Review of Gary J. Bass's "The Blood Telegram"

tags: Richard Nixon, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide
by Gary J. Bass
Knopf (2013)

In The Blood Telegram, Gary J. Bass, a former journalist who is currently a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, describes the 1971 bloodbath which destroyed East Pakistan and gave birth to the nation of Bangladesh – a series of events which Bass argues culminated in “a forgotten genocide,” overshadowed by events in Vietnam and Cambodia along with the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Bass asserts that the United States must bear responsibility for the Pakistani army’s violent response to calls for autonomy following the electoral victory of Mujib-ur-Rahman in East Pakistan. The violence, which left at least a quarter million Bengalis dead and millions more refugees, was carried out with weapons supplied by the United States to its Pakistan military ally, while President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger refused to reign in their client General Ayha Muhammad Yahya Khan despite the fact that the U.S. consulate in Dacca provided detailed intelligence to the State Department and White House of the atrocities taking place in East Pakistan.

The chief protagonist of this story is career Foreign Service officer Archer Blood, who as head of the consulate at Dacca sacrificed his career to assure that the true story of the massacre in East Pakistan was communicated to Washington. Nixon and Kissinger were infuriated with the so-called “Blood Telegram,” and the career diplomat was recalled from his post. Bass also reserves praise for former New York Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, who served as Ambassador to India during the crisis and failed to share the animosities of Nixon and Kissinger toward Indian democracy. Nixon was also angered that leaks from the State Department were reaching the desk of his most feared Democratic rival, Senator Edward Kennedy, who personally observed the squalid conditions of refugee camps established in India for those fleeing the slaughter in East Pakistan.

The president was especially incensed that Blood employed the word “genocide” to describe the fact that the Pakistani army was targeting Bengali Hindus for extermination and displacement. Nixon and Kissinger were terrified that such language and information would find its way into the hands of political opponents such as Kennedy and might jeopardize the administration’s overtures to China. Unbeknownst to Blood and the State Department, Nixon and Kissinger had decided upon the Pakistani military strongman Yahya as their primary liaison with the Chinese in Beijing. Once this approach was made, Kissinger and Nixon sought to muzzle any criticism which might antagonize the Pakistani leader, and allegations of atrocities in East Pakistan were officially downplayed. Thus, Bass concludes that the diplomatic opening in Beijing was achieved upon the bodies of several hundred thousand Bengalis in East Pakistan.

Yet, the preference for Pakistan also seemed based upon the personal prejudices of the President and Kissinger. Nixon had formed a personal relationship with Yahya, but he had little use for the Indian people and their leader, Indira Gandhi. And sexism certainly seemed to play a role here as well, for in their private “recorded” conversations, Nixon and Kissinger often referred to the leader of India as “that bitch.” As far as policy is concerned, Gandhi and the Indians angered the White House by signing a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. Perceiving the crisis in East Pakistan through the lens of the Cold War, the Nixon administration risked a global conflict by encouraging the Chinese to take action against the Indians if they intervened in East Pakistan.

As Bass well documents with his research into Indian diplomatic archives and interviews with Indian civilian and military leaders, military intervention by India was the handmaiden to independence for Bangladesh. While generally sympathetic to the Indians, Bass acknowledges that their military incursion was not simply based upon humanitarian concerns and stopping the genocide. The refugee crisis from East Pakistan was a financial strain which the Indians could not sustain. Accordingly, it was necessary to create a state in East Pakistan to which the refugees would be comfortable returning. Despite official denials, the Indians were arming and training the Bengali resistance. In November 1971 after the monsoons, the India government launched an invasion of East Pakistan which culminated in the creation of Bangladesh. The clash between India and Pakistan on the war’s western front was more of a stalemate, and Bass finds little evidence that the Gandhi government, despite popular passions and pressure, harbored intentions of seeking to topple the regime in West Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger, however, feared Indian domination of the subcontinent, and Bass documents that despite a halt imposed on Pakistani military purchases during the conflict, the President authorized the illegal transfer of American planes from Jordan and other allies to Pakistan. According to the transcription of White House tapes, Nixon acknowledged that these transfers were violations of Congressional legislation, but he approved of them anyway -- reminding one of Nixon’s later claim to interviewer David Frost that no action was illegal if authorized by the president.

Bass’s history of the 1971 genocide in East Pakistan/Bangladesh is a long overdue study and is based upon extensive interviews and recently declassified archival sources. For example Bass conducted interviews with Indian diplomats Arundhati Ghose and Jagat Mehta; associates of Blood such as Scott Butcher, Eric Griffel, and the diplomat’s widow Margaret Millward Blood; Kissinger lieutenants Samuel Hoskinson and Winston Lord; and New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg who covered the conflict in East Pakistan and accompanying refugee crisis in India. In addition, Bass examined the Nixon tapes from the Oval Office and Executive Office Building, although he acknowledges that many of Kissinger’s papers remain closed to researchers.

This is a book which deserves a wide readership as Americans, especially, need to remember the largely ignored genocide in East Pakistan which was supported by American arms and diplomacy. The birth pangs of Bangladesh are unknown to most Americans, who primarily perceive the impoverished nation as the source of cheap clothing despite the industrial accidents which plague the garment industry. Through Bass’s fine book, American have an opportunity to recognize their duplicity in the 1971 genocide unleashed in East Pakistan, testified to by Archer Blood in State Department communications. Americans continue to ignore this “forgotten genocide,” industrial accidents, and environmental disasters in Bangladesh and much of the developing world at their own peril -- as the support of dictators abroad both yesterday and today continues to place America and its citizens in danger. The only caveat for this readable and powerful book is that it fails to make many connections between East Pakistan and the overall Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy which was supportive of genocidal policies in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile while suppressing revolutionary and popular movements in favor of supporting international capitalism and the established world order.

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