Did you read today about what America is doing?” one of the Indian characters in Rohinton Mistry’s “Such aLong Journey” asks. “CIA bastards are up to their usual anus-fingering tactics.” The novel is set in 1971, the year that India intervened in Pakistan’s civil war and helped create a new nation-state—Bangladesh—from the Bengali-speaking province of East Pakistan. Like Mistiy’s characters, Indians were confused and incensed by President Richard Nixon’s support for Pakistan’s military rulers and by his hostility toward India. After all, Pakistan had launched a murderous campaign against the Bengalis, leaving India’s impoverished and volatile border states to cope with ultimately some ten million refugees fleeing the carnage. The total number of the dead is unknown, but Bangladesh’s official estimate is three million. (Pakistan’s clearly understated figure is twenty-six thousand.)When, during the short ensuing war between India and Pakistan, Nixon implicitly threatened India by ordering a nuclear aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal, millions of Indian minds went dark with geopolitical paranoia. Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, became, as Mistry puts it, “names to curse with.” Mistiy’s protagonist amplifies a commonplace conjecture: “The CIA plan” involves supporting Pakistan against India, because India’s friendship with the Soviet Union “makes Nixon shit, lying awake in bed and thinking about it. His house is white, but his pyjamas become brown every night.”
Little did such Indians know that their wildest suppositions were indeed being ratified by Nixon, himself a gifted conspiracy theorist, who wholly reciprocated Indian antipathy. The White House tapes, the recordings that Nixon made of his conversations in office, have long been recognized as a marvel of verbal incontinence. But it is still startling to hear Nixon musing that what “the Indians,” then lucklessly hosting millions of refugees, “need—what they really need—is... a mass famine.” Kissinger loyally chimes in: “They’re such bastards.”The explanation for Nixon’s bizarre apportionment of blame lies in a complicated network of regional loyalties. Pakistan was a trusted American ally, to be protected against any threats from India and the Soviet Union, two countries that were on the verge of signing a “friendship treaty.” Nixon and Kissinger tried to persuade China, which they were hoping to befriend, to open up a front against India, its enemy since the Sino-Indian War of 1962. When India moved decisively against the overstretched Pakistani military—the war ended in just two weeks—the Oval Office, like the alleys of Calcutta, became feverish with speculation. The White House tapes contain this extraordinary exchange during the war’s final days:
KISSINGER: If the Soviets move against them [the Chinese] and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.NIXON: So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?
That’s indeed what Kissinger meant. “That will be the final showdown,” he said. Nixon quickly backed off from “Armageddon,” as he called it, but thinking seriously about this option evidently had its consolations. “At least we’re coming off like men,” Kissinger said. Nixon, too, was pleased to advertise that “the man in the White House” is “tough.” In this Washington bubble, reality had receded. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her review of the Pentagon Papers, later that year, the assertion of American machismo had weirdly supplanted all strategic and military aims and interests. The U.S. had to behave like the greatest power on earth for no other reason than to convince the world of it.How did the President of the United States find himself contemplating nuclear assault against the Soviet Union on behalf of Mao Zedong’s China while still embroiled in Vietnam? And why did he choose not to abandon Pakistani allies who were clearly guilty of mass killings? Two absorbing new books— Srinath Raghavan’s “1971: A Global Historyof the Creation of Bangladesh” (Harvard) and Gary Bass’s “The Blood Telegram:Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” (Knopf)—describe, from different perspectives, this strangely neglected episode of the Cold War. Raghavan covers a range of mentalities, choices, and decisions in Islamabad, Moscow, Beijing, Washington, New Delhi, and other capitals. Bass focusses mainly on American actions and inaction. His previous book, “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention,” has been cited by advocates of a United Nations doctrine, known as Responsibility to Protect, that enjoins the international community to intervene when a state cannot protect its citizens from genocide or war crimes. His heroes are such Americans as Archer Blood, the consul-general in Dhaka, whose office lambasted Washington for supporting a murderous Pakistani regime, in a cable subsequently known as the Blood telegram.
“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy,” the telegram said. “Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. . . . Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy.” Kenneth Keating, the U.S. Ambassador to India, likewise called on the Nixon Administration to “promptly, publicly, and prominently deplore this brutality.” But Nixon stonewalled Keating, and re-called Archer Blood from Dhaka. He and Kissinger showed contempt for dissenting American voices both within the Administration and in the Democratic opposition and the media. Bass draws up a severe indictment of Nixon and Kissinger, holding them responsible for “significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis.” He writes, “In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts in the same rough league as Rwanda.”This is not how Nixon would have liked to be remembered. By the nineteen-seventies, he had abandoned his reflexive anti-Communism of the forties and fifties. He had come to pride himself on taking a “long view” of things, believing that a balance of power, rather than the standoffs of the Cold War, was the best way to insure international stability. He and Kissinger were pursuing detente with the Soviet Union and laying the groundwork for his spectacular visit to China, in 1972. Nixon also fancied himself, after several tours to the region, to be a “man who knows Asia.” But, as Bass’s book makes clear, neither he nor Kissinger took a deep interest in Pakistan. In 1947, the violent partition of British India had divided the subcontinent into separate homelands for the Hindus (India) and the Muslims (Pakistan). Pakistan was created out of two regions that were separated by more than a thousand miles of Indian territory and that had little in common except religion. West Pakistan’s Punjabi-speaking military-feudal elite looked down on the Bengali-speaking natives of East Pakistan, whom they saw as racially inferior. They treated the province, which contained more than half of Pakistan’s population, as little better than a colony, a source of revenue for West Pakistan and a captive market for its goods.
Nixon preferred Pakistan’s straight-talking Sandhurst - accented military strongmen to India’s elected leaders, especially those—Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for instance—who seemed to be snootily intellectual and were admired by East Coast liberals. As for the Bengalis, Nixon was unable to pronounce or even to recognize the name of their leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as Mujib, who had been campaigning for autonomy for East Pakistan. And Nixon was as surprised as everyone else in December, 1970, when Mujib’s party gained a clear majority in Pakistan’s parliamentary election.The military junta—led by General Yahya Khan, who had assumed power in 1969—was reluctant to accept the election results, and Khan postponed convening Pakistan’s National Assembly. Mujib feared collusion between Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the populist West Pakistani politician whose party Mujib’s had beaten. As Mujib, Yahya Khan, and Bhutto fruitlessly negotiated, Bengali separatist anger began to erupt in mass demonstrations. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched a full-scale campaign, known as Operation Searchlight. After arresting Mujib and abducting him to West Pakistan and banning his party, it set about massacring his supporters, with American weapons.
Firing squads spread out across East Pakistan, sometimes assisted by local collaborators from Islamist groups that had been humiliated in the elections. In the countryside, where the armed resistance was strongest, the Pakistani military burned and strafed villages, killing thousands and turning many more into refugees. Hindus, who composed more than ten per cent of the population, were targeted, their un-Muslimness ascertained by a quick inspection underneath their lungis. Tens of thousands of women were raped in a campaign of terror. (Bengalis also murdered and raped Urdu-speaking Muslims whom they suspected of being fifth columnists for West Pakistan.) Archer Blood, among others, reported the slaughter of professors and students at Dhaka University, an attempt to silence the intellectual class who had eloquently articulated Bengali grievances.At first, Nixon and Kissinger were impressed by the ferocity of Yahya Khan’s crackdown. “The use of power against seeming odds pays off,” Kissinger said. Bass examines in detail how their attitude reflected the important role they had given Pakistan in their plans for China. Yahya Khan was the principal intermediary between Beijing and Washington, personally conveying to Chinese leaders the Americans’ desire for a closer dialogue. In April, 1971, the same month that the Blood telegram’s unwelcome report on Pakistan’s atrocities arrived, Nixon received his eagerly awaited invitation from the Chinese. He excitedly proposed that Kissinger secretly go to China, to prepare the way. He boasted that it was going to be a “great watershed in history, clearly the greatest since WWII”; the reliably boosterish Kissinger ranked it even higher, as “the greatest since the Civil War.” In July, Kissinger, feigning a stomach upset in Pakistan, flew from Islamabad to Beijing, where he began his long infatuation with China’s mighty philosopher-kings, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.
Reporting back to Nixon on Pakistan’s help with the “cloak and dagger exercise,” Kissinger joshed, “Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre!” Still, he realized that the Pakistani generals had behaved recklessly in East Pakistan. He saw that India was likely to go to war to resolve its intolerable refugee problem and that it was bound to win. He concurred with Nixon’s description of the Indians, who were secredy training and arming Bengali guerrillas, as “a slippery, treacherous people,” who “would like nothing better than to use this tragedy to destroy Pakistan.” Yahya Khan had to be supported until the great Presidential visit to China was confirmed.In addition, as Bass writes, “Kissinger now argued that U.S. demonstrations of fealty to Pakistan would play well for the Chinese,” who had distrusted India since their border clashes in 1962. Supporting the insupportable was part of an image-making strategy, a demonstration to the Chinese that, as the Pentagon Papers said, the United States was “willing to keep promises, be tough, take risks, get bloodied and hurt the enemy badly.” And the need to project American credibility and toughness grew: on August 9th, India signed its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union—a “bombshell,” in Kissinger’s panicked appraisal, that could spoil “everything we have done with China.” Public opinion had also been shifting against West Pakistan. In June, a report by an intrepid Pakistani journalist named Anthony Mascarenhas had appeared in London’s Sunday Times, with the headline “GENOCIDE.” Edward Kennedy returned from a visit to the refugee camps in August, hailing India’s “way of compassion.” That same month, a concert in New York in support of Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, directed the countercultural energies of the nineteen-sixties to a new cause. Nixon, however, put his faith in the proverbial American indifference to foreign affairs: “Biafra stirred up a few Catholics. But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.”
A visit to Washington in November by Indira Gandhi did not improve Nixon and Kissingers chances of postponing war between India and Pakistan until after the summit with Mao Zedong. Bass enumerates the various temptations Kissinger prepared for her: “famine relief, international relief presence, civilian governor, amnesty, unilateral withdrawal.” But she seemed implacable, talking to Nixon with the tone, Kissinger recalled, of “a professor praising a slightly backward student.” On December 4th, Yahya Khan, fed up with Indian infringements on Pakistan’s territory, declared war. Nixon and Kissinger blamed Indira Gandhi. It “makes your heart sick,” Nixon told Kissinger, for the Pakistanis “to be done so by the Indians, and after we have warned the bitch.” Nixon and Kissinger, desperate not to lose face with the Chinese and the Soviets, responded to Pakistan’s looming defeat with the crazy logic of escalation. Kissinger threatened the Soviet Union and encouraged the Chinese to intervene against India, and, as Nixon put it, “scare those goddamn Indians to death.” Nixon, contemplating Armageddon, dispatched the U.S.S. Enterprise.The Soviets, the Chinese, and the Indians proved to be more levelheaded than the self-styled exponents of Real-politik in the Oval Office. The Soviet Union, Srinath Raghavan shows in his book, was no less averse than the United States to the breakup of Pakistan, to which it had sold armaments. Ragha van’s narrative, which contradicts Bass’s at several points, argues that there was nothing inevitable about the dissolution of Pakistan. The creation of Bangladesh was the product of “conjuncture and contingency, choice and chance.” India was initially reluctant to arm Bengali rebels and to engage Pakistan militarily, and it would probably not have signed its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union had it not been for threats from Kissinger. And all that Nixon’s bluffing with the U.S.S. Enterprise achieved was, according to Raghavan, to “spur the Indians to capture Dhaka and seal their victory—objectives that had not been on their strategic horizons when the war began.” On December 16th, India forced Pakistan into an unconditional surrender in Dhaka. Ninety thousand Pakistani soldiers and civilians became prisoners of war—they remained in India until 1973—and Pakistan lost its most populous province. Defeat shocked many West Pakistanis, who had come to believe that one brave Muslim soldier equaled ten Hindu ones. From then on, shame and humiliation drove Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment to seek “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and a policy of “death by a thousand cuts” in Indian-ruled Kashmir.
Bass describes the devious way that Nixon and Kissinger managed to bury their role in the debacle. Americans have also “absorbed some of Nixon and Kissinger’s contempt for Bangladesh,” he laments. “Faraway, poor, brown—the place is all too easily ignored or mocked.” It is also true that Nixon in 1971 was far more worried about America’s protracted war in Vietnam, which, typically, he wished to end without admitting defeat. He recognized that “peace with honor,” an unfulfilled promise from his 1968 Presidential campaign, was key to his reelection, in 1972. But neither intensified bombing of North Vietnam nor secret talks with Hanoi were producing the result he desired, and an increasing majority of the American public thought the war a mistake. In June, 1971, the Times began to publish excerpts from the Pentagon Papers; the same month, the Democratic-majority Senate voted for the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam.These setbacks made Nixon more desperate for successes abroad. As he saw it, resetting relations with Hanoi’s main allies, the Soviet Union and China, could not only insure his place in history; it could also persuade North Vietnam to end the war on terms favorable to the United States. Insofar as the India-Pakistan imbroglio featured in these intricate plans, it was a nuisance, along with the conflicts of many other remote countries, including those in the Middle East.
Nixon had no doubt that publicly taking sides in East Pakistan would be, as he told Kissinger, “a hell of a mistake.” Kissinger, too, while concluding that the U.S. should not condemn the crackdown in East Pakistan, made it privately clear to Yahya Khan that Pakistan couldn’t expect American assistance while the slaughter continued. Such a course of public restraint and private pressure—echoed today in President Obama’s studied refusal to call the Egyptian coup a coup— offered, he felt, “the best chance of conserving our limited ability to influence” events.Kissinger and Nixon were quick to accept the fait accompli of an independent Bangladesh, and the ensuing ouster of Yahya Khan by Bhutto, whom they detested. And Nixon could cease fretting about South Asia, when, just two months after Pakistan’s defeat, he made his momentous visit to China, then inaugurated detente with the Soviet Union, and, in November, disingenuously claiming to be nearing peace with honor in Vietnam, won a landslide reelection. As Kissinger told Zhou Enlai, “the future of our relationship with Peking is infinitely more important for the future of Asia than what happens in Phnom Penh, in Hanoi or in Saigon”—or, he could have added, in Dhaka.
Nixon and Kissinger were clearly not burdened with an excessively moralistic view of foreign policy, but many postwar Administrations, Democratic as well as Republican, violated American ideals of democracy and human rights while pursuing what they saw—mostly wrongly—as national interests. In Latin America, for instance, counter-insurgency practices, including the use of death squads, honed by C.I.A.-sponsored forces in Guatemala in 1954 were diffused by pro-American regimes across the region—Brazil in 1964, Chile and Uruguay in 1973, Argentina in 1976, and El Salvador in the late seventies.Nixon and Kissinger’s pursuit of international credibility through macho posturing was rash. But such forceful efforts to deter potential enemies and influence friends can be dated back, as Arendt wrote, to “the fateful war crime that ended the last world war,” the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The imperative to look tough at all costs, most recently embodied by George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” tactics in Iraq, also weighed ominously on President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and on President Johnson in Vietnam. (It now weighs on Barack Obama as he contemplates punitive action in Syria.) The decision in 1979 by the human-rights-friendly Carter Administration to give the Soviet Union “its own Vietnam” in Afghanistan with the help of Islamist mujahideen sowed a more extensive geopolitical disorder than what William Bundy called the “unnecessary risk-taking” of Nixon and Kissinger.
At the same time, to focus on the moral capacity or culpability of American leaders can obscure the ruthless gambits of ruling classes in less powerful countries. Mujib, the founding father of Bangladesh, supported Islamists against progressive forces, amnestied Bengali collaborators of Pakistani war criminals, and banned all opposition political parties, before he was assassinated by Bangladeshi Army officers, in 1975. Bangladesh is still struggling to overcome the tormented legacy of his misrule. Two years after the revelations of Watergate, Indira Gandhi exceeded Nixon’s most flagrant illegalities by suspending civil liberties and arresting major opposition leaders. Bhutto, a champion of social justice for the poor, did not deny the necessity of a crackdown in East Pakistan. “I would have done it with more intelligence, more scientifically, less brutally,” he said in an interview. In 1974, he was able to demonstrate his refined approach by unleashing helicopter gunships on secessionists in Pakistan’s western province of Balochistan. West Pakistan’s leaders recognized the rebellious Bengalis as a threat to their military, economic, and political hegemony, and there is not much that the United States could have done to change their perception.Disappointed by America’s failure to stand up for human rights, Bass sees a more inspiring example in “India’s democratic response to the plight of the Bengalis.” In a footnote, he writes, “This book extends my argument that liberal states can be driven toward humanitarian intervention.” Although many Indians experienced, as Bass writes, “real solidarity with the Bengalis,” Indira Gandhi was driven to war by the politically explosive and economically catastrophic presence of refugees in India, and the fear of unrest in the border areas where she had just cmshed a major left-wing insurgency.
In many ways, the region is still dealing with the demons unleashed by the great territorial scission of 1971. India’s successful nuclear tests, three years later, spurred Pakistan’s urgent and costly attempts to achieve parity. The desire for revenge motivated Pakistani soldiers and spies, as they organized anti-Indian militant proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, despite the proliferation of new external and internal enemies, has remained institutionally obsessed with India. India, in turn, has governed Kashmir with the help of security forces and Draconian laws, and has been building a security fence on its border with Bangladesh.Such an aftermath of the creation of Bangladesh presents a challenge to liberal interventionists who wish to draw guidance for future actions. Force-backed humanitarianism, which relies on rational influence over events in other countries, may have been a more feasible project in the bipolar era of the Cold War, with its relatively defined and stable web of alliances and proxies. Today, a multitude of newly empowered actors make a series of choices— the Muslim Brotherhood President appeasing the military, say, or liberal Egyptians backing a coup—that have wholly unpredictable consequences.
The leader of the lone superpower finds his freedom of action ever more constrained by domestic political dysfunction and the complexities of geo-political turmoil. Obama was expected to restore an ethical sheen to post-9/11 foreign policy, but he has intensified drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan, pursued whistle-blowers, and failed to close down Guantanamo. It is difficult to imagine him risking Israel’s security by taking a hard fine against the Egyptian generals—especially not while he weighs the appropriate response to Syrian war crimes, copes with the human costs of the Iraq occupation and of the intervention in Libya, seeks peace with honor in Afghanistan, re-starts peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and controls the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Against this back-drop of permanent crisis, of ineluctable compromises and trade-offs, the moral responsibilities of liberal democracies seem arduous. Resources are meager, intentions troublingly ambiguous. India’s rulers in 1971, Bass writes, were “driven by an impure mix of humanitarian and strategic motives.” The same contaminated blend also drives those who choose war as a means to end violence. As another such intercession looms, we should be mindful of the aftereffects and the people who are left to cope with them.
New Yorker magazine, Sept 23, 2013