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‘The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger And A Forgotten Genocide’ – Book Review

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Gary J. Bass’s seminal work, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, is an indictment of the former President of United States of America Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger for their complicity during the 1971 conflict in erstwhile East Pakistan that led to the sanguine birth of Bangladesh. Based on extensive research of the White House tapes, declassified American and Indian archival documents, and interviews with American and Indian eyewitnesses, Bass – a distinguished Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University – sketches a traumatic account of the brutal massacre of Bengalis and sheds light into the dark secrets of a flawed American Cold War diplomacy that exacerbated the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. The author, aptly, depicts that the ‘pretense of non-interference’ of Nixon and Kissinger, who could have used their leverage over Pakistan to stop the disaster had they not been driven by ulterior motives, ‘stands as one of the worst moments of moral blindness in U.S. foreign policy’ (p. xiii-xiv).

The pivotal theme of the book is a telegram, dispatched by Archer Blood, the then American Consul General to Dhaka, expressing discontent with the White House’s indifference to Pakistan Army’s brutality against Bengalis using American weapons. By referring to it as ‘the Blood telegram’, Bass stipulates that it was, ‘probably the most blistering denunciation of U.S. foreign policy ever sent by its own diplomats’ (p. 71). Referring to the massacre as genocide, the telegram condemned the American government for ‘bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistan dominated government’ (p.75). Moreover, the master-piece unearths that the United States regime had evidenced ‘moral bankruptcy’, ironically at a time when the former USSR sent President Yahya a message defending democracy’ (p.75). The duo – Nixon and Kissinger –  silenced Blood by calling him back to Washington and continued to neglect the killing, pretending to be ‘smart enough to stay the hell out of that’ (p.107).

Bass unravels that the underlying reason behind Nixon and Kissinger’s reluctance to the bloodshed with deafening silence, was – appeasing General Yahya Khan, who was working as their secret liaison to Washington’s ‘tilt’ towards Beijing. Bass vehemently slashed the American vulnerability to (mis)use General Yahya’s channel to accomplish their goal to foster their relationship with China. As evident in Bass’s words, ‘it is absolutely right that the normalization of the American relationship with China stands as an epochal event, but those who justifiably want to celebrate it should not overlook what it meant for the Bengalis and Indians’ (p. xv). The author acknowledges the herculean efforts of the then Indian Prime Minister – Indira Gandhi, for providing assistance to shelter the 10 million Bengali refugees, training Bengali freedom fighters, and in midwifing the birth of Bangladesh by launching a military offensive against the barbaric Pakistani army. In addition, Bass debunks how Nixon, who dealt with India during the conflict based on his personal contempt for Indira Gandhi, whom he had called ‘the old bitch’ (p.252), rather than on political strategy. 

To sum up, Bass’s extensive research subtly concludes that the United States was prudent enough to observe the worsening situation; however, Washington did nothing to prevent Pakistani excesses in erstwhile East Pakistan. Perhaps, therefore, Bangladesh is owed an apology, not just from Pakistan but also from the United States due to their complicity in the bloodbath of Bengali people. Thus, Bass concludes, ‘it would be an act of decency for the US government to recognize a special American responsibility to make amends to the Bangladeshi people’ (p.237).

However, it must be borne in mind that each work has its own set of limitations. Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, is no exception in this regard.  Focusing his research extensively on American sources and by less focusing on Bangladeshi and Pakistani sources, Bass was more inclined to tarnish the images of Nixon and Kissinger as villains and glorify Archer Blood as a tragic hero of American foreign policy. This form of ‘American reductionism’ may drive attention from the horrific narrative of the birth of Bangladesh. The author also should have extended more pages to the glorified role of freedom fighters who led the sanguine birth of Bangladesh. Despite these minimal shortcomings, the book is a must-read for scholars and general readers interested in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, especially to grasp the most gripping and detailed account of U.S. decision-making during the crisis amidst the Cold War context. As Bangladesh is celebrating its 50th year of independence, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, might inject renewed interest in the Bangladesh Liberation War within the context of Cold War geopolitics as a topic of academic and literary intervention by Bangladeshi as well as foreign scholars, and researchers.

*Irina Imamur Nadia is a Research Assistant at Eco-Social Development Organization (ESDO), Bangladesh. She graduated from Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka. She is interested in Global Affairs; International Relations; Governance and Development; Political Economy; Human Rights; Refugee and Migration Studies; Women and Gender Studies, Environment and Climate Change Studies; and Eco-feminism. She can be reached at [email protected]

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One thought on “‘The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger And A Forgotten Genocide’ – Book Review

  • December 13, 2021 at 6:34 am
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    As Bangladesh is celebrating its 50th year of independence, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, might inject renewed interest in the Bangladesh Liberation War within the context of Cold War geopolitics as a topic of academic and literary intervention by Bangladeshi

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