The Blood Telegram | Gary J. Bass

An impure mix

Richard Nixon had targeted American presidency from the time he became Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president in 1952. He had to wait; he lost narrowly to John F. Kennedy in 1960, but won finally in 1968, that troubled year when the US was torn by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Nixon was fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam he hadn’t started and didn’t know how to end without admitting defeat, facing protest movements buoyed by America’s rock musicians, and seething against a counterculture that yelled—Don’t trust anyone over thirty.

Nixon was 55 that year. Deeply distrustful of the East Coast elite who looked down on him as a Californian upstart, he had many demons to fight. He found a soulmate in Henry Kissinger, the émigré from Europe with a grave voice who taught at Harvard and took a bleak view of the world. Kissinger pursued his version of America’s strategic interests in which emotions, ideals, and morality had almost no role. Kissinger wanted to defend American interests as he defined them, and if in so doing millions had to die, that was incidental, collateral damage.

The Blood Telegram: Random House India, 368 pages, Rs 499
The Blood Telegram: Random House India, 368 pages, Rs 499

In their case, the objective was to establish détente with the Soviet Union, and to do that the US needed Chinese help. And the road to China went through Pakistan.

At that time, General Yahya Khan ruled Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger found Khan impressive, his cultivated Sandhurst accent conferring on him gravitas he didn’t possess—he was to demonstrate his ineptitude soon. The Indian rival who outsmarted him, Indira Gandhi, treated Nixon with snooty disdain, talking to him “with the tone of a professor praising a slightly backward student", as former journalist and Princeton academic Gary J. Bass puts it in this engrossing, droll, and ultimately shocking account of Bangladesh’s liberation war, as seen from Washington. Nixon refers to her as the bitch and Kissinger calls Indians bastards; they speak cavalierly that India needed “a mass famine" and at one point, they even consider risking a nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union.

Many Indians have often wondered why the US never liked their country, in spite of it being a poor but proud and pluralistic democracy, the land of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. But America didn’t want lectures in piety; it wanted strategic—pliant—allies to contain the Soviet Union. American hawks found India’s claimed idealism condescending and self-righteous.

The Bangladesh war of liberation interfered with Nixon’s and Kissinger’s plans. Pakistan’s raison d’être was religion, but its western wing treated its eastern half as its colony. The devastating cyclone Bhola in 1970 perpetuated perceptions of neglect in the east. In the elections that followed, Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats in the east. The Pakistan People’s Party did win majority in the west’s 138 seats, but the Awami League had absolute majority.

Instead of inviting the Awami League to form government, Pakistan sent negotiators and troops. The negotiations stalled and they left; in late March 1971, the troops spread a reign of terror in which hundreds of thousands of people died, sending 10 million refugees to India. Many Bangladeshis refer to the massacre as genocide. Bass points out that the act of singling out Bangladeshi nationalists and Bengali Hindus was genocidal. Before Slobodan Milošević and the Serbs made the term commonplace, Bangladesh also experienced ethnic cleansing.

One American hero was Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dacca (as the city was then known). A man genuinely committed to development in Pakistan, he noted with horror the contempt with which West Pakistanis treated their eastern cousins. He scrupulously maintained records (he even wrote a book The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh), and wrote fierce and strong critique of US policy in his cables back home. Those cables (hence the title of Bass’s book) did not endear him, and his career suffered. But he persisted.

On 6 April, he sent an unprecedented cable, signed by 29 colleagues, saying: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy." The American ambassador in Delhi, Kenneth Keating, too implored the US to “promptly, publicly, and prominently" deplore Pakistani brutality.

By June, the world learned more: Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas had termed it genocide in his dispatches to The Sunday Times. US senator Edward Kennedy had visited refugee camps in India, cradled babies and praised India. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar staged the historic Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

But Kissinger was interested in a different game: the opening of China to help end the Vietnam War and to neutralize the Soviets. And to get to China, he had to tolerate whatever Pakistan did. Backing Pakistan would please China, Kissinger believed.

Once Pakistan attacked India and India retaliated with massive force, the situation changed drastically. The US tried to intimidate India by sending USS Enterprise from its 7th Fleet towards the Bay of Bengal. It was a rash move; it strengthened Indian resolve, leading to Pakistan’s quick surrender.

Bangladesh’s birth was bloodied, and marks a shameful period in American foreign policy—it was on the wrong side of history. But Archer Blood kept the stars-and-stripes aflutter. Bass’s meticulously researched book resurrects the reputation of an unsung diplomat, remembered mainly by Bangladeshis.

Bass has a deeper purpose. His earlier work, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, is a stirring call for the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, under which the international community can intervene in another nation militarily, to prevent grave human rights abuses occurring on a mass scale. Invoked through the 1990s when Nato intervened in the Balkans and the British protected Sierra Leone. But there are older examples—Tanzania in Uganda in 1978-79 to get rid of Idi Amin; Vietnam in Cambodia in 1979 to defeat Pol Pot; and India helping liberate Bangladesh in 1971.

Bass admires India’s “impure mix" of humanitarian and strategic motives and praises India’s role. But how the world has changed! India is now obsessed with “illegal Bangladeshis", blaming them for cattle smuggling in Bengal and rape in Mumbai. India’s Border Security Force once cradled Bangladeshi children fleeing Pakistani troops; today it is accused of torturing and killing petty smugglers. At such a time, The Blood Telegram is a useful reminder not only of how cynical Nixon and Kissinger were, but how magnanimous India had been.

Close