It’s been a dozen years since George W. Bush declared that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an “axis of evil.” Iraq is now a smoldering ruin. North Korea is still a nuclear Ruritania, though with a different weird ruler. But Iran has been edging off the list, replaced by Pakistan, harbor to the late Osama bin Laden and thousands of drone targets. “Our relationship with Pakistan is terrible,” says former Economist reporter and current Princeton politics professor Gary J. Bass, author of the harrowing new book The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. “We’re as close to war as we can possibly be.”
Hard to imagine it may be, but 40-odd years ago, Pakistan was our foremost South Asian ally. Its military junta stood—so imagined President Richard M. Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger—as a bulwark against an ever-encroaching Soviet Union, even as next-door India seemed all too friendly to it.
Nixon despised Indians, India and especially the country’s leader, Bass writes; Indira Gandhi felt much the same about him. His feelings would have profound implications when, in 1971, an independence movement gathered strength in East Pakistan. West Pakistan, the dominant half of the divided country, invaded, leading to the forgotten genocide of Bass’s subtitle.
Hundreds of thousands of East Pakistanis died of hunger or bullets, while 10 million refugees were sent fleeing into India. Meanwhile, in the United States, hastily passed laws forbade providing arms to Pakistan, but Nixon was bent on doing so. “Kissinger was told by the White House staff, the State Department staff, and lawyers at the Pentagon that the way he wanted to get it done, which was to launder the weapons through Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, was illegal,” Bass says. “But Nixon and Kissinger decided to go ahead with it.”
The Pakistani army, thus freshly reinforced, continued its rampage. The American consul general in Dacca, Archer Blood, cabled reports to Washington of mass graves and massacres. Blood urged that the State Department condemn the atrocities. The report went to Kissinger, who ignored what Blood called “genocide.”
Bass, a pre-teen when these events occurred, has waited a long time to write his book. “It’s only recently that we’ve been able to get into the archives and the Nixon tapes,” he says. “I was also able to talk to a whole lot of people who were inside the U.S. government at the time and were eyewitnesses. I didn’t use just decades-old testimony, but checked everything against contemporary accounts.”
The result is a damning portrait of the Nixon-Kissinger way of conducting business in the world. They continued to champion Pakistan, even as they silenced Blood, even as they courted a showdown with India—one that would certainly have drawn in the Soviet Union, yet another forgotten episode of brinkmanship in a Cold War that threatened always to go hot at a moment’s notice.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.