The Blood Telegram: Book review

The Blood Telegram: Nixon , Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass, Paperback, Vintage Press, July 15, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-385-35047-1, $18.

by Arnold Zeitlin 11 May 2020

The profanity-laced conversations described in The Blood Telegram between a deeply prejudiced, obdurate President Richard Nixon and his remarkably sycophantic national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, as they coped with the events leading to the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, lead also to speculation about the conversations these days between the deeply prejudiced, obdurate current occupant of the White House and his sycophantic secretary of state. 

To Nixon and Kissinger, the Indians, who were supporting the independence movement in what then was East Pakistan, were devious bastards. Indira Gandhi, then India’s prime minister, of course, was a “that bitch”.

Much more revealing in this book are Nixon and Kissinger ignoring intelligence from the field and proceeding to make policy based on flawed information — as we see the current White House occupant doing in the American struggle against the coronavirus.  

For example: As the Pakistan army in East Pakistan crumbled in December 1971 before the advance of  the Indian army and Bengali irregulars, Kissinger congratulated Nixon for ordering the aircraft carrier group Enterprise from the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal, supposedly so scaring the Indians that they desisted from invading West Pakistan. “Mr. President,” Kissinger told Nixon, “your behavior…has been heroic…”.

Except, as author Gary J. Bass writes, the Indians had no intention of invading West Pakistan. “The Soviets,” writes Bass referring to the Soviet Union, “having checked with Indira Gandhi, soothingly reassured Kissinger that India’s government had ‘no intention to take any military actions against West Pakistan'”.

Not that Nixon really might have blamed the indians. Had he been in their position, he might have invaded West Pakistan.  Noting the avalanche of refugees eventually growing to an estimated 10 million flowing into India from East Pakistan, according to Bass, Nixon said he would not let India use them as a reason to go to war with Pakistan but “starting a war that way, the president said, was what he might do if he were in New Delhi.”

Bass and his research assistants combed Nixon’s White House oval office tape recordings for conversations relating to the 1971 East Pakistan furor. They emerged with a disturbing portrait of an often raving Nixon and a Kissinger who played to Nixon’s ravings, evidently to maintain his highly influential stance wth the president.  Kissinger played a dangerous game. As Nixon’s national security advisor, Kissinger essentially had only a constituency of one but he managed to wrest control of America’s foreign policy apparatus from an almost invisible secretary of state, William Rogers. While the Pakistan-India furor elevated to a crisis, to Kissinger it was a distraction from his masterwork — getting Nixon to meet Mao Zedong and reversing decades of U.S.,-China emnity.

In this effort, Pakistan’s military ruler, Yahya Khan, played a key role. He carried messages from Kissinger to Zhou En-lai in Beijing and arranged Kissinger’s secret flight from Pakistan to meet Zhou in Beijing, paving the way for Nixon’s meeting with Mao. Kissinger owed Yahya; he wasn’t going to let the general’s vicious crackdown in East Pakistan stand in the way of the China mission. That stance included dismissing the so-called Blood telegram.  

Archer Blood, the unfortunately named U.S. consul general in what was then spelled Dacca, first aroused the ire of the White House with a cable sent to the State Department three days after the Pakistan’s army 25 March crackdown. Blood described the army’s “reign of terror” in a message he titled “selective genocide”. Two weeks later came a cable entitled “disssent from U.S. policy”, suggesting the United States had demonstrated “moral bankruptcy” in its position toward the East Pakistan killings. 

That cable was signed by 20 consulate officers and written by the too-appropriately named political officer Scott Butcher. As the consulate principal, Blood signed off on the cable, adding he supported his staff’s right to dissent.  Blood’s stark reporting eventually stifled his diplomatic career; he was eased out of his post as consul general.  

Besides, Nixon detested the Indians and adored Pakistanis. The president compared Yahya to an Abraham Lincoln, strugglng to keep his country together.

As the subtitle of the book indicates, Bass believes the East Pakistan killings and the mass flight of Hindu and Moslem refugee to India amounted to a forgotten genocide. But in the book, he contends the Kissinger-Nixon backing for the murderous Yahya Khan regime actually has been whitewashed from the memory of Amricans, who in any case tend to forget their own history. With this book, Bass succeeds in restoring that memory. Oddly, Bengalis are largely missing from his narrative. The reader learns a great deal about the West Pakistanis and Indira Gandhi, even P.N. Haksar, Indira’s principal secretary, but the Bengali leadership is virtually invisible in this account. 

Early in the book, Bass raises the recollection of the Biafra civil war (1966-70) in whch the eastern province attempted to succeed from Nigeria between 1968-68. The Nigerian government’s blockage of the province caused widespesad starvation and raised cries of genocide.

On a personal note, I covered that civil war as the Associated Press reporter in West Africa. I was assigned from Nigeria to Pakistan in 1969. In my first visit in December 1969 to Dacca, I found Urdu-speaking Biharis and Bengalis killing one another. The East Pakistan martial law governor, Admiral S.M. Ahsan, declared a state of emergency. In my innocence, my first dispatch from Dacca forecast that the next Biafra would be Pakistan.

My foreign editor in New York cabled back noting that East and West Pakistan were separated by 1,000 miles of India. How would they get at each other?, he asked. “I don’t know,” I responded, “but they will find a way.” And they did.

Richard Nixon briefly passed through the Lagos airport in Nigeria during the height of the Biafra war. He was then a private citizen on a world tour sponsored by Look magazine. The U.S.embassy in Lagos as a courtesy to Nixon invited correspondents covering the civil war to a news conference with Nixon at the airport VIP lounge. Nixon gazed at the gaggle of reporters and asked bewilderingly, “What are you guys doing here?”

He had no idea about what was going on in Nigeria. But in 1968, a year later, he was presidential candidate Nixon calling the Biafra war a genocide. By 1969, he was president, commanding U.S. policy toward the war.