Nixon was advised to recognise Bangladesh

But his love for Yahiya and a secret China visit deal shaped US mind on East Pakistan
Cheerful Nixon and Yahya during the Pakistani ruler's visit to the US in October 1970. Nixon pledged to support Pakistan 'despite strong feeling in his country favouring India'. Photo: collected

US intelligence analysis had predicted early that the separation of Pakistan was imminent as the political situation in East Pakistan descended into chaos in March 1971.

The East Pakistanis went into vehement protests from early March with the West Pakistan military junta's refusal to hand over power to Awami League following its landslide victory in the 1970 election.

The US National Security Council had also recommended the US quickly recognise Bangladesh should the situation arise, declassified US documents from March 1971 reveal.

History took a different course, however. The US government ignored the advices and got embroiled in the conflict taking the side of the trigger happy Pakistan military and resisted the emergence of Bangladesh until the end mainly because then president Richard Nixon and his close aide Henry Kissinger had a special disliking for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indira Gandhi.

Nixon was also specially partial to Pakistan. When he first visited Pakistan in 1953 as vice president under president Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon said, “Pakistan is a country I would like to do everything for. The people (Pakistanis) have less complexes than the Indians.”   

He stuck with Pakistan until the end. It was he who ignored the advice of his security council and tried to prevent the birth of Bangladesh by placing resolutions at the UN Security Council, calling for a ceasefire.

On March 3, 1971, soon after president Yahiya Khan had postponed the session of the national assembly, the US Security Council, in its report to the deputy secretary of defence David Packard, the under secretary of state John N Irwin and the CIA director wrote:  The possibility of imminent separation of the two wings of Pakistan stems from the outcome of the December 1970 elections to choose a National Assembly to frame a constitution. As a result of Yahya's postponement of the Assembly, the crisis has reached a critical juncture. Unless a compromise formula can be devised, secession by the Bengalis or separation of the two wings of Pakistan by mutual consent have become real possibilities.”

The National Security Council had assessed that although a united Pakistan served the US interest the best, things were going downhill and the US had little influence over the fast moving course of events.

“In the present circumstances, we could perhaps affect the timetable or modalities of East Pakistani secession through our posture toward Mujib and his followers, or perhaps influence the West Pakistani response to it. However, we could not deter a move for independence if the East Pakistanis should make the ultimate decision to establish their own country,” the analysis said.

The National Security Council then went on to propose alternative US stances in case Bangladesh became independent.

The first alternative was to say that although the US believes in the unity of Pakistan, it is up to the people of Pakistan to decide what kind of political settlement they want. US has a role to play here.

A handshake in 1972 for which the US waited for 25 years to resume diplomatic relation with China. General Yahya brokered the meeting between Nixon and Mao Zedong. Right, Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast during Nixon's 1972 visit to China. Photo: Collected

The second alternative said, the US could warm up to the Bangalis and say while it favours Pakistan's unity, it was ready to adjust its policies to the evolving situation and to work with the new government system.

The third alternative was that the US would privately urge president Yahya Khan to make every effort to reach an accommodation with Sheikh Mujib which would enable a united Pakistan to continue, even though its federal power would be curtailed.

But after weighing the alternatives, the council preferred a balanced posture between West and East Pakistan. It would reassure the West Pakistan leadership and at the same time leave the impression with East Pakistanis that the US was not “inflexible”.

If separation of East Pakistan became imminent but was yet to be announced by Awami League, the US should let East Pakistan leaders know that the US would be ready to recognise an independent state in East Pakistan. The US should consider economic assistance to the new state, the Security Council advised.

 But in case Awami League, prior to a formal declaration of independence, should request US intervention to forestall anticipated West Pakistan military action, the US should “decline on the grounds that America does not consider military intervention likely (assuming this to be the case at the time)”.

It was clear from the report that US analysts ruled out any military crackdown on the Bangalis. However, in case of military crackdown, the US would urge West Pakistani leaders to cease military action.

“If West Pakistani — and possibly Indian — military intervention should occur, we would not make any military moves ourselves. However, in concert with the British and other interested external powers we should be prepared to use the threat of sanctions, including cessation of economic aid and military supply, if hostile actions should occur or continue,” the report said.

In case Bangladesh secedes, the Security Council had recommended what America should do to recognise the new state.

It had suggested that if the secession was an agreed action of East and West Pakistan, then the US would immediately recognise Bangladesh. But in case Pakistan opposed Bangladesh's independence and used force, the US would coordinate with the UK to recognise the new state and should be among the first to do so.

But then the worst and the least expected event started with the military crackdown and the following genocide from the night of March 25.

Three weeks after the genocide began, the National Security Council again proposed that the US recognise Bangladesh once the “government of Bangla Desh achieved control over a substantial portion of East Bengal and once it had been recognized by other countries including India”. It also suggested writing a strong letter to Yahya Khan and demand release of Bangabandhu.

But all this remained on paper as the US sided with Pakistan while US-made tanks, arms and ammunition were being used for the world's biggest genocide since WWII.

One major reason for that Nixon and Kissinger held a special hatred for Indira Gandhi as explained by Gary J Bass, an American journalist, in his book “The blood Telegram”.

“I don't like the Indians,” Nixon had snapped at the peak of the Bangladesh crisis. He had always thought Indira and India were close partners of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Nixon had never liked India's non-aligned approach to global politics.

On the other hand, he had found a good ally in Yahya Khan and began supplying arms to Pakistan in exception to the US arms embargo imposed on both India and Pakistan since the 1965 war.

During a meeting between Yahya and Nixon in the Oval Office in October 1970, Nixon pledged to support Pakistan “despite strong feeling in this country favouring India”.

“We will keep our word with Pakistan. We will try to be as helpful as we can,” Nixon had promised.

His friendship to Pakistan was rewarded in February 1972, when Mao Zedong and Nixon met in Beijing in a significant event ending 25 years of separation of the two super powers states. The groundwork for the meeting was laid much earlier with the help of Yahya who had opened a door to dialogues between the US and China in return of US support in 1971.

Seen in this context, it was not surprising that the National Security Council's advices fell on deaf ears.

Archer Blood, the US consul general in Dhaka in 1971, frantically sent cable after cable to the State Department describing the ongoing genocide in East Pakistan. His strongest cable titled “Selective Genocide” read: “Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military.”

The State Department first ignored his cables because the US was Pakistan's strong ally as a member of Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and also because the US was trying to open the previously mentioned diplomatic channel with China with Pakistan's help.

A few weeks later in April, Blood was asked to request home leave and transfer to State Department.

“In other words, I was being dismissed from my post in Dacca,” Blood writes. “…It came as no surprise after the dissent cable.”

The US went on to support Pakistan to the hilt when India got involved in the war on December 3, 1971.

As Pakistan's defeat became imminent, on December 4, just a day after India was dragged into the war, George HW Bush, who was then the US ambassador to the UN, placed a resolution for an immediate ceasefire in East Pakistan and withdrawal of Indian troops.

In the following days as chaos reigned at the UN over the war in Bangladesh, the US brought one resolution after another to stop the war and forestall the birth of Bangladesh.