Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune book review of The Blood Telegram by Gary Bass
The Blood Telegram by Gary Bass is the best single account of how the United States responded to the 1971 Bangladesh independence war.
Bass, a Princeton politics professor, compellingly relates how President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, willfully ignored and tried to denigrate the many warnings and ample evidence provided by their own consular officers, of atrocities committed by the Pakistan army during 1971.
Archer Blood is the eponymous hero who as the US Consul General in East Pakistan, risked his own career to lead the consulate in sending the “Blood Telegram” on April 6, 1971, strongly dissenting from their nation’s policy of supporting Yayha Khan’s military junta.
Highly readable, Bass’s justly lauded work is best summarised by the two alternative sub-titles used by its publishers: ”Nixon, Kissinger and a forgotten genocide” and ”India’s secret war in East Pakistan.”
It is not a criticism to say that his focus is purely on the independence war as seen through the prism of Nixon’s White House and Indira Gandhi’s inner circle. Other histories relate the long history of aspirations for independence, Bhutto’s machinations, and accounts of the struggle on the ground.
The book instead provides a uniquely fascinating glimpse into the operation of power at the highest levels.
Whilst the bulk of people in both India and the US were appalled by the suppression of democracy and Yayha’s brutal crackdown in Bangladesh, Bass’s descriptions of how and why leaders of the world’s two largest democracies took opposing views on questions of Bangladeshi independence, tells its own story about the nature of Cold War politics.
For Nixon and Kissinger, the world was a superpower chessboard where the lives of millions of Bangladeshi civilians and refugees amounted to little more than expendable pawns in their obsession with global power plays and the Soviet Union.
Thus it was that even though Kissinger advised the US president as early as March 13, 1971, that Yayha ”was determined to maintain a unified Pakistan by force if necessary” and credited Mujib for embarking on a “Gandhian-type non-violent non-cooperation movement which makes it harder to justify repression,” adding that “West Pakistan lacks the capacity to put down a full scale revolt over a long period,” he still urged the president to do nothing.
American backing for the Pakistani junta was seen by Kissinger as too important to jeopardise, most particularly because it was providing a clandestine back channel for his talks with Zhou En Lai, to pave the way for Nixon’s historic trip to, and subsequent recognition of, Chairman Mao’s China in 1972.
Nothing, not even the US consulate’s strongly worded criticisms of ”moral bankruptcy in the face of genocide,” and the huge groundswell of sympathy for Bangladesh characterised by US politicians such as Senator Edward Kennedy, would veer either Nixon or Kissinger from their path.
Reassuring China of their unwavering support for allies and defence of state sovereignty was seen as important enough for them to illegally continue arms shipments to Pakistan throughout the war, riding roughshod over Congressional embargoes imposed after press revelations of US arms shipments.
Whilst India’s closeness and regional aspirations meant that it was always destined to support Bangladeshi independence, this did not diminish the pressures on Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She had to balance a polity increasingly bent on war with Pakistan, against an international community hostile to foreign interventions.
A large part of her time was spent trying to build up global support, whilst covertly providing support for Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini. Her decision to begin war planning came early in March after she over-ruled a flawed RAW evaluation that Bhutto and Mujib would be able to do a deal.
It meant playing a long game and included, for instance, managing Indian public and media perceptions by suppressing reports on the high proportion of Hindus among Bangladeshi refugees. It also meant compromising Nehruvian non-alignment for a friendship treaty with the USSR.
When victory swiftly came in the end for Bangladesh and India, it was still actively resisted by Nixon and Kissinger, who increased their support for Pakistan even after full scale war broke out. Their notorious “tilt towards Pakistan” was seen most clearly in December 1971 by the diversion of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet away from active duty in Vietnam, and more covertly through the pressure they exercised on the Shah of Iran and Jordan to supply planes to Pakistan.
To some extent, this story has previously been told, notably by Archer Blood himself in The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh published two years before his death in 2004.
Enayetur and Joyce Rahim’s Bangladesh Liberation War and the Nixon White House, 1971 (2000) and AMA Munith’s American Response to Bangladesh Liberation War (1996) cover the same ground, while Christopher Hitchens’ 2001 The Trial of Henry Kissinger provides an astute condemnation of Kissinger’s choice of Pakistan as a diplomatic back channel to China.
Where Bass excels, however, is in his drawing together of verbatim remarks made by Nixon and Kissinger, using the recordings of their White House conversations available in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States series. More than once, this provides morbid entertainment value at the callousness and cynicism of Nixon and Kissinger’s attitudes, and adds vivid colour to the insights Bass gleans from Indian and US archives.
Amusingly, he relates Nixon’s bemusement at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, whilst rightly highlighting that the event had huge political significance, drawing attention as it did in New York to US arms shipments, and by using the name of a country which Nixon did not want to recognise.
Of course, Nixon’s paranoia and hatred of what he saw as a hostile liberal establishment and media has long been the stuff of legend. Even so, it is still possible to be startled by the extent of his often offensive, scatological musings about world leaders.
It is difficult to imagine present day American presidents getting away with Nixon’s misogynist antipathy towards Indira Gandhi or remarks like ”Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan because Pakistan, well they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.”
Kissinger and Nixon’s shamelessness in their preference for dealing with despots over democratic politicians had no boundaries. The book is littered with evidence of their stubborn regard for Yayha and vehement denunciations of Blood as that “maniac in Dacca.”
By making frequent references to Biafra and the Nazis, they show both knowledge of the scale of the killing and a complete lack of self-knowledge, as their lack of moral compass led them to ever more unrealistic justifications for their policies.
A nadir of sorts is reached when they show their conspiratorial glee at their collusion with the dictator in covering up the secret trip to Beijing, with Kissinger exclaiming: “Yayha hasn’t had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre.”
In the light of more recent debates about Bosnia and Darfur, the willful complicity demonstrated by Nixon and Kissinger in the bloodshed of 1971, and their subsequent surprisingly effective efforts to obscure discussion of it, is hugely sobering.
That even vehement critics of the pair will often cite their “opening up of China” as a great foreign policy success, to balance against failings over Cambodia, Vietnam and Watergate, without making any reference to the Bangladesh war, shows their success and tenacity in glossing up their record.
Another outcome which deserves to be considered more deeply by historians, is whether the frustration showed by Kissinger on realising they were backing the losing side which expressed itself in ever more Strangelovian rhetoric, helped exacerbate Nixon’s escalation of the US bombing of Vietnam in 1972.
While Bass laments that the “dead hand of Nixonian cover up” and Kissinger’s deal with the Library of Congress to help sanitise his record during his lifetime, still prevents Americans appreciating the full extent of their complicity, he need not be overly concerned.
For putting in perspective Blood’s honourable actions and sacrifices during and after the Bangladesh war of independence, Gary Bass’s book deserves much wider reading.
The Blood Telegram is the best researched and most lucid indictment of the Nixon White House’s willful collusion with Yayha’s brutal regime, and will certainly stand the test of time.
Above all, it is a worthy tribute to Archer Blood’s integrity and professionalism and holds invaluable truths and lessons for future generations.