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BOOK REVIEW
Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-307-70020-9
Reviewed by Mohammad Atique Rahman
The 1970s decade was marked by intense superpower politics not only in Latin
America, Africa, and the Middle East but also in the South Asian region. The
1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) offers a test
case to understand the complexities of superpower powers politics during the
Cold War. It was the time when U.S. President Richard Nixon and his national
security adviser Henry Kissinger made important foreign policy decisions, which
favored the brutal policy of West Pakistan to suppress the secessionist war in
East Pakistan. The Soviet policy was sharply different.
In Blood Telegram, Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Gary Jonathan
Bass, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, provides a comprehensive
account of the foreign policy directions of the United States towards the 1971
War of Independence in Bangladesh. Bass is very candid in presenting the
miserable and little heard story of the birth of Bangladesh. Dexter Filkins in the
New York Times rightly notes that the book is a dark and amazing tale, an
essential reminder of the devastation wrought by the hardhearted policy and
outright bigotry that typified much of the diplomacy of the cold war1. For critics
of U.S. foreign policy, it was an irony that the democratic United States
supported despotic Pakistani rulers, while the communist Soviet Union stood
behind the democratic struggle of the Bengali people.
The author has correctly portrayed the situation as an embarrassment for the
U.S. President Richard Nixon and his administration, which put them in a


Mohammad Atique Rahman is Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the
University of Dhaka. Email: [email protected]
1
Dexter Filkins, “Collateral Damage: ‘The Blood Telegram,’” by Gary J. Bass, The New York
Times, 27 September, 2013.

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Journal of International Relations, Volume 10-11 Number I & II, 2012-2013
_____________

dilemma of whether to support their close ally Pakistan or not. In a review of
G.J. Bass’s book, Peter R. Kann writes in the Wall Street Journal’ that “the birth
of new nation called Bangladesh created tremors around the world, and especially
in Washington”.2 As the book title suggests, the central character is ‘Archer
Blood’, who was holding the post of U.S consul general in Dhaka (previously
spelled Dacca). Unlike typical government officials who rarely challenge an
administrative decision, Blood raised a strong dissenting voice against the U.S.
policy of supporting West Pakistan in its repressions of the Bengali people.
Bass describes Archer Blood as a gentleman diplomat from Virginia who had all
potentialities to become an Ambassador. However, Blood put himself in the
position of strong dissenter of Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy in South Asia
which neglected the struggle for independence of the Bengali people.
Throughout the gusty days in 1971 marred by atrocities, killings and lootings in
Bangladesh, Blood and his team in the U.S. consulate were virtually cut-off from
all kinds of communication, and were only able to send secret telegrams regularly
to the U.S. State Department describing the mayhem committed by the Pakistani
army. In describing the atrocious attacks as “selective genocide” in East Pakistan,
Blood urged top foreign policy makers in Washington to shift their policy
toward Pakistan so that the systematic killings of East Pakistanis could be
stopped.
In this book, Bass traces the roots of Bengali’s agitations to the discriminatory
policies of West Pakistan. However, he fails to provide the full account of the
origin of Bengali nationalism and the first ever language movement by the
Bengalis in 1952. Yet, he provides a vivid account of the situations before the
1970’s General Election in Pakistan. Bass is quite right to claim that the deadly
cyclone in Bangladesh’s coastal zones and negligence from the West Pakistani
rulers to handle this crisis had furthered the demand for independence of
Bangladesh. He describes how Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had
led the Bengali struggle of autonomy on the basis of his historic ‘Six-Points
Program’. Bass provides an interesting analysis of how the demand for autonomy
was eventually turned into an all out war of independence in East Pakistan.
Although Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League won a landslide victory in the 1970s
elections, the West Pakistani military Junta in general and the West Pakistanbased People’s Party in particular betrayed with Mujib by denying him the
opportunity to form a government.
In the tumultuous days of the liberation war of Bangladesh, Mujib became the
undisputed leader of Bengali resistance. He asked his nation to prepare for the
liberation struggle. Quoting from eyewitness (Americans who were then working
in Bangladesh), Bass provides bleak descriptions of the Pakistani army’s
2

Peter R. Kann, Book Review: 'The Blood Telegram' by Gary J. Bass, The Wall Street Journal, 20
September, 2013.

On several occasions, Bass takes his readers to the Situation Room and the ‘Oval
Office’ at the White House, where the brightest foreign policy maker in the
history of cold war, Kissinger, had dealt with the crisis in East Pakistan and
South Asia as a whole. The author also describes a dialogue between President
Nixon and his national security adviser Kissinger. He reveals that top premiers of
U.S. foreign policy makers were dealing with cold war politics from the
perspective of ‘real-politik’ i.e. politics based on practical interests rather than on
ideals. The author rightly claims that Nixon and Kissinger had to rely on the
military Junta in Pakistan as their closest ally in South Asia, and hence they
avoided taking any punitive measures against the military atrocities in
Bangladesh. The book, however, does not mention the foreign policy decisionmaking process, although from the description of those days, it is quite clear that
Nixon and Kissinger had immense influence on the process. That unveils the role
of bureaucratic politics and elite leaders in the foreign policy making process of
the Nixon administration.
The author reveals continuity in U.S. decision-making process towards the
internal matters of the Third World. For instance He also describes how Nixon
and Kissinger tried to find out similarities between the crisis in Bengal and
secessionist movement in Biafra, a tribal majority populated area in Nigeria.
Moreover, the author is keen to describe the utter willingness of Washington to
establish friendly relations with communist China in which Pakistan had played
a key role. The Nixon administration gave paramount importance
to establishing communication with China, and in doing so it opened two secret
communication links with Pakistan and Hungary. But China’s reliance on
Pakistani President Yahya further tightened U.S. relations with Pakistan even at
the cost of loosing U.S.’s moral position at home and abroad.
The author has successfully described the grave situations in Bangladesh, where
India was actively involved to partition Pakistan by aiding the Bengalis to
mobilize an armed resistance. This had further worsened Delhi’s relations with
Islamabad as the two South Asian archrivals were already engaged in a bitter
fighting over Kashmir. Bass notes that the Indian foreign policy at that
time reflected a bureaucratic-politics model, in which various government

149

Rahman, Book Review

crackdowns on civilian people in Dhaka city in the night of 25 March 1971.
The book painstakingly describes the acts of decimation by the Pakistani army
upon Bengali population throughout 1971. The author illustrates
how Govinda Chandra Dev, a renowned and elderly philosophy professor of
Dhaka University, who had written several books on religion, philosophy and
society, was killed by the occupying forces. The killing of Professor Dev shocked
Archer Blood and his team at the U.S. Consulate in Dhaka. Bass quotes from
Blood that “he (Professor Dev) was a very pacifist figure, well-known and well
liked in American circles”. The author gives a horrific anecdote of his killing that
how he had been dragged out of his home, hauled in-front of the Jagannath Hall,
a student dormitory at the Dhaka University campus, and shot dead.

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Journal of International Relations, Volume 10-11 Number I & II, 2012-2013
_____________

agencies, rather than the state as a single unit, influence the decision process. He
describes key influential people, such as D.P. Dhar, the then Indian Ambassador
to Soviet Union, and P.N. Haskar, Principle Secretary to the Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi, as “Kashmiri Mafia,” who hailed from aristocratic families in
Kashmir and had later joined Indian foreign and civil services. They had tried to
retaliate against Pakistan by strongly supporting the independence war of
Bangladesh. Of course, the civilian politicians and the military in India had their
own agenda behind the liberation war of Bangladesh. From the eyewitness in
U.S. consulate, Bass has successfully described the formation, training and armed
struggle of the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali Liberation Force strongly patronized
by India. Here the author has attracted by a popular symbol of resistance during
the struggle for liberation in Bangladesh.
There are lots of books written on the liberation war of Bangladesh, but perhaps
this is the only book which offers a comprehensive analysis of Nixon
administration’s foreign policy towards South Asia. Bass has meticulously
provided full accounts of the sensitivity, kindness, humanity and moral principles
of those brave people who, while working at the US Consulate in Dhaka, stood
as dissenter of their own foreign policy made by senior leaders in the White
House. The aim of such dissent was to protect the innocent and unarmed
Bengali people from the deliberate onslaughts by the well trained Pakistani
military. According to the writer, Blood and his colleagues in Dhaka were not
‘crazy or utopian bleeding hearts’ rather they witnessed all brutal means of using
force against a massive civilian population who just demanded their democratic
rights. I, therefore, think that the book is an interesting and informative piece for
common readers who have interests in world politics. The book will also be well
received by the students of geopolitics, history, and international affairs.

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