The United States and Pakistani Relations During the “East Pakistan Secession Crisis”

By Mustafa Rasheed

As ethnic and religious tensions are making headlines in the South Asia region, I have decided to post my final term paper for Professor Paul Kershaw’s American Foreign Relations Since 1933 course at Wayne State University. The paper required students to develop a historiographical question and produce an argument to answer that question by primarily relying on primary sources.

The following essay asks what the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations was during the Cold War period, particularly in the midst of the “East Pakistan secession crisis”. It argues that the Nixon administration prioritized its relationship with the West-Pakistani government of Yahya Khan over the situation of the Bengalis and former East Pakistan now Bangladesh. To make this argument, I primarily rely on the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971. Aside for technical revisions, there has been no substantial revision from the paper. I wish to thank Visiting Assistant Professor Paul Kershaw in Wayne State’s Department of History  The opinions and any errors herein are, of course, solely mine.


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formed on August 14, 1947 as a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. Utilizing a two-nation theory approach, the country was divided into two provinces: both predominantly Muslims. East Pakistan was located on India’s eastern border, West Pakistan on its western border. The people of East Pakistan were predominantly Bengali, referring to the historic region of Bengal which was geographically comprised of East Pakistan and Western India. Western Pakistanis were multi-ethnic and their province served as the home of the country’s central government. Over the next thirty years, a wave of nationalism swept over East Pakistan out of frustration with West Pakistan’s negligence and discrimination of the Bengalis. The lack of attention toward East Pakistan and widespread economic strife caused by the previous military government of Ayub Khan prompted his resignation and General Yahya Khan to take his place in 1969. In the Western Hemisphere, former Vice President Richard Nixon, who had friendly relations with Khan and Pakistan, won the presidency. The influential and experienced Dr. Henry Kissinger served as his National Security Advisor and primary counselor in matters of foreign policy. These political leaders along with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would oversee East Pakistan’s secession from the West triggering the “East Pakistan secession crisis”, a military crackdown on the East which some have called “genocide against the Bengalis”, and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Pakistan’s growing tensions, in the midst of a global Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, prompted an important question – how were U.S.-Pakistan relations influential in the Cold War era? Extensive research on the crisis, particularly primary research through the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, revealed that despite Nixon and Kissinger providing some humanitarian support to the Bengalis through third-parties such as the Red Cross, they did not appropriately intervene out of fear of jeopardizing their relationship with General Yahya Khan. Furthermore, the unwillingness of the Nixon administration to intervene in the East Pakistan secession crisis exacerbated the conflict and the refugee crisis on the Indian border.

The warm relationship between the United States and Pakistan that Nixon and Kissinger were attempting to preserve during the East Pakistan crisis was formed between 1969 and 1971 with China. Contrary to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who had issues with Pakistan’s close relationship with Communist China, Nixon sought to restore U.S.-Chinese relations with Pakistan as a conduit. Dennis Kux, a State Department specialist for South Asia and Wilson Center Scholar, in his book The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies, discusses Nixon’s intentions. He writes, “The opening to China was an essential element in Nixon’s strategy of creating a new global balance of power. His aim was to bring China into the family of nations reversing two decades of U.S. efforts to isolate Beijing and to use an improved U.S.-Chinese relationship as a lever with Moscow to press for U.S.-Soviet détente”(Kux 182). Several facets of Pakistan were appealing to Nixon. Nixon found Yahya Khan and his army generals appealing. Khan’s administration facilitated the most effective channel between the Chinese and the United States, giving cover to Kissinger’s secret and Nixon’s public visit to Beijing. 

Timeline

The period of coverage in the crisis is from March 1st to May 23 of 1971, from the first NSC memorandum to Kissinger to India’s amassment of troops on their shared border with East Pakistan. It began with Harold Saunders and Samuel Hoskinson, both members of the National Security Council staff, sending a memorandum on the situation to the National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger. In December of 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party, the Awami League, won an absolute majority in the East Pakistan assembly. In West Pakistan, former foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party won a clear majority. Rahman and the Awami League ran on a campaign for virtual autonomy of six points for East Pakistan. Saunders and Hoskinson summarize the points as, “In terms of substantive issues, the differences between Rahman and Bhutto seem to have largely narrowed to those of foreign trade and aid”(Saunders & Hoskinson 2). Yahya’s base was in the economic elite and military which abhorred Bhutto’s socialist-leaning policies. They also did not take kindly to Rahman’s push for autonomy and friendly relations with India. Thus, Yahya was unable to politically maneuver while tensions were growing in East Pakistan.

Saunders and Hoskinson sent another memorandum to Kissinger on May 4th on the deteriorating situation. Rahman had rejected negotiations with Yahya and leaked that he would call for the independence of East Pakistan. The leak had seemed to gain traction by the West Pakistani political factions as military aircraft had been shown flying in Dacca. On Saunders and Hoskinson’s recommendation that South Asia be elevated in the discussion, a Senior Review Group convened on March 6th. The SRG decided to pursue talks with the British, redirect any contact in U.S. embassies in Islamabad and Dacca to Washington, and to discuss the matter when more developments occur. 

Escalation of the conflict occurred one week later as conveyed by Kissinger to Nixon in a memorandum. President Yahya exacerbated his position against the Awami League. He appointed a harsh military governor and, “…the explicit warning that force would be used against any move for separation”(Kissinger 8). Rahman responded on March 15th and made a unilateral move to take over the administration of East Pakistan. Rahman’s announcement with over 35 governmental directives illustrated his calculation and the support he had with the Bengali people. Joseph S. Sisco, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, wrote to Secretary of State Rogers about Yahya’s options. Yahya could either concede to Rahman or:

If Yahya, or others in the military, decide to resist Mujib’s action by force, East Pakistan will be engulfed in a struggle between the military and the Bengali nationalists, the outcome of which can only be eventual independence of Bengal and the breaking of all ties with West Pakistan…Mujib’s statement called on Bengalis to resist ‘by all possible means’ any forced used against them (Sisco 9)

Approximately one week later, Kissinger informed Nixon that Yahya had opted to strike against East Pakistan and, “repress the East Pakistan secession movement”(Kissinger 10). This triggers a response from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. Foreign Secretary Kaul from the Indian government had expressed: 

India’s sympathy was with the people of East Pakistan who were being suppressed…the Government of India [he said] were prepared to make their contribution toward the care and feeding of such refugees. However, they were deeply concerned that the magnitude of the problem would considerably exceed their ability to cope with it”(Kaul 12).

By now, West Pakistani military had secured major cities in East Pakistan such as Dacca but it was also suspected that India began covert insurgency missions on their border with East Pakistan. President Khan sent a letter to Nixon where he primarily detailed his role in the conflict, his visit to East Pakistan to hold negotiations, and the growing military presence by India. When in East Pakistan, Yahya said:

The Awami League leaders continued to make statements and to indulge in practices which clearly showed that they were not prepared for pursuing a  compromise…eventually a point was reached where the Awami League put forward final proposals which virtually amounted to dismemberment of the country…firm action had to be talked to assert the government’s authority and to safeguard the integrity of Pakistan. There was no option but to take that decision (Hilaly 16).

Yahya raises his rhetoric against India saying, “This concentration of Indian forces on our borders constitutes a direct threat to our security”(Hilaly 16) and an appeal to Nixon to support the government of Pakistan.

The situation in East Pakistan continued to worsen. Secretary Rogers reported to President Nixon that Khan has arrested Rahman and his advisors. The Consul General in Dacca, Archer Blood, estimated 4,000 to 6,000 Bengalis had been killed over the past several days. In a stunning rebuke to the Nixon/Kissinger foreign policy in South Asia, Consul General Blood sent a fiery telegram in criticism of West Pakistani inflicted atrocities and the United States’ failure to act in East Pakistan. Blood states:

Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pakistani dominated government and to lessen likely and deservedly negative international public relations impact against them (Blood 19).

The next ten days witnessed the same understanding of the crisis, the military would hold the city for a short while and the independence of East Pakistan was inevitable. On April 16, Ambassador Farland, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, suggests three means to go about U.S. policy toward the crisis. They are “business as usual”, “sanctions against the West Pakistanis”, and “maintaining options in both East and West Pakistan”. Farland recommended the last option where the United States sticks to non-interference, privately lecture the Pakistanis that force is not a solution, and continue military supply but delay them by attributing it to “technical delays” or “bureaucratic waltz”. The next development in the crisis was Ambassador Hilal telling Van Hollen, “The Government of Pakistan wished to bring the United States government’s attention possible approach by representatives alleging to represent “Provisional Government of Bangladesh”.  If such as alleged representative came to Washington, Hilaly says, “The Government of Pakistan considered establishment of Provisional Government as essentially Indian-sponsored action”(Samuels 31). 

Indian involvement speaks to a larger importance outside of the conflict between Pakistan and India, but Nixon and Kissinger saw India as a stooge of the Soviet Union. Nixon went on to increase his involvement on behalf of West Pakistan after May 23 when in a call between Kissinger and Nixon, Kissinger reveals an Indian troop amassment on India’s eastern border.

Historiography

There have been several commentaries on Nixon and Kissinger’s handling of the Bengali genocide and the Indo-Pakistan war, all of which are more critical than the argument set forward in this paper. The brief historiography, covered through secondary sources, addresses Nixon and Kissinger’s exacerbation of the conflict, their handling of the genocide, and whether the administration’s relationship with Pakistan was necessary as a pathway to opening relations with China. William Bundy, an intelligence expert and foreign affairs advisor to Kennedy and Johnson is quoted in Robert Dallek’s book Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power stating, “Nixon and Kissinger’s policy on the Indo-Pakistan war was replete with error, misjudgment, emotionalism, and unnecessary risk taking” (Dallek 348-349). Dallek concurs, suggesting their handling as, “feeling their way through the crisis”(Dallek 349). Geoffrey Warner in The Royal Institute of International Affairs of Oxford University Press writes in “Nixon, Kissinger and the Breakup of Pakistan”:

 Kissinger’s main arguments relate not to the region but to the global balance of power, and here he is on much weaker ground. It would be extremely hard, for example, to sustain the argument that if the United States had not backed Yahya and his regime, the ‘opening’ with China would have failed. China’s policy was no more primarily focused upon South Asia than America’s. What China wants more than anything was reinsurance against the Soviet Union (Warner 1118).

 Lastly, in a review essay of Gary J. Bass’s, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Sumit Ganguly for Project Muse summarizes, “Bass’s meticulous scholarship demonstrates how both Nixon and Kissinger, because of their unwavering support of the Khan regime, their flawed view of India as a Soviet stooge, and their hatred of Indira Gandhi, became witting accomplices to this genocide”(Ganguly 2014). One point of credit to Nixon, Kissinger, and other members of the State Department and the National Security Council was that they were conscious of the humanitarian crisis on the Indian/Bengali border.

Argument

The unwillingness of the Nixon administration to intervene in the East Pakistan secession crisis exacerbated the conflict and the refugee crisis on the Indian border. At the beginning of the conflict, members of the administration do make some points about the prematurity of involvement early in the crisis. But as the crisis unfolded, it is clear that Nixon and Kissinger were steadfast in defending Yahya to preserve their own self-interests in asserting Asian regional power over the security of South Asia and the well-being of the people of East Pakistan. Early in the conflict, Saunders and Hoskinson reiterate, “…we have so far attempted to remain neutral and uninvolved. Our line has been that we favor the unity of Pakistan that it is up to the Pakistanis to determine the future of their country”(Saunders & Hoskinson 2). Still early in the conflict but after General Tikka Khan, the harsh military governor of East Pakistan appointed by Yahya in March and one of the architects of the military’s seizing of the Dacca and other cities, Kissinger makes his case to Nixon for inaction. However, his rationals are not necessarily because of premature involvement but out of fear of jeopardizing the United State’s relationship with Yahya. He says, “It is not necessary for us to shift now to a more activist approach since Yahya knows we favor unity and is doing everything possible to achieve a political settlement (Kissinger 8). 

Kissinger convenes a Special Action Group in order to assess the situation. He made it clear to the action group one week into the seizing of East Pakistan that any type of rift with Yahya is undesirable. Kissinger represented the President’s position on an active U.S. policy, saying, “ I talked to the President briefly before lunch. His inclination is the same as everybody elseʼs. He doesnʼt want to do anything (Kissinger & Special Action Group 11). Even when suggesting that the United States send a clarifying message on its role, Kissinger expresses restraint, “It would not be a good idea at this time. Yahya would think we were encouraging separatism”(Kissinger & Special Action Group 11). This was one of several examples of Kissinger shielding Khan from criticism and administrative action. Under Kissinger’s leadership, the Special Action Group determined that no action would be taken on behalf of the United States. 

By March 28, Hoskinson informs Kissinger that the army has achieved control in Dacca and other cities and has begun a “reign of terror aimed at eliminating the core of future resistance” (Hoskinson 13). Hoskinson told Kissinger about the impending political ramifications of the crisis, but Kissinger continued to ignore formally addressing the growing issues of Khan’s regime.

The first mention of the hostile criticism within the administration was by the Consul General in Dacca, Archer Blood. Blood demanded the United States publicly condemn the West Pakistani military for actions in Bengal such as, “setting houses on fire and shooting people as they emerged from the burning houses”(Blood 13). Regardless, Hoskinson did not think that a considerable move should be made against the West Pakistanis. Following the “Blood Telegram”, Nixon and Kissinger had a heated conversation regarding the rebelling at the consulate in Dacca. Despite Nixon and Kissinger knowing about the situation on the ground by the British, the consulate, and the Indians, they direct their frustration at the East Pakistanis, claiming that they were the ones committing atrocities. Blood was eventually transferred from Pakistan to the State Department’s personnel office. Blood was an example of Nixon and Kissinger’s abuse against officials who would challenge them and their willingness to maintain their own, personal agendas in South Asia. 

There are several other instances of Kissinger refusing to direct action and criticism against Khan and West Pakistan. By April 12th, despite the abundant news coming out of Dacca, Kissinger and Nixon still refused to get involved. In a meeting with Nixon in the Oval Office, Kissinger concluded by saying “It’s a classic situation for us to stay out of…For us to cut off aid would infuriate the West Pakistanis”(Editorial Note 25). This demonstrates Kissinger’s allegiance to the West Pakistanis and less concern for the humanitarian and national consequences. In a meeting on April 19th of the Senior Review Group, Kissinger defends Yahya up to five times whenever an option arises that would debilitate the relationship between Nixon and Yahya. Some of his arguments include fear of Yahya incorrectly misinterpreting a message of delayed military funding, fear of whether Yahya would be upset if Congress approved ammunition deliveries, and to continue shipments of supplies to support West Pakistan because Nixon did not want a confrontation with Yahya. Most telling of Nixon’s refusal to come even close to condemning Yahya was his letter to him on May 7th. In the letter, Nixon commends Yahya on, “Having labored so hard to carry out free national elections”, expressed his sympathy, and offered additional support. In his memoirs, Kissinger later explained the administration’s decision to not react publicly to the military repression in East Pakistan as necessary to protect “our sole channel to China”(Kissinger 20). 

By the first of April, the New York Times and other news agencies reported 10,000 to 35,000 Bengalis killed in the Dacca area with estimates up to 100,000 Bengalis being killed across East Pakistan by the military. The timeline, historiography, and analysis capture the negligence of the Nixon administration, all in the name of Nixon’s grand plan to open relations with China. It is clear that Nixon and Kissinger valued their channel to the Chinese and Yahya as its facilitator more than the well-being and autonomy of Bengalis. The administration also failed to uphold the values of democracy and a government of checks and balances on an oppressive military regime. 

Image Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Works Cited

Dallek, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. HarperCollins, 2007.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 2.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 8.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 9.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 10.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 11.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 12.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 13.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 16.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 19.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 20.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 25.

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, eds. Louis J. Smith (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2005), Document 31.

Ganguly, Sumit. “Pakistan’s Forgotten Genocide—A Review Essay.” International Security, vol. 39 no. 2, 2014, pp. 169-180. Project MUSE,

Kux, Dennis. The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001.

Warner, Geoffrey. “Nixon, Kissinger and the Breakup of Pakistan, 1971.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), vol. 81, no. 5, 2005, pp. 1097–1118. JSTOR, JSTOR,

 

 

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