Nixon, Kissinger and Bangladesh genocide
The story of the unsung American diplomat Archer Blood, who as the Consul General of the US mission in Dhaka in 1971 had along with most of his staff opposed Washington's turning a blind eye to the Pakistani army's genocide in Bangladesh, was picked up by Princeton University Professor Gary J Bass. He come up with an absorbing book, The Blood Telegram: India's Secret War in East Pakistan (Random House, India), that encompasses a wide range of issues, including international and national politics in the US, India and undivided Pakistan, key political figures like Indira Gandhi, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, military dictator Yahya Khan and of course President Richard Nixon and his ruthless National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and how they shaped foreign policies and geopolitics in South Asia in the 1970s.
Archer not only dutifully reported to the State Department the Pakistani army's atrocities on the people of Bangladesh day after day. He finally sent a telegram of dissent, signed by most of the US consulate staff and other American officials in Dhaka at that time, against Washington's policy towards Bangladesh. Archer had to pay a heavy price for that, having been shunted out in what promised to be a bright career as a Foreign Service officer. That telegram, Prof Bass says, was "perhaps the most radical rejection of US policy ever sent by its diplomats." Blood had wanted his bosses in Washington to speak out against the Pakistani army's atrocities but later recalled that his pleas were met with a "deafening silence".
The Bangladesh Liberation War came in the middle of the Vietnam War, which had already alienated the Nixon administration from US domestic public opinion, and at the peak of the Cold War and America's clandestine reaching out to China. But, as Prof Bass would like us to believe, Nixon and Kissinger "were driven not just by such Cold War calculations but a starkly personal and emotional dislike of India and Indians". The book records the degree of hatred Nixon and Kissinger had for the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Indians, which found expression in filthy and often racist language, and Nixon's unfailing friendship with dictator Yahya Khan "who was helping to set up the top secret opening to China". Prof Bass makes a fine portrayal of the stark contrast between the response of the world's two largest democracies—India and the United States—to the genocide in Bangladesh by the Pakistani military.
"Nixon and Kissinger needed a secret channel to China, which they found in the good offices of Yahya….while the Pakistani government was crushing the Bengalis, it was also carrying covert messages back and forth from Washington to Beijing", says the book, adding "So, the Bengalis became collateral damage for realigning the global balance of power".
Prof Bass says there is little to differentiate the responsibilities of Nixon and Kissinger when it comes to apportioning the culpabilities for the genocide in Bangladesh. "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. …Nixon and Kissinger bear the responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis", says he.
This raises a crucial question. How did a man like Kissinger, whom Prof Bass describes as "brilliant", so grossly err in visualizing the future course of events and the inevitability of Bangladesh's independence? Kissinger and Nixon were crude practitioners of 'realpolitik", devoid of ideology, qualms and respect for human rights and a total scorn for public sentiments at the grassroots even back in their own country. Kissinger had prodded China to amass its troops on the border with India during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Chinese were not fools to walk into the American trap because they knew that they had the Soviet Union at their own border in the north-west. The question is: why did Nixon and Kissinger take the political risk of backing Pakistan and secretly transfer arms to Pakistan in violation of American laws by clandestinely using Iran and Jordan, knowing fully well that those arms would be used against Pakistan's own people and open up the possibility, however remote, of a possible nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers?
Prof Bass has based his damning indictment of Nixon and Kissinger largely on the audio tapes of the talks between the two from the Presidential Library. He has also used the T N Kaul and P N Haksar documents available in India's National Archives, Nehru Memorial Museum, the Prime Minister's office and External Affairs Ministry.
According to Prof Bass, "As President, Nixon kept up his personalized approach to foreign policy….. For all his talk of realpolitik, he could be surprisingly individualized in his foreign policy judgements."
Early in the book, Prof Bass dwells on the debate, that rages till today, whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wanted autonomy for both wings of Pakistan or an independent state of Bangladesh. The book says Archer Blood and the US consulate in Dhaka "thought the Bengalis could be satisfied with autonomy (the Indian government also believed this)". But "late in 1970, suspicious Pakistani intelligence agencies captured Mujib in a breathtakingly frank moment. They played their tape to Yahya, who was shocked to hear Mujib declare, 'My aim is to establish Bangladesh'." Prof Bass says this based on a number of documents.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a senior Indian journalist based in New Delhi.