Nixon and Kissinger’s Forgotten Shame
By GARY J. BASS
PRINCETON, N.J. — BANGLADESH is in fresh turmoil. On Sept. 17, its Supreme Court decided that Abdul Quader Mollah, a leading Islamist politician, should be hanged for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. When he was given a life sentence by a Bangladeshi war-crimes tribunal back in February, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets demanding his execution. Since then, more than a hundred people have died in protests and counterprotests.
This may sound remote or irrelevant to Americans, but the unrest has much to do with the United States. Some of Bangladesh’s current problems stem from its traumatic birth in 1971 — when President Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser, vigorously supported the killers and tormentors of a generation of Bangladeshis.
From the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan was created as a unified Muslim nation with a bizarrely divided geography: dominant West Pakistan (now simply Pakistan) was separated from downtrodden East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by a thousand miles of hostile India. Pakistanis joked that their bifurcated country was united by Islam and Pakistan International Airlines. This strange arrangement held until 1970, when Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan triumphed in nationwide elections. The ruling military government, based in West Pakistan, feared losing its grip.
So on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched a devastating crackdown on the rebellious Bengalis in the east. Midway through the bloodshed, both the C.I.A. and the State Department conservatively estimated that about 200,000 people had died (the Bangladeshi government figure is much higher, at three million). As many as 10 million Bengali refugees fled across the border into India, where they died in droves in wretched refugee camps.
As recently declassified documents and White House tapes show, Nixon and Kissinger stood stoutly behind Pakistan’s generals, supporting the murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments. This largely overlooked horror ranks among the darkest chapters in the entire cold war.
Of course, no country, not even the United States, can prevent massacres everywhere in the world — but this was a close American ally, which prized its warm relationship with the United States and used American weapons and military supplies against its own people.
Nixon and Kissinger barely tried to exert leverage over Pakistan’s military government. In the pivotal days before the crackdown began on March 25, they consciously decided not to warn the Pakistani generals against opening fire on their population. They did not press for respecting the election results, nor did they prod the military to cut a power-sharing deal with the Bengali leadership. They did not offer warnings or impose conditions that might have dissuaded the Pakistani junta from atrocities. Nor did they threaten the loss of American military or economic support after the slaughter began.
Nixon and Kissinger were not just motivated by dispassionate realpolitik, weighing Pakistan’s help with the secret opening to China or India’s pro-Soviet leanings. The White House tapes capture their emotional rage, going far beyond Nixon’s habitual vulgarity. In the Oval Office, Nixon told Kissinger that the Indians needed “a mass famine.” Kissinger sneered at people who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”
They were unmoved by the suffering of Bengalis, despite detailed reporting about the killing from Archer K. Blood, the brave United States consul general in East Pakistan. Nor did Nixon and Kissinger waver when Kenneth B. Keating, a former Republican senator from New York then serving as the American ambassador to India, personally confronted them in the Oval Office about “a matter of genocide” that targeted the Hindu minority among the Bengalis.
After Mr. Blood’s consulate sent an extraordinary cable formally dissenting from American policy, decrying what it called genocide, Nixon and Kissinger ousted Mr. Blood from his post in East Pakistan. Kissinger privately scorned Mr. Blood as “this maniac”; Nixon called Mr. Keating “a traitor.”
India was secretly sponsoring a Bengali insurgency in East Pakistan, and the violence ended only after India and Pakistan went to war in December 1971, with the Indian Army swiftly securing an independent Bangladesh. Economic development and political progress were always going to be difficult there. But Bangladesh’s situation was made tougher by the devastation: lost lives, wrecked infrastructure and radicalized politics.
Bangladesh, despite its recent economic growth, is a haunted country. Part of the tumult centers on the fate of defendants like Abdul Quader Mollah, who face judgment in a series of national war crimes trials for atrocities committed in 1971 by local collaborators with West Pakistan. These trials are popular, but the court has often failed to meet fair standards of due process. Its proceedings have ensnared members of the largest Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which is aligned with the main political rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
It will be up to Bangladeshis to fix their country’s rancorous politics, but their task was made harder from the outset by Nixon and Kissinger’s callousness. The legacy of 1971 still stains the reputation of the United States in India as well. If an apology from Kissinger is too much to expect, Americans ought at least to remember what he and Nixon did in those terrible days.
Gary J. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton, is the author, most recently, of “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.”
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