Book Review: The Blood Telegram, by Gary Bass
The Blood Telegram, by Gary Bass
Warning: graphic language. Discretion advised.
One-line review: While it shines a light and lays bare an ugly passage in American diplomacy, it also somehow disappoints a bit. The true horrors of the East Pakistan Bangladesh genocide are somewhat missing.
Short review: The forced exodus of ten million Bangladeshis in 1971 – ninety percent of whom were Hindu, the genocide of an estimated three million Bangladeshis, and the rape of close to half a million women – were all small prices that Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon paid in exchange for the opening of bilateral ties with China, and in the process getting their names enshrined as visionary statesmen. Henry Kissinger would go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize – a more damning indictment of the elaborate farce that is the Nobel Prize would be hard to find.
Archer Blood, consul general in Dacca (as Dhaka was then called) and the “ranking diplomat of the United States in East Pakistan“, would protest in the strongest possible diplomatic terms the atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistan army on the citizenry of East Pakistan. He would be ordered to “request home leave and transfer back to the State Department – in other words, unceremoniously sacked” – just one step short of being fired – spend the next decade in a desk job – hiding from an omnipotent Kissinger, his career finished for all practical purposes.
Gary Bass’ book, “The Blood Telegram”, lays out in threadbare detail the machinations that went on in the White House during those crucial months in 1971. The language of the conversations between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger would at times make a drunken street gang brawl look gentlemanly by comparison. India’s embrace of a so-called Non-Aligned Movement – championed by her first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and sustained by his daughter Smt. Indira Gandhi, would come a complete cropper when India beseeched these countries for support – material or otherwise. Lessons that could have been learned in that fateful year of 1971 were not learned.
Where this splendid book – deeply researched, methodically organized, and lucidly written – fails however is when it leaves out the true horror of the genocide that took place in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). This is not to say that the book deliberately glosses over the brutalities; but it does fail somewhat in that respect. While it can be argued that it is not this book’s place or purpose to document it, a true perspective of the tragedy that unfolded that fateful year cannot be fully comprehended without forcing oneself to confront the horror of that genocide and ethnic cleansing.
However, for an understanding into the variables – human, diplomatic, political, and personal – that went into the making of the United States’ foreign policy towards the Indian subcontinent in 1971, this book is an invaluable aid.
Sir Winston Churchill, through his policies towards India – borne of an unremitting racist hatred of India and Indians, starved an estimated two to five million Bengalis to death in the early 1940s – he was awarded a Nobel Prize. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon hurled abuses at India and Indians even as millions of East Pakistanis were killed by their dictator ally – Yahya Khan. Henry Kissinger would go on to win a Nobel Prize. A more eloquent testimony to the farce that is the Nobel Peace Prize would be scarce to find.
Anyway, digressions apart, though India and Pakistan were partitioned at the time of Independence in 1947, West and East Pakistan remained at loggerheads, by geography that physically separated them by more than a thousand miles, and by culture with the dominant West Pakistanis looking down upon the Bengali East Pakistan as inferior (this disdaining of Bengalis as effete was itself a colonial hangover, introduced first by the Englishmen traders in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a coping mechanism when faced with the prosperity of the province’s natives).
On top of that were the regular mini-genocides against the minority Hindu population of East Pakistan – the first of which was perpetrated in 1950, and which saw the forced migration of up to a million Hindus into India. There was another mass killing of Hindus in East Pakistan in 1964 over some protests in the remote Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
On top of this was the fact that East Pakistan was more populous than West Pakistan, which meant that a democratic election – whenever that would be held – could well throw up the rather disturbing prospect – for the West Pakistan polity – of an East Pakistani Bengali coming to power over the entire nation of Pakistan.
This prospect came to pass in December 1970, when the military dictator and chief martial law administrator Yahya Khan decided to hold elections – the first ever democratic elections in Pakistan. A massive cyclone that devastated East Pakistan on November 13, 1969, which killed at least a quarter of a million people, and the “central Pakistani government’s feeble response” made the Bengali’s “alienation all but complete.” When elections were held, the East Pakistani political party – the Awami League – headed by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman (“a middle-class Bengali Muslim, whose lifelong activism had cost him almost ten years in Pakistani fails“), won “an outright majority in the National Assembly” and Mujib-ur-Rahman himself “stood to be Prime Minister of all of Pakistan.” Kissinger would go on to tell Yahya Khan, “I don’t know, Mr. President … except that for a dictator you run a lousy election.”
“On March 1, under pressure from Bhutto, Yahya indefinitely postponed the opening of the National Assembly, which had been scheduled for March 3.”
Yahya Khan was determined to “insure the integrity, solidarity, and security of Pakistan” on the one hand, but also determined to not let the Bengalis assume power over all of Pakistan on the other. A “bloodbath” loomed, which the US State Department seemed to be OK with, given its instructions to “Blood not to try to dissuade Yahya from shooting.”
March 25, 1971 was the deadline for opening the National Assembly. The three main leaders – Yahya, Bhutto, and Mujibur – kept talking, mostly past each other, and predictably without results. Meanwhile, Pakistan kept flying in troops into East Pakistan. The “moderate general” who had been governor of East Pakistan was “shoved aside” and replaced by the “butcher of Baluchistan“, Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan.
On March 25, 1971, “Yahya flew out of Dacca for West Pakistan, abandoning the talks once and for all.” The Pakistani military launched “a devastating assault on the Bengalis” the same day.
“Some of the worst killing of civilians, according to students, took place at Jagannath Hall, the Hindu dormitory” [of Dacca University]
Over the months, the Pakistani military crackdown on East Pakistan would extract a huge toll in terms of human lives and suffering – in the millions.
“India secretly recorded that by the middle of June , there were some 5,330,000 Hindus, as against 443,000 Muslims and 150,000 from other groups.”
“By September, India would record almost six thousand deaths from cholera alone.”
India recorded this tragedy “secretly“. In the words of Swaran Singh, “In India, we have tried to cover that up.”
“Singh instructed his staff to distort for their country: “We should avoid making this into an Indo-Pakistan or Hindu [-] Muslim conflict.” [bold emphasis mine] This was not all. India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union – D.P. Dhar – “decried the Pakistan army’s “preplanned policy of selecting Hindus for butchery,” but fearing inflammatory politicking from “rightist reactionary Hindu chauvinist parties like Jana Sangh.” he wrote, “We were doing our best not to allow this aspect of the matter to be publicized in India.”
Archer Blood, whose last name lends itself to the title of this book – in itself a clever twist – was the consul general of the American consulate in Dacca, East Pakistan, in 1971. As the Pakistani military crackdown began in East Pakistan, and the bodies started to pile up, and thousands upon thousands were killed in a brutal crackdown, Archer Blood’s relentless cables to the US State Department left Kissinger’s aides “shaken“, but evidently not stirred into action. Kissinger remained resolute in his resolve to do nothing to stop the genocide – though it could be argued that there is no conclusive evidence that he truly knew of the extent of the killings.
So while White House aides used “Blood and Keating to give them cover” to argue for the United States to “use its leverage … to limit the bloodshed“, Kissinger would have none of it. With no response forthcoming from the State Department, Archer Blood took the (then) unprecedented step of sending a “formal dissent cable” – a first in the history of the US Foreign Service – on April 6, 1971, bluntly titled “Dissent from US policy toward East Pakistan.”
“This stark message was signed by twenty officials, from the consulate’s diplomatic staff as well as the US government’s development and information programs – what Blood later called a “roll call of honor.””
Henry Kissinger was “just furious about it.” William Rogers, the secretary of state, called up Kissinger to “denounce “the goddam message from our people in Dacca.”” He would later send a “stern reprimand to Blood.”
Archer Blood was soon afterwards “asked to request home leave and transfer back to the State Department – in other words, unceremoniously sacked from his position as consul general in Dacca.”
That is pretty much the end of the role that Archer Blood plays in this book – a surprisingly small role. Archer Blood was one of those rare breed of conscientious diplomats who did the right thing, and paid a heavy price for that.
Deep in the Non-Aligned Movement
As the flow of influxes overwhelmed India’s creaking infrastructure and third-world economy, it had to ask for financial support from the world on the one hand and try to exert international pressure on Pakistan to stop the genocide of the East Pakistanis on the other. To that end it sent “almost identical” letters to sixty-one countries – its “friends” in the Non-Aligned Movement camp like Yugoslavia and Egypt, to Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Tanzania, and more. It followed up by sending out a “small army of ministers and diplomats to plead its case around the world, everywhere from Afghanistan to Kenya to Chile.”
Let us start with Asia.
“Japan’s government agreed that an independent Bangladesh was inevitable, but dared not say so in public.”
The Malaysian government “yielded to Indonesian pressure to back Pakistan.”
“Thailand … was too scared of a hostile China to say anything.”
In Europe, the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, “was the most supportive.” But that was about the most support India got in Europe.
What about the Non-Aligned Movement countries, like Egypt, with which “Nehru had partnered” to form the NAM? And what about the Arab countries, with which India “shared cruel experiences of colonialism“? Surely they would empathize with India’s plight.
Despite PN Haksar’s – the Prime Minister’s top diplomat (Principal Secretary to Mrs. Indira Gandhi) – eloquent (pretentiously fatuous would be a more generous phrase) exposition that “The foreign policy of so-called Muslim countries is not conducted on the basis of Pavlovian complex of Islam“, what was the final score?
Egypt displayed “‘studied indifference.’” Anwar Sadat “seemed fixated on preventing East Pakistan’s secession.”
Saudi Arabia “vehemently supported Pakistan’s prerogative to take any steps to maintain its domestic stability“.
Libya and Kuwait all “pressured” Egypt to be even more pro-Pakistan.
And in the cruelest of turns – for India’s considered policy of non-alignment and all that – the one country that provided material assistance to India was one with which India did not even have any diplomatic relations – Israel! Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, “secretly got an Israeli arms manufacturer to provide India with some mortars and ammunition.”
This then was the sum total of a near-quarter century of strategic diplomacy pursued by the father-daughter duo of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Smt. Indira Gandhi? A resounding and abjectly humiliating failure that would be mirrored in the United Nations also, where India would suffer the indignity of 104 countries voting for a “resolution calling for a cease-fire and withdrawal” of Indian troops from East Pakistan – “India was abandoned by the Non-Aligned Movement“.
The Gentlemen’s Club
One of the more entertaining parts of the book are the exchanges between Nixon and Kissinger. While it appears that Kissinger fueled Nixon’s rage and hatred of Indians to further his own ambitions, Nixon seemed to be driven by a personal animosity of Indians. Part of the reason may be his earlier encounter with Smt. Indira Gandhi a few years earlier:
“He had not cared for Nehru, her father, either, but she had an extraordinary ability to get under his skin. Back in 1967, while Nixon was out of power and planning his way back, he had met again with Gandhi on a visit to Delhi. … After about twenty minutes of strained chat, she asked one of her aides, in Hindi, how much longer this was going to take.” [pg 6]
This would be further escalated when in 1971 Mrs. Gandhi visited Washington and a frosty exchange was captured on television and the media for posterity.
Here are some of the exchanges between the two most powerful people in America in 1971:
“Nixon bitterly said, ‘The Indians need – what they really need is a –‘ Kissinger interjected, ‘They’re such bastards.’ Nixon finished his thought: “A mass famine.”
“Kissinger railed against the Indians: “Those sons of bitches… “”
“… Keating assured him they did not, but they could not stand the strain of some five million refugees. Nixon suggested, “Why don’t they shoot them?””
“”… There are 400 million Indians.” Keating corrected him; there were actually 550 million Indians. Nixon was surprised: “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.””
“The president worried “whether or not I was too easy on the goddamn woman when she was here.” Kissinger though he probably should have “recommended to you to brutalize her privately.” Nixon vowed that “she’s going to pay. She’s going to pay.””
“When Nixon heard that the Indians had blown up a U.S. plane at the Islamabad airport – which actually belonged to the famous test pilot Chuck Yeager – he flew into a wild, screaming rage, berating his staff: “Now goddam it, what the hell is the shit-ass State Department doing about objecting with those planes?””
But where’s the genocide?
The author describes the plight of the refugees coming in. The most wrenching descriptions are to be found when Ted Kennedy visited India. He would bluntly say that Hindus in East Pakistan were being “systematically slaughtered, and, in some places painted with yellow patches marked ‘H’.” During the course of his visit to Calcutta, “Kennedy got a crash course in emergency relief,” was told that a “crematorium” was what one of the refugee camps “most urgently needed,” saw camps that “reeked of human shit,” and was by large “visibly overwhelmed.”
All this despite instructions from Nixon, “worried about his pro-Indian ambassador in Delhi,” – “I want Keating not to fuck around, is that clear?” It didn’t help that Kennedy got a more rousing welcome in India than any US politician before. In the words of “Kenneth Keating, the US ambassador … ‘Seldom in the memory of the embassy has any foreign visitor received a more effusive welcome.””
The book also mentions that large parts of Dacca had been depopulated, either because the residents had been killed or had fled into the countryside, and that the “Some of the worst killing of civilians, according to students, took place at Jagannath Hall, the Hindu dormitory” of Dacca University, but does not mention that an estimated 7000 people were killed in a single night in Dacca, or that by April “some thirty million people [!] were wandering helplessly across East Pakistan to escape the grasp of the military.” (Robert Payne, Massacre , via http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/)
To put things in perspective, if you consider the conservative estimates of two million Bangladeshis killed, 400,000 women raped, and eight million refugees – all during the 250 days period in 1971, this is what it came down to:
More than three hundred people were killed.
One thousand three hundred people streamed into India.
More than sixty women were brutalized.
Every. Single. Hour. Twenty four hours a day. Seven days a week. For two hundred and fifty days.[As a footnote, Amnesty International would, in 2013, appeal for clemency for the people tried and sentenced by Bangladesh courts for these crimes.]
Then there is the most curious and complete omission of Anthony Mascarenhas in the book. He was a Pakistani journalist, who, on 13 June 1971 published an article in the UK’s Sunday Times “that exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history.” [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-16207201 you can the full article here and here] The article sends a shiver down the spine even today. While Sydney Schanberg, reporter with the New York Times, gets prominent attention in the book, Mascarenhas is notably absent.
I will concede that the book’s aim is not to document the horrors of the genocide in Bangladesh; it is to bring to light a passage in American diplomacy that has not received much attention – and in that the book succeeds without a doubt. My single, and simple, point is that without the stark portrayal of the brutal genocide that was perpetrated in East Pakistan in 1971, the failure of American diplomacy cannot be truly appreciated in its entirety.
Read Glocalised Conflicts of the Cold War – Revisiting 1971 by Jaideep Prabhu to understand the historic context of the 1971 conflict.
Hardcover: 528 pages
Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 24, 2013), Vintage Books – Random House India
ISBN: 0307700208, 978-0307700209, 8184003706, 9788184003703
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the author.