“The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide,” by Gary J. Bass. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. $30.00.
Four decades ago, in early 1971, the supreme interest of President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger was transforming the Cold War through an American diplomatic approach to the People’s Republic of China. The intermediary was Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the military strongman in Pakistan, which maintained close relations with the PRC.
Yahya, as he was known, had seized power in 1969 but was disavowed in the December 1970 elections. He maintained his grip on West Pakistan, but in March 1971, East Pakistan revolted. The suppression by Yahya’s troops was brutal, with more than 200,000 dead and nearly ten million seeking refuge in India.
From Dacca, the capital of East Pakistan, Archer Blood, the American consul general, described these massacres in a cable on March 28 with the title “selective genocide.” Because Yahya was the connection to the PRC, the Nixon administration refused an official condemnation. Blood and 20 other American officials then sent a formal “Dissent Cable” on April 6, for which their careers were broken.
In early July, through the good offices of a grateful Yahya, Kissinger did fly to Beijing for discussions with PRC’s premier, Zhou Enlai, which led to Nixon’s visit in February 1972. In between, the crushing of East Pakistan envenomed the already bitter relations between Pakistan and India. Indian troops invaded East Pakistan on Nov. 21 and enabled the Bengali population to break away from West Pakistan as an independent Bangladesh. Foolhardily, West Pakistan then attacked India on Dec. 3 but was routed so thoroughly that it was forced to seek an armistice only two weeks later.
The policy of the Nixon administration not only placed in jeopardy the sub-continent of south Asia but led to a brief confrontation between nuclear powers, the PRC, which backed Pakistan, and the Soviet Union, which supported India.
Gary J. Bass, formerly an investigative reporter and now professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, has based his account on the White House tapes. It reveals an utterly amoral Nixon and a nakedly ambitious Kissinger. About the forthcoming Nixon visit, Kissinger told the Chinese, “You have had many barbarian invasions, but I am not sure that you are prepared for this one.”
Benjamin Franklin Martin is the Price Professor of History at Louisiana State University. His most recent book is “Years of Plenty, Years of Want: France and the Legacy of the Great War” (2013).