EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
Can you describe some of the research — from White House recordings to recently declassified documents to material in “dusty Indian archives” — you undertook for The Blood Telegram?
To figure out how these two powerful democracies really made their policy, I spent years trying my best to get inside their governments in every way possible. That meant going through thousands of pages of documents at the Nixon Library in California, the National Archives outside of Washington, and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the National Archives of India in Delhi. In India and America, I did lengthy interviews with people who took part in this history, including White House staffers, Indian military leaders, and American and Indian diplomats, although not Henry Kissinger, who refused to talk to me despite multiple requests. And there was a horrifying amount of time spent listening to the White House tapes, which are incredibly hard to use, but are really an unparalleled window into how Nixon and Kissinger made their decisions.
The repercussions of 1971 are still felt in Bangladesh, evident in the mass protests in Shahbag in February. The depth of feeling and anger is clear, but is capital punishment for ‘collaborators’ the way forward?
Yes, there’s a remarkable depth of feeling in Bangladesh about 1971, as seen in Shahbag and in ongoing demonstrations. Still, like most people who are involved in one way or another with the human rights movement, I’m against death penalty on principle. States may have the power to throw duly convicted people in jail, but not to kill them. That invites state abuse. Of course, the Allies did execute convicted Germans at Nuremberg and Japanese at Tokyo, and Bangladeshis understandably point out the hypocrisy. But I’m still against the death penalty.
In the subtitle to the American edition of your book, the disproportionate killing of Bengali Hindus is described as a “forgotten genocide”. Is the term ‘genocide’ appropriate?
In the book, the case for using the word genocide is made by Archer Blood, the US consul general in Dhaka in 1971. He’s not a lawyer, and I have some issues with how he does it. At first, he used the term loosely, more for shock value than legal precision. But later, he points to the specific targeting of the Hindu minority among the Bengalis. There’s substantial evidence of this, and even some references to it in the testimony before Pakistan’s post-war Hamoodur Rahman Commission.
Kissinger, particularly, likes to suggest that he was a great statesman. A savvy Cold War chess-player. Your book shows two vindictive, petty, hateful men in charge of US foreign policy. Or is that a misreading? Was there an actual strategy?
There was definitely some strategy. Nixon and Kissinger had some serious Cold War reasons for worrying about India’s pro-Soviet leanings. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy worried about that too. Nixon and Kissinger were working on their opening to China. So there’s some strategic logic, yes. But there’s also a surprising amount of emotion and vitriol. It’s not just about some vulgar language or some cruel statements. It’s about anger that had an impact on foreign policy.
Pakistan was an important ally of the US, facilitating contact with Mao. Surely, there were other ways for the US to make overtures to China, or was this really the main reason for the silence as thousands of Bengalis were killed?
It’s one reason, although not the only. In the Cold War, both superpowers worried about being seen as unreliable allies, so betraying Pakistan, which was a treaty ally of the United States, could be damaging for the US. And yes, it mattered that Pakistan was helping with the opening to China. Nixon already liked Yahya Khan a lot, found him reliably anti-communist and wasn’t about to abandon him while he was making himself so useful in Beijing. There were some other channels to China, including a secret Romanian channel that was working quite well. My bottom line is that for people who understandably want to celebrate the opening to China, we shouldn’t forget the human cost for Bangladeshis and Indians.
This is a pretty dispiriting book. Even the Indian intervention is as much, if not more, about realpolitik and hypocrisy as it is about humanitarian principle. If there is a hero of sorts it’s Archer Blood, who sounds like a character in a Pynchon or DeLillo novel. What price did he and other diplomats pay for their dissent?
It’s not a happy story. These are grim facts. Although it doesn’t outweigh all the awful deeds, there were some Americans who behaved remarkably well. There’s Archer Blood, this brave consul general in Dhaka who documents the atrocities and speaks up against them, as well as almost all of the American officials in Dhaka. There’s Kenneth Keating, the ambassador to India who confronts Nixon and Kissinger to their faces in the Oval Office about genocide. There’s Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times reporter who covers the killing and the war. There are Harold Saunders and Samuel Hoskinson, the White House staffers who try to get Kissinger to change course. Archer Blood pays a real price: he’s ousted as consul general, which does major damage to a very promising diplomatic career. But he maintains his honour, and it would be a fitting tribute to remember him for that.
Ten million refugees fled to India. The borders were open, in stark contrast to today. What are the lessons to be learned from 1971 about how the world, outside the West, can and should, and how it should not, respond to humanitarian crises?
It’s not just the West’s obligation to respond to humanitarian crises. Those are global duties for all peoples who take seriously the defence of human rights. But for those people who are sceptical about human rights politics, and understandably are worried about the many problems that can arise from promoting human rights, it’s worth remembering what the world can look like when governments are unconcerned with the suffering of distant strangers. That is the way that Nixon and Kissinger made foreign policy, and other presidents and other governments have adopted similar policies. The Chinese and Russian governments today have some of that amoral sensibility. Do we really want to return to that?