January 18, 2013
In Defense of Kissinger
IN HIS BOOK Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger concludes that the United States “faces the challenge of reaching its goals in stages, each of which is an amalgam of American values and geopolitical necessities.”1 The recent debates about U.S. military options in Libya and Syria reflect the enduring tension between these intertwined, at times competing components of our external relations. No U.S. statesman can ignore this dilemma, and none will find it easy to strike exactly the right balance between the two, especially in times of crisis. All would seek to simultaneously pursue the promotion of the national interest and the protection of human rights. Kissinger, famous for advocating an American foreign policy based on the national interest, has long stressed that values and power are properly understood as mutually supporting. As he argued in a 1973 speech, since “Americans have always held the view that America stood for something above and beyond its material achievements,” a “purely pragmatic policy” would confuse allies and eventually forfeit domestic support. Yet “when policy becomes excessively moralistic it may turn quixotic or dangerous,” giving way to “ineffectual posturing or adventuristic crusades.”2 The key to a sustainable foreign policy, in his view, is the avoidance of either extreme: “A country that demands moral perfection of itself as a test of its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.”3
This ever-present fusion of American values and national interests was evident in the spring of 1971, as a crisis erupted in South Asia during Kissinger’s tenure as Richard Nixon’s national-security adviser. When the British Raj ended in 1947, a partition of the subcontinent led to the creation of India and Pakistan as separate, estranged sovereign states. Pakistan, envisioned as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, emerged with an unusual bifurcated structure comprising two noncontiguous majority-Muslim areas: “West Pakistan” and “East Pakistan.” While united by a shared faith, they were divided by language, ethnicity and one thousand miles of Indian territory.
Over the course of a fraught sequence of events from 1970 to 1972, a party advocating East Pakistani autonomy won a national parliamentary majority, and Pakistan’s two wings split. Amid natural disaster (a cyclone of historic proportions struck the East on the eve of the vote, killing up to half a million people and devastating fields and livestock), constitutional crisis, a sweeping crackdown by West Pakistani forces attempting to hold the East, mass refugee migrations, guerilla conflict and an Indian-Pakistani war, East Pakistan achieved independence as the new state of Bangladesh. By most estimates, the victims of the Bangladeshi independence struggle, which included communal massacres unleashed during the crackdown, numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
In his new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Princeton professor Gary Bass, who has written previous books on humanitarian intervention and war-crimes tribunals, portrays the American president and his national-security adviser as the heartless villains of these events. While Bass makes a cursory acknowledgement of the two men’s geopolitical accomplishments, he derides the thinking that informed their actions as the product of a “familiar Cold War chessboard.” His own implicit framework is a deeply heartfelt and contrary view to Kissinger’s, one that places human-rights concerns at the pinnacle of U.S. foreign policy, at least in this crisis.
But how persuasive is Bass’s history? Instead of producing a definitive account, he offers an ahistorical and tendentious rendition that, more often than not, lacks a broader context. He reduces a complex series of overlapping South Asian upheavals, Cold War alliances and diplomatic initiatives to “a reminder of what the world can easily look like without any concern for the pain of distant strangers.”4 He faults the United States for not taking a firmer, more public stand on Pakistan’s domestic repression while offering only vague assurances that this U.S. pressure would have brought about an actual improvement in conditions. Moreover, he trivializes the possibility that his human rights–dominated policy preferences could have had profoundly damaging strategic consequences for the United States. Ironically, in his previous book Freedom’s Battle, Bass sympathizes with precisely the sort of cautionary impulses that animated Kissinger:
Even if a President or Prime Minister has credible information about atrocities . . . there must still be a cold realpolitik calculation about the costs of intervening. . . . If a humanitarian intervention would lead to a broader international crisis, or plunge the country—or the world—into a massive war, then most cabinets will decide that it is just not worth it. . . . Believing in human rights does not make one suicidal.
In fact, he goes even further, allowing that the “point of a balance of power”—Kissinger’s principal preoccupation in 1971, as throughout his career as a statesman—“is a profound moral goal: it keeps the peace.”5 But in The Blood Telegram, he implies that Nixon and Kissinger should have realized that they could have had it both ways with no risk—achieved their strategic breakthrough with China, with all of its attendant geopolitical benefits, and concurrently put human rights in East Pakistan at the top of their policy agenda. If only life were that simple: as Kissinger observes, “The analyst runs no risk. If his conclusions prove wrong, he can write another treatise. The statesman is permitted only one guess; his mistakes are irretrievable.”6
Thus, at a time of acute crisis, Kissinger judged that if Washington had mounted an all-out private and public human-rights campaign against then president Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan and the Pakistan government, which was correctly convinced that the future of the state was at stake, such a campaign would not have fundamentally altered Islamabad’s policy toward East Pakistan, and the White House’s China initiative could well have collapsed. However, as will be demonstrated at length later in this essay, that hardly meant that he ignored the plight of the Bengali Hindus. Kissinger, both while in office and in his subsequent writings, rejected the proposition that circumstances inevitably force a crude either/or choice between national interests and democratic values, and during this crisis no other nation except India did as much as the United States to directly address the human-rights tragedy in East Pakistan.
One wishes that the chasm between academic and policy-maker perspectives might have produced a certain modesty in Bass’s treatment of these events. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead The Blood Telegram offers a strident, almost willfully biased attack on the personal motives of policy makers whom Bass condemns—from the comfortable perspective of forty years of hindsight and an American victory in the Cold War—for falling short of bringing about all desirable goals simultaneously. In Bass’s theory, Nixon and Kissinger, motivated by a mixture of “racial animus toward Indians,” indifference to human rights and an obsessive focus on Cold War geopolitics, ignored opportunities to save lives, ensured that “the United States was allied with the killers” and incurred “responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis.”7 To reach his indictment of Nixon and Kissinger, Bass pairs a myopic account of the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China and its long-term objectives with a highly selective rendition of U.S. policy toward the breakup of Pakistan.
IT IS IMPORTANT to stress what Nixon and Kissinger were trying to accomplish in U.S.-Chinese relations beginning in the fall of 1970: no less than a fundamental restructuring of the global balance of power and world order in America’s favor. By establishing a strategic understanding with Beijing based on China’s genuine worry that the relentless Soviet military buildup in the Far East could presage an attack on China, they hoped to strengthen America’s global position; meet Beijing’s test that “only an America that was strong in Asia could be taken seriously by the Chinese”8; incentivize Moscow to adopt more reasonable policies toward the United States, including in Europe and on arms control; bring an honorable end to the Vietnam War (a conflict in which half a million Americans were at war at the time of Nixon’s inauguration, but which public and elite opinion increasingly rejected); and reduce tensions throughout Asia.
All these crucial objectives—in which success could fairly count as both a strategic and a moral achievement—required a fundamental reorientation of U.S.-Chinese relations. As Kissinger observes in White House Years, “The hostility between China and the Soviet Union served our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other. The rest could be left to the dynamic of events.”9
Nixon and Kissinger’s decision in October 1970 (before the Pakistani crisis) to reach out to China through the Pakistanis is casually dismissed by Bass as “one of many options” and potentially the worst. He suggests France and, curiously, totalitarian Romania as plausible and more ethical alternatives.10 Yet the United States explored all three, and Beijing unambiguously chose Pakistan. The first explicit indication by China that a personal envoy of Nixon would be welcome in Beijing came in December 1970 by way of the Pakistani channel, with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai stressing, “The United States knows that Pakistan is a great friend of China and therefore we attach importance to the message.”11 On April 27, 1971, after American replies through both Romania and Pakistan, Beijing followed up through Islamabad and invited “direct discussions between high-level responsible persons of the two countries,” suggesting that the proper arrangements could “be made through the good offices of President Yahya Khan.”12
As Kissinger stresses, Zhou did not “want to risk subordinates’ thwarting of our common design by their haggling over ‘modalities.’ By keeping technical arrangements in the Pakistani channel, he ensured discretion, high-level consideration, and expeditious decisions.”13 Bass, ignoring the evident Chinese insistence on Pakistan, attacks the White House’s use of Yahya Khan as an intermediary as evidence of a gratuitous Nixonian affection for military strongmen. In addition to the strong PRC preference for Pakistan and the advantages of geographic proximity, another explanation is also pertinent: it is difficult to imagine how it could have been arranged for Kissinger to visit Beijing secretly from either Paris (a world capital) or Bucharest (a prime target of Soviet penetration); secrecy was an essential requirement since Nixon could risk neither premature U.S. domestic euphoria nor a public failure in Beijing. Nothing regarding this highly sensitive matter leaked from Pakistan, and Yahya Khan discreetly managed the complex arrangements to get Kissinger secretly from Islamabad to Beijing, as Zhou had suggested.
The late great Harvard historian Ernest May once observed, “What a historian chooses to leave out or minimize is often as important and telling as what he decides to include.”14 One must wonder if Bass discounts the clear Chinese preference for Yahya Khan as the intermediary between Beijing and Washington because acknowledging it would undermine one of his core assertions: that Nixon and Kissinger could have openly condemned or even attempted to unseat the Pakistani president without endangering the opening to China.
In his book, Bass never directly confronts a series of major questions: If he knew that the opening to China would have faltered, as Nixon and Kissinger feared, because of U.S. pressure on Yahya over the atrocities in East Pakistan, would he nevertheless have forced a showdown with Pakistan over the plight of Hindu Bengalis? Would he have been content to face an outcome in which the China initiative collapsed even as Pakistan rejected American demands as irrelevant? Would the next step have been sanctions against Pakistan, or perhaps American support for the Bengali insurgency—and what other results would these policies have entailed? Statesmen have to make such choices; professors do not.
To duck these questions, Bass must implicitly posit an alternative rosy scenario in which Nixon and Kissinger are able to establish an equally effective channel to Beijing while bringing about a swift improvement in Pakistan’s domestic conditions. But what would the Chinese reaction have been if the United States had informed an adversary of two decades at an enormously delicate moment that its watershed invitation to improve relations had been misdirected and that the Yahya Khan channel was unacceptable to Washington? What if those within the Chinese government who had wished to sabotage the possibility of an opening to the United States had used this U.S. switch in channels to delay Kissinger’s visit? Who could have known how long Zhou would be in a sufficiently strong bureaucratic position to pursue a breakthrough with Washington? (In fact, just two years later, he was “struggled against” by ultraleftists and purged.) Who could have been sure that Mao Zedong, always mercurial and then in exceedingly poor health, would not reverse course and seek to solve his Soviet problem through rapprochement with Moscow? And what conclusions might Beijing have drawn regarding American credibility if Nixon and Kissinger, as Bass advises, had dramatically changed course and abandoned a longtime ally during the defining crisis of its independent existence?
AS NIXON AND KISSINGER had warned, the crisis in East Pakistan produced escalating Indian-Pakistani tensions, which culminated in war in December 1971. India, backed by a freshly signed Indo-Soviet friendship treaty with military clauses and an active Soviet supply line, crushed Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and recognized Bangladesh as an independent state. Pressing their advantage, top Indian officials considered objectives in West Pakistan including a total destruction of Pakistani military power and (as Bass himself notes) “other ways to crack up West Pakistan itself.”15 This outcome could have inaugurated an ominous precedent in international order—the destruction of a sovereign state by foreign military action—with consequences that would reverberate far beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis. If India succeeded, Kissinger warned during the crisis:
The result would be a nation of 100 million people dismembered, their political structure changed by military attack, despite a treaty of alliance with and private assurances by the United States. And all the other countries, on whom we have considered we could rely . . . would know that this has been done by the weight of Soviet arms and with Soviet diplomatic support. What will be the effect in the Middle East, for example—could we tell Israel that she should give up something along a line from A to B, in return for something else, with any plausibility?16
And how would China have reacted if Washington had stood by passively and watched Beijing’s chosen channel to the United States and longtime friend crushed by a combination of Indian military action and Soviet weapons? What then for Mao’s willingness to pursue the opening of U.S.-Chinese relations?
Seeking to deter such a destructive outcome, the United States deployed an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal (where it was joined by a Soviet naval task force deployed from Vladivostok) and pushed for an immediate UN-backed cease-fire. With military aid to Pakistan frozen, the White House encouraged allies to make shows of force, including a back-channel proposal in which Iran and Jordan would transfer some of their own American-made fighter jets to the West Pakistan front. Bass expresses indignation at this proposal, suggesting that it was undertaken to assist in the repression of civilians in East Pakistan. He fails to explain that the discussion involved transferring jets to West Pakistan during a war in which India was considering a drive for total victory and an all-out destruction of the Pakistani armed forces. In any case, it is not apparent what military role, if any, the planes played in the conflict.17 In Bass’s view, these actions constituted a perverse betrayal of democratic principles by Nixon and Kissinger—American participation in “Kissinger’s secret onslaught” and an “arsenal against democracy” that drove India into the arms of the Soviet Union and “enduringly alienat[ed] not just Indira Gandhi . . . but a whole democratic society.”18 But this insults the sophistication and agency of the main Indian players, in addition to misrepresenting the actual sequence of events.
Scholars will long marvel at how the world’s two largest democracies ended up on opposite sides of the Cold War. Yet their rift was growing well before the 1971 Pakistan crisis, and it transcended Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi’s mutual personal dislike. Negotiations over the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty had begun by March 1969, when the Soviet defense minister brought a draft treaty text to New Delhi. A draft text was ready by mid-1970, though by some Indian accounts its signing was postponed pending the Indian election. According to one Indian participant in the negotiations, all that remained to be negotiated at this point was the final wording of the decisive military clause.19
The 1971 crisis did strain U.S.-Indian relations—yet this was largely because Washington and New Delhi had incompatible strategic aspirations. Washington increasingly accepted that East Pakistan would become autonomous or independent, but opposed an outcome in which this was achieved through a regional war or with Soviet arms. India, pursuing a sophisticated blend of humanitarian impulses and Machiavellian calculation, opted almost immediately for a military solution. As Bass himself notes, “On March 2, over three weeks before Yahya launched his slaughter, [Indira] Gandhi ordered her best and brightest . . . to evaluate ‘giving help to Bangla Desh’ and the possibility of recognizing ‘an independent Bangla Desh.’” Bengali partisans, she assessed, would need aircraft for “quick movement inside India around the borders of Bangla Desh” and “arms and ammunition (including L[ight] M[achine] G[un]s, M[edium] M[achine] G[uns] and Mortars”—in other words, Indian military support for a cross-border separatist insurgency.20 At the beginning of April 1971, Indira Gandhi reportedly told her cabinet that “we don’t mind a war” and ordered the Indian army to prepare for an invasion of East Pakistan. According to one high-ranking Indian officer quoted by Bass, she ordered them to “move in” immediately. When the army balked at invading a flood plain on the eve of a monsoon, a compromise solution was reached: Indian conventional forces would prepare to enter East Pakistan around “the fifteenth of November,” and in the meantime India would provide Bengali separatists with “material assistance” and “training in guerilla tactics, to prepare for a long struggle.”21 Bengali guerilla units—organized, trained and armed by India—operated from border sanctuaries throughout the summer and fall, backed up by occasional Indian firepower and at least one cross-border Indian raid.22
The United States—including Kissinger, in his trip to New Delhi in July 1971, and Nixon, during his November summit with Indira Gandhi—pressed India to refrain from provocations on the border and argued that war would be best avoided if all parties committed to a peaceful political track. India, convinced that it had both a moral obligation and a historic strategic opportunity to act, denied its covert assistance to the Bengali insurgency and insisted that the problem was Pakistan’s to solve. Indira Gandhi refused American requests to send U.S. or UN observers to help administer refugee aid (in retrospect, most likely because two ambitious Indian programs were proceeding simultaneously among the refugee population—one humanitarian and the other covert).
Each democracy could claim to have achieved a significant portion of its goals. While welcoming and feeding millions of refugees, India succeeded in splitting East and West Pakistan by force and emerging as the midwife of an independent Bangladesh. The United States, after attempting to head off a war through both humanitarian measures and diplomacy, successfully deterred a major Indian campaign against West Pakistan while preserving its course of rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union.
COINCIDING WITH these events was a violent internal crisis in Pakistan. On March 25, 1971, after the collapse of compromise talks between East and West Pakistani politicians, Pakistani forces began Operation Searchlight, a systematic plan to eliminate all resistance in East Pakistan through an overwhelming application of force. This occurred just as Nixon and Kissinger were awaiting a definitive reply from China to messages sent that winter through Pakistan and Romania concerning a prospective high-level bilateral meeting in Beijing (a reply that arrived in April through the Pakistani channel).
In Bass’s account, an obsessive and unwarranted desire to preserve Pakistan as a conduit for the unfolding U.S.-Chinese rapprochement translated into “a green light for [Yahya Khan’s] killing campaign.”23 In this version of events, the opening to China, while “an epochal event,” was done at the cost of American complicity in genocide, as “the Bengalis became collateral damage for realigning the global balance of power.”24
This incendiary accusation confuses both the order of events and the ability of governments to bring about rapid changes in other states’ internal practices. To blame the White House for failing to secure a peaceful outcome to the winter 1971 East-West Pakistan political impasse, as Bass does—much less to equate this failure with complicity in genocide—sets the bar illogically high. The results of the 1970 election raised fundamental questions about Pakistan’s viability as a unified state. The military—already amply armed and equipped by China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States under Nixon’s predecessors—unsurprisingly declared its refusal to abide an East-West split. Would preemptively “threatening to cut off aid” have moderated the generals in charge of managing the transition to democracy, or reinforced a sense of siege?25
Bass never seriously considers whether, given Pakistan’s existing geographic, ethnic and political divisions, the United States could have prevented its two wings’ slide toward violent dissolution.26 In their widely respected study War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh—based on interviews with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi participants in these events—scholars Richard Sisson and Leo Rose assessed that the American capacity to shape events within Pakistan at this time was, in fact, limited:
The question remains whether Yahya would have responded to a strong public condemnation of the crackdown by moderating his repressive policy in East Pakistan. The general consensus, even among the critics in the government, was probably not. Projected U.S. military and economic aid to Pakistan in 1971 was not of a magnitude to provide Washington with much leverage to pressure the leadership in Rawalpindi to change policies in East Pakistan to avoid the loss of aid. . . . By 1971 Washington lacked much clout in Rawalpindi, particularly on issues that, in West Pakistani eyes, struck at the very basis of their national existence.27
On the particular issue of American arms transfers to Pakistan, the total U.S. cutoff of the long-term weapons pipeline (which in any case was exceedingly modest) predictably had no appreciable effect on the ethnic-cleansing actions of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan. As we have seen recently with respect to Egypt, such U.S. punishing actions have a poor record of actually influencing foreign governments that believe that they are fighting for the fundamental future of their countries.
Even so, Bass has scoured the record for coarse quotations to back his biased and incendiary charges, sidestepping (and seeming purposefully to avoid) ample evidence that Nixon and Kissinger pursued a far more balanced and constructive course—one in which the United States emerged as the leading donor and organizer of East Pakistan’s cyclone relief; provided hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and extensive emergency supplies and financial assistance to prevent a famine in East Pakistan and among refugees in India; attempted through diplomacy and pressure to avert an Indian-Pakistani conflict; and then, when war broke out, pressed for an early UN-sponsored cease-fire to prevent the fighting from encompassing West Pakistan. All this was achieved while carrying out a historic opening to China and ultimately promoting détente with the Soviet Union, which backed India during the conflict. It takes an obsessively strained reading to find in this record, as Bass does, “one of the worst moments of moral blindness in U.S. foreign policy.”28
Much of the force of Bass’s narrative derives from vivid, often-inflammatory quotations from the Nixon tapes, and there is no shortage of those. No crass Nixon statement or sarcastic aside seems to have gone unquoted. Yet presidential vulgarity was hardly a Nixon innovation. Dwight Eisenhower swore like the trooper he was. At a 1953 summit with Winston Churchill, Eisenhower dismissed Churchill’s advice to engage the post-Stalin Soviet leadership, stating (as Churchill’s private secretary recorded) that “Russia was a woman of the streets and whether her dress was new, or just the old one patched, it was certainly the same whore underneath. America intended to drive her off her present ‘beat’ into the back streets.”29 Lyndon Johnson once pressed a point with the Greek ambassador as follows: “F*** your Parliament and your Constitution, America is an elephant, Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea.”30 In short, Bass appears to be curiously offended that conversations in the Oval Office are often not the stuff of a church social.
FURTHERMORE, BASS’S treatment of some sources suggests that he has privileged outrage over accuracy. For example, he recounts a July 30, 1971, Senior Review Group meeting convened to discuss American policy in South Asia as follows:
In a Situation Room meeting, Kissinger defended the president’s man. “We’re not out of gas with Yahya,” he said. “Yahya will be reasonable.” He preferred to be gentle with Yahya, not hectoring or squeezing him. When a State Department official suggested getting the army out of running East Pakistan, Kissinger stood up for Pakistan’s sovereignty: “Why is it our business to tell the Pakistanis how to run their government?”31
Heartless realpolitik? Not quite. No reader of Bass’s account would guess that Kissinger was actually discussing how to resolve a refugee crisis and deliver emergency American food aid to the Bengali population. Responding to the argument that a push for political reconciliation should precede further humanitarian assistance, Kissinger argued that the threat of a famine was too urgent: “We’re not out of gas with Yahya. I think he will do a lot of things that are reasonable if we concentrate on the refugee problem. One thing he will not do is talk to the Awami League, at least not as an institution. He might talk to some League leaders as individuals.”32 The immediate focus, Kissinger insisted, should be on providing food aid:
On famine relief, we must get a program started under any and all circumstances. If famine develops, it will generate another major outflow of refugees. This is one thing we can do something about. I think we can get considerable Pakistani cooperation on this. . . . But the famine will start in October. Under the best possible scenario, political accommodation will have barely begun in October.33
As for a colleague’s argument that the United States should “take [the Pakistani army] out of the civil administration” because a civilian presence would encourage refugees to return, Kissinger asked: “We can appropriately ask them for humanitarian behavior, but can we tell them how to run things?”34 The United States, he argued, was better off dealing with an existing government and insisting that it accept American food relief and logistical guidance:
If we are faced with a huge famine and a huge new refugee outflow in October and we’re still debating political accommodation, we’ll have a heluva lot to answer for. We need an emergency relief plan and we need to tell Yahya that this is what has to be done to get the supplies delivered. Yahya will be reasonable.35
None of this discussion emerges in the Bass account, which splices out-of-context quotations to recast a discussion of emergency humanitarian assistance into a scene of careless indifference to suffering. Similar misrepresentations recur throughout the book. Bass also glosses over the action points decided upon in the meeting, which included agreement to prepare “a comprehensive relief program for East Pakistan, including what has already been moved and where the bottlenecks are” as well as “a telegram, to be approved by the President, outlining an approach to Yahya telling him what needs to be done on refugees, food relief, etc.”36
Even as delicate diplomacy unfolded, Nixon and Kissinger made repeated appeals to the Pakistani military to moderate its domestic practices and seek political compromise. In May 1971, Nixon wrote to Yahya Khan pressing him to keep the peace with India and honor his pledges of a transition to civilian governance. Nixon warned that this was both a humanitarian matter and a strategic imperative:
I have also noted with satisfaction your public declaration of amnesty for the refugees and commitment to transfer power to elected representatives. I am confident that you will turn these statements into reality. I feel sure you will agree with me that the first essential step is to bring an end to the civil strife and restore peaceful conditions in East Pakistan. . . . It is absolutely vital for the maintenance of peace in the Subcontinent to restore conditions in East Pakistan conducive to the return of refugees from Indian territory as quickly as possible.37
The same week, the American Ambassador, Joseph Farland (a political appointee who was personally close to Nixon), met with Yahya Khan in Karachi and told him that “the first necessity was to stop the shooting and to start the rebuilding.”38 Citing reports from Dacca of atrocities and attacks on East Pakistan’s Hindu minority, Farland warned that “without the creation of normal conditions in the East, a renewed sense of physical security among the Hindu community, and a patent movement with substance behind it toward a peaceful political accommodation . . . the refugee problem will continue.” A continuation of the present course would produce an “escalation of Indo-Pak tensions” and increasing anti-Pakistani sentiment in the United States. Farland concluded his conversation by urging Khan to state publicly his commitment “to effect political reconciliation.”39
Two weeks later Farland met again with Yahya Khan and reiterated these points in sharper terms. As he cabled back to Washington:
I went on to note that the flow of refugees continued and that this flow is symptomatic of the serious situation in East Pakistan. I pointed out that the Embassy continued to receive reports of Hindu villages being attacked by the army, that fear is pervasive, and that until this situation changes the refugees will continue to cross over into India. And I reiterated the U[nited] S[tates] G[overnment]’s concern that at some point the Hindu exodus, if not checked, could lead to a military clash with India.
Farland admonished Khan that “a heavy responsibility still rests on Pakistan”: “One could hardly expect the flow to cease until the level of military activity by the army is reduced and repressive measures against the local population, especially the Hindus, was ended.”40
These warnings continued even during Kissinger’s landmark secret trip to Beijing in July 1971. In Rawalpindi, on the eve of his unannounced departure for a country where no American diplomat had been for two decades, Kissinger admonished Pakistan’s foreign secretary that “7 million refugees are an intolerable burden. They overload an already overburdened Indian economy, particularly in eastern India. The Indians see enormous danger of communal riots.” Unless Pakistan could chart a path back to “normal administration” and a peaceful return of refugees, the likely result would be a “military confrontation” which “the Indians feel they would win.”41 Warning that a failure to improve domestic conditions would result in a catastrophic defeat by a historic adversary hardly counts as soft-pedaling the issue.
This issue of private U.S. admonitions versus public condemnations of other governments is, of course, familiar. Similar questions have loomed over America’s recent attempts to moderate political upheavals in friendly countries such as Bahrain and Egypt (both with American-trained and -supplied armed forces responding, at times brutally, to what they regarded as existential internal crises). But these are policy dilemmas, not crimes. Under Bass’s definition of “complicity” with atrocities, few practitioners of American foreign policy would escape unindicted.
THE FACT that the partition of Pakistan in 1971 involved such catastrophic loss of human life must count among the second half of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies. But Bass’s policy prescriptions seem likely to have brought about the worst possible outcomes—a delay, if not a rupture, in the U.S. opening to China; no easing of the tragic plight of the Hindu Bengalis; and potentially even the complete disintegration of the Pakistani state itself, sending arms, trained fighters and another round of refugees into already-unstable South Asia and setting a dangerous precedent for other regional conflicts. Fortunately, none of this happened.
In White House Years, Kissinger observes, “The character of leaders is tested by their willingness to persevere in the face of uncertainty and to build for a future they can neither demonstrate nor fully discern.”42 Nixon and Kissinger surely met that test during the South Asia crisis of 1971.
Their geopolitical approach, which Bass derides, produced an extraordinarily productive Nixon visit to China in February 1972 and the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué, which serves as the basic framework for the two countries’ relations to this day; a broad, bipartisan U.S. policy approach to China that has lasted for more than forty years and has promoted peace and stability throughout Asia; major U.S.-Chinese intelligence cooperation against the USSR; and a May 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow that saw the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the U.S.-Soviet incidents-at-sea agreement, all hallmarks of a détente that reduced the risk of superpower confrontation even while creating conditions that helped undermine the Soviet Union’s moral and geopolitical claims and bring about its destruction.
Bass would have readers believe that all these historic U.S. foreign-policy accomplishments were written in the stars, irrespective of U.S. policy toward Pakistan in 1971—and that only grotesque callousness prevented Nixon and Kissinger from adding an abject capitulation by the Pakistani government and a consequent radical transformation of Islamabad’s human-rights record to their tally of achievements. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “man’s most enduring stupidity is forgetting what he is trying to do.” We should be grateful that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did not forget what they were trying to do during this crisis regarding China, the Soviet Union, South Asia and the global balance of power.
Robert D. Blackwill was deputy national-security adviser for strategic planning and U.S. ambassador to India in the George W. Bush administration.
1 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 19.
2 Henry Kissinger, “Moral Purposes and Policy Choices,” (speech, Washington, DC, October 8, 1973).
3 Diplomacy, 471.
4 Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), xxi.
5 Gary J. Bass, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 8, 13.
6 Diplomacy, 27.
7 The Blood Telegram, 342, xiii, xvi.
8 Henry Kissinger, White House Years (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), 716.
9 Ibid., 712.
10 The Blood Telegram, 103. Romania’s human-rights record was arguably worse than Pakistan’s before the East Pakistan crisis.
11 Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1969–1976, vol. XVII, China, 1969–1972 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006), 250.
12 Ibid., 301.
13 White House Years, 715.
14 Conversation with the author.
15 The Blood Telegram, 328.
16 FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), 718.
17 The record suggests that, after days of interagency and international deliberations, Jordan sent word on December 10 that it would “send four aircraft.” On the morning of December 16, Kissinger reported to Nixon that Jordan had sent “17” planes; India declared a unilateral cease-fire one hour later. See: Ibid., 750, 839.
18 The Blood Telegram, 291, 107, 218.
19 Richard Sisson and Leo E. Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1990), 196–200.
20 The Blood Telegram, 47–48.
21 Ibid., 93–95.
22 War and Secession, 181–85, 187.
23 The Blood Telegram, 56.
24 Ibid., xv.
25 Ibid., 113.
26 Bass lauds “Pakistan’s grand experiment in democracy” (27) but discounts that the elections, intended to pave the way for civilian rule, produced a genuinely fraught result.
27 War and Secession, 260.
28 The Blood Telegram, xiii–xiv.
29 As quoted in Günter Bischof and Stephen E. Ambrose, eds., Eisenhower: A Centenary Assessment (Baton Rouge: LSU Press/Eisenhower Center for Leadership Studies, 1995), 146.
30 William Mallinson, Cyprus: A Modern History (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 1.
31 The Blood Telegram, 209–10.
32 FRUS, 1969–1976, vol. XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, 293.
33 Ibid., 295.
34 Ibid., 294.
35 Ibid., 296.
36 Ibid., 292.
37 Ibid., 162–63.
38 Ibid., 133.
39 Ibid., 137–38.
40 Ibid., 169.
41 Ibid., 238, 241.
42 White House Years, 716.