excerpted from the book

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

by Christopher Hitchins

Verso Press, 2001



By 1971, the word "genocide" was all too easily understood. It surfaced in a cable of protest from the United States consulate in what was then East Pakistan - the Bengali "wing" of the Muslim state of Pakistan, known to its restive nationalist inhabitants by the name Bangladesh. The cable was written on 6 April 1971 and its senior signatory, the Consul General in Dacca was named Archer Blood. But it might have become known as the Blood Telegram in any case. Also sent directly to Washington, it differed from Morgenthau's document in one respect. It was not so much reporting on genocide as denouncing the complicity of the United States government in genocide. Its main section read thus:

"Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankrupt, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya Khan a message defending democracy, condemning the arrest of a leader of a democratically-elected majority party, incidentally pro-West, and calling for an end to repressive measures and bloodshed.... But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected."

This was signed by twenty members of the United States diplomatic team in Bangladesh and, on its arrival at the State Department, by a further nine senior officers in the South Asia division. It was the most public and the most strongly worded demarche from State Department servants to the State Department that has ever been recorded.

The circumstances fully warranted the protest. In December 1970, the Pakistani military elite had permitted the first open elections for a decade. The vote was easily won by Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Bengali-based Awami League, who gained a large overall majority in the proposed National Assembly. (In the East alone, it won 167 out of 169 seats.) This, among other things, meant a challenge to the political and military and economic hegemony of the Western "wing." The National Assembly had been scheduled to meet on 3 March 1971. On 1 March, General Yahya Khan, head of the supposedly outgoing military regime, postponed its convening. This resulted in mass protests and nonviolent civil disobedience in the East.

On 25 March, the Pakistani army struck at the Bengali capital of Dacca. Having arrested and kidnapped Rahman, and taken him to West Pakistan, it set about massacring his supporters. The foreign press had been preemptively expelled from the city, but much of the direct evidence of what then happened was provided via a radio transmitter operated by the United States consulate. Archer Blood himself supplied an account of one episode directly to the State Department and to Henry Kissinger's National Security Council. Having readied the ambush, Pakistani regular soldiers set fire to the women's dormitory at the university, and then mowed the occupants down with machine guns as they sought to escape. (The guns, along with all the other weaponry, had been furnished under United States military assistance programs.)

Other reports, since amply vindicated, were supplied to the London Times and Sunday Times by the courageous reporter Anthony Mascarhenas, and flashed around a horrified world. Rape, murder, dismemberment and the state murder of children were employed as deliberate methods of repression and intimidation. At least ten thousand civilians were butchered in the first three days. The eventual civilian death toll has never been placed at less than half a million and has been put as high as three million. Since almost all Hindu citizens were at risk by definition from Pakistani military chauvinism (not that Pakistan's Muslim co-religionists were spared), a vast movement of millions of refugees - perhaps as many as ten million - began to cross the Indian frontier. To summarize, then: first, the direct negation of a democratic election; second, the unleashing of a genocidal policy; third, the creation of a very dangerous international crisis. Within a short time, Ambassador Kenneth Keating, the ranking United States diplomat in New Delhi, had added his voice to those of the dissenters. It was a time, he told Washington, when a principled stand against the authors of this aggression and atrocity would also make the best pragmatic sense. Keating, a former senator from New York, used a very suggestive phrase in his cable of 29 March 1971, calling on the administration to "promptly, publicly, and prominently deplore this brutality." It was "most important these actions be taken now," he warned "prior to inevitable and imminent emergence of horrible truths."

Nixon and Kissinger acted quickly. That is to say, Archer Blood was immediately recalled from his post, and Ambassador Keating was described by the President to Kissinger, with some contempt, as having been "taken over by the Indians." In late April 1971, at the very height of the mass murder, Kissinger sent a message to General Yahya Khan, thanking him for his "delicacy and tact."

We now know of one reason why the general was so favored, at a time when he had made himself - and his patrons - responsible for the grossest war crimes and crimes against humanity. In April 1971, a United States ping-pong team had accepted a surprise invitation to compete in Beijing and by the end of that month, using the Pakistani ambassador as an intermediary, the Chinese authorities had forwarded a letter inviting Nixon to send an envoy. Thus there was one motive of realpolitik for the shame that Nixon and Kissinger were to visit on their own country for its complicity in the extermination of the Bengalis.

Kissinger had received some very bad and even mocking press for his handling of the Bangladesh crisis, and it had somewhat spoiled his supposedly finest hour in China. He came to resent the Bangladeshis and their leader, and even compared (this according to his then aide Roger Morris) Mujib to Allende.

As soon as Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973, he downgraded those who had signed the genocide protest in 1971.

In November 1974, on a brief face-saving tour of the region, Kissinger made an eight-hour stop in Bangladesh and gave a three-minute press conference in which he refused to say why he had sent the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal three years before. Within a few weeks of his departure, we now know, a faction at the US embassy in Dacca began covertly meeting with a group of Bangladeshi officers who were planning a coup against Mujib. On 14 August 1975, Mujib and forty members of his family were murdered in a military takeover. His closest former political associates were bayoneted to death in their prison cells a few months after that.

The Trial of Henry Kissinger

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