Henry Kissinger and the genocide in Bangladesh: Low point in a career of evil

The cataract of news and pontification about Henry Kissinger’s death reminds me of an email I sent out nine years ago with some notes on a book that chillingly documented — mostly from Kissinger’s own words — a piece of his record that should be getting a lot more attention.  

The book was “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide” by Gary J. Bass, a former reporter turned Princeton politics professor. Its subject is Richard Nixon and Kissinger’s pro-Pakistan “tilt” in the 1971 India-Pakistan war and their astonishing indifference to the slaughter of Bengali civilians in what was then called East Pakistan (and is now Bangladesh) carried out by troops sent by their great friend Yahya Khan, who at the time was Pakistan’s president and commander in chief of its army. 

Bass documents his story largely from Nixon’s and Kissinger’s own words, as captured on the White House tapes that became notorious in the Watergate investigation. The telegram in his title, sent to the State Department by Archer Blood, the U.S. consul general in Dhaka (then called Dacca), East Pakistan’s capital city, and signed by nearly all the rest of the consulate staff, documented the atrocities and objected — vainly — to the Nixon-Kissinger policy. 

Bass is religious about not reading minds, not guessing at or speculating about Nixon’s or Kissinger’s consciousness or motivations, not going beyond the record of their words. He characterizes what they said and did, not their character. But reading their words leaves little doubt that those two between them had about as much moral consciousness as a cockroach. They didn’t care about crimes against humanity or about human suffering on any scale. A revealing example is a Nixon quote from the White House tapes: talking to Kissinger in the Oval Office in May 1971, Bass writes:

Nixon bitterly said, “The Indians need — what they need really is a —” Kissinger interjected, “They’re such bastards.” Nixon finished his thought: “A mass famine.”

An astonishing comment. They might not have liked Indira Gandhi or Indian national policy, but what kind of person would wish mass starvation on the poorest and most powerless of India’s people?

It’s hard to imagine how a man who started out as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis could be as conscienceless as Kissinger was about the slaughter in East Pakistan. But the evidence of his moral blindness is absolutely convincing.

In Kissinger’s case, it’s particularly hard to imagine how a man who started out as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis could be as conscienceless as he was about the slaughter in East Pakistan. But the evidence in Bass’ book of his moral blindness is absolutely convincing. The same goes for Nixon. Before reading it I would have bet quite a lot of money that my opinion of either of those two men — whose policies shaped the events I witnessed on the ground during the last three years of the Vietnam War — could not possibly get lower than it already was. But it did.

“The Blood Telegram” doesn’t just reveal Nixon’s and Kissinger’s moral thuggishness. It also explodes the tale that they and their supporters have pushed for all these years, which holds that they were supreme realists who made hardheaded, pragmatic decisions on the basis of real-world practicalities and a calculation of national interests. 

In page after page of the discussions on Bangladesh reproduced in “The Blood Telegram,” there is not the slightest hint that Nixon and Kissinger were pragmatically weighing national interests and capabilities against human concerns. Instead, over and over, their words make unmistakably clear that the human consequences of their policies weren’t part of the equation at all. And it’s just as unmistakable that there was no pragmatic argument for those policies anyway. Nothing Nixon and Kissinger did was going to prevent East Pakistan from declaring independence, and that was obvious at the time. Any true realist would also have seen that no reasonable U.S. interests were served by their decisions — not even their commitment to looking tough. If you go to those extremes to look strong and resolute and then don’t achieve your declared goal, you weaken your credibility instead of strengthening it. You weaken it more, in fact, because you made the stakes that much higher. 

The main driving force behind the Pakistan tilt, in Bass’ account, was Nixon’s and Kissinger’s shared obsession with preserving their then-still-secret “opening” to China. That need outweighed everything else, including the most obvious realities about the Chinese system. This is Kissinger from the White House tapes, speaking in November 1971: “Oh, the Chinese are a joy to deal with compared to the Indians.” He was talking about Mao Zedong’s China, let’s remember — which is right up there with (and possibly ahead of) Stalin’s and Hitler’s in the top three list of history’s most murderous regimes. If either Nixon or Kissinger was ever bothered by that, it’s not evident from any of the quotes in this book. 

Presumably Kissinger believed that reaching out to China was good geopolitical strategy, but everything we know about him makes it seem that the prospect of personal glory was also a significant motive.

Bass doesn’t put it this way, but my impression from the book is that Kissinger, in particular, was glued to the China opening to the point of being delusional, and not just regarding the nature of Mao’s regime. Kissinger confidently asserted that U.S. diplomacy with China would quickly end the Vietnam War, and he and Nixon based their Pakistan “tilt” in part on an expectation that the Chinese would be willing to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union in order to protect Pakistan from India (perceived as a Soviet ally at the time). Both of these were unlikely propositions, the opposite of cold-eyed realpolitik. Presumably Kissinger really believed that reaching out to China was good geopolitical strategy, but everything we know about his record and character makes it seem that the prospect of personal glory was also a significant motive — possibly the most significant one.  

“The Blood Telegram” also shows that Nixon and Kissinger deliberately and consciously resorted to lying and lawbreaking in the pursuit of their policies. The most notable lie was Kissinger’s assurance, repeated to various Indian leaders from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on down, that the U.S. would oppose Chinese aggression or threats against India. In an in-person meeting with Gandhi, Bass writes, Kissinger promised that “America would, under no circumstances, allow any outside power to pressurize or threaten India.” In fact, Nixon and Kissinger explicitly hoped the Chinese would threaten intervention to deter an Indian war against Pakistan. As that war began in early December of 1971: 

Kissinger told the president that “we could give a note to the Chinese and say, ‘If you are ever going to move this is the time.’ Nixon immediately agreed. … The president argued that “we can’t do this without the Chinese helping us. As I look at this thing, the Chinese have got to move to that damn border. The Indians have got to get a little scared.”

The lawbreaking — with the full awareness of U.N. ambassador (and future president) George H.W. Bush, deputy national security adviser (and future secretary of state) Alexander Haig, White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and others — involved getting Iran and Jordan to give Pakistan U.S.-supplied weapons from their arsenals, including aircraft, a transfer that was explicitly prohibited by U.S. law. The tapes show conclusively that Nixon and Kissinger knew such a transfer would be illegal — and both the State Department and the Defense Department told that, in categorical terms. But they did it anyway and spoke about it bluntly, with no apparent qualms about breaking the law. 

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When speaking with Nixon before a press conference, Kissinger said, “This military aid to Iran that Iran might be giving to West Pakistan. The only way we can really do it — it’s not legal, strictly speaking.” Nixon and Kissinger recognized the need to conceal what they were doing: “We’ll have to say we didn’t know about it,” Kissinger said, adding that they could give Iran extra aid the following year in return for Iranian cooperation. On another occasion, Nixon bluntly told Haldeman: “We’re trying to do something where it’s a violation of law and all that.” 

After State Department officials raised the legal issue in one situation room meeting, Kissinger said scornfully: “We shouldn’t decide this on such doctrinaire grounds.” An interesting viewpoint, and one we have also heard from officials of a more recent administration: Obeying the law is doctrinaire? 

Kissinger consistently reinforced Nixon’s impulse to ignore the law, but also took precautions to cover his own backside by getting Haig to compile memoranda showing that Nixon knew about and approved the illegal transfers. Reading that provided one of the moments when it became clear to me that however slimy I had already thought Kissinger was, it was an underestimate.

Bass’ final chapter documents that the outcome of Nixon and Kissinger’s hell-bent support of Pakistan was not grateful appreciation or improved relations between the two countries. Instead, the new Pakistani president and many of his fellow citizens felt betrayed (Bass puts the word in italics) by the U.S. As any true realist could have told them, that’s the risk in backing a loser: You get blamed for the loss. So much for Nixon and Kissinger as the ultimate pragmatists.

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