The ‘Blood Telegram’ – a review

The book, ‘Blood Telegram’ by Gary Bass came out in 2013. Three years later, I began reading it towards the end of my summer break in the US and finished it on the return flight to Chennai. It was, no doubt, an interesting book. Of course, one could not escape the thought that had the author dropped the swear words used by Henry Kissinger and his President Richard Nixon on India, Indians and to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the book’s size would have considerably shrunk. The pair had nothing but contempt for India, its people and the Prime Minister. After a meeting with Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the White House, President Nixon told Henry Kissinger that they ‘really slobbered over the old witch’.

Archer Blood was the Consul General of the United States Government in Dacca and the telegram in which he labelled the killings in Bangladesh genocide made him famous and infamous. In one of those bizarre coincidences, the cables from the Consulate-General’s office would be drafted by Scott Butcher, approved by Killgore and signed by Blood.

When Nelson Rockefeller asked Mrs. Indira Gandhi as to why she was putting all her eggs in the ‘Soviet Union’ basket, she said that she would not if there was another basket. That much comes through very clearly in the book. Shankkar Aiyar, in his book, ‘The Accidental India’ had referred to how Mrs. Indira Gandhi slammed the phone after one of her phone calls to Lyndon Johnson to ‘beg’ him literally not to keep the PL-480 shipment on a ‘hand-to-mouth’ basis for India. That was humiliating. She found the phone call so humiliating that she swore, ‘Never again’ and so was born the Green Revolution. If that is a bit dramatic, well, it played no small role, no doubt.

The NSA (Kissinger) and the President had, for some strange reason, total admiration and love for Yahya Khan. Well, not so strange. They used him as a conduit to begin their relationship with China. Hence, he was too important to them. But, Americans, over the years, have always had a reason to prefer to keep Pakistan warm. Sometimes, one wonders if the reasons were merely ‘after-the-fact’ explanations for their inexplicable love for Pakistan. Over the years, in my conversation with many ex-diplomats, none of them felt that they had found an ‘Aha’ explanation for it.

What was incredible was that Kissinger made a trip to India and the Indians thought that they had extracted a promise that America would support India if China turned aggressive against India. Despite his promise, he went back to Washington, D.C and was urging China to get aggressive with India!

That America was unwilling to lift a finger and use its leverage with Pakistan to stop the genocide in East Pakistan must go down as one of the biggest failure of the Nixon-Kissinger leadership. Yet, Peter Kann, who apparently won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Indo-Pakistan war for the Wall Street Journal, and was Chairman of Dow Jones & Co., until 2007, thinks that Kissinger and Nixon ‘behaved like leaders of a great power’. Read his review of the book here.

The book repeatedly mentions that the Pakistani Army systematically targeted Hindus in East Bengal. The Blood telegrams to the State Department made that quite clear. Mr. Kann, in his review, takes no note of the ethnic cleansing and genocide engaged in by the Pakistan Army and that America did not try even moral suasion on its ally.

Of course, it appears that Henry Kissinger was nothing, if not consistent. Apparently, some recently declassified documents show that he was as supportive of the Argentine military junta as he was of Pakistan.

While it would be easy for Indians reading the book to form an instinctive anti-American view, based on the behaviour of the Nixon-Kissinger duo at that time, should also remember the rousing welcome that Edward Kennedy got in India, at the height of the refugee crisis.

Today, so much is being written about the ‘magnanimity’ shown by Mrs. Angela Merkel of Germany towards refugees from Arabia. In fact, a friend of mine wondered why she did not think that something was amiss when all these young men swam and ran and made their way into Europe, leaving behind their wives, sisters, mothers and children. Mrs. Merkel is not popular in her own country for what she is doing. Clearly, instance of misbehaviour and dangerous behaviour in Germany by the refugees are proliferating.

Yet, forty-five years ago, India accepted ten to twelve times more refugees than Germany had done. Forty five years ago, India was too poor and yet, had to bear the brunt of the inflow of millions of refugees from East Bengal.

However, Gary Bass does not come across as someone sympathetic to India’s cause and situation. He seems to go out of his way to appear to be even-handed by not sparing India from the blame for how the situation evolved.

Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India was solidly behind India and Joseph Farland, the Ambassador in Pakistan was solidly behind his host nation. Kissinger was furious that all Ambassadors who end up in India went local! But, it escaped them that Joseph Farland was doing the same too. He had famously told Nixon that Hindus worshipped the cow and that Muslims ate it. It was as simple as that.

The book describes Zulfikar Ali Bhutto well. Despite (or, because of?) his education in Berkeley, he was very anti-American. Nixon did not like him. But, Kissinger thought that he was’ violently anti-Indian and pro-Chinese’. Blood simply called him ‘malevolent’.

Like with many (why ‘only’ many? – all, in fact) things in life, had there not been a devastating cyclone in East Bengal, things might have turned out different. Who knows? The cyclone, the devastation and the failure (ineptness) of the Pakistani administration to in providing rescue, relief and rehabilitation fomented and cemented the disaffection of the people of East Pakistan for the rulers in Islamabad. That is why when the elections happened, they voted overwhelmingly against the Pakistani ruling party and backed the Awami League. That is when the troubles started. West Pakistan did not accept the result and kept blocking the formation of the government precipitating the civil war.

The lack of trust meant that no compromise solution such as devolution – two Prime Ministers – one for East Pakistan and one for the West with a common President – would work. The people of East Pakistan wanted a ‘Bangla-desh’.

So, it was not human but it was a divine intervention in the form of the cyclone that set the ball rolling on the events that culminated in the vivisection of Pakistan into two nations. Nixon, with all his bluster and anti-India venom, could not prevent that from happening. For all their vanity and hubris, the hand of destiny uses humans to move things along a path that it has chosen for them!

Archer Blood died in 2004, at the age of 81.

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