Under the shadow of nuke cloud | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 16, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:23 AM, December 16, 2016

Under the shadow of nuke cloud

Nixon considered using nuclear weapons during Liberation War

US President Richard Nixon had considered using nuclear weapons during the Liberation War in 1971 to forestall Soviet Union's involvement in the war.

This option was on the table of the Nixon administration while it was continuing hectic efforts to enforce a ceasefire by manipulating the UN.

Either move would have killed uncounted more and effectively deny the birth of Bangladesh.

He sent a ten-ship naval task force to the Bay of Bengal, the US Task Force 74 from South Vietnam after the start of India-Pakistan war in early December 1971 during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. The flotilla was led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

Declassified documents of the Nixon administration disclosed this horrific prospect of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia in 1971. In an interview with Time Magazine on July 21, 1985 Nixon said he had considered using nuclear weapons in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.   

He considered the nuclear option a week after West Pakistan dragged India into war by carrying out air raids on the latter's airbases in the northwestern part of the country.

Indian government's support to Bangali freedom fighters with weapons and training to fight Pakistani army to liberate Bangladesh infuriated Gen Yahya and his administration vented their frustrations on India through air raids. This triggered the India-Pakistan war during the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

The two superpowers-US and China- were blindly supporting the Pakistani military regime that carried out one of the worst genocides in the world. The other superpower, Soviet Union, was backing India in an intense diplomatic war in 1971.

The Nixon administration left no stone unturned to enforce a ceasefire between India and Pakistan in December 1971 to save the Yahya regime from an imminent defeat.

Supported by its allies including China, the USA moved a number of resolutions in the UN Security Council from December 4 calling for an immediate ceasefire in East Pakistan. But it could not move further as every time Soviet Union vetoed the resolutions.

In the backchannel, Nixon's administration tried to convince China, also an ally of West Pakistan, in many ways to attack India. On the other hand, he continued mounting pressure on Soviet leaders to restrain India.

"If Indians continue their military operations, we must inevitably look toward a confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States," Nixon warned Soviet Union leaders on December 9, within a week of beginning of the India-Pakistan hostilities during the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

But his warning had little effect on Soviet leaders. He expected an answer from the Soviets by December 12 but he got no response from Moscow to his warnings. They did not withdraw their support for India.

Nixon then considered the option of using nuclear weapons as he was concerned that the Soviets would intervene for India if China moved its troops along the Indian border in support of Pakistan, according to his interview with Time magazine.

His concern was based on substance. Fearing the worst from China, India had already strengthened its ties with the Soviets. In August 1971, it signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Soviet Union on the heels of Henry Kissinger's groundbreaking trip to China.

Indira Gandhi sent her man DP Dhar racing back to Moscow on December 11, carrying a personal message for the Soviet's premier.

The Soviet leadership stood by India, but cautiously, writes US journalist Gary J. Bass in his book "The Blood Telegram.  "Still, the Soviet ambassador in Delhi pledged that if China intervened against India, the Soviet Union would open its own border diversionary action against China," he writes.

In such an intense situation, on December 12, Nixon and Henry Kissinger, National Security advisor to the US president, discussed the potential results of Chinese action. "If China menaced India, they anticipated a Soviet military response. If the US then did nothing, Kissinger predicted, "We'll be finished."

Nixon asked: "So what do we do if Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?"

"If the Soviets move against them…and succeed, that will be the final showdown…We will be finished. We'll be through," Kissinger replied according to another authoritative book," Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power" by Robert Dallek, an US writer and former president of the Society of American Historians.

Kissinger's fear of the outcome of a Soviet intervention was intense and he apprehended a loss of US supremacy in the global power game in such a case.

"My feeling is, Mr. President, leaving completely aside what we've said, if the outcome of this is that Pakistan is swallowed by India; China is destroyed, defeated, humiliated by the Soviet Union; it will be a change in the world balance of power of such magnitude…that the security of the United States for--maybe forever, certainly for decade…" said Kissinger according to an article by Luke A. Nichter and Richard A. Moss published in Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies in 2010.

Kissinger demanded that Nixon stand firm. Nixon also believed it was his obligation to stand by Pakistan that served as the gateway to Sino-American rapprochement in the world of Cold War.

If the US failed to support Pakistan, Kissinger warned, "if we collapse now, the Soviets won't respect us for it; the Chinese will despise us and the other countries will draw their conclusions."

Bass writes in The Blood Telegram Kissinger goaded Nixon to confront Soviet Union despite the peril: "If the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese, and if the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis, what we are now having is the final, we may be looking right down the gun barrel."

Offering an optimistic scenario, he said, "I think the Soviets will back off if we face them." According to The Blood Telegram, Nixon wanted to get the US to join the war. "We have to put forces in," Kissinger said bluntly. "We may have to give them bombing assistance."

As Nixon authorised the movement of the USS Enterprise task force to the Bay of Bengal, the Indian government sought assistance from the Soviet Union. 

In response, the Soviet Navy dispatched two groups of cruisers and destroyers and a submarine armed with nuclear missiles from Vladivostok in between December 6 and 13 of 1971. The Soviet Navy had kept a close watch on the US Seventh Fleet. So the Seventh Fleet was unable to assist Pakistan after the Indian navy attacked Pakistani warships and Karachi harbor.

The Soviet Union also sent a very strong message to China and backed it up with the deployment of 40 divisions along the Sino-Soviet border which prevented China from attacking India.

"Richard Nixon brought the United States to the edge of another world war. His actions were deliberate; he operated in secret; and he lied to the American people about his actions," writes Pulitzer winning US journalist Jack Anderson in his book "The Anderson Papers" in 1973. The book documented the Nixon administration's tilt towards Pakistan and how Nixon planned for the use of nuclear weapons.

American people were against the Nixon administration's support to the genocidal Yahya regime. American citizens took to the streets to protest Nixon's policies on Bangladesh crisis.

"We are the ones who have been operating against our public opinion, against our bureaucracy, at the very edge of legality," Kissinger said in a conversation with Nixon on December 12, according to Robert Dallek.

The Nixon administration's diplomatic war, backchannel negotiations and dispatching the warships into Bay of Bengal could not protect the dictatorial regime of Gen Yahya from defeat in East Pakistan.

Gen Niazi, who led the Pakistani occupation army to carry out genocide in East Pakistan, surrendered to Joint Forces of Mukti Fouj and India on December 16, 1971, giving birth to independent Bangladesh.

Critics charged Nixon that his administration risked World War III by his allegedly reckless actions for protecting West Pakistan. 

He however thinks otherwise. In his memoir in 1978, he claimed: "By using diplomatic signals and behind-the-scenes pressures we had been able to save West Pakistan from the imminent threat of Indian aggression and domination."

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