Tarnished Glory | Henry Kissinger's Troubling Role During the 1971 Indo-Pak War

Few Americans or others know how deeply he was implicated in the colossal humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan.

5 min read
Hindi Female

In March 1971, when the Pakistani Army set loose a reign of terror in East Pakistan to squelch a nascent movement for independence, Henry Kissinger (National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon at the time), impressed with President Yahya Khan’s resort to brutality, had remarked, “The use of power against seeming odds pays off”.

This, of course, was not his only callous remark during the tragic East Pakistan crisis that ultimately led to the sanguinary birth of Bangladesh.

For those who are interested in his heatless pronouncements and his ignominious role during the crisis should be encouraged to read the American diplomatic historian, Gary Bass’ extraordinary book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide.

It lays bare in painstaking detail, how as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, he turned a Nelson’s eye to the bloodletting that the Pakistan Army had unleashed in the country’s eastern province.

The Genocide in East Pakistan: Kissinger's Complicity

As he is about to be laid to rest at the age of one hundred, there will be much stocktaking of his role in shaping American foreign policy both as a National Security Adviser and then as the Secretary of State. His many supporters in the United States, no doubt, will dwell on his attempts through “shuttle diplomacy” to secure peace in the Middle East in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan war.

They will also laud his role in bringing an end to the Vietnam War for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace along with his Vietnamese interlocutor, Le Duc Tho, who declined to accept it. Some Europeans will also, no doubt, emphasise his efforts to promote détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, most American analysts will dwell on his role in facilitating the breakthrough to Beijing which led to the US-China rapprochement.

His critics, however, will focus on his dubious role in the overthrow of the elected, left-wing government of President Salvador Allende in Chile in September 1973. They will also highlight his involvement in the illegal bombing of Cambodia.

Few, however, will discuss his complicity in the chain of events that contributed to the genocide in East Pakistan. Despite some excellent scholarship on the subject, of which Bass’ book is easily the exemplar, few Americans or others are aware of how deeply Kissinger was implicated in the colossal humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan.

Some familiarity with American diplomatic history is necessary to understand the part that he played during the East Pakistan crisis. Leaving his prestigious appointment as a professor of government at Harvard he had joined the Nixon administration as the National Security Adviser.

President Nixon, who had long had a reputation as a staunch anti-Communist, in a curious about-face, had decided to improve relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Nixon had concluded that in the wake of the 1969 Ussuri River crisis between the Soviet Union and the PRC, there was little love lost between the two Communist giants. Accordingly, with Kissinger’s assistance he wanted to drive a permanent wedge between them. This, of course, would require the US to woo the PRC.

To that end, Kissinger had to be dispatched to Beijing to ascertain how the PRC would view such an overture. However, since the US did not have any diplomatic ties with the PRC a suitable conduit had to be found to facilitate Kissinger’s visit to Beijing. This is where the Nixon White House turned to Islamabad.

Pakistan was the natural go-between for Nixon owing to two compelling reasons. First, Nixon had a frosty visit to India in July 1969 and had developed an antipathy toward Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. On the other hand, he felt at ease with Pakistan’s military junta. Second, and equally importantly, Pakistan was one of the few allies of the PRC, having forged a partnership based mostly on a common hostility toward India as early as the 1960s.

Consequently, Islamabad became Nixon and Kissinger’s chosen interlocutor in their quest to engage Beijing. Accordingly, Kissinger flew to Islamabad in July 1971 on his way to Beijing. In Islamabad, he feigned illness, disappeared from public view, and secretly flew to Beijing. His trip was a clear-cut success and opened the pathway to a US rapprochement with the PRC.


Kissinger's Deep Rancor Towards India and Indira

In the meanwhile, the unrelenting military crackdown in East Pakistan was well underway. Faced with the extraordinary brutality of the Pakistan Army close to 10 million East Pakistanis fled to various parts of India’s northeast and especially the state of West Bengal.

Confronted with this unprecedented refugee burden Prime Minister Indira Gandhi traveled to various global capitals in an effort to apprise their leaderships of the gravity of the crisis that India found itself saddled with. Though they expressed concern about the plight of the refugees and offered varying amounts of humanitarian assistance, none were willing to work toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis through suitable pressure on Pakistan.

Nixon and Kissinger, of course, were oblivious to the dire condition of the refugees. Worse still, after India signed a treaty of “Peace, Friendship and Cooperation” with the Soviet Union in August 1971, they adopted an explicitly hostile stance toward New Delhi. Declassified American files from the White House from that era have long revealed the depth of their rancor and hostility toward India in general and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in particular.

Worse still, in an attempt at coercive diplomacy, they sent in the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal following the outbreak of the third India-Pakistan conflict in December 1971.

This proved to be a futile venture because it entered the area as Indian forces had accomplished their war aims in East Pakistan. Instead, it had the effect of inflicting inestimable damage on Indo-US relations. For years, if not decades, this episode, rankled India’s political leadership thereby hobbling even a normal, working relationship with the United States.

Following the Cold War’s end, thanks to efforts on both sides, the US and India, have forged a sound strategic partnership. Both Democratic and Republican administrations can take appropriate credit for this transformation. However, even after Kissinger’s passing, his troubling role during the 1971 crisis will not be easily forgotten in New Delhi.

(Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington and is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Indira Gandhi   Henry Kissinger 

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