The legacy of blood
Henry Kissinger is infamous in Bangladesh for allegedly terming the newly-independent country a "bottomless basket", but this statement appears to be the least of his crimes against the people of Bangladesh. An account of the hidden role of the then-US president Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in abetting and strengthening the 1971 genocide led by Yahya Khan comes to light in The Blood Telegram (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). The horrifying chronicle narrated in the book was merely an embarrassment for Kissinger in the margins of his illustrious career, but for Bangladeshis it was millions of lives lost and trauma carried for generations to come.
The author Gary J Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and a former reporter for The Economist, utilised two different primary sources for the contents of this book—tapes of Nixon's conversations during his term as president, and interviews with witnesses. Bass's painstaking and well-rounded research has created a thrilling read entrenched in a heavy cloud of apathy, cruelty, and tragedy.
In the era of the Cold War, heavy-handed powers such as the United States and Soviet Union preferred to fight their battles elsewhere—where human lives were deemed far more expendable than their own. That the US supported the genocidal dictator Yahya Khan was simply a matter of using diplomacy to balance the global power dynamic. Yahya could provide Nixon with a communication channel to China, which was decidedly anti-Soviet and anti-India. Beginning talks with China would become a shining achievement in Kissinger's career, but this achievement came at too high a cost.
In his book, Bass skillfully weaves threads of correspondence to demonstrate how Nixon had several opportunities to stop Yahya before and during the genocide he committed, yet he made the decision to look the other way as Bangladeshis were massacared. He would not jeopardise his relationship with Pakistan and China, and so Bangladesh became a scapegoat in the name of protecting global stability. Furthermore, the US actively, and illegally, aided Pakistan by providing them with weapons while Pakistan was under a US arms embargo. An American diplomat acknowledged to Pakistan that these weapons could be used for matters of "internal security", essentially greenlighting genocide on the people of East Pakistan. This behaviour was not surprising from a president who was eventually embroiled in the scandal of Watergate and became the first US president in history forced to resign.
What is surprising, though, is the lone figure standing against the shameful practice of discarding human lives in the name of diplomacy. Archer K Blood, the American Consul General in Dhaka in 1971, repeatedly sent cables to Washington describing the atrocities he witnessed, even using the term "genocide" in an attempt to shake his superiors into action, to no avail. In April 1971, distressed junior staffers at the consulate drew up a dissent cable—a Vietnam War-initiated reform meant to allow diplomats to speak out against official policy. Blood, being the senior-most officer and the one with the most to lose, signed the dissent cable that accused the Nixon administration of "moral bankruptcy" and demanded that actions be taken to stop the massacre of East Pakistanis. Lose he did—the accomplished diplomat was transferred back to a desk job in the State Department in Washington DC and the chances of him ever realising his dream of becoming an ambassador became nil. Blood's honour and integrity compelled him to do the right thing despite having to sacrifice his own career.
Here we are posed with the age old question of the dilemma between protecting self-centred interests versus doing the right thing with objectivity. For Blood, the choice seemed clear, as difficult as it may have been. For Nixon and Kissinger, not so much. Their complete lack of empathy and humanity showed in every step of the way in the months leading up to our war of independence and during. Bass's book adds to the conversation generated by Blood's own memoir, The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh (UPL, 2002), which collects and comments on his historic telegrams.
Nixon's own statements, as outlined in The Blood Telegram, demonstrate his deep xenophobia, misogynistic hatred for Indira Gandhi, and admiration for Yahya. He is quoted to have said, "[Yahya] was a man's man. He wasn't some woman running a country." Nixon held strong admiration for European colonial forces that wreaked havoc worldwide for centuries. He believed that the comparatively miniscule Pakistan army could bring a population of 75 million to their knees, just as British colonialists had done to the subcontinent, and as the Spanish had done to the Incas. Furthermore, the fallacious logic in Nixon's thought process is astounding to observe. He suggests that while it is terrible what was happening to East Pakistanis, it would be "moral hypocrisy'' to rescue them since they had made no attempt to rescue Biafrans, in another horrific tragedy that occurred between 1967 and 1970. The comparison falls short because unlike with Pakistan, the US did not contribute to the Nigerian civil war with arms and direct support to its genocidal president. Even if that was the case, this line of thought suggests that because someone else has already suffered, more people should continue to suffer. It is egregious and lacks any humane feeling.
Nevertheless, Archer Blood's telegram achieved the impossible—it created a domino effect that set in motion the eventual crumbling of Nixon and Kissinger's Pakistan policy. "Blood Telegram", the phrase working as a double entendre pointing to the consul general's cables as well as the trail of blood following Nixon and Kissinger, stands as a sharp lesson on what can happen when global powers do not share concern for the pain of people, near and far. There were numerous diplomatic considerations given when evaluating the Pakistan situation, but a simple consideration escaped all of those in power: avoiding the loss of life. Bass's book does an excellent job of showcasing how human rights do not matter when American interests are on the line, which is an observation that explains a multitude of American actions in recent history which have effectively desecrated global stability.
Bass wrote Blood Telegram for a global audience, hence the book provides a big picture context on the war and politics of the time. It is refreshing to read about the most significant event in our national memory and consciousness from an outsider's objective perspective backed by rigorous research. Bass's work brings historical figures to life, and gives the reader a glimpse into the very human existence of these larger than life figures. He covers all the players in the contemporary South Asian political drama, touching upon Indian policy decisions, the Soviet and Chinese perspective. This well-rounded work of research is only made better by Bass' ability to put the narrative together with a quiet sense of irony. A personal favourite is when Bass quotes George HW Bush, ambassador to the United Nations at the time, who expressed after Pakistan surrendered, "I want a nice quiet place after this, like Rwanda."
In addition to standing as a lesson for politicians and policymakers, Blood Telegram is a record of the depths humans can sink into in the name of diplomacy and the greater good; it wills the reader to ponder human nature, morality, honour, and empathy.
Moneesha R Kalamder is an economist and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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