UCLA International Institute
Asia Pacific Center

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide

U.S. power and human rights violations in Pakistan: An early chapter
President of Pakistan Yahya Khan with U.S. President Richard Nixon, October 1970. (Photo by Yahoo1 at en.wikipedia [public domain], courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

U.S. power and human rights violations in Pakistan: An early chapter

Gary Bass examined the role played by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Pakistan before and during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 — particularly, their egregious failure to take action against the genocide in East Pakistan.

by Jeanne DiNovis
A professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, Bass examined the role played by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Pakistan before and during that war — particularly, their egregious failure to take action against the genocide in East Pakistan. Bass’s remarks were based on his recent book, “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide” (Random House, 2013). 
Nixon and Kissinger decline to respond to genocide
The 1971 war and the struggle for Bengali independence are a complex combination of events, explained Bass. Pakistan was then a physically, politically and culturally divided nation, with India situated between its two halves. 
In 1970, the country held an open election in which the East Pakistani political party won the majority vote. However, the West Pakistani government was unwilling to cede power to the East. Its leader, Yahya Khan, subsequently launched brutal military attacks against Bengali nationalists and civilians in the eastern part of the country. 
Mass atrocities caused 10 million Bengalis to flee to India. Soon East Pakistan declared its independence and India was drawn into the war to stem the tide of refugees. By December 1971, India had defeated Pakistan and the war came to an end, having inflicted a tremendous toll in human life (estimates range from 300,000 to 3 million lives lost). Tension between India and Pakistan remained high.
Nixon and Kissinger were aware of the bloodshed from the beginning, said Bass, but continued to stand behind the military dictatorship of Yahya Khan as it massacred Bengali civilians. Animated by a visceral dislike of India and their agenda of opening diplomatic relations with China (for which Khan served as a go-between), neither the president nor his national security advisor advised the Pakistani leader to tone down the large-scale violence. In fact, they supplied the Pakistani army with military weapons at the time. 
Not until it was obvious that India would be pulled into the war, said Bass, did the two men finally propose that Khan back off. While Nixon and Kissinger appear to have been indifferent to the horrors occurring in Bangladesh, many Americans were raising their voices in protest of the mass killings. The speaker pointed out that even several members of Nixon’s own administration spoke out against the president’s continued support of Pakistan and his unwillingness to use U.S. political power to intervene in the situation.
The “Blood Telegram” and the ruin of a career
Archer Blood, the American Consul General stationed in Bangladesh, sent word to Washington of the mass slaughter. A WWII Navy veteran and career foreign service officer, he filed several reports to Nixon without hearing anything in return. Finally, he and his station sent an official dissent statement known as the “Blood Telegram.” The document asserted that U.S. foreign policy was “morally bankrupt in the face of genocide” and argued for urgent action to uphold the ideals of human rights in Pakistan. 
Nixon and Kissinger responded by removing Blood from his position, effectively destroying his career. Rather than being remembered because he stood up and did the right thing, observed the speaker, Blood was almost completely forgotten.  
The cost of inaction
Bass noted that the influence of the United States as a world power is a double-edged sword. The U.S. becomes involved in many global incidents in which it should probably refrain from action, he said. But in extreme crises when human rights are being grossly violated, Bass insisted that the United States government should not turn a blind eye.  
If our leaders portray a face of the United States to the world that we do not agree with, it is our duty to criticize the actions they take, he argued.  “It is worth remembering,” he concluded, “what the world looks like when you have a foreign policy [in which] the pain of distant strangers is not weighed in the decision-making calculus.”  
Although he conceded that upholding human rights does not always translate into foreign policy decisions, Bass noted that political leverage and influence come at a high price. Understanding the costs of foreign policy action or inaction is, accordingly, of great importance.
Bass urged that U.S. foreign policy toward Pakistan during the Bengali genocide be examined in greater depth, pointing out that the record of President Nixon’s actions during the 1971 war was incomplete. 
The U.S. public should be aware of the history of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, he argued, because any future war between India and Pakistan would be disastrous. In the future, concluded Bass, “Managing the relationship between India and Pakistan should be a much, much higher priority for the U.S. government.”