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Nixon/Kissinger Saw India as "Soviet Stooge" in 1971 South Asia Crisis

New Documents Show White House Ignored Regional Nature of Crisis and Risked Confrontation with Moscow to Look Tough

For more information contact
William Burr - 202/994-7032 - wburr@gwu.edu

June 29, 2005

Arrival ceremony for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi , November 4, 1971 (Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, National Archives and Records Administration)
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Washington, D.C., 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 the conference.

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. (Note 7)

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 9)
  • 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." (Note 14)
  • 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 if necessary.
  • 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 at https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB79/.

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.

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