systems of democratic governance. In both, democratic leaders were goaded and prodded by rambunctious elements at home: a free press with an ingrained habit of seeking out inconvenient or embarrassing stories; opposition politicians and partisans waiting to pounce should a president or prime minister stumble; and a public whose moral sensibilities often did not align with the dictates of the state’s cold calculus of strategic interest. In both of these enormous democracies, the people were more moralistic than their governments.10
Americans reacted with disquiet or horror. The country’s far-reaching newspapers and broadcast networks reported in shocking detail about these distant atrocities; ordinary Americans recoiled at what they learned on the news; and politicians in Congress, led by Edward Kennedy, seized the opportunity to politick against the White House. Thus even this White House found itself unable to continue its unstinting support of Pakistan through arms sales, which Kissinger would have liked to escalate, because of pressure from Congress and bureaucratic maneuvering by the State Department. Nixon and Kissinger found themselves boxed in by their country’s liberal and democratic system; they had to moderate their policies, much against their will. As Kissinger complained to the president, “We are the ones who have been operating against our public opinion, against our bureaucracy, at the very edge of legality.”11
A little further than that, actually. Nixon and Kissinger responded to these legal and democratic constraints on their authority in the classic Nixonian way: by breaking the law. Knowing full well that they were acting illegally, they provided U.S. weapons to Pakistan, which was under a U.S. arms embargo—an unknown scandal that is of a piece with the overall pattern of lawlessness that culminated with Watergate. As recently declassified documents and transcripts prove, Nixon and Kissinger approved a covert supply of sophisticated U.S. fighter airplanes via Jordan and Iran—despite explicit and emphatic warnings from both the State Department and the Defense Department that such arms transfers to Pakistan were illegal under U.S. law. (John Mitchell, the attorney general, was in the room as Nixon and Kissinger decided on this unlawful operation, but made no objections.) Kissinger, not wanting to get caught, made it clear to the president that they were both breaking the law. Nixon went ahead anyway.
Americans’ sense of outrage circulated within the administration itself. The most vociferous dissenter was Archer Blood, but he had no shortage of company. The ambassador to India, a distinguished former Republican senator named Kenneth Keating, took his opposition all the way to the Oval Office, where he confronted Nixon and Kissinger to their faces over what he called genocide. The middle ranks of the State Department, stationed in Washington, Dacca, Delhi, and even parts of West Pakistan, rose up in open defiance of the policies of the president of the United States. There were even rumblings of discontent within the National Security Council at the White House itself.
Although Nixon and Kissinger frequently sparred with the State Department over all sorts of issues, here the clash was out in the open, with an unsurpassed gulf in views of policy and morality. The State Department outfoxed Nixon and Kissinger, quietly using its bureaucratic power to jam the shipment of U.S. weaponry to Pakistan. In response, Nixon and Kissinger raged against the bureaucracy and tried to fire or demote some of the most influential dissenters, foremost among them Blood and Keating. The president and his national security advisor plowed ahead with their support of Pakistan as best they could, but were impeded by the consciences and the best advice of a surprisingly large chunk of their own administration.
There was no real question of the United States going to war to stop the slaughter. In 1971, there was no American equivalent of today’s debates about humanitarian intervention in places like Bosnia and Darfur. After all, the country was already fighting a major war, trapped in the quagmire of Vietnam; there was no American appetite for another Asian conflict. Thus the leading critics of the Nixon administration, like Kennedy, linked Vietnam with Pakistan: two places where the United States was standing behind illegitimate governments, at a terrible cost to those peoples, and to the good name of the United States. American dissenters like Blood and Keating, as well as outraged political rivals like Kennedy, only wanted to see American influence repurposed to support democracy and human rights. Of course, they expected that a war would put an end to the slaughter—but that would be waged by India.
In the United States today, particularly after the disasters of the Iraq war, there are many thoughtful and serious people who criticize the promotion of human rights as arrogance, neoimperialism, and worse. No doubt, there are potent reasons for caution about trying to translate human rights ideals into statecraft. But this largely forgotten crisis, unfolding far from Washington, exemplifies an alternative way of making U.S. foreign policy, one that makes no allowance for human rights. This kind of policy has shown itself in the U.S. war against terror and may well reappear in future diplomacy. For all the very real flaws of human rights politics, Nixon and Kissinger’s support of a military dictatorship engaged in mass murder is a reminder of what the world can easily look like without any concern for the pain of distant strangers.12
The stakes were high for India’s democracy. Sunil Khilnani, a farsighted India expert, argues powerfully that India is the most important experiment in democracy since the American and French revolutions: “its outcome may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale, and partly because of its location, a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent.” Nobody would idealize India’s flawed democracy, least of all Indians themselves: this was and is a land of heartbreaking poverty, endemic corruption, collapsing infrastructure, enduring caste fissures, arrogant bureaucratic inefficiency, and shocking social inequality. Some 350 million Indians—roughly a third of the country’s population—today live below the poverty line. But this is also a country of stupendous pluralism and vitality that, against all odds, maintains a democratic system and culture, offering a way for a fractious public to make its multitudinous voices heard and a chance for the government to correct itself.13
Indians were overwhelmingly outraged by the atrocities in East Pakistan. In a factionalized country where popular harmony is a surpassingly rare thing, there was a remarkable consensus: Pakistan was behaving horrifically; the Bengalis were in the right; India had to act in defense of democracy and innocent lives. Almost the entire Indian political spectrum, from Hindu nationalists on the right to socialists and communists on the left, lined up behind the Bengalis. These persecuted foreigners were not Indian citizens, but they were not altogether foreign; Bengalis were a familiar part of the Indian national scene, and India’s own Bengali population rallied to their brethren. Across the country, newspapers ran furious editorials condemning Pakistan and urging the Indian government to recognize Bangladesh’s independence.
Dismissing the niceties of national sovereignty in the cause of saving human beings and of respecting the popular will of the Bengalis, Indians demanded a swift recognition of an independent state of Bangladesh. Of course, since the bloody days of Partition, a great many Indians hated and feared Pakistan; plenty took a kind of angry satisfaction in lambasting Pakistani leaders like Yahya and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for confirming all the worst things that Indians had ever said about Pakistan. But there was a moral sensibility driving Indian politics that even the gimlet-eyed officials around Indira Gandhi, and the unsentimental Gandhi herself, could not ignore. She abandoned her father Nehru’s traditional anticolonial pronouncements about the sanctity of national sovereignty. Instead, the beleaguered prime minister began to compare the bloodshed in East Pakistan to the Holocaust.
Perhaps the most striking Indian policy was something that it did not do. India did not stop masses of Bengali refugees from flooding into India. Unimaginably huge numbers of Bengalis escaped into safety on Indian soil, eventually totaling as many as ten million—five times the number of people displaced in Bosnia in the 1990s. The needs of this new, desperate population were far beyond the capacities of the feeble governments of India’s border states, and Indira Gandhi’s government at the center. But at that overcharged moment, the Indian public would have found it hard to accept the sight of its own soldiers and border troops opening fire to keep out these desperate and terrified people. Here, at least, was something like real humanitarianism. As payment for this kindness, India found itself crushed under the unsustainable burden of one of the biggest refugee flows in world history— which galvanized the public and the government to new heights of self-righteous fury against Pakistan.
India was left alone. Despite pleas to the rest of the world, India was given only a tiny amount of money to cope with the refugees. China was bitterly hostile; the United States only somewhat less so; the Non-Aligned Movement was, in the clutch, of no help; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states were fiercely pro-Pakistan; even the United Nations seemed tilted toward Pakistan. India was forced into a tighter alignment with the Soviet Union, to the delight of leftists around Gandhi, but to the dismay of other Indians. Having been shoved aside by the democratic superpower, India cozied up to the other one.
As India grows into a world power, the story of the birth of Bangladesh has never been more important. It stands as an awful but crucial case for better understanding the politics of human rights, in a world where the duty of defending the vulnerable is not something that the West arrogates for itself alone. Today, at the advent of an Asian era in world politics, the future of human rights will increasingly depend on the ideologies, institutions, and cultures of ascendant Asian great powers like China and India. Thus India’s democratic response to the plight of the Bengalis marks not just a pivotal moment for the history of the subcontinent, but for how the world’s biggest democracy makes its foreign policy—and what weight it gives to human rights.
For Pakistan, the crisis of 1971 is mourned as a supreme national trauma: not just the loss of one of the country’s two wings and the majority of its population, but a heightening of a truncated state’s dread of the much larger and stronger Indian enemy. And the bloodletting of 1971 marks an important chapter of a U.S. embrace of military dictators at their worst. Although American popular memory about Pakistan tends to start in September 2001, it was Nixon’s embrace of Yahya that helped to define a U.S. relationship with Pakistan based overwhelmingly on the military, even in its most repugnant hour. Nixon and Kissinger set the stage for an ongoing decimation of Pakistan’s democratic opposition, giving time and space to Islamicize the country more and more. This pattern of U.S. antidemocratic engagement— with origins going back far beyond Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s most recent U.S.-backed military dictator—has helped convince so many Pakistanis that the United States coldly pursues its own realpolitik interests and cares nothing for them.
Bangladeshis still mourn their losses from not so long ago. This book is not—and does not purport to be—anything like a comprehensive account of these crimes against humanity. It mostly documents the American eyewitness perspective on them, which is obviously only a part of the complete record of horrors. Still, this is an important portion, because it is the true local viewpoint of the Pakistani government’s superpower ally. After all, Archer Blood and the other U.S. officials reporting back to the Nixon administration knew they had every career incentive to downplay the enormity of what they saw; their stark reporting thus stands as a crucial and credible part of that wider story.
Today we still face the legacy of Nixon and Kissinger’s actions. Bangladesh, traumatized by its founding ordeal, now has the eighth-largest population on earth, bigger than Russia or Japan. With India creakily becoming a great power, and with ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Kashmir that directly affects the United States in its war against Islamist terror, it’s widely understood that South Asia has never been more important to Americans. But there is a gulf between what Americans remember of the Cold War and what its victims remember of it. Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis have not forgotten 1971—although they may be surprised by the newly declassified scope of the United States’ dark record.14
Nixon and Kissinger have put extraordinary effort into magnifying their foreign policy achievements, so that the horrors of Watergate would appear as a smallish blot on their overall record. Today, Nixon and Kissinger’s biggest success in promoting themselves as foreign policy heroes has been the historical oblivion that surrounds the killing campaign in Bangladesh. It is high time for Americans to confront what Nixon and Kissinger did in those terrible days.15
1. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 7 April 1971, Dacca 1168. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 30 March 1971, Dacca 986.
2. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 30 March 1971, Dacca 986. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 31 March 1971, Dacca 1010. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Bell to Shakespeare, 9 April 1971, Dacca 1211. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 30 March 1971, Dacca 986.
3. Archer K. Blood, The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh: Memoirs of an American Diplomat (Dacca: University Press of Bangladesh, 2002), p. 213. POL 23-9 PAK, Box 2530, Blood to Rogers, 28 March 1971, Dacca 959. POL 1 PAK-US, Box 2535, Blood to Rogers, 6 April 1971, Dacca 1138; NSC Files, Box 138, Kissinger Office Files, Country Files—Middle East, Blood to Rogers, 6 April 1971, Dacca 1138.
4. MEA, WII/109/31/71, vol. I, Singh statement to UN Security Council, 12 December 1971.
5. David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (New York: Pantheon, 1984). Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002). The United States was aligned with Iraq during the 1987–88 genocidal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds (Power, “A Problem from Hell,” p. 174), and turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s atrocities. While this is probably the example that comes closest to the Pakistani case, the United States and Pakistan were treaty allies with an enduring relationship—closer ties than those between the United States and Iraq (Power, “A Problem from Hell,” pp. 172–245).
6. NSC Files, Box 574, Indo-Pak War, South Asian Congressional, Kennedy speech, 23 September 1971. NSC Files, Box 570, Indo-Pak Crisis, South Asia, CIA Office of National Estimates, “The Indo-Pakistani Crisis,” 22 September 1971. Tad Szulc, “U.S. Military Goods Sent to Pakistan Despite Ban,” New York Times, 22 June 1971, pp. A1, A11. Indian officials spoke of a million dead, and Bangladeshis of three million, which are inflated numbers. Richard Sisson and Leo Rose interviewed a senior Indian official who stated the death toll at three hundred thousand (War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990], p. 306n24). The New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg wrote that diplomats in Dacca believed that hundreds of thousands of Bengalis, perhaps as many as a million or more, had been killed (Sydney H. Schanberg, “Long Occupation of East Pakistan Foreseen in India,” New York Times, 26 December 1971, pp. A1, A13). A more recent study based on world health surveys came up with roughly 269,000 deaths (Ziad Obermeyer, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou, “Fifty Years of Violent War Deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia,” British Medical Journal, vol. 336 [28 June 2008], pp. 1482–86). Robert Dallek estimates that as many as five hundred thousand people were killed by Yahya’s troops (Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power [New York: HarperCollins, 2007], p. 335); so does Walter Isaacson (Kissinger: A Biography [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992], p. 372). On the low side, Pakistan’s postwar judicial inquiry—working from the army’s Eastern Command situation reports—estimated that the military had killed in action roughly twenty-six thousand people, while admitting that local commanders “tried to minimise the result of their own actions” (Government of Pakistan, The Report of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission of Inquiry into the 1971 War [Lahore: Vanguard, 2001], pp. 317, 340, 513; for a somewhat higher estimate in a book that is critical of Bangladeshi nationalism, see Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War [New York: Columbia University Press, 2011], p. 181). In South Asia, the tolls of death and dispossession are only rivaled by Partition, in which half a million or a million people died, and twelve million people were displaced (Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007], p. 6).
7. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: South Asia Crisis, 1971 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005), vol. 11, Louis J. Smith, ed., 40 Committee meeting, 9 April 1971, pp. 63–65. Hereafter cited as FRUS.
8. See, for instance, NSA, SRG meeting, 17 January 1972, 3:09–4:05 p.m., and NSC Files, Box 626, Country Files—Middle East, Pakistan, vol. VII, Hoskinson to Kissinger, 13 August 1971. Samuel Hoskinson wrote that an account of a talk with a senior Pakistani general was “phrased and sanitized so that it could be released to State and Defense without causing any problems.” Daun van Ee letter to author, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 30 September 2010, on file with author.
9. Dom Moraes, Mrs Gandhi (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), p. 188. For a mixed verdict, see Inder Malhotra, Indira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1989), pp. 133, 188. MEA, HI/121/13/71, vol. II, Sen statement to UN Security Council, 4 December 1971. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977), pp. 90, 101–8; Michael Walzer, “On Humanitarianism,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 90, no. 4 (July–August 2011), pp. 77–79; Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “Reluctant India,” Journal of Democracy, vol. 22, no. 4 (October 2001), p. 100; Nicholas J. Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Michael W. Doyle, “A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention,” Ethics and International Affairs, vol. 23, no. 4 (2010), p. 363; Thomas M. Franck, Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 139–43; Subrata Roy Chowdhury, The Genesis of Bangladesh: A Study in International Legal Norms and Permissive Conscience (New York: Asia Publishing House, 1972); John Salzberg, “UN Prevention of Human Rights Violations,” International Organization, vol. 27, no. 1 (winter 1973), pp. 115–27; Richard Lillich, “The International Protection of Human Rights by General International Law,” in Report of the International Committee on Human Rights of the International Law Association, vol. 38 (1972), p. 54. For a cogent critique, see Thomas M. Franck and Nigel S. Rodley, “After Bangladesh,” American Journal of International Law, vol. 67 (1973), pp. 275–305. See Ramachandra Guha, “The Challenge of Contemporary History,” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 43, no. 26–27 (28 June 2008), pp. 192–200.
10. The case studies in this book, of the United States and India, are also meant to fill out a wider collective empirical project of process-tracing about the decision making in massive human rights crises, including Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003); J. L. Holzgrefe and Robert O. Keohane, eds., Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal, and Political Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim, Humanitarian Intervention: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Jennifer Welsh, ed., Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: Holt, 1981); David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Richard Breitman, Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew (New York: Hill & Wang, 1998); Power, “A Problem from Hell”; Bernard Kouchner, Le malheur des autres (Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, 1991); Norman Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); Wheeler, Saving Strangers; Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); and Geoffrey Robinson, “If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die”: How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Archer Blood could be remembered in the company of other Americans who tried to stop genocide, whose stories are recounted magnificently in Power, “A Problem from Hell” (see pp. 514–16).
11. FRUS: Documents on South Asia, 1969–1972, vol. E-7 (online at http:// history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1969-76ve07), White House tapes, Oval Office 637-3, 12 December 1971, 8:45–9:42 a.m. Hereafter cited as FRUS, vol. E-7.
12. For a range of intelligent skepticism, left and right, see Alan Wolfe, Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2009); Jonathan Rauch, “When Moralism Isn’t Moral,” New York Times Book Review, 7 October 2011; “A Solution from Hell,” n+1, no. 12, August 2011.
13. Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999), p. 4. See Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005); Pratap Bhanu Mehta, The Burden of Democracy (New York: Penguin, 2003); and Perry Anderson, “Gandhi Centre Stage,” London Review of Books, 5 July 2012, pp. 3–11. See Steve Coll, On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia (New York: Times Books, 1994), pp. 33–52, 118–23, 262–63; Atul Kohli, ed., The Success of India’s Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, “Putting Growth in Its Place,” Outlook India, 14 November 2011; Ashutosh Varshney, “Is India Becoming More Democratic?” Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1 (February 2000), pp. 3–25; Pradeep Chhibber and Ken Kollman, “Party Aggregation and the Number of Parties in India and the United States,” American Political Science Review, vol. 92, no. 2 (June 1998), pp. 329–42; Granville Austin, Working a Democratic Constitution: The Indian Experience (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Judith M. Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985). For poverty numbers, see Nikhila Gill and Vivek Dehejia, “What Does India’s Poverty Line Actually Measure?” India Ink blog, New York Times, 4 April 2012. On inequality, see Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “Breaking the Silence,” The Caravan, 1 October 2012, and Atul Kohli, Poverty amid Plenty in the New India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). For a brilliant portrait of the real lives of poor Indians, see Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2012).
14. For thoughtful skepticism, see Ramachandra Guha, “Will India Become a Superpower?” Outlook, 30 June 2008, and Coll, Grand Trunk Road, pp. 274–82, 88–91. For outstanding literary reflections of these events, see Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), pp. 419–55, and Tahmima Anam, A Golden Age (New York: Harper, 2008).
15. Tad Szulc, The Illusion of Peace: Foreign Policy in the Nixon Years (New York: Viking, 1977), p. v. The entire India-Pakistan crisis warrants just five cursory pages in Stephen Ambrose’s monumental three-volume biography of Nixon, which totals 1,933 pages of writing (not counting notes and bibliography). See Stephen E. Ambrose, Nixon, 3 vols. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988–91). There are good sections about Bangladesh in three excellent works—Isaacson’s Kissinger, Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger, and Seymour M. Hersh’s The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York: Summit, 1983)—although my project gives the crisis a more central place and tries to offer a more comprehensively detailed account of it than would be practical for those already-long books. For a first-rate short account of U.S. policy, see Robert J. McMahon, “The Danger of Geopolitical Fantasies,” in Fredrik Logevall and Andrew Preston, eds., Nixon in the World: American Foreign Relations, 1969–1977 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). For an outstanding book on Indian and Pakistani decision making, based on interviews with almost all the senior participants, see Sisson and Rose, War and Secession. See A. M. A. Muhith, American Response to Bangladesh Liberation War (Dacca: University Press, 1996). For a bracing and sophisticated castigation, which does not condemn Bangladesh to the usual amnesia, see Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (London: Verso, 2001).
Excerpted from The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass. Copyright © 2013 by Gary J. Bass. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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 has written often for the New York Times, and has also written for The New Yorker, theWashington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Slate, and other publications.