In Defense of Kissinger

January 2, 2014 Topic: HistorySociety Regions: BangladeshIndiaPakistan

In Defense of Kissinger

Mini Teaser: The Blood Telegram gets America's reaction to the 1971 South Asia crisis wrong.

by Author(s): Robert D. Blackwill

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.

Image: Flickr/Dr. Ghulam Nabi Kazi. CC BY-SA. 

1 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 19.

2 Henry Kissinger, “Moral Purposes and Policy Choices,” (speech, Washington, DC, October 8, 1973).

3Diplomacy, 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.

6Diplomacy, 27.

7The Blood Telegram, 342, xiii, xvi.

8 Henry Kissinger, White House Years (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), 716.

9 Ibid., 712.

10The Blood Telegram, 103. Romania’s human-rights record was arguably worse than Pakistan’s before the East Pakistan crisis.

11Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1969–1976, vol. XVII, China, 1969–1972 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006), 250.

12 Ibid., 301.

13White House Years, 715.

14 Conversation with the author.

15The Blood Telegram, 328.

16FRUS, 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.

18The 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.

20The Blood Telegram, 47–48.

21 Ibid., 93–95.

22War and Secession, 181–85, 187.

23The 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.

27War and Secession, 260.

28The 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.

31The Blood Telegram, 209–10.

32FRUS, 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.

42White House Years, 716.

Image: Pullquote: Under Bass's definition of 'complicity' with atrocities, few practitioners of American foreign policy would escape unindicted.Essay Types: Essay