HENRY KISSINGER MEMOIRS: AGONY OF THE BANGLADESH WAR
The third installment of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, The White House Years, is perhaps the most revealing about USA involvement in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Starting with the outbreak of the war, Kissinger details a blow-by-blow account of the initial confusion the crisis caused in the White House, and the bureaucratic stalemate that resulted with the USA State Department. Kissinger also gives an evocative account of the roles played by the superpowers.
One of the most persistent criticisms levelled at Kissinger was that he sacrificed morality in American foreign policy on the altar of pragmatism. He viewed foreign policy as essentially amoral. As a student of international relations he believed that a nation has no friends, only interests.
He once said: “We must give up the illusion that foreign policy can choose between morality and pragmatism.” Answering the criticism levelled against him, he argued: “America cannot be true to itself unless it upholds humane values and the dignity of the individual. But equally, it cannot realise its values unless it is secure. No nation has a monopoly on justice or virtue, and none has the capacity to enforce its own conceptions globally.” There was no doubt in Kissinger’s mind that American principles were not shared by the rest of the world. More so during the Indo-Pak crisis of 1971.
Crises always start with confusion, the Indo-Pak crisis had more than its share, writes Kissinger in the third instalment of his White House Years. He reveals the initial fumbling by the American government over its proposed reaction to the rapidly escalating conflict.
High stakes were therefore involved. I told Nixon that the India-Pakistan conflict would turn into a dress rehearsal for the Middle East in the spring.
In the following pages, Kissinger deals with the US decision to cut off aid to India, the US resolution in the Security Council calling for a ceasefire, and withdrawal of Indian forces, the attacks in the American media against the US administration’s stance on the conflict and the inevitability of an Indian victory.”Once again,” concludes Kissinger, “events in the sub-continent overtook us.”
On November 22, I reported to Nixon: The Pakistanis today claim in radio broadcasts that India “without a formal declaration of war, has launched in all-out offensive against East Pakistan.” … The Indians claim that these reports are “absolutely false.” … At this point, we have no independent evidence but it seems apparent that there had been a major incident.
Crises always start as confusion, this one more than most. The Pakistani Ambassador had no information; Secretary Rogers, who had no better sources than I, could only note the conflicting reports. Nixon was raring to carry out his threat, reiterated since May, that he would terminate aid to India. To head off domestic criticism he wanted to announce this as a cut-off of aid to both belligerents, knowing that aid to Pakistan was already being dried up.
I recommended that he delay a decision until after a Washington Special Action Group (Wsag) meeting called for the afternoon. I was sceptical even of announcing of cut-off for Pakistan if turned out that India was the aggressor. It was just too cynical; it might be misunderstood in Peking. Nixon was for whatever course that would hurt India more.
I had no doubt that we were now witnessing the beginning of an India-Pakistan war and that India had started it. Despite popular myths, large military units do not fight by accident; some command sets them into motion. No amount of obfuscation could offset the improbability that 70,000 Pakistani soldiers engaged in a guerrilla war would attack 200,000 Indian troops, or that the Pakistani air force of twelve planes in East Pakistan would have taken on the 200 Indian planes ranged against it.
There was no pretense of legality. There was no doubt in my mind-a view held even more strongly by Nixon-that India had escalated its demands continually and deliberately to prevent a settlement. To be sure, Pakistani repression in East Bengal had been brutal and shortsighted; and millions of refugees had imposed enormous strain on the Indian economy. But what had caused the war, in Nixon’s view and mine, went beyond the refugee problem; it was India’s determination to use the crisis to establish its pre-eminence on the subcontinent.
Mrs Gandhi informed the Indian Parliament the Indian troops had acted in their right of self-defence. Future decisions to cross the border would be left to the “man on the spot.” – a group of commanders eager to demonstrate their prowess.
But our paramount concern transcended the subcontinent. The Soviet Union could have restrained India; it chose not to. It had, in fact, actively encouraged war by signing the Friendship Treaty, giving diplomatic support to India’s maximum demands, airlifting military supplies, and pledging to veto inconvenient resolutions in the UN Security Council. The Soviets encouraged India to exploit Pakistan’s travail in part to deliver a blow to our system of alliances, in even greater measure to demonstrate Chinese impotence.
Since it was a common concern about Soviet power that had driven Peking and Washington together, a demonstration of American irrelevance would severely strain our precarious new relationship with China. Had we followed the advice of our critics-massive public dissociation from Pakistan and confrontation with it in its moment of desperation – we would have been operating precisely as the US-Soviet condominium so dreaded by Peking; this almost surely would have undone our China initiative.
I heard occasional comments in the inter agency meetings implying that we were obsessed with preserving the trip to China. But as I said to Nixon, “These people don’t recognize that without a China trip we wouldn’t have had a Moscow trip.”
American Allies: Nor were we defending only abstract principles of international conduct. The victim of the attack was an ally- however reluctant many were to admit it-to which we had made several explicit promises concerning precisely this contingency. Clear treaty commitments reinforced by other undertakings dated back to 1959. One could debate the wisdom of these undertakings (and much of our bureaucracy was so eager to forget about them that for a time it proved next to impossible even for the White House to extract copies of the 1962 communications), but we could not ignore them.
To do so would have disheartened allies like Iran and Turkey, which sympathized with Pakistan; had the same commitment from us, and looked to our reaction as a token of American steadiness in potential crises affecting them. High stakes were therefore involved. On December 5, I told Nixon that the India-Pakistan conflict would turn into a dress rehearsal for the Middle East in the spring. I made the same point to John Connally before and after the December 6 NSC meeting.
There was no question of “saving” East Pakistan. Both Nixon and I had recognized for months that its independence was inevitable; war was not necessary to accomplish it. We strove to preserve West Pakistan as an independent state, since we judged India’s real aim was to encompass its disintegration. We sought to prevent a demonstration that Soviet arms and diplomatic support were inevitably decisive in crises.
On December 4, I told Nixon that precisely because we were retreating from Vietnam we could not permit the impression to be created that all issues could be settled by naked force.
Though it was now too late to prevent war, we still had an opportunity-through the intensity of our reaction-to make the Soviets pause before they undertook another adventure somewhere else. As I told Nixon on December 5, we had to be, come sufficiently threatening to discourage similar moves by Soviet friends in other areas, especially the Middle East.
And if we acted with enough daring, we might stop the Indian onslaught before it engulfed and shattered West Pakistan. It was nearly impossible to implement this strategy because our departments operated on different premises.
They were afraid of antagonizing India; they saw that Pakistan was bound to lose the war whatever we did; they knew our course was unpopular in the Congress and the media. And Nixon, while he understood the strategic stakes, could not bring himself to impose the discipline required to implement the operational details.
Kissinger and the State Department, headed by William Rogers, were always at cross-purposes. Kissinger’s relations with Rogers had deteriorated to the point that they exacerbated their policy differences and endangered coherent policy. The result was a bureaucratic stalemate in which White House and State Department representatives dealt with each other as competing sovereign entities, not members of the same team.
Russians Warned: At the first Wsag meeting after the war began, on November 22, the State Department argued that we did not have enough facts to make any decision. It recommended that we press Pakistan for further political concessions. Though the war was a clear violation of the UN Charter, the Department was ambivalent about going to the UN; determined not to clash with India, it saw merit in going to the UN not in order to invoke Charter provisions against armed attack but only to wash our hands of the entire affair.
I asked-I fear none too patiently-what sense there was in rewarding India for its aggression by pressing for new concessions from Pakistan. Was it unreasonable to ask India to wait for four weeks to see how the transfer to civilian authority would come out? As for going to the UN, I asked State to prepare a scenario by the opening of business the next day. That same evening the President sent me an instruction that strong cables cautioning against war be sent to New Delhi, Moscow, and Islamabad. Nixon wanted Moscow, in particular, to be warned about its supply of arms to India.
Even Keating, who strongly supported the Indian point of view… found himself obliged to admit in an understatement that Singh was “less than completely frank with me with regard to Indian military personnel inside East Pakistan.
The military outcome was becoming obvious. Pakistan told us that two Indian brigades were operating inside East Pakistan. On November 23, Nixon received a letter from Yahya describing Indian military dispositions as in effect a noose around the government forces in East Pakistan that was being tightened through large and unprovoked attacks. Assuring Nixon of his desire to avoid war even at this late stage, Yahya appealed for Nixon’s “personal initiative at the present juncture” which “could still prove decisive in averting a catastrophe.”
On the same day – November 23 – we received a letter from Mrs Gandhi, inexplicably dated November 18. Speaking as if addressing a partner in a joint enterprise, Mrs Gandhi gave herself high marks for restraint, which she ascribed to faith that justice would prevail and which had been “sustained by the discussion I had with you.” While Indian units were roaming over a neighbouring country, Mrs Gandhi advised against convening the Security Council, arguing that “such a move would obstruct the path of the solutions which we jointly seek.”
It was an interesting doctrine of international law that recourse to the United Nations might obstruct the solution of a military conflict. And the implication that, now that India had attacked its neighbour, we were seeking “joint solutions” did little to calm the Presidential temper. Mrs Gandhi appealed to Nixon to use his “great courage” to inspire a solution and expressed the hope for better relations between the United States and India.
She did not vouch safe what solution she was aiming for or what better relations between India and the United States would consist of. But it was clear she did not want to be called to defend and justify India’s policy before the world community at the UN.
Chinese Connection: The Wsag meeting of November 23, shed no light on the direction in which American influence-now requested by both sides – could be brought to bear. The State Department had no objection to the cables to Moscow and Islamabad urging restraint (in the latter case, no one considered it odd to ask the victim of a military attack to show restraint).
It was the cable to New Delhi that was giving trouble. Under Secretary of State Irwin recommended delaying until we had “independent” confirmation of an Indian attack. “We can play this charade only so long,” I replied.
Nor was State ready to cut off military aid to India, as Nixon demanded. Its representatives questioned whether a cut-off was consistent with our efforts to restrain Mrs Gandhi and doubted its effectiveness. This was exactly the opposite of what had been alleged for months with respect to Pakistan! And after months of demonstrating enormous ingenuity in drying up the Pakistani pipeline, they seemed totally at a loss on how to accomplish it with India, pleading the difficulty of tracing equipment already licensed.
It also turned out that ending economic aid to both sides would hurt Pakistan more than India. I pointed out what should have been axiomatic: that it made no sense to refrain from cutting off military equipment to the attacking country when we had already done so to the victim.
November 23 was also the day of my first secret meeting with the Chinese in New York. Huang Hua was now Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations. Peking had agreed that we could use Huang Hua in New York as a contact on UN matters or for emergency messages; the rest of our business was to be conducted through Paris as heretofore.
I thought it important to keep Peking meticulously informed of our moves; at a minimum, the Chinese leaders had to understand that we were not in collusion with the Soviet Union. Peking needed to appreciate our determination to resist expansionism as well as the limits on our practical possibilities in this case.
Huang Hua and I met at a secret location in New York City in the East Thirties, a seedy little apartment in an old brownstone that the CIA had used as a safe house. One requirement was that it have no doorman and few other occupants. Otherwise we would be tempting fate if too many sharp-eyed New Yorkers could see three Chinese diplomats wearing Mao suits walk into a building, to be followed by Henry Kissinger. (Later we moved our meeting place to an equally seedy if slightly more pretentious establishment in the East Seventies.)
At this point I could do little more than brief Huang Hua on the military situation. I showed him the draft resolution we would submit to the Security Council if the issue were taken up there indicating we had not made a final decision. Huang Hua emphasized that China would support Pakistan in the Security Council, but would follow Pakistan’s lead as to whether to take the issue there.
Bureaucratic Infighting: On November 24, Mrs Gandhi acknowledged for the first time that Indian troops had crossed the Pakistani border. They had done so only once, she said, on November 21. And, she informed the Indian Parliament, Indian troops had acted in their right of self-defence. Future decisions to cross the border would be left to the “man on the spot”-a group of commanders eager to demonstrate their prowess.
In the face of all this evidence, the Wsag meeting on November 24 marked time as we awaited the responses to our demarches in New Delhi, Islamabad, and Moscow. I asked the departments whether there was any doubt that Indian regular forces had invaded East Pakistan. Most agreed, but -in spite of Mrs Gandhi’s admission-the State Department representative still regarded the evidence as inconclusive. The operational advice offered was, again, to press Pakistan for further political concessions.
If there was a “tilt” in the US Government at this stage, objectively it was on the side of India. Bureaucratic paralysis had the practical effect of cooperating with the delaying action that India was conducting on the diplomatic front.
At noon on November 24, Nixon met Rogers and Kissinger in the Oval office. The meeting ended inconclusively with Nixon afterward fretting to Kissinger about how to deal with Rogers.
|Pakistan did not want a Security Council discussion because it feared that it might broaden into a general criticism of the repression in East Bengal.|
The outcome was that everyone went his own merry way. The State Department had publicized its view by having its spokesman declare at a press briefing that the United States had no evidence to charge India with aggression. When the Pakistani Ambassador protested to the Secretary, Rogers reiterated that we had “no independent information to confirm or deny” Indian complicity in armed attack.
Rogers explained that Washington did not want to be in a position to take sides as to the truth of conflicting reports. Of course, the location of the battle line deep inside Pakistani territory would have given us a pretty good clue as to who was probably doing the attacking.
Bureaucratic infighting caused a third day to pass without any serious US reaction. I have pointed out in previous chapters that crises can be managed only if they are overpowered early. Once they gain momentum the commitments of the parties tend to drive them out of control.
A stern warning to India on the first day, coupled with a plausible threat of an aid cut-off brutally implemented, might possibly have given Mrs Gandhi pause before she escalated. (It would, of course, have been even better to do so before the attack.) Doubts about who had attacked were largely spurious. Guerrilla forces do not operate tanks and airplanes across hundreds of miles of territory.
Plaintive appeals for restraint only revealed our hesitation; they may have spurred Indian military action instead of restraining it.
No Progress: Ambassador Keating’s experience with Swaran Singh on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, revealed that India was implacable. In a stormy reply to our plea for restraint, Singh complained that there had been no political progress since Mrs Gandhi’s visit.
He did not tell us how it could have been made, since his Prime Minister had never deigned to react to our proposals and did not communicate with us until November 23, forty-eight hours earlier. He said that if Pakistan unilaterally withdrew its troops, this would create a new situation, but he refused to tell us whether India would follow suit. It was Pakistan that threatened India, said Singh, not the other way around.
When Keating referred to Indian troops on Pakistani territory, Singh blithely replied this did not tally with facts as he knew them. Even Keating, who strongly supported the Indian point of view, lobbied for it in Congress, and frequently castigated both Nixon and me privately, found himself obliged to admit in an understatement that Singh was “less than completely frank with me with regard to Indian military personnel inside East Pakistan”.
On November 25, too, we learned reliably that Mrs Gandhi had told colleagues that India would continue its attacks and escalate them. Her commanders were as good as her word. On November 26, new Indian attacks were launched in the Jessore area. The Soviet Union blocked a Japanese feeler to call a Security Council meeting. Ambassador Beam was told that the Soviet Union would support an end to military operations only if there were a political solution satisfactory to India.
Nixon phoned British Prime Minister Heath to tell him of his fear that Indian objectives might well go beyond East Pakistan. He received general expressions of agreement but a clear indication that Britain would stay aloof.
On November 26, Farland managed to see Yahya, who accepted Farland’s suggestion that he request the UN to send observers to the Pakistani side of the line. He would also ask the UN to take over the refugee facilities in East Pakistan and would consider allowing Bengali oppositionists to meet with the still imprisoned Mujib.
In New Delhi Keating saw Mrs Gandhi in the context of a visit by Senators Frank Church and William Saxbe. Her line had hardened even further. She repeated the complaint that there had been no political progress since her talks with Nixon. The issue in any event was no longer East Pakistan but India’s national security in the face of unstable neighbours, she said.
Playing to the end the role of a peace-loving moderate overwhelmed by events, Mrs Gandhi said that she was barely able to resist tremendous domestic pressure for even more drastic action -though it was not obvious what more India might do to harass, injure, and invade her neighbour.
Presidential Letters: Nixon’s instinct, again, was to reply to Mrs Gandhi with a cut-off of aid. I urged him to wait for the next Indian move. We would be better off reacting when the provocation was unambiguous and the facts uncontestable. The State Department came forward with the idea of Presidential letters to Yahya, Mrs Gandhi, and Kosygin, again urging troop withdrawals, though without any indication that there was a penalty for refusing us.
Though Presidential letters had grown so frequent as to debase the currency. I went along because they could do no damage and could provide a platform later for stronger action.
The President’s letter to Mrs Gandhi informed her of Yahya’s willingness to permit UN observers on the Pakistani side of the border and reminded her of Pakistan’s standing offer of unilateral withdrawal. Noting her admission that Indian forces were engaged on Pakistani territory, the letter stressed that “the American people would not understand if Indian actions led to broad scale hostilities.”
The message to Kosygin called once again for Soviet cooperation in promoting a peaceful resolution to the crisis and urged the Soviet Union to press New Delhi on troop withdrawals. It was a futile gesture. The Soviet definition of an acceptable solution was identical with India’s.
The letter to Yahya sought to discourage him from seeking to relieve the pressure on beleaguered East Pakistan by attacking India from the West, where the bulk of the Pakistani army was located. Even though such a move was also doomed to failure, desperate leaders might feel it required by their honour.
We were concerned that a Pakistani attack in the West would merely supply the final pretext for India to complete the disintegration of all of Pakistan. The Nixon letter listed our various futile efforts to urge restraint on India; nevertheless, it warned against expansion of the war. Yahya received Farland on November 27. He was desperate and cooperative. He offered to ask the United Nations immediately to furnish observers for the Pakistani side of the border to guarantee Pakistan’s defensive intent.
He offered to permit Farland to meet with Mujib’s lawyer. (As the war escalated Yahya later withdrew his offer.) And he reaffirmed his willingness for contacts with members of the provisional Bangladesh Government in Calcutta and “they will not find me unresponsive.”
The winning side in a war is rarely eager for negotiations; the longer the battle lasts, the better will be its bargaining position. The only restraint is the fear that if it overplays its hand it will trigger outside forces that might deprive it of the fruits of its victory. Mrs Gandhi at the end of November was riding the waves of success, and the actions of neither the United States nor China gave her much reason for caution.
The Nixon Administration was being pressed to turn on Pakistan; China at the end of its Cultural Revolution proved to be militarily unprepared and had just surmounted a domestic crisis involving the loyalty of its military.
Meanwhile, the State Department spokesman surfaced with a comment that showed how hard his colleagues found it to follow the White House strategy or to break with three decades of sentimental attachment to India. A former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Benjamin H. Oehlert, Jr, had written a letter to the New York Times, published on November 3, to the effect that the United States had commitments to come to Pakistan’s aid “even with our arms and men, if she should be attacked by any other country”.
The State Department spokesman replied to a question on November 26 that there were no such secret commitments binding the United States to come to Pakistan’s aid. If enough emphasis were placed on the phrase “arms and men” and if a sharp lawyer were permitted to define the meaning of “binding”, this statement was at the very edge of truth. It also happened to be exactly the wrong signal if we sought to restrain an Indian assault on an allied country.
Futile Efforts: Mrs Gandhi was unavailable to receive the President’s letter. She had decided to visit the troops near the border. She blasted the superpowers (meaning the United States) for having the nerve to complain “because we have taken action to defend our borders”. This speech was little likely to turn the thoughts of the military commanders, who now had discretion to cross the frontier, toward peace.
That same day Indian Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram disclosed to a cheering crowd at a political rally in Calcutta that Indian forces had been authorized to advance into Pakistan to “silence” Pakistani artillery. At the same rally a speaker declared, “India will break Pakistan to pieces.” And an Indian colonel told a reporter on November 28 what part of the US Government was still unwilling to acknowledge-that “our troops went in because the Mukti Bahini called for help.”
Keating finally caught up with Mrs Gandhi on November 29 and was received with another frosty recital of India’s complaints. Yahya’s problems, she pointed out not inaccurately, were self-created and “we are not in a position to make this easier for him.” She could not continue to tell her people to wait and added ominously, “I can’t hold it.” When Keating tried to raise the issue of border incursions into Pakistan, Mrs Gandhi cut him off: “We can’t afford to listen to advice which weakens us.”
This moved matters back to the Wsag, which on November 29 debated inconclusively whether India had made a decision to attack before or after the Nixon-Gandhi talks. The issue was as irrelevant as the answer was self-evident. Clearly, Mrs Gandhi had planned it well in advance and used her trip not as a means to seek a solution but as a smoke-screen for her actions.
There was no way by which the Indian deployment could have been completed in the ten-day period between Mrs Gandhi’s return and the first cross-border operations. The Wsag had at last reconciled itself to the fact that the President meant to cut off some aid to India, but the State Department fought a dogged rearguard action to keep the reduction to a minimum and the directive sufficiently vague to permit the maximum administrative discretion.
Matters reached such a point of confusion concerning what categories of arms we might cut off that I said, “We have contracts without licenses and licenses without contracts,” asking which we were to terminate. It transpired that what was favoured was a refusal to grant new licenses-undoubtedly on the theory that this decision could always be reversed after the war when passions had cooled.
I should have known from the case with which inter agency agreement was obtained that the amounts involved were small (around $17 million). The first step, a ban on new licenses for military equipment for India, was announced by State on December 1.
UN’s Impotence: On November 29, I informed Peking via the Paris channel of all our overtures to other countries and their responses.
By November 30 Mrs Gandhi raised pressures another notch. Speaking to her Parliament, she sarcastically welcomed the call for troop withdrawals but “the troops that should be withdrawn straight away are the Pakistani troops in Bangladesh.” She threw cold water on any negotiations with Pakistan on the ground that only the elected representatives of Bangladesh could decide its future and that in her view they would not settle for anything less than “liberation”. Thus, there was nothing to negotiate with Pakistan other than its dismemberment.
So the Wsag met again on December 1 to discuss whether, over a week after the start of hostilities, the time had come for a UN Security Council meeting and what additional steps could be taken to implement an arms cutoff to India. There was surprising international unanimity not to go to the Security Council. India did not want a Security Council meeting because hypocrisy could not be stretched even in that body to avoid the admission that an invasion of a sovereign member of the UN had taken place.
It would be able to escape condemnation only by the promised Soviet veto. Pakistan did not want a Security Council discussion because it feared that it might broaden into a general criticism of the repression in East Bengal; also, it wanted to keep the spotlight on its invitation that UN observers be stationed on the Pakistani side of the border-a proposal that had already been formally submitted to the UN secretary-general.
The Soviet Union was not eager to be forced to invoke its veto; Huang Hua had told me that China would back whatever Pakistan wanted. Within our government the State Department was not eager to go to the Security Council because it feared the “tilt” of White House instructions.
I was reluctant because I was loath to take on the domestic brawl that our instructions would evoke. It was a sad commentary on the state of the United Nations when a full-scale invasion of a major country was treated by victim, ally, aggressor, and other great powers as too dangerous to bring to the formal attention of the world body pledged by its Charter to help preserve the peace.
The War Spreads
On December 2 Pakistani Ambassador Raza delivered a letter from Yahya to President Nixon invoking Article I of the 1959 bilateral agreement between the United States and Pakistan as the basis for US aid to Pakistan. The American obligation to Pakistan was thus formally raised.
The State Department was eloquent in arguing that no binding obligation existed; it regularly put out its view at public briefings. It pointed out that Article I spoke only of “appropriate action” subject to our constitutional processes; it did not specify what action should be taken. The Department also claimed that the obligation was qualified by its context, the 1958 Middle East “Eisenhower Doctrine” resolution, which it was argued, intended to exclude an India-Pakistan war. State simply ignored all other communications between our government and Pakistan.
|We had to act with determination to save larger interests and relationships. We were playing a weak hand, but one must never compound weakness by timidity.|
The image of a great nation conducting itself like a shyster looking for legalistic loopholes was not likely to inspire other allies who had signed treaties with us or relied on our expressions in the belief that the words meant approximately what they said. The treaty with Pakistan was identical to several other bilateral and multilateral agreements – all of which our pronouncements seemed to cast into doubt.
And it had been buttressed in the case of Pakistan by many additional assurances of support. The fact was that over the decades of our relationship with Pakistan, there had grown up a complex body of communications by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, going beyond the 1959 pact, some verbal, some in writing, whose plain import was that the United States would come to Pakistan’s assistance if she was attacked by India. To be sure, their purpose had been to evade Pakistani requests for arms after the Indian attack on Goa of December 1961 and the India-Pakistan war of 1965.
Assurances of future US support were the substitute for immediate material aid. But, if anything, this made matters worse. It, made it appear as if the United States avoided supplying weapons to an ally first by promising later support if the threat materialised and then by welshing on its promises by super-clever legal exegesis.
I am not suggesting that we should have blindly set our policy solely because of what our predecessors had said. The decisions of a great power will be shaped by the requirements of the national interest as perceived at the moment of decision, not only by abstract legal obligations whether vague or precise.
No country can be expected to run grave risks if its interests and obligations have come to be at total variance with each other. But equally a nation that systematically ignores its pledges assumes a heavy burden; its diplomacy will lose the flexibility that comes from a reputation for reliability; it can no longer satisfy immediate pleas from allies by promises of future action. Pakistan, moreover, was an ally of other allies – Iran, Turkey – and a friend of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, then isolated in a still largely radical Middle East.
And it was a friend of China and in close touch with a Peking that was gingerly feeling its way toward a new relationship with us based on the hope that we could maintain the global equilibrium. A reputation for unreliability was not something we could afford.
Nixon was ensconced in Key Biscayne; we talked frequently. He had no intention of becoming militarily involved, but he was determined that something be done. He ordered that the remaining licences for Indian arms be terminated. He wanted a complete cutoff of economic aid (this I knew would never happen, given the biases of our bureaucracy).
He wanted a State Department statement castigating Indian intransigence. “If they don’t want to, Ziegler will do it from Florida, and it will be a blast.” I transmitted these instructions to an unenthusiastic Rogers, who began trying to figure out ways to make the announcement so late in the day that the scope of press coverage would be reduced.
A New front: Once more events in the subcontinent overtook us. Yahya had at last been cornered by his subtly implacable opponent in New Delhi. Throughout the crisis, long periods of paralyzing inactivity by Yahya had been succeeded by sudden spasms as he sought to adjust to his predicament-usually too late. For 11 days he had stood by while Indian forces pressed deeper and deeper into East Pakistan, in effect dismembering his country.
For his main forces to remain inactive on the borders of West Pakistan would amount to abdication; yet to respond would be to fall into the Indian trap and provide a pretext for an all-out onslaught on East and eventually West Pakistan. Yahya chose what he considered the path of honour. On December 3 he launched his army into an attack in the West that he must have known was suicidal. In simple-minded soldierly fashion he decided, as I told Nixon, that if Pakistan would be destroyed or dismembered it should go down fighting.
The war having spread, official American reaction was again stymied by repeated arguments between Kissinger and Rogers. Kissinger finally acquiesced and let the Department slide off the condemnation of India that Nixon had ordered. On December 3 it was announced that remaining licenses for arms to India would be cancelled.
By now Nixon was in high gear. As always, his attitude was woven of many strands. He wanted to preserve his China initiative, and he understood that “even-handedness” would play into India’s hands. He wanted to deflect blame for what was happening from himself. He dreaded conflict with Rogers. But he was insistent on taking a strong line at the Security Council. His initiatives came cascading into my office, specific in indicating directions, less so in defining the methods.
In this atmosphere the Wsag assembled on December 3 to chart a course. It was a meeting memorialised in transcripts that were leaked to the columnist Jack Anderson. Out of context these sounded as if the White House were hell-bent on pursuing its own biases, but they can only be understood against the background of the several preceding months of frustrating and furious resistance by the bureacuracy to the President’s explicit decisions. “I’ve been catching unshirled hell every half-hour from the President who says we’re not tough enough,” I commented in what I thought was the privacy of the Situation Room. “He really doesn’t believe we’re carrying out his wishes. He wants to tilt toward Pakistan and he believes that every briefing or statement is going the other way.” That was of course a plain statement of the facts.
|Conciliatory in tone, it took the traditional stance of the side whose military operations are going favourably – it stalled.|
My sarcasm did nothing to affect departmental proclivities. When I transmitted the President’s instruction to cut off economic aid to India, State suggested a similar step toward Pakistan-in spite of the President’s view that India was the guilty party for its bellicosity.
This provoked me in exasperation into another “tilt” statement: “It’s hard to tilt toward Pakistan, as the President wishes, if every time we take some action in relation in India we have to do the same thing for Pakistan. Just hold this informally until I get to the President.”
The difference of opinion between Kissinger and Rogers left State Department officials in an extremely uncomfortable position. Kissinger recounted the bureaucratic battles not to aportion blame but to illuminate the public record, which is incomprehensible without them.
China Factor: The issue hinged on the geopolitical perspective of the White House as against the regional perspective of the State Department, and on the relative weight to be given to China and India in the conduct of our foreign policy. The White House viewed the conflict as a ruthless power play by which India, encouraged by the Soviets, used the ineptitude of the Pakistani Government and the fragility of the Pakistani political structure to force a solution of the East Pakistan crisis by military means when a political alternative seemed clearly available.
Whether our officials liked, it or not, Pakistan was an ally to which we had treaty commitments backed up by private assurances; its fate would thus affect the attitudes of several key countries that had rested their security on American promises, it would be watched carefully by China. And those countries in the Middle East eager to settle the issue by force could easily be tempted to adopt military means.
And if its policy in the sub-continent succeeded too easily, the Soviet Union might resort to comparable tactics in other volatile areas-as indeed it later did when Watergate had sapped Executive authority. The dismemberment of Pakistan by military force and its eventual destruction without any American reaction thus would have profound international repercussions.
The opposing view was that we were needlessly sacrificing the friendship of India, that nothing could be done to save East Pakistan, and that it would, in any event, be undesirable to do so. We were taking the “Chinese position”, Rogers complained. We were acting impetuously. We ran a needless risk of involving ourselves militarily. India was a country of huge potential that we needed as a friend.
But Nixon and I were not being impetuous. We were convinced that India’s nonalignment derived not from affection for the United States but from its perception of its national interest; these calculations were likely to reassert themselves as soon as the immediate crisis was over. The issue, to us, was the assault on international order implicit in Soviet-Indian collusion.
I told the Wsag on December 4 that “everyone knows we will end up with Indian occupation of East Pakistan.” But we had to act with determination to save larger interests and relationships. We were playing a weak hand, but one must never compound weakness by timidity. “I admit it’s not a brilliant position,” I said to Nixon on December 5, “but if we collapse now the Soviets won’t respect us for it; the Chinese will despise us and the other countries will draw their own conclusions.”
Once the war had spread to the West, moreover, at issue was not the method for establishing Bangladesh but the survival of Pakistan itself. India’s military power was vastly superior to Pakistan’s, partly the result of the six-year American embargo on arms sales to both sides, which hurt mainly Pakistan. Because of India’s access to Soviet arms and a large arms industry of its own, India was bound to crush Pakistan’s armed forces.
The State Department’s legal advisers might find a way to demonstrate that we had no binding obligation to Pakistan, but the geopolitical impact would be no less serious for it. Our minimum aim had to be to demonstrate that we would not compound our weakness by fatuousness. We had to act in a manner that would give pause to potential Soviet adventures elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, where Egypt’s President had now proclaimed 1972 as another year of decision.
The USA was playing a big bluff because it had no cards to speak of. On December 9 Kissinger appealed to his Wsag colleagues to “speak with the same voice” and to stop putting out conflicting stories.
It was impossible to keep the government united and not easy to get it to act with any coherence. Most of December 4 was expended in getting the State Department to agree to a speech by George Bush challenging India’s resort to arms and supporting a Security Council resolution calling for both a cease-fire and withdrawal of forces (that is, Indian).
Bush introduced a resolution along these lines on December 4. The Security Council supported our position, with 11 members favouring our resolution. But it failed of adoption because it was vetoed by the Soviet Union. (Britain and France abstained- another example of the tendency of our West European allies to let us carry the burden of global security alone.) With the Security Council stalemated by the Soviet veto we took the case to the General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace resolution.
We prevailed in that body by a vote of 104 to 11 on December 7. Our position was opposed only by the Soviet bloc and India.
Although the USA Government had the support of the world community, the usual votaries of public opinion in America castigated the White House as if it stood irrationally against the decent opinion of mankind.
All the while, the Soviet Union was buying time for India to complete its military operations. Tass issued a blistering statement on December 5 supporting India without reservation and opposing any ceasefire unless accompanied by a political settlement based on the “lawful rights*’ of the people of East Pakistan. When Nixon learned of this he decided to bring pressure on Moscow. Dobrynin, as in most crises, was out of town. His charge, Vorontsov, had authority only to receive and transmit messages, not to negotiate.
On December 5, I told Vorontsov that we were at a watershed. Moscow’s encouragement of Indian aggression was inconsistent with improvement in US-Soviet relations. Vorontsov was soothing. The crisis would be over in a week; it need have no impact on US-Soviet relations. If the Soviet Union continued on its present course. I snapped, it would not be over in a week, whatever happened on the subcontinent.
Bangladesh Recognized: On December 6, Mrs Gandhi officially recognized the independence of Bangladesh. While this had been implicit in her policy all along, her declaration had the effect of closing off all remaining possibility of political accommodation.
The State Department at last announced the cut-off of economic aid to India that Nixon had ordered four days earlier (but it was carried out so half-heartedly that it had little impact).
Personality clashes between Kissinger and Rogers persisted. In these circumstances, more and more of their policy was pulled into the White House, where Nixon and Kissinger could control it.
On the evening of December 6, at eleven, we received a Soviet reply to my conversation with Vorontsov of the day before. Conciliatory in tone, it took the traditional stance of the side whose military operations are going favourably – it stalled. The Soviets denied that what happened on the subcontinent represented a watershed.
In more elegant form it followed Tass line of calling for a political solution in East Pakistan as a pre-condition for a cease-fire. And the Soviet definition of a political solution was identical with India’s: immediate independence. Clearly, Moscow wanted the war to continue.
Nixon responded by ordering, on my recommendation, a slow-down in economic negotiations with Moscow. This was easier said than done. By now enough departments had developed a vested interest in East-West trade to seek to protect their turf if only by inertia in carrying out orders.
This resistance was led by Secretary of Commerce Stans, who reflected the passionate view of many businessmen that profits should not be sacrificed to politics. On top of it, Stans-surely an ardent anti-Communist-fancied that he had established a good personal relationship with Soviet leaders which he was most reluctant to jeopardize for arcane diplomatic manoeuvres thousands of miles away.
Ominous Portents: On December 7, Yahya informed us that East Pakistan was disintegrating. For us the day began with a Washington Post editorial sharply attacking Administration policy on the subcontinent, calling the aid cut-off of India ”puzzling,” “purely punitive,” and its reasons “laughable.”
The Post came to this conclusion on the very day on which all further doubt was dispelled that the issue had gone far beyond self-determination for East Pakistan.
A report reached us from a source whose reliability we had never had any reason to doubt and which I do not question today, to the effect that Prime Minister Gandhi was determined to reduce even West Pakistan to impotence: She had indicated that India would not accept any General Assembly call for a ceasefire until Bangladesh was “liberated”; after that, Indian forces would proceed with the “liberation” of the southern part of Azad Kashmir -the Pakistani part of Kashmir-and continue fighting until the Pakistani army and air force were wiped out. In other words, West Pakistan was to be dismembered and rendered defenceless. Mrs Gandhi also told colleagues that if the Chinese “rattled the sword,” the Soviets had promised to take appropriate counteraction. Other intelligence indicated that this meant diversionary military action against China in Sinkiang. Pakistan – West Pakistan – could not possibly survive such a combination of pressures, and a Sino-Soviet war was not excluded.
‘Anti-Indian’: Against this background I gave a press briefing that became highly controversial later. I did so because Rogers had prohibited State Department personnel from undertaking public briefings, because massive leaks sought to undermine what the President had repeatedly ordered, and because we needed to state a coherent case for our position.
I sought to set out our reasoning, warn India while giving it assurances of basic goodwill, and try to convey to the Soviets that matters were getting serious. I denied that the Administration was “anti-Indian.” I emphasized that we had not condoned the Pakistani repression in East Bengal in March 1971; military aid had been cut off and major efforts had been made to promote political accommodation between the Pakistani Government and Bangladesh officials in Calcutta. Nevertheless, in our view India was responsible for the war.
India, I pointed out, “either . . . could have given us a timetable or one could have waited for the return to civilian rule which was only three weeks away, to see whether that would bring about a change in the situation. …” We had concluded that “military action was taken, in our view, without adequate cause.” India had spurned or ignored our overtures. I warned the Soviet Union that it had an obligation to act as a force for restraint, for “the attempt to achieve unilateral advantage sooner or later will lead to an escalation of tensions which must jeopardize the prospects of relaxation.” I believed then, and still do, that this represented an accurate statement of the record.
George Bush, on instructions, went a step farther at the UN, labelling India the aggressor. The resolution we supported in the General Assembly, calling for ceasefire and withdrawal of forces, won overwhelming support, passing, as I have pointed out, by 104 lo 11.
But neither our briefings nor the overwhelming expression of world opinion softened media or Congressional criticism. The New York Times ridiculed my argument that a political accommodation with Yahya had been attainable. The Washington Post continued to expresses its “serious reservations about Mr Nixon’s pro-Pakistan policy”.
To us the issue was now to prevent the dismemberment of West Pakistan. I told the Wsag on December 8:
Let’s now turn to the key issue. If India turns on West Pakistan, takes Azad Kashmir and smashes the Pak air and tank forces, a number of things seem inevitable. Should we, in full conscience, allow the liberation of the same disintegrating forces in West Pakistan as in the East? Baluchistan and other comparable issues are bound to come to the fore, as Mrs Gandhi indicated to the President and as she told a Columbia University seminar in New York, I understand. Pakistan would be left defenseless and V/est Pakistan would be turned into a vassal state.
*These reports of Indian deliberations – among the most important reasons for our policy – were published by Jack Anderson, but without apparent understanding of their significance. Â© Henry A. Kissinger-Extracts from a forthcoming hook entitled White House Years, to be published shortly by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph in the U.K.
FEBRUARY 19, 2014