The South Asia Channel

The Blood Telegram

Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

The Nixon presidency will long be remembered for its many contradictions. This was especially true in foreign policy. Despite being an old cold warrior, Nixon was also a far-sighted strategic thinker who understood the changing forces of history. With the brilliant Henry Kissinger as his wingman, he orchestrated the détente with the Soviet Union and the historic opening to China,

While these achievements are generally lauded, Nixon and Kissinger also presided over some of the more egregious episodes of U.S. duplicity abroad. And by centralizing control of U.S. foreign policy in the White House and excluding the State Department and the CIA from any significant decision-making, Nixon undermined the very institutions of government that might have mitigated some of his administration's more disastrous decisions.

Nixon's foreign policy blunders in places like Cambodia and Chile have been well picked over by historians. One area that has until now been overlooked is South Asia. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass, remedies that omission. The book is a meticulously researched and searing indictment of the shameful role the United States played from 1970-1971 in the events that resulted in the breakup of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh.

When it was first created in 1947, Pakistan was, as Bass describes it, a "cartographic oddity," divided in two by a thousand miles of "enemy" Indian territory. West Pakistan (current day Pakistan) was dominated by the Punjabis, who controlled the military and much of the government. East Pakistan, which was to become Bangladesh, had a larger population that was predominantly Bengali, was much poorer, and lay mostly below sea level. The two had little in common ethnically, culturally or linguistically. The West looked down on the East; their only common bond was religion.

By 1970, Pakistan was a country in crisis. Relations between the two Pakistans had frayed. Bengalis, resentful of the lack of economic development and investment in the East, had begun to press for greater autonomy. There was talk of secession.

In the White House, South Asia was viewed at the time as a sideshow. While much of the administration's energy in Asia was devoted to the problem of Vietnam, Nixon was also focused on finding an opening to China. As far back as 1967, Nixon advocated ending China's isolation from the West. As president, he became obsessed with making it his foreign policy legacy, but finding the right conduit proved challenging. Pakistan offered to help. The Pakistanis were on good terms with the Chinese, and of the various tracks Nixon and Kissinger tried, the Pakistani channel was the one that delivered.

As the Pakistanis were in the process of helping to organize Kissinger's trip to China, events within Pakistan suddenly spiraled out of control. On the night on November 12, 1970, a cyclone with 150-mile-per-hour winds hit East Pakistan, leaving half a million dead and 2.5 million homeless. The West Pakistan-based central government was slow to react and anemic in its response. The Blood Telegram contains horrific eyewitness accounts of the devastation.

A few weeks later on December 7, the country held elections, and an East Pakistani, Mujibur Rahman, was elected president for the first time. But he was never allowed to assume office. Massive demonstrations erupted in East Pakistan that quickly escalated into a civil war. In March, West Pakistan sent in the army, which using U.S.-supplied arms embarked on a killing spree against its own citizens that resulted in the genocide of some 200,000 Bengalis, many of them students. Hindus in particular were singled out. Ten million refugees were displaced and fled into India, bringing it into the conflict.

In spite of increasingly frantic cables sent by the U.S. consulate in Dacca and the embassy in New Delhi confirming the atrocities, Nixon and Kissinger chose to ignore them. They disparaged Archer Blood, the U.S. consul-general in Dacca, as "the maniac in Dacca," and accused Kenneth Keating, the U.S. ambassador in India and a formidable former Republican senator, of being a mouthpiece for the Indians. Instead, indebted to Gen. Yayha Khan, the military dictator of Pakistan, for his help in arranging Kissinger's visit to China in July 1971, they continued to find ways to channel arms and aid to Pakistan.  

If Nixon and Kissinger are the villains in this book, Blood is the hero -- along with 20 members of his consulate, all who considered it their duty to officially state their dissent from the U.S. policy in Pakistan. A telegram was sent to Washington -- hence the title of the book. In it, Archer Blood criticized his government's policy in Pakistan as "morally bankrupt." He accused his superiors of failing to prevent genocide and supporting a regime that was crushing democracy and slaughtering innocent people. To ensure the widest circulation, he gave the telegram the lowest classification. He knew he was putting his career on the line, but felt a deep moral obligation to do so. He enraged both Nixon and Kissinger, and was recalled from Dacca. For the next six years, while Kissinger was in power, Blood languished in internal exile within the State Department. Although he was subsequently vindicated, for many years, his career seemed to be over.

The State Department, convinced that the White House strategy was exacerbating the conflict, unsuccessfully tried to press for a change in policy. Bass describes the elaborate cat-and-mouse game between the White House, as it tried to get arms to Pakistan, and the State Department, which employed all its bureaucratic inventiveness to hold up the shipments to redress the balance.

As reports of the ethnic cleansing and the tragic plight of the refugees poured in, sentiment in Congress turned against Pakistan and Khan. Alarmed that U.S. arms were being used in the bloody repression, congressmen suggested tightening the arms embargo imposed on India and Pakistan in 1965 when they went to war with each other.

But once India entered the war to help liberate Bangladesh, Nixon decided to help Khan against the Indians he so despised. He pressured Jordan and Iran to supply aircraft and weapons to Pakistan, despite being advised by the Pentagon and State Department that it would be illegal. Bass argues that, in his determination to help Pakistan, Nixon and his aides "knowingly broke U.S. law." Thanks to the White House tapes, we have the president and Kissinger on tape discussing what to do in case they were found out.

Bass writes that Nixon and Kissinger, in a final act of desperation and recklessness, encouraged the Communist regime in China to threaten India, a democratic country, while lying to the Indians about the United States' willingness to prevent China from intervening. It was a dangerous double game and had it not been for the restraint on the part of the Russians and Chinese, the White House could have pushed South Asia over the precipice into a much wider conflagration.

Why did Nixon and Kissinger, two men who prided themselves on their realism, pursue such a disastrous and essentially pointless tilt to Pakistan? Although India's policy of non-alignment irritated the US, that alone does not account for the intensity and personal nature of Nixon's hatred towards the country and its leader, Indira Gandhi. Nixon was infamous for being thin-skinned and never forgot a slight. He visited India twice prior to becoming president, and both times he was treated dismissively. Both visits were followed by a stop in Pakistan, where the red carpet was laid out for him. Bass writes that these experiences left this deeply insecure man with a lasting prejudice against India and loyalty to Pakistan.

The events described in the Blood Telegram were monumental for the subcontinent and deserve far more attention than they have received. The book tells of the damage wrought when world leaders abandon rational calculation and allow their country's interests to be subordinated to personal prejudices and animosities.

Meena Ahamed is a freelance journalist who writes about U.S. foreign policy and South Asia.

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