Exploring Nixon's Role in 1971 South Asia
Published: Sunday, February 9, 2014
Updated: Sunday, February 9, 2014 23:02
Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, presented his most recent book, “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide,” on Thursday at the Mortara Center.
The book provides the first full account of the role that former President Richard Nixon and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger played in the 1971 genocide that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and over 10 million refugees fleeing from Pakistan to India.
“In this case, the [United States] is intervening from the beginning, on the side of the military dictatorship engaged in crimes against humanity, against its own population,” Bass said.
On March 25, 1971, the West Pakistani army – Bangladesh was then part of Pakistan and known as “East Pakistan” – participated in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the century. They launched a strict crackdown, Operation Searchlight, on ethnic Bengali civilians in East Pakistan after demands that the West Pakistani military junta accept the results of the 1970 Pakistani democratic elections.
“No country, not even the United States, can prevent mass genocide wherever it happens,” Bass said. “But this is a case where the atrocity is being carried out by a close U.S. ally that prizes its relationship with the Untied States.”
Kissinger and Nixon were allegedly aware of the situation as the United States Foreign Service informed them and numerous cables were sent back to the United States with documentation.
Archer Blood, an American diplomat in Bangladesh, sent a strongly worded telegram, written by himself and other Foreign Service officers, which came to be known as the Blood Telegram.
“Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. … We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected,” the telegram read.
According to Bass, the ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, even confronted Nixon and Kissinger about the genocide against Hindus in the area.
“Kissinger makes it clear that he knows about, not just killings, but the targeting of Hindus,” Bass said.
The United States also supplied weapons to West Pakistan. Furthermore, when war broke out, the United States did not press West Pakistan not to use weapons supplied by the United States, did not impose conditions for using the weapons and did not publicly condemn them.
“There are U.S. tanks rolling through the streets of Dhaka. There are U.S. jeeps with U.S. machine guns mounted on them shooting at civilians in Dhaka,” Bass said. “You might think this is foreign policy on auto-pilot. But, in fact, Nixon and Kissinger are very engaged in South Asia.”
Nixon and Kissinger, against a strict Congressional arms embargo, sent weapons to assist the West Pakistani army, which killed countless Bengali civilians. Against persistent advice from advisors in the White House, Nixon and Kissinger proceeded with the shipment of weapons through Jordan and Iran.
“They don’t make appeals to theories of executive power,” Bass said. “They don’t ask for a memo explaining why this is part of commander-in-chief authority.”
According to Bass, White House tapes reveal that, in a meeting before they decided to send the weapons, Nixon asks Kissinger, “Henry, is it so much against our law?” After Kissinger explains that it is, Nixon responds, “Hell, we’ve done worse.”
Attendees found Bass’ discussion both informational and entertaining.
“I just find it fascinating, especially with the White House tapes,” Jonathan Kennedy (GRD ’14) said. “Never before has there been such an accurate portrayal of what the most powerful leaders in the [United States] were talking about and it really adds some unique insight.”
Bass pointed out that it was also strategically unwise to supply weapons to West Pakistan. Once India’s military got involved in December of 1971, it was clear that India would prevail.
Bass also attempts to understand why Nixon and Kissinger would support West Pakistan.
“To be fair, the opening to China is a huge and important achievement,” Bass said. “It helps to win the Cold War and end the Vietnam War, and I want to give full credit to Nixon and Kissinger for that.”
Bass also pointed out that the main reason Nixon supported West Pakistan was because he feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan would lead to Soviet domination in that area. This would undermine the power of the United States in the world as well as the power of America’s new ally, China.
Bass debated both sides of the war, highlighting the complexity of the issue. He pointed out that Nixon and Kissinger’s goals came at a price for Indians and Bangladeshis.
When asked whether Kissinger commented on the book, Bass said that although Bass did not receive a response from Kissinger on his book, Bass did attempt to get his opinion.
“I work very hard to present all perspectives but Kissinger ignored me three times, and turned me down once,” Bass said. “But he’d be stupid to respond because then it would create a news story.”
According to Bass, the book gives a deeper insight on the issue of why Nixon and Kissinger took risks to equip West Pakistan with weapons. Although it was perceived as statistically and morally unwise, he explained Nixon and Kissinger’s behavior from a different angle.
“Nixon and Kissinger were often propelled by emotion, instead of calculations,” Bass said.