June 29, 2005 - President Nixon and his national security adviser
Henry Kissinger saw India as a "Soviet stooge" during
the South Asia crisis of 1971, downplayed reports of Pakistani genocide
in what is now Bangladesh, and even suggested that China intervene
militarily on Pakistan's side, according to startling new documentation
from White House files and tapes contained in the State
Department's Foreign Relations of the United States series
and reposted today by the National Security Archive.
Earlier this week, the Office of the Historian at the State Department
hosted a major conference on U.S. policy in South Asia focusing
on the 1971 India-Pakistan war triggered by the crisis over Bangladesh.
(Note 1) Much of the discussion focused on, and
flowed from, a new
volume of documentation edited by Louis J. Smith for
the FRUS series. (Note 2) Besides including
the usual cables and memoranda, the editors of this volume made
significant use of the White House tapes and the transcripts of
Henry Kissinger's telephone conversations. "This volume deserves
the attention of the widest possible readership because of its fascinating,
sometimes startling, revelations on Nixon administration policy.
It gives the reader an unparalleled perspective on the inner workings
of White House policy throughout the crisis," said Dr. William
Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, who attended
Triggered by East Pakistan's (now Bangladesh) quest for independence,
the 1971 crisis quickly raised human rights issues because of what
White House officials characterized as a "reign of terror"
(Note 3) orchestrated by Pakistani forces. While
consular officials in Dacca, East Pakistan privately criticized
the U.S. government's "failure to denounce atrocities,"
(Note 4) Nixon and Kissinger did not want "to
get [the] West Pakistanis turned against us," in part because
President Yahya was providing a secret communication link for their
quest for rapprochement with China. (Note 5) The
close China-Pakistan relationship was central to Nixon's wish to
"tilt" U.S. policy toward Pakistan in part to show Beijing
that Washington would support its allies. (Note 6)
With Pakistani refugees fleeing into India, the crisis quickly turned
into a clash between India and Pakistan. Quickly defining and dramatizing
a regional national/ethnic crisis in geo-political terms, Nixon
and Kissinger saw India as a Soviet client state that was determined
to weaken Pakistan fatally. China, however, had a close relationship
with Pakistan and Nixon wanted to "tilt" U.S. policy toward
Pakistan to show Beijing that Washington would support its allies.
As the crisis turned to war, Nixon and Kissinger saw the event
as a Cold War confrontation which could involve a China-Soviet conflict
and U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union. "The documents
show that Nixon and Kissinger overlooked the regional, ethnic, and
national dimensions of the crisis and instead saw it in terms of
the Cold War and macho terms, which made the crisis even more dangerous;
they risked a China-Soviet conflict so they could demonstrate what
they thought was toughness and resolve," commented Dr. Burr.
Some of the most fascinating documents in the volume concern Nixon
and Kissinger's reactions to developments just before and during
the war and their discussions of policy options. Among the highlights:
- Their reactions to Nixon's meetings with Indian Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi on November 5, 1971. According to Kissinger, the
"Indians are bastards anyway. They are starting a war there
… [W]hile [Gandhi] was a bitch, we got what we wanted to
… She will not be able to go home and say that the United
States didn't give her a warm reception and therefore in despair
she's got to go to war." (Note 8)
- Their agreement that China could put pressure on India: "
I think we've got to tell [the Chinese] that some movement on
their part … toward the Indian border could be very significant."
On December 8, Nixon and Kissinger agreed to transfer planes to
Pakistan and to tell the Chinese that "if you are ever going
to move this is the time." Kissinger noted the danger that
may arise "if our bluff is called." (Note
- The controversial CIA report that led Kissinger and Nixon to
believe that India intended to dismember Pakistan and destroy
its armed forces. (Note 10)
- Later on December 8, Nixon and Kissinger decide to send an aircraft
carrier and other naval forces into the Bay of Bengal in order
to prevent a "Soviet stooge, supported by Soviet arms"
from overrunning Pakistan. (Note 11)
- Interpreting the regional crisis in geo-strategic terms, Kissinger
justifies intervention to "prevent the West Pakistani army
from being destroyed. And secondly to retain our Chinese arm.
And thirdly, to prevent a complete collapse of the world's psychological
balance of power, which will be produced if a combination of the
Soviet Union and the Soviet armed client state can tackle [Pakistan]
without anybody doing anything." While U.S. action could
jeopardize the developing détente with Moscow, Kissinger
suggested to Nixon that "your card [is] your willingness
to jeopardize it." (Note 12)
- Nixon's hot line message to Brezhnev on 10 December urging the
Soviets " in the strongest possible terms to restrain India
with which … you have great influence and for whose actions
you must share responsibility." (Note 13)
- On December 10, Kissinger delicately encourages the Chinese
to take action against India guaranteeing U.S. support if the
Soviets retaliate: "if the People's Republic were to consider
the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to security,
and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would
oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People's Republic."
- On December 12, Kissinger tells Nixon that by taking a tough
stand with the Soviets he was making a "typical Nixon plan.
I mean it's bold… But my view is that if we do nothing there's
a certainty of disaster. This way there is a high possibility
of one, but at least we're coming off like men." With Beijing's
UN ambassador calling for an urgent meeting in New York with White
House officials, Kissinger was sure that Beijing was "going
to move. No question, they're going to move." If the Chinese
intervene, Nixon asked "what do we do if the Soviets move
against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons." Kissinger later
answered that "We don't have to lob nuclear weapons. We have
to go on alert… We may have to put forces in. We may have
to give them bombing assistance." This will provide an "opportunity
to clean up Vietnam at that point" by giving an ultimatum
to Hanoi and blockading Haiphong harbor. (Note 15)
- Nixon was not as sure as Kissinger that Beijing and Moscow would
go to war and when General Alexander Haig met with the Chinese
later that day, Nixon and Kissinger learned that the Chinese had
not made any military decisions but would call for a cease-fire
and mutual troop withdrawal and support a stand-still cease-fire
- Even before they realized that Beijing was not going to intervene,
the Soviets had assured the White House that the Indians were
not going to attack West Pakistan and that they were working with
Prime Minister Gandhi on a cease-fire. Ever the courtier, Kissinger
praised Nixon for his willingness to confront the Soviets: "What
you did this morning Mr. President was a heroic thing." On
December 16, Pakistani forces surrendered in East Pakistan and
a cease-fire took effect the next day. (Note 16)
There is much more to the story and readers are encouraged to peruse
this extraordinary compilation. Besides the print/electronic editions
of this volume, the State Department historians have released an
electronic supplement of scanned documents, the first ever in the
FRUS series. (Note 17)
1. For the agenda of the conference on "South
Asia in Crisis: United States Policy, 1961-1972 South Asia in Crisis:
United States Policy, 1961-1972," see http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/46059.htm.
2. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations
of the United States, 1969-1976 South Asia Crisis, 1971, vol.
11 (Washington, D.C., 2005), available on-line at < http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/xi/index.htm>.
For the Department's news release on the volume, see http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/xi/45652.htm.
For an earlier compilation of declassified documents published by
the National Security Archive, see "The Tilt: The U.S. and
the South Asian Crisis of 1971, National Security Archive Electronic
Briefing Book No. 79, Edited by Sajit Gandhi, December 16, 2003
3. Item 13 at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/xi/index.htm.
4. Items 19 and 20.
5. Item 23.
6. For "tilt', see item 218.
7. Professor Robert J. McMahon observed during
the State Department conference that the documents in the FRUS
volume confirm major points--such as the White House’s geopolitical
emphasis and Nixon and Kissinger’s strong bias against India
and toward Pakistan---made by critics who have dominated the historiography
of the crisis. See Dennis Kux, The United States and Pakistan,
1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies; Raymond Garthoff, Détente
and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan;
William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in
the Nixon Presidency; and Christopher Van Hollen, “The
Tilt Revisited: Nixon-Kissinger Geopolitics and South Asia,”
Asian Survey 20 (April 1980): 339-361.
8. Item 180.
9. Items 239 and 251.
10. Items 246 and 251
11. Item 252
12. Item 256
13. Item 269.
14. Item 274.
15. Item 281 at page 779.
16. Item 283.
17. See http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/nixon/e7/index.htm.