The Blood Telegram: Nixon and Kissinger rock the genocide

What I don’t know about the events leading to the breakup of Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh could fill several books, and Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram is one of them. It’s a gripping, chilling read. 

Based on newly unearthed Oval Office recordings, recently declassified documents and contemporary interviews, Bass tells how the Cold War connivances of President Richard Nixon and chief foreign policy adviser Henry Kissinger led to the death or displacement of millions of Bengalis living in what was then East Pakistan and soon became Bangladesh. 

The “blood” in the title refers not to the bloodletting that occurred during these events—though there was plenty of that—but rather to Archer Blood, the loyal but principled American Consul General in Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan. America’s South Asian policy—which is to say Nixon and Kissinger’s policy—was to support the repressive dictatorship of Pakistan’s Yahya Khan at nearly any cost. They saw no irony in the fact that this put them at odds with India, the world’s largest democracy, whose leader, Indira Ghandi, Nixon and Kissinger loathed with a passion. Besides, Nixon had a personal fondness for the brutish, drunken Yahya, and, more importantly, he was the conduit to the Chinese government, which Nixon and Kissinger were just then heatedly beginning to court as a counterweight to the Soviet Union in the Cold War balance of power.

When Yahya grudgingly agreed to hold Pakistan’s first democratic elections, Blood knew the result would be a disaster. He knew the Bengalis in more populous East Pakistan would dominate the elections and get to choose the country’s leadership. He also knew that this would be intolerable for Yahya and his ruling junta. As events played out per Blood’s predictions and Yahya ignored the election results and began a violent crackdown on East Pakistan, Blood’s official diplomatic cables reported on the brutality and repression beginning to take hold, and predicted with great specificity and accuracy where they would lead. These honest assessments caused extreme consternation to his boss, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and especially to Nixon and Kissinger. 

Ultimately, Blood’s principled young consulate staffers drafted a cable (the telegram of the title) dissenting from the official U.S. policy that Yahya’s thuggery was exclusively an internal Pakistani problem. Blood, knowing it spelled doom for his career, signed it and sent it to Washington. While Blood’s principled reporting did dstall his career, it also proved tragically prescient, with nearly every dire consequence he predicted becoming fact.

Hundreds of thousands of Bengalis, overwhelmingly Hindus, were killed in a genocidal crackdown, and some 10 million mostly Hindu Bengali refugees fled East Pakistan to India, dragging that country into the conflict. The resulting brief war quickly led to East Pakistan becoming independent Bangladesh. That result was inevitable. The massive human misery accompanying it was not. And through it all, Nixon and Kissinger schemed—and knowingly broke the law—to continue supplying Yahya with the arms he used to slaughter his own citizens.

To read the transcripts of the conversations between Nixon and Kissinger during this crisis is to glimpse the cynical dark heart of evil. Check it out.