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Reviewed by Jon P. Dorschner

coverThe Blood Telegram (Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide) by Gary J. Bass, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2013, ISBN 0307700208, 537 pp., $30.00 (Hardcover), $11.99 (Kindle).

It has been a long time since I have read a book that has spoken as powerfully to me as The Blood Telegram.  The relevancy and power of this book stems from the basic moral dilemmas that it addresses on practically every page.  Every person planning to join the United States Foreign Service, or already serving should read this book.

The Foreign Service is not just another job.  It is not a line of work that should be entered into lightly.  It can be a career that challenges the moral center.  Every person who enters the United States Foreign Service must determine how he/she will respond to orders that run counter to personal morality.  American military personnel are taught specifically that they must refuse an immoral order and are provided assurances that the military will back them up if they do.  American diplomats are not provided the same training or reassurances.

The moral dilemma of American diplomats is compounded by the power structure behind the formulation of American foreign policy.  Except for a tiny handful of individuals, Foreign Service Officers are not policy makers.  We all hope our input will have some influence on how foreign policy is formulated, but in actuality, the State Department has largely been pushed aside in the foreign policy arena, and more cynical pundits would argue that the Secretary of State himself is often ignored.

The real power centers lay elsewhere, in the White House, Congress and the Pentagon, and in the hundreds of powerful lobbies and political action groups whose influence over government continues to expand as that of the State Department’s shrinks.  In the push and pull of a normal career, this can lead to frustration, a feeling of powerlessness, and nonexistent morale.  But many issues that Foreign Service officers deal with are not mundane.  At times, we deal with issues that involve profound moral choices.
Rather than making foreign policy, Foreign Service Officers implement decisions made by others.   They obey directives issued by policy makers.  How do officers respond to orders that counter their basic morality?  The State Department is not known as the home of rabid individualists and eccentrics.  Foreign Service officers are dedicated and have internalized the maxim never to rock the boat.  Careers can be made or broken by a particular response to a particular order.

This was the dilemma faced by Archer Blood.  Consul General in Dacca, East Pakistan, Blood was not a radical.  He did not rock the boat.  He had a sterling reputation.  His wife Margaret confirms that he was dedicated to the Foreign Service.  He was rising rapidly through the ranks and working hard to attain his ambition of becoming an Ambassador.  However, Blood also was a man of character with a conscience.  He witnessed genocide going on before his eyes and felt compelled to respond, knowing full well that it could mean the end of his career aspirations.  He and Margaret stood on the verandah of their home in Dacca and watched fires burning out of control and heard the gunshots as Pakistani soldiers systematically murdered innocent Bengalis.  Archer Blood could not fall into line and acquiesce to policies dictated from on high.  All Foreign Service Officers must ask themselves how they would respond when faced with a similar choice.

On the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army unleashed “Operation Searchlight.”  Troops in trucks, jeeps, and tanks, fanned out throughout Dacca.  They carried lists of Bengalis slated for execution.  They went door-to-door rousting Bengalis from their homes taking them outside and executing them.  The streets and vacant lots of the city began to fill with dead bodies.  The Bengalis were chosen for execution not because they were violent revolutionaries, but simply because they were “intellectuals,” Hindus, or members of the Awami League.  The soldiers carrying out the mass murder and rape used weapons, vehicles, ammunition and airplanes provided by the United States of America.

The country of Pakistan was in the process of breaking up into two separate states.  What was originally a country with two “wings,” (West and East Pakistan) was being transformed into two separate states, Pakistan and the new nation of Bangladesh. Today, almost all South Asia scholars agree that the original configuration of Pakistan was unworkable and destined to fail. In retrospect, they question why Pakistanis and Bangladeshis could not have arranged for an amiable parting of the ways.  After all, the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman, had won a democratic election. West Pakistanis, however, held Bengalis in contempt, viewing them as weak, effeminate, less civilized, and quasi Hindus.  They would never allow Mujib to take his place as the elected head of government and were unwilling to accept the inevitable and allow for a peaceful parting of the ways.  West Pakistanis were intent on maintaining their dominance over what they viewed as the weak and cowardly Bengalis. Instead of accepting the inevitable, the military dictatorship of General Yahya Khan, determined it would use military force to crush the Bengalis into submission.  This left no option except for a bloody partition.

Consul General Blood and his dedicated staff flooded Washington with vivid descriptions of what was transpiring in Dacca and other locations in East Pakistan but received no response.  This was because Richard Nixon, the President of the United States, and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had determined that they would look the other way, ignore the bloodshed, and back Yahya Khan to the bitter end.

Kissinger, hailed by many as a master diplomat, displayed a reckless abandon and utter lack of moral principals when it came to Bangladesh.  Describing himself as an “ultra realist,” determined to devise and carry out foreign policies he deemed to be in the national interest, Kissinger claimed he was not moved by the carnage in Bangladesh.  Bass artfully uses the White House tape transcripts to provide chilling insight into the thought processes of Kissinger and Nixon.  Both men are caught on tape routinely uttering racist statements against Indians and Bengalis.  Although claiming to be realists uninterested in cultural and religious factors, they characterize Pakistanis as being somehow genetically different from Indians, and West Pakistanis as racially superior to Bengalis.  Both men personalize their dispute with India, by launching vitriolic and crude attacks against Indira Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister.

The determined ruthlessness and amorality of the President and his National Security Advisor placed Mr. Blood and all of the diplomats at our Dacca consulate in a precarious position.  Blood documented that the Pakistan Army was using its American equipment to carry out a genocidal bloodbath in Bangladesh.  He provided strong evidence proving that the Pakistani Army was slaughtering the Hindu minority and pushing the survivors into India as refugees.  Attempting to influence policy, he urged the American government to curtail its military supplies to Pakistan, issue a moral protest against the genocide and use its considerable influence over the Yahya Khan government to end the bloodshed.  Not only did the Nixon Administration ignore Blood’s reporting and policy recommendations, the tapes reveal that Nixon and Kissinger attacked Blood in strong terms as an unfit diplomat, who was no longer reliable.

Numbed by the atrocities they were viewing every day, with many of their Bengali friends already murdered by the Pakistani Army, the staff of the Consulate drafted the first “dissent cable” in the history of the Foreign Service.  This took considerable courage.  Few of them believed State Department reassurances that they would experience no repercussions for their action.  In the end, all but three members of the Consulate Staff signed the cable.  Blood, as the Consul General, could not draft or sign the telegram.  His political deputy Scott Butcher drafted it.  Instead, Blood added an addendum stating that he agreed with the statements included in the text.

The cable, classified Confidential, to assure the widest possible circulation, was relatively short, but sufficiently powerful.  It read:

“Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy.  Our government has failed to denounce atrocities.  Our government has failed to take forceful measure to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak dominated government… Our government has evidence of what many will consider moral bankruptcy …We have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state.”

The cable enraged Kissinger and Nixon, and Blood bore the brunt of their wrath.  It is hard to conceive of leaders so emotionally unhinged as to launch a campaign of personal retribution against a lone Foreign Service Officer.

Although the South Asia staff in Washington, Kenneth Keating, the U.S. Ambassador in New Delhi, and many Congressmen and Senators praised the Blood telegram and endorsed Blood’s policy recommendations, the State Department leadership did not stand up for one of its own.  Nixon removed Blood from his position, with the acquiescence of Secretary of State William Rogers, and transferred him to the Department’s Bureau of Personnel in Washington.  The State Department appointed one of the three Dacca officers who refused to sign the dissent cable to replace Blood.  Kissinger personally intervened to ensure that Blood never made Ambassador.  Archer Blood retired from the Foreign Service in May 1982.
Kissinger has succeeded in whitewashing his role in the Bangladesh Genocide and as Bass confirms, the American people have largely forgotten it.  Kissinger claims he was motived by a realist pursuit of “national interest,” and that he had to back Yahya, as his regime was instrumental in providing the opening to China.  Bass confirms that this argument does not hold water and describes numerous other avenues that would have provided the same results.

To cap off this despicable chapter in American Foreign Policy, Kissinger later meets with Chinese officials in a CIA safe house in New York City, provides them with top secret American documents, and urges them to move their army to the Indian border and threaten war, and pledges American support for the move.  Kissinger, who was supposedly waging a cold war against communism, thus placed himself in the position of backing a communist dictatorship in a military threat against a democracy.  In his personal statements, Kissinger expresses admiration for the bloody dictatorship in China, while disparaging Indian democracy.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageA native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer. A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.

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