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Archer Blood: The conscientious civil servant

A file photo of former US President Richard Nixon. In what became famously known as “The Blood Telegrams”, Archer Blood began sending a series of dissent cables to the US exposing the true horror of Nixon’s policies and the blatant lies and chicanery he was resorting to.  Photo: AFPPremium
A file photo of former US President Richard Nixon. In what became famously known as “The Blood Telegrams”, Archer Blood began sending a series of dissent cables to the US exposing the true horror of Nixon’s policies and the blatant lies and chicanery he was resorting to. Photo: AFP

The moral courage of conscientious bureaucrats like Archer Blood may still prove to be inspiration to take on the powerful

On 3 September 2004, an octogenarian American diplomat died nondescriptly with hardly a mention in US newspapers. However, his death made headlines in a country halfway across the world. Archer Blood, an American Foreign Service officer, was posted in Dacca (now Dhaka) during the tumultuous years when East Pakistan was in the throes of becoming an independent nation. It was the early 1970s and East Pakistan had been devastated in more ways than one. A level-three cyclone had struck, killing over half a million people and Yahya Khan, the military dictator ruling from what was then known as West Pakistan, had been deliberately slow in responding to the crisis.

In early 1971, popular Awami League leader Mujibur Rahman, who had swept the recent elections, was arrested in a crackdown along with thousands of students and intelligentsia by West Pakistan’s military juggernaut. As recorded by Robert Payne, the author of Massacre, Yahya Khan ordered his brutal General Tikka Khan to kill millions of Bengalis so that the survivors either “eat out of their hands" or flee to India.

In a major military surge, West Pakistani troops were airlifted into Dacca using American-supplied C-130 military transport aircraft to suppress Bangladeshis with an iron hand. Yahya Khan enjoyed a specially close rapport with the US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, both of whom supported Pakistan as a bulwark against the Soviet bloc and despised Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Indians. Despite domestic protests in the US, Nixon subverted the oversight mechanisms and supplied Pakistan with vast quantities of arms and ammunition knowing fully well that they were being used to commit selective genocide in East Pakistan. The Pakistani war machine was butchering poorly armed and disorganized local populace, killing hundreds of thousands and deliberately creating a massive refugee influx into India. According to Mujibur Rahman, three million died and over 10 million were forced to flee into India; rivalling the scale of the India-Pakistan partition.

This humanitarian crisis was largely because of the policy of “The Tilt" as Nixon’s support for Yahya Khan came to be known. Declassified US government documents disclose that Nixon staunchly stood by the dictator while Pakistan used US weapons against its own citizenry to such devastating effect. The refugee situation became a full-blown crisis for India, which could barely afford to feed its own poor. In addition, cadres of the Bengali freedom movement Mukti Bahini started using refugee camps within Indian territory as their base. After appeals for international intervention proved ineffectual, largely because of US pressure, India had no choice but to intervene militarily.

Nixon immediately painted India as an aggressor, accusing it of interfering in Pakistan’s “internal" affairs and continued to discount atrocities committed by Pakistan. In a bid to deter India, he deployed a naval task force, led by nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, in the Bay of Bengal in thinly disguised “gunboat diplomacy". In addition, Nixon used his recent bonhomie with the Chinese to prod them into troop movements threatening India on its north-eastern front. He also asked Jordan to replenish Pakistan’s depleted air force with its own squadrons of fighter aircraft. Despite such assistance, Pakistan could not subdue its eastern wing and the Bangladeshi movement began to gain ground.

However, the world was largely unaware of the true horror of events in East Pakistan, primarily because of the news blackout imposed by Pakistan and the US. Foreign journalists were not permitted to travel or witness events first-hand and the US populace remained oblivious of what their president was doing.

Archer Blood changed that. In what became famously known as “The Blood Telegrams", he began sending a series of dissent cables to the US exposing the true horror of Nixon’s policies and the blatant lies and chicanery he was resorting to. Nixon and Kissinger tried their best to silence him, but Blood stood his ground and gathered momentum among other officers who were equally disgusted by the duplicity of their president; Kenneth Keating, US ambassador to India, was one of them. Blood’s cable dispatched on 6 April 1971 is considered to be the most strongly worded dissent ever to be sent by a foreign services officer to the state department. Gary Bass’s book The Blood Telegram brilliantly captures the saga of how a relatively low ranking, but conscientious civil servant could start a collective movement of dissent against the US policy of abetting human rights violation of such magnitude and make a difference that would eventually force Nixon and Kissinger to reduce their support to a dictatorial regime if not altogether abandon it.

In many ways, world histories tend to repeat themselves. Countries professing promotion of democracies and free will of people continue to support dictatorial regimes when it suits them. Citizenries, who believe they are abreast of events, continue to be oblivious of parochial policies their leaders practice. And millions continue to die because their torments are unknown to the rest of the world. But the moral courage of conscientious bureaucrats like Archer Blood may still prove to be inspiration to take on the powerful—especially when the powerful are in the wrong.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.

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