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Henry Kissinger’s role in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971


Henry Kissinger’s role in the Bangladesh genocide of 1971

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Henry Kissinger died a few months after his 100th birthday. The many eulogies for the celebrated American statesman and diplomat cast the century of his life as an age unto itself — spanning the horrors of the fascism he fled as a young German Jewish refugee, through the Cold War upon he which he put his defining geopolitical imprint as the right-hand man to former president Richard M. Nixon and into a brave new world marked by the inexorable rise of China and the dizzying implications of new technologies like artificial intelligence.

Into the last year of his life, Kissinger remained a figure of prominence and relevance, a doyen of the Washington foreign policy establishment and, through his lucrative consultancy group, a frequent soothsayer to power. Generations of policymakers marveled at the clarity of his insights and the sheer force of his intellect. “If it is possible for diplomacy, at its highest level, to be a form of art, Henry was an artist,” wrote former British prime minister Tony Blair.

But for so many people outside the West, Kissinger’s legacy is hardly admirable. My colleagues have already charted Kissinger’s direct role in the merciless carpet bombing of Cambodia and indirect enabling of the genocidal rampages of the Khmer Rouge. In his ruthless pursuit of the exigencies of the Cold War, Kissinger tolerated and abetted hideous violence around the world. His hand could be seen, among other places, in the dirty wars of right-wing Latin American juntas, in tacit support for white-supremacist minority governments in Africa, and in greenlighting the Indonesian dictatorship’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, which led to a conflict and famine that left as many as 200,000 people dead on the small island.

“Those who follow history, who follow international politics — they know about this past, which was tragic and ugly,” José Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told my colleague Rebecca Tan this week when asked about Kissinger.

Henry Kissinger, the only person ever to be White House national security adviser and secretary of state at the same time, died at the age of 100. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

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Though most Americans have little recollection or awareness of it, Kissinger is remembered keenly in South Asia for the part he and Nixon played during the bloody period that led to the emergence of the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

At the time, the state of Pakistan, carved out by the departing British, existed as a two-winged artificial entity, split in between by a thousand miles of India. The army generals from West Pakistan, mostly ethnic Punjabis, disdained the ethnic Bengalis from the east of the country. After 1970 elections yielded a democratic victory for Bengali nationalists, a crisis ensued that culminated in a vicious crackdown by the Pakistani military on East Pakistanis — a campaign that turned into a mass slaughter of minority Hindus, students, dissidents and anyone else in the crosshairs of the army and collaborator-led death squads.

Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times’s South Asia correspondent at the time, described the month-long Pakistani crackdown in March 1971 as “a pogrom on a vast scale” in a land where “vultures grow fat.” Hundreds of thousands of women were raped. Whole villages were razed, and cities depopulated. An exodus of some 10 million refugees fled to India. When all was said and done, hundreds of thousands — and by some estimates, as many as 3 million — were killed, their bodies left to rot in the rice paddies or flushed into the ocean down the region’s many waterways.

The carnage horrified onlookers, and hastened an Indian intervention. The White House, though, stood on the side of Pakistan’s generals — clear Cold War allies who also helped facilitate Kissinger’s secret mission to China in April that year. Kissinger did not trust the Indians, who leaned toward the Soviet Union, and did not care about the national aspirations of the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Crucially, as outlined in Gary Bass’s excellent book, “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide,” he also ignored messages and dissent cables from U.S. diplomats in the field, warning him that a genocide was taking place with their complicity.

Henry Kissinger, who shaped world affairs under two presidents, dies at 100

Neither Nixon nor Kissinger exercised any of their considerable leverage to restrain Pakistan’s generals. Instead, they covertly rushed arms to the Pakistanis — in violation of a congressional arms embargo — as India and its Bangladeshi separatist allies gained the upper hand. “Throughout it all, from the outbreak of civil war to the Bengali massacres to Pakistan’s crushing defeat by the Indian military, Nixon and Kissinger, unfazed by detailed knowledge of the massacres, stood stoutly behind Pakistan,” wrote Bass in his book. He pointed also to how “these practitioners of realpolitik were all too often propelled by emotion” — including contemptuous, openly racist views of their South Asian quarry.

In the decades since, Kissinger never mustered a mea culpa. “Rather than reckoning with the human consequences of his deeds, let alone apologizing for breaking the law, Kissinger assiduously tried to cover up his record in the South Asia crisis,” Bass wrote in the Atlantic after Kissinger’s death. “As late as 2022, in his book Leadership, he was still trying to promote a sanitized view, in which he tactfully termed former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ‘an irritant’—even though during her tenure he repeatedly called her ‘a bitch,’ as well as calling the Indians ‘bastards’ and ‘sons of bitches.’”

Not surprisingly, news of Kissinger’s passing was treated dyspeptically in Dhaka. In remarks Thursday, Bangladeshi foreign minister A.K. Abdul Momen said Kissinger was “dead against the people of the then-East Pakistan,” chose to violate U.S. laws in the support of Pakistan’s military and failed to offer an apology to the Bangladeshi nation for the atrocities that took place on his watch.

“That is very sad for such a smart man to do such inhumane things,” Momen said. “It is not acceptable.”

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