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 You are in: Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs > Bureau of Public Affairs: Office of the Historian > Foreign Relations of the United States > Nixon-Ford Administrations > Volume XI
Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971
Released by the Office of the Historian

Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971

(This is not an official statement of policy by the Department of State; it is intended only as a guide to the contents of this volume.)

Since 1861, the Department of State's documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States has constituted the official record of the foreign policy and diplomacy of the United States. Historians in the Office of the Historian collect, arrange, and annotate the principal documents comprising the record of American foreign policy. The standards for the preparation of the series and the general deadlines for its publication are established by the Foreign Relations of the United States statute of October 28, 1991 (22 USC 4351, et seq.). Volumes in the Foreign Relations series are published when all the necessary editing, declassification, and printing steps have been completed.

The documents in this volume are drawn from the centralized indexed files of the Department of State and the decentralized Bureau, Office, and other lot files of the relevant Departmental units. The editors also made extensive use of Presidential and other papers at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project.

Almost all of the documents printed here were originally classified. The Information Response Branch of the Office of IRM Programs and Services, Bureau of Administration, Department of State, in concert with the appropriate offices in other agencies or governments, carried out the declassification of the selected documents.


According to Henry Kissinger, "When the Nixon administration took office, our policy objective on the subcontinent was, quite simply, to avoid adding another complication to our agenda." As events developed in South Asia, that goal proved to be an increasingly difficult objective to achieve. A political crisis in Pakistan developed out of Bengali demands for autonomy for East Pakistan, demands which were highlighted by the results of the general election in December 1970. The subsequent crisis, which roiled the subcontinent in conflict from March to December 1971, led to warfare between India and Pakistan, and eventuated in the evolution of the east wing of Pakistan into the new nation of Bangladesh. The United States, with Pakistan at the time as a conduit in conducting secret negotiations with China, sought to defuse the crisis and prevent fighting between India and Pakistan. When the fighting developed, the Nixon administration "tilted" toward Pakistan. The tilt involved the dispatch of the aircraft carrier Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to try to intimidate the Indian Government. It also involved encouraging China to make military moves to achieve the same end, and an assurance to China that if China menaced India and the Soviet Union moved against China in support of India, the United States would protect China from the Soviet Union. China chose not to menace India, and the crisis on the subcontinent ended without a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. For a brief period in December 1971, however, the record indicates that the crisis had a dangerous potential and that President Nixon and his National Security Assistant Henry Kissinger were prepared to accept serious risks to achieve their policy objectives.

The trigger for the crisis in 1971 in East Pakistan was the announcement by President Yahya Khan on March 1 that the scheduled meeting of the recently elected National Assembly would be postponed indefinitely. (2) The National Assembly was scheduled to draft a new constitution for Pakistan to mark an end to martial law government. Because of the overwhelming electoral success in East Pakistan of Bengali nationalists, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, the constitution was also expected to reflect their demand for virtual autonomy for East Pakistan. The Consulate General in Dacca reported on March 2 that "It would be impossible to over-estimate the sense of anger, shock and frustration which has gripped the east wing" as a result of the announcement. (2) President Yahya's announcement was followed by demonstrations in East Pakistan, and on March 7 Mujibur Rahman called for a "peaceful non-cooperation" movement patterned on Mahatma Gandhi's passive resistance movement in India. (8) The martial law government responded by airlifting troops to Dacca to double the size of the 15,000-man garrison. Undaunted, Mujibur Rahman announced on March 15 that, on the basis of the December election, his party, the Awami League, was taking over the administration of East Pakistan. (9) On March 25, the army arrested Mujibur and moved to suppress what was viewed in Islamabad as a secessionist movement. (10, 11)

The initial reaction in Washington to the emerging crisis was to avoid involvement in the internal politics of Pakistan. When the National Security Council's (NSC) Senior Review Group members considered the situation on March 6 they agreed with Under Secretary of State U. Alexis Johnson that it called for "massive inaction" on the part of the United States. (6) That conclusion was confirmed on March 26 when the NSC's crisis management team, the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG), considered the crisis for the first time. Kissinger led a discussion in which there was general agreement to maintain a hands-off policy toward what was viewed as a developing civil war. The United States did not want to be open to the charge that it had encouraged the break-up of Pakistan. (11)

In East Pakistan, the army began a brutal campaign of repression designed to cow the Bengali dissidents. The Consulate General's reports from Dacca were graphic and disturbing. On March 28 the report from Dacca began: "Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military." During the following week, the Consulate General reported that the army was setting houses on fire and shooting people as they emerged from the burning buildings and that the army had killed a large number of unarmed students at Dacca University. (13) On March 28, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the reports of atrocities in East Pakistan in a telephone conversation. Nixon said: "I wouldn't put out a statement praising it, but we're not going to condemn it either." (13) In a subsequent conversation with Kissinger on March 30, Nixon said: "we should just stay out —like in Biafra, what the hell can we do?" (15)

On April 6, most members of the Consulate General in Dacca signed a dissent channel message to Washington. The message called upon the United States Government to condemn the "indiscriminate killing" of the populace of East Pakistan by the army. Condemnation of genocide, they argued, should outweigh a reluctance to intervene in the internal affairs of another country. Consul General Archer Blood endorsed the dissent. (19) In Washington, Secretary of State Rogers raged over the "miserable" cable from Dacca. (20) Kissinger told Nixon on April 12 that the " Dacca consulate is in open rebellion." Nixon again concluded that it would be a mistake to become involved: "The people who bitch about Vietnam bitch about it because we intervened in what they say is a civil war. Now some of the same bastards...want us to intervene here—both civil wars." (25) Blood was later transferred from Dacca.

As early as April 12, a Special National Intelligence Estimate, produced at Department of State request, concluded that prospects were "poor" that the Pakistani army would be able to exert effective control over East Pakistan. The estimate also concluded that India would foster and support Bengali insurgency and contribute to the likelihood that an independent Bangladesh would emerge from the developing conflict. (27) There were few illusions in Washington from an early stage in the crisis about the probable outcome of the civil war. At most, Yahya Khan and his government could hope to negotiate a settlement premised upon autonomy for East Pakistan within a loosely unified state. With authorization from Washington, United States officials encouraged efforts by representatives of the Awami League operating out of Calcutta, who styled themselves the new government of Bangladesh, to negotiate such a compromise settlement. Kissinger was dubious about facilitating these contacts. At one point he observed that asking Yahya to deal with the Awami League was "like asking Abraham Lincoln to deal with Jefferson Davis." (121) In the end, nothing came of the Bengali initiative. (31, 77, 115, 122, 133, 136, 149, 150, 154, 156, 164, 166, 176)

The military repression in East Pakistan prompted an increasing flow of refugees into West Bengal. As the crisis evolved, the flow of refugees from East Pakistan into India increased to a flood. India estimated that as many as 10 million Bengali refugees poured into West Bengal. Pakistan disputed the figure, but whatever the number it was perhaps the largest cross-border movement in history, and it put enormous pressure on the Indian Government. The problems of providing food and shelter for the refugees grew daily, despite international assistance, and the Gandhi government viewed the heavy influx of politically active Bengalis into volatile West Bengal as potentially explosive. Kissinger warned Nixon on April 28 that tension between India and Pakistan was at its highest since 1965, and that there was danger of a new conflict between the two if the situation continued to deteriorate in East Pakistan. (36)

There was an inclination within the U.S. Government, particularly within the Department of State, to bring pressure on the Government of Pakistan to restrain the army and establish a regional civil administration that might win back some Bengali support and halt the flow of refugees. Nixon's response was given in a handwritten instruction: "To all hands. Don't squeeze Yahya at this time." (36) Why was Nixon so concerned not to squeeze Yahya? On May 7, Kissinger entertained Ambassador Joseph Farland on Nixon's instructions in Palm Springs, California, where Farland had gone under guise of personal business to meet privately with Kissinger. Kissinger told Farland that for some time he had been sending messages to China through the Pakistani Government without the knowledge of Farland or anyone in his embassy. Farland was made privy to the exchange in order to prepare for Kissinger's trip to China via Pakistan in July. Only Farland was to know about the cover Pakistan was providing for this initiative, or that President Yahya had facilitated it with the Chinese leaders. (42) Whatever disclaimers Nixon and Kissinger later published with regard to the motives that drove their policy during the South Asian crisis, the desire to protect their channel to China clearly ranked near the top.

India's concerns and sensitivities, on the other hand, were accorded scant sympathy in the White House. On May 13, Prime Minister Gandhi wrote to President Nixon about the "carnage in East Bengal" which "disturbed the Indian people deeply." She added that the impact of millions of refugees imposed an enormous burden upon India and impacted heavily upon its economy. There were by Indian count over 2 million refugees in West Bengal and the flow was increasing. The situation, she warned, could become explosive. (46) Indian Ambassador L. K. Jha warned Kissinger on May 21 that without evidence that Pakistan would reverse the military repression and restore the political rights of the population of East Pakistan, there was strong support in India for the idea of arming the refugees and sending them back as guerrillas. (52) By the end of May, reports were coming to Washington about Indian forces gathering along the border with East Pakistan. The United States passed the word to India that it was opposed to military intervention in the civil war. Nixon said that if India intervened militarily "by God we will cut off economic aid." (55) In a subsequent conversation with Kissinger on May 26, Nixon said that "the goddamn Indians" were promoting another war. Kissinger agreed: "they are the most aggressive goddamn people around." (59)

Nixon and Kissinger, who managed the United States response to the crisis to the virtual exclusion of the Department of State, met in Washington in June with Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh and attempted to persuade him that the civil war need not evolve into conflict between India and Pakistan. When Nixon met with Singh on June 16, he tried to defuse the crisis by offering $70 million in humanitarian assistance to help offset the expenses involved in dealing with the refugees. Singh, who expanded on the "tremendous problems" created for India by the often destitute refugees, expressed appreciation for the offer but insisted that the fundamental question was how to stop the flow of refugees. It would not be possible, he said, to "buy the problem away." (73)

Kissinger had another chance to argue for Indian restraint when he met with Prime Minister Gandhi in New Delhi on July 7. Gandhi explained the problems caused for India by Pakistan's repression of East Pakistanis, but she said she was not wedded to any solution and did not want to use force. Kissinger expressed sympathy for India's situation. He said that while the United States had no specific suggestions to offer, the overall approach Washington was taking was to try to retain as much influence as possible with Islamabad in order to promote a long-term solution. Gandhi warned that time to find a solution was growing short. By her government's count there were 6.8 million refugees in India and the number was growing rapidly. (91)

Kissinger's subsequent stop in Pakistan was undertaken essentially as cover for his trip to Peking on July 9. (96) In China, Chou En-lai told Kissinger that China would support Pakistan in a confrontation with India. (99)

Nixon's view of the emerging crisis was expressed in an NSC meeting on July 16. The Indians, he said, are "a slippery, treacherous people." He felt that they would like nothing more than to take advantage of the opportunity to destroy Pakistan. Kissinger agreed that India seemed bent upon war. He thought that China would enter any such war on Pakistan's side, but concluded that might not dissuade India. Kissinger felt that if the United States did not "over-power the question of war, India would slide into it." (103) On August 3, Secretary Rogers sent telegrams to New Delhi and Islamabad expressing concern about cross-border shelling by both Indian and Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and Indian support for Bengali guerrillas being infiltrated into East Pakistan. He instructed the embassies to urge restraint in the face of the strong possibility of war. (114)

From the perspective of Washington, the crisis ratcheted up a dangerous notch on August 9 when India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation. This agreement, which stopped just short of being a mutual security treaty, was seen in Washington as offering carte blanche to India in its confrontation with Pakistan. The treaty reinforced Soviet influence in India. After August 9, Nixon and Kissinger took the position that the Soviet Union, which they viewed as having encouraged India by signing the agreement, had a responsibility to restrain India. (116, 117, 132) On September 29, Nixon met in Washington with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. Nixon pointed to the growing danger of war on the subcontinent and urged the Soviet Union to join the United States in trying to discourage India from pushing toward war. Gromyko replied that the Soviet Union also did not want to see war develop between India and Pakistan. India had offered assurances to Moscow that it would do nothing to precipitate a clash with Pakistan. Gromyko felt that Pakistan was the country that needed to be restrained. (153)

Reports reached Washington in early October that Indian and Pakistani artillery were massing along the border of East Pakistan. The expectation was that the coming end of the monsoon season would create the conditions necessary for offensive operations and could bring the crisis to a head. The embassies in New Delhi and Islamabad were instructed to urge that cross-border operations be prevented. (160) On October 8, Kissinger warned Ambassador Jha that if India started a war the United States would cut off all economic assistance. (162) On the same day, Ambassador Beam called on Gromyko to emphasize U.S. concern about the mounting danger of war. (163)

The United States tried in mid-October to build on Foreign Minister Singh's assurance that India would not initiate hostilities by proposing that both sides withdraw their forces from the border to the nearest military bases. (168) Pakistan accepted the proposal but India hedged and said that such a move would leave India at a disadvantage in that Pakistan's bases were closer to the border. Nixon put this proposal to Indira Gandhi when she visited Washington on November 4 as part of her tour of foreign capitals to try to generate support for India's position. He also told her that the United States would find the initiation of hostilities between India and Pakistan to be totally unacceptable. In a stiff meeting, Gandhi denied sponsoring the Mukti Bahini guerrillas and denied that Indian forces were poised to initiate a conflict. In this and in their subsequent meeting on the following day, she failed to respond to Nixon's proposal for a mutual withdrawal. (179, 180) Nixon and Kissinger subsequently discussed the exchanges with Gandhi. Kissinger's assessment was that "the Indians are bastards anyway. They are plotting a war." He felt that Nixon had given her a warm enough reception that she could not complain that the United States was anti-Indian. Nixon agreed. (180)

Open warfare erupted in East Pakistan on November 22 when India launched an offensive with two divisions supported by armor. (194) The WSAG, which had been meeting with increasing frequency to assess the crisis, began almost daily meetings to map advice for the President. (194, 196, 198, 209) Indian forces pushed quickly into East Pakistan while Mukti Bahini guerrilla forces acted in support. Nixon's response was to cut off economic assistance to India, but, as Rogers told him, the leverage the United States could bring to bear with such a move was not liable to be effective. Still, Nixon instructed: "In terms of the merits of the situation, to the extent that we can tilt it toward Pakistan, I would prefer to play that." (199)

Pakistan sought to offset the pressure on its forces in East Pakistan by launching an attack on December 3 from West Pakistan. Pakistan's air force struck at six Indian airfields in Kashmir and the Punjab and Pakistani artillery began shelling at several points along the border. (215) Kissinger told Nixon that the fighting in the west had been initiated by India. Nixon responded: "It's a tragedy the Indians are so treacherous." He ordered a hold placed on $90 million in pending letters of credit for India. (221)

On December 4, United Nations Ambassador George Bush introduced a resolution in the Security Council which called for a cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of armed forces by India and Pakistan from each other's territories, and encouraged both countries to avail themselves of the Secretary General's offer to mediate. (224) The resolution was vetoed by the Soviet Union. On December 7, the United States sponsored a similar resolution in the General Assembly, where the Soviet Union could not exercise a veto, and it was adopted by a wide margin. (248) The United States recognized, however, that the United Nations could do little to control the fighting on the subcontinent.

Accordingly, Nixon and Kissinger increased the pressure on the Soviet Union to rein in India. On December 5, Kissinger called in Soviet Chargé Yuli Vorontsov and told him that Nixon could not understand how the United States and the Soviet Union could work toward détente on a variety of issues while Moscow was encouraging Indian aggression against Pakistan. Kissinger said that Nixon invited Brezhnev to join in the effort to put an end to the fighting on the subcontinent and return to working on a broad improvement in relations. Kissinger warned that the United States viewed the situation in South Asia as a "watershed" in U.S.-Soviet relations. (231) Nixon underlined the points made by Kissinger to Vorontsov in a letter to Brezhnev on December 6. He warned that if India achieved its ends militarily, with Soviet support, it would have an adverse effect on U.S.-Soviet relations. (236) Nixon and Kissinger agreed, when they discussed the crisis on December 6, that it was necessary to take a hard line with the Soviet Union. Kissinger said that it was the kind of signal the Soviets understood. "You'll be better off six months from now," he added. "If they lose respect for us now they'll put it to us." (239)

New evidence suggested to Nixon and Kissinger that rather than being restrained by Moscow, India was contemplating expanded military operations against West Pakistan. An intelligence report of a briefing that Gandhi gave in early December indicated that India enjoyed strong support from the Soviet Union, which had promised to counter-balance any move China might make against India in support of Pakistan. With that much support, Gandhi outlined her war aims: she would not accept a settlement until Bangladesh was liberated, the "southern area of Azad Kashmir" was liberated, and the Pakistani armored and air force strength was destroyed to prevent any future challenge to India. (246) Nixon and Kissinger took this as proof that India planned not only to foster the independence of East Pakistan, but to use the opportunity of the crisis to inflict a crushing military defeat on Pakistan, which would lead to the breakup of West Pakistan. Kissinger attributed to the Gandhi government the goal of Balkanizing West Pakistan. If the crisis resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan, Kissinger worried that China might conclude that the United States was "just too weak" to prevent the humiliation of an ally. He felt that the Chinese would then look to other options "to break their encirclement." He concluded that the situation represented "a big watershed." (251)

To increase pressure on the Soviet Union to restrain India, Kissinger advised that it might be necessary to call the projected summit meeting with the Soviet Union into question. Nixon agreed: "Maybe we have to put it to the Russians and say we have to cancel the summit." Kissinger advised Nixon to "play it out toughly" and anticipated that if a summit meeting did in the end prove possible, it would be one that Nixon could attend with his head up. (251, 252)

On December 9, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms warned the WSAG that Pakistani forces in East Pakistan were crumbling. (253) When Nixon and Kissinger met in the Oval Office on December 9 to discuss the crisis, they had in mind the deteriorating situation in East Pakistan and the intelligence report on Prime Minister Gandhi's early December briefing, which they took to mean that after achieving victory in the east, India would shift its forces to the west and dismember Pakistan. At that point, Nixon decided to introduce the carrier Enterprise and its supporting vessels into the Bay of Bengal to apply military pressure on India. The rather transparent cover story was that the Enterprise was moving from Southeast Asia to the Bay of Bengal to help protect and withdraw U.S. citizens from East Pakistan. Nixon decided to pose an implied military threat to India. (256)

Later in the afternoon of December 9, Nixon applied further pressure on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Minister of Agriculture, Vladimir Matskevich, was in Washington and Nixon received him for what Matskevich assumed was a courtesy call. Instead, to his surprise, Nixon delivered a stern warning that the crisis on the subcontinent was poisoning the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union. He asked "are short-term gains for India worth jeopardizing Soviet relations with the U.S.?" (257) On Nixon's instructions, Kissinger saw Vorontsov on December 10 and warned him that the United States had "treaty" obligations to Pakistan, established in 1959 and confirmed by President Kennedy, that required the United States to come to Pakistan's assistance in the event of aggression. The United States, he warned, intended to honor those commitments. (268)

The other element that Nixon wanted to see come into play in a belated effort to prevent India from crushing Pakistan was a threat from China. In a conversation with Kissinger in the Oval Office on December 10, Nixon instructed Kissinger to ask the Chinese to move some forces toward the frontier with India. "Threaten to move forces or move them, Henry, that's what they must do now." (266) With those instructions, Kissinger went to New York the evening of December 10 and met with Huang Hua, China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He briefed Huang Hua on Gandhi's position and on the threat to West Pakistan as perceived in Washington. He told Huang Hua about the carrier force moving toward the Bay of Bengal. And, using diplomatic language, he relayed Nixon's request for Chinese military moves in support of Pakistan. Kissinger added that Nixon wanted China to know that if China took such action, the United States would oppose the efforts of others to interfere with China. There were no qualifications to Kissinger's diplomatically worded but clear assurance that the United States would be prepared for a military confrontation with the Soviet Union if the Soviet Union attacked China. (274)

On December 12, Nixon had to contemplate the implications of the assurance offered to the Chinese two days earlier. During the course of a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office about the need for a military move by China to reinforce the impact of the arrival of the U.S. carrier off East Pakistan, Kissinger's deputy Alexander Haig entered with word that the Chinese wanted to have a meeting in New York. That was startling news. Kissinger said the Chinese had never initiated contact in New York. Suddenly it seemed likely that the China was going to move militarily against India. That raised the likelihood that the Soviet Union would be given an excuse to strike China. Kissinger said: "If the Soviets move against them and we don't do anything, we will be finished." Nixon asked: "So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?" Kissinger responded: "If the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown...and if they succeed we will be finished." He added that "if the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis...we may be looking down the gun barrel." In the end, they concluded that the projected confrontation with the Soviet Union would not involve a nuclear exchange. Kissinger felt that to preserve credibility, the United States, if necessary, would have to support China with conventional forces: "We have to put forces in. We may have to give them bombing assistance." Kissinger saw the danger of war between the Soviet Union and China as a strong possibility, with the Soviets looking for "a pretext to wipe out China," but Nixon concluded at the end of the discussion that "Russia and China aren't going to go to war." (281)

Nixon's prediction was borne out when it developed that China had no intention of threatening military action against India. Pakistani forces surrendered in East Pakistan on December 16 and India announced a cease-fire. (320) With a nudge from Ambassador Farland, President Yahya accepted the cease-fire. (323) Nixon and Kissinger felt that they had achieved their fundamental goal of preserving West Pakistan intact and congratulated each other on having "scared the pants off the Russians" and having come through the crisis "amazingly well." (324) India, however, had emerged from the crisis confirmed as the preeminent power on the subcontinent, and Soviet support for India during the crisis had enhanced Soviet influence in India. The United States would have to adjust to that reality.

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