Kissinger in Bangladesh

When war erupted in South Asia in 1971, Henry Kissinger called Indians “bastards,” and Richard Nixon said they needed “a mass famine.” For both men, US interests were worth killing hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis and displacing millions more.

Henry Kissinger is received by Agha Hilaly, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, en route to China during a secret 1971 trip. (Ghulam Nabi Kazi / Flickr)

When war erupted in South Asia in 1971, President Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, expressed their displeasure with the way the Indian government was acting. While discussing the war with Kissinger one day, the president fumed: “The Indians need… what they really need is a–”

Kissinger chimed in: “They’re such bastards.”

But the president was not done speaking. He completed his thought: “What they really need is a mass famine.”

President Nixon seemed to dislike India. He once said, “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.” But on this occasion he had a special reason to be resentful toward the country — India was supporting the nationalists in East Pakistan, who were fight- ing for their independence against West Pakistan, a US ally. Ultimately, the war would lead to the birth of a new sovereign state, Bangladesh, an outcome Nixon and Kissinger tried to prevent.

The conflict had other consequences as well. While independent researchers have estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 were killed in East Pakistan, Bangladesh officially claims that West Pakistan’s military and East Pakistan’s local militia killed about three million people and raped 200,000 women. Additionally, some 10 million refugees fled the conflict in East Pakistan to go to India.

Despite the loss of human lives, Kissinger ensured throughout the conflict that the United States supported West Pakistan’s leadership in its mission to violently suppress the resistance.

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country with a population of over 160 million today, gained independence in 1971. Prior to that, it had been part of Pakistan. When the British left India in 1947, Cyril John Radcliffe, a British lawyer, thought it best to assign two distant pieces of land to the future state of Pakistan. As a result, East Pakistan and West Pakistan were left disconnected, living in a spatially divided country that an Indian diplomat once fittingly called a “geographical monstrosity.” East and West Pakistan were divided along ethnic lines, as well, with the persecuted Bengali ethnic group representing the majority of East Pakistan’s population.

The population of East Pakistan, about 75 million at the time, was higher than that of West Pakistan, which was about 61 million. But by the late 1970s, it had become clear to the population of East Pakistan that the West wing of the country was not willing to allow it an equal share in governing — or in anything else.

The last straw for the nationalists in East Pakistan was West Pakistani leaders’ refusal to accept the results of the 1970 elections. In the elections, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, leader of the East Pakistani nationalist Awami League (AL), won the majority. His party won all but two seats in East Pakistan. The AL’s victory shifted the balance of power, since East Pakistan already had more seats allocated to it due to its larger population. Rehman could now be prime minister of the entire country — or, at the very least, of an East Pakistani legislature.

The leaders of West Pakistan, however, refused to accept this result. This, along with years of ill treatment at the hands of these leaders, led many in East Pakistan to call for secession. Aided by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government and military, East Pakistan seceded in 1971 with the support of a swelling Bengali nationalist movement.

Washington saw this conflict as an important event. Kissinger called it “perhaps the most complex issue of Nixon’s first term. Kissinger was well-informed about the atrocities being committed by his allies in West Pakistan. In fact, on April 6, 1971, the US consulate in Dacca cabled a telegram to Washington in which the diplomatic staff expressed “strong dissent” to US policy in Pakistan and accused the country of carrying out a genocide in East Pakistan. The telegram expressed dismay over Washington’s refusal to “denounce atrocities.” Kissinger, therefore, was fully aware of the violence for which he was advocating support.

During the conflict, the United States provided Pakistan with arms via Jordan and Iran. Kissinger and Nixon supported this policy despite being warned in legal briefs from both the State Department and the Pentagon that such actions were illegal. Washington did not even ask the Pakistani military to refrain from using American weapons during the conflict.

Kissinger was desperate to see West Pakistan emerge as the victor. On December 10, he decided to send in the US Navy. Kissinger delivered a presidential order to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff commanding that the US aircraft carrier Enterprise be relocated from Vietnam, where it was stationed at the time, to the Bay of Bengal. The Enterprise was to be accompanied by nine warships and 2,000 marines.

This order was given without any consultation with the secretary of defense or the National Security Council. The task force was not even assigned a formal mission. The maneuver in the Bay of Bengal was pure posturing — Kissinger hoped to use this as a way to send Moscow a message. He also wanted the Chinese government to think that the presence of the fleet meant that the United States would defend Chinese forces in case they decided to enter the war to protect West Pakistan. According to one historian, Kissinger wanted to create “precisely the margin of uncertainty needed to force a decision by New Delhi and Moscow.”

The civilian population of East Pakistan, and its supporters in India, could not help but see the presence of this fleet as an effort by the United States to sway the outcome of the war in favor of West Pakistan. As a response, India carried out a bombing campaign targeting all West Pakistani ships in East Pakistani harbors in order to insure that West Pakistan’s army could not evacuate to the American fleet offshore.

In spite of this big loss for West Pakistan, Kissinger’s task force emboldened Pakistan’s leaders in their resolve to suppress the independence movement in East Pakistan. Pakistan’s president, Yahya Khan, even hinted to his colleagues that the American military would intervene. Kissinger had earlier urged him not to accept a ceasefire in East Pakistan, which would have prevented at least some casualties. Taking this, along with the presence of the Enterprise in the Bay of Bengal, as signs of a forthcoming US intervention, Khan extended the war by a few days.

Kissinger and Nixon also tried to sway the conflict by threatening India. On December 12, 1971, as Kissinger and Nixon discussed the developing conflict, the president said that India had to be hit “hard and tough.” The Indians had to be “scared,” said Kissinger. Somewhere in the midst of this discussion, Kissinger called Indira Gandhi “that bitch.”

Building on these views toward India, President Nixon ordered Kissinger to threaten the Indians with the possibility of an end to American aid if they started a war with Pakistan. At that time, the United States gave India about $220 million every year, along with $220 million in loans and $65 million in food aid. Kissinger delivered this message to a Situation Room meeting. “The President has said so,” said Kissinger, “In fact, he tells me every day.”


Kissinger believed that he was justified in backing West Pakistan’s leadership. It seems he considered the political aspirations of the United States, in terms of its relations with China and Russia, to be more important than the lives of millions of people in East Pakistan — or perhaps anywhere in Asia. President Nixon apparently thought he had discerned what the nationalist unrest was about. “I know,” he said, “the bigger game is the Russian game.”

Pakistan, Kissinger insisted, was the only channel to China. In July 1970, Kissinger had even secretly visited China via Pakistan. At that moment in time, there was little more important to Kissinger than maintaining a channel to China, and that meant maintaining his relationship with West Pakistan’s leaders.

Another justification Kissinger had given for supporting West Pakistan was the dubious nature of the Indian leader- ship’s war objectives. Kissinger believed that Indira Gandhi’s real intentions in the war were based on India’s rivalry with Pakistan. He held the view that India wanted to cut up Pakistan, and subsequently destroy West Pakistan as an independent state. His view was based on information coming from US intelligence officials. In fact, according to the director of central intelligence at the time, Gandhi not only wanted to “eliminate” West Pakistan’s army and air force, but also intended to make gains in Kashmir. Debate remains regarding the role played by India’s rivalry with Pakistan in the conflict. Whatever Gandhi’s other intentions, India helped East Pakistan’s nationalists achieve independence.

Kissinger’s view regarding India’s intentions had further implications, as well. It led to assumptions about the Soviet Union, especially after the signing of the Soviet-Indian treaty on August 9, 1971. This treaty came right after it had been publicly announced that Kissinger had visited China and that the president planned to do so soon. The developing Soviet-Indian relationship convinced Kissinger that if India wanted West Pakistan “destroyed,” then the Soviet Union wanted it too. In fact, Kissinger believed that the Soviet Union had made an Indian attack on Pakistan possible.

Years later, in his memoir, Kissinger wrote that the Soviet Union’s “aim” after the US-China reconciliation was to demonstrate to the world that both the United States and China were useless as allies. If, therefore, the United States was to remain passive in an Indian attack on Pakistan, Kissinger believed that Moscow would have gotten the “wrong signal.”

Kissinger and Nixon ultimately did not look at the conflict in terms of the aspirations of the people of South Asia. Instead, they saw it as being about Russia and China — and themselves. Furthermore, despite having great leverage on the leaders of West Pakistan, Nixon and Kissinger failed to prevent the military crackdown in East Pakistan. And the two men really did have the power to influence West Pakistan’s leaders. When they had asked General Yahya Khan, in the midst of the unrest, to get rid of Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, a West Pakistani military man, from governing East Pakistan, Yahya Khan promptly did so. Kissinger and Nixon also convinced Khan not to execute Mujib-ur-Rehman, future president of Bangladesh, when a wartime trial was held against him. Kissinger’s calculations about the conflict cannot be dismissed as harmless observations. His calculations contributed to the violent suppression of East Pakistan.

Kissinger wrote in one of his many memoirs, “[A]ll my life I have reflected on the building of peace.” His actions during the 1971 war in South Asia, however, show otherwise.