tards and we need them. He is not just saying, they are our
Cold War allies. What Nixon is saying, which is captured on
the White House tapes, is that Yahya is a decent man, Yahya’s
an honorable man. So, he really has a kind of remarkable,
personal loyalty to Yahya throughout the crisis.
It starts out with a higher opinion of Yahya and then actually meeting with him in July 1971 in Islamabad, Kissinger
comes away from that convinced Yahya is actually a kind of
an idiot and tells Nixon that a couple of times, which Nixon
particularly doesn’t like.
Had Nixon had a better, more favorable opinion of Indira
Gandhi, would it have changed the course of things, this terri-
I think it would have made some difference. It is hard to
tell, exactly, how much.
On the one hand, you have the big structural factors of the
Cold War and India’s pro-Soviet politics that, I think, any
American President would have disliked. Dwight Eisenhower didn’t like India’s pro-Soviet leanings, John F Kennedy
didn’t like India’s pro-Soviet leanings... So, that is not unique
But Nixon has particularly bad blood with (Indira) Gandhi
and she with him. I mean she hates him too — there is no
question that this is mutual animosity.
So, it is very hard for them to communicate; there is not a
lot of trust between these two leaders at a time when it might
have been helpful.
If (Indira) Gandhi had been making appeals to Nixon and
he had been willing to listen, it might have helped. But she
would sometimes say things which the US government knew
were outright lies. She would say that India is not backing
the Bengali guerrillas operating inside of East Pakistan, who
were operating with massive secret support from the Indian
government. The US government knew that. It had a pretty
good sense of the scale on which India was backing this
So, when (Indira) Gandhi would tell the Americans, ‘We
have nothing to do with this,’ that would have undermined
her credibility, no matter who the president was. (Indira)
Gandhi would say time and time again, ‘No, no, no, we’re not
backing the rebels. We respect Pakistan’s sovereignty.’
You write that you requested Kissinger to be interviewed
and he refused...
I actually requested an interview with Kissinger four times.
He or his office ignored the first two (times). I never got an
Finally, I got an answer from him refusing; and, then after
that I sent a final appeal saying ‘Are you sure here are some
of the things that I am going to have to talk about in the book
and I’d love to have your perspective so that I can include it
in the book.’
I really do want to include the perspective of everyone who
is involved in the crisis. Certainly, I would have loved to have
heard from Kissinger so I could put that in the book.
Because he would not talk to me, I had to rely more on his
What kind of perspective were you looking for from
staff. There were two officials working on South Asia; one
was working on China. I spent a lot of time talking to them
to make sure that I was getting the White House perspective
to include that in the book. You know, just to be fair you want
to include everyone’s perspective.
Kissinger, if you had spoken to him, met him?
I wonder if he feels any sense of regret. I wonder if he still
When you were writing the book, Nixon was gone a long
is thinking from a real political perspective. If he sees any
missed opportunities to change the relationship between the
United States and India when India was desperate for help
with millions of refugees, as many as 10 million refugees,
who fled from East Pakistan into India…
I don’t think you were ever going to rip India completely
away from the Soviet Union. But he could have changed the
relationship, made it better. I wonder if he sees any missed
time. If he were alive, would you have asked Nixon the same
question you might want to ask Kissinger?
I would have asked similar questions although there are
some points where Nixon and Kissinger disagreed. Nixon
had more of a sentimental fondness for Yahya; Nixon had
more of a racial animosity towards India.
Kissinger indulges (him) when Nixon says the Indians
need a massive famine, Kissinger doesn’t contradict him or
say that is too much. He says they (the Indians) are such bastards.
But there is an incident in December 1971, during the war
between India and Pakistan, which results in the creation of
independent Bangladesh where Kissinger has the idea that
the United States will secretly ask China to mobilize troops
in the Himalayas to challenge India and that will sort of pull
some Indian troops away from fighting in the west and in the
east with Pakistan and pull them north to take this possible
risk of a Chinese intervention.
There is considerable danger attached to that because if
China really did get involved in the war, then the Soviet
Union would have to get involved to back up India, and then
the United States would probably have to get involved to
back up China.
Nixon had a good point of view — that this is a crisis that
is not likely to turn out well. Pakistan is militarily outgunned
and Pakistan is going to lose the war. Let us cut our losses, let
us not invest too deeply in this.
Kissinger is urging Nixon that this is a crucial moment. He
says I consider this our Rhineland. So he makes a comparison to the run-up to World War II.
For Kissinger, it is a crucial moment where he also compares it to the Suez; the crucial moment where the United
States needs to firmly stand up against the Soviet-backed
aggression as Kissinger sees it.
But Nixon is unconvinced and he winds up saying he does
not want to risk it.
It is Kissinger who keeps pushing him and finally gets
Nixon to move forward in this potentially quite dangerous
confrontation with the Soviet Union.
I wonder, in retrospect, if Nixon would have regretted that.
I wonder if Nixon thinks he got bad advice from Kissinger.
In what way did Kissinger push Nixon into possible con-
He says to Nixon, ‘If we don’t stand up to the Soviets here
that they are going to see that we are weak and they are going
to poke at us in all sorts of other places: In Indonesia, and in
the Middle East. If we don’t show strength here in South
Asia, then you should expect Soviet challenges in lots of other
strategic parts of the world.’
And that is the argument that helps to convince Nixon.
Kissinger also says the Soviets will fold; the Soviets will
back down every time we stand up to them.
To my surprise, I would have thought they would at least
have had a discussion about what will we do if the Soviets
don’t back down, what if the Soviets escalate. Interestingly,
they don’t have that conversation.
I think that is bad advice to the President. You always want
to give the President a range of likely, possible, scenarios.
It is possible in the war of 1971, that the Soviets would have
felt a considerable pressure to support India.
You also write about how Kissinger tried to take credit for
the ceasefire in West Pakistan.
Yes, Kissinger come out of the war, believing that there
were people in the Indian government who wanted not just
victory on the eastern front, not just liberation in the independent Bangladesh, but also wanted an opportunity to
prosecute a major war effort against West Pakistan.
It is not clear whether Indira Gandhi took that particularly seriously. The Indian records about the war are quite
incomplete. American records are much more complete.
So, we know a lot more about the American government’s
decision throughout this period, including on the war.
The Indian government’s papers are not as nearly comprehensive as what you get on the American side except when
you actually get to the war when there is very little on the
archives as to what the Indian government was thinking.
What we do know is that (Indira) Gandhi chose not to
wage a wider war to rip apart West Pakistan. The fighting on
the western front was much more inconclusive.
On the eastern front, the Indian forces, helped by the
Bengali rebel forces, were doing very well. But on the western front, it is really brutal and bloody. Some of the most terrible fighting of the war were those pitched tank and artillery
battles on the western front.
So it is not like you see imminent, decisive, victory over
West Pakistan. There is the danger that continuing the war
against West Pakistan might bring China or the United
States to do some sort of intervention. And you never know
how well a war is going to go.
The Indian war effort had gone quite well in the east; but
that is no guarantee that it is going to go well in the west.
West Pakistan is really a much, much, tougher military
objective than East Pakistan was.
So, (Indira) Gandhi makes the prudent decision thinking
that we did well in the east. So, let us have a ceasefire.
Kissinger and Nixon think it is because of the steps that they
have taken to try to threaten India, so the secret move to try
and get the Chinese to move troops on the northern front.
They think it is due to the arms transfer to West Pakistan,
which takes place during the war even though the White
House staff, the State Department staff and the Pentagon
lawyers warn that this is illegal.
The famous intervention of sailing the USS Enterprise into
the Bay of Bengal is something that is deeply resented in
India. Nixon and Kissinger think these actions taken together saved West Pakistan.
Kissinger says, ‘Congratulations Mr President, you saved
They believe what they want to believe...
If anyone saved West Pakistan, it is the Pakistani troops
who fought very, very bravely against India. ;
Henry Kissinger, left — with senior Pakistani diplomat Agha Hilaly in
Rawalpindi, July 8, 1971 — on his way to China for the now famous
Gary Bass says Kissinger wanted the US to secretly ask China to
mobilize troops in the Himalayas to challenge India and distract it
from the fighting in the west and in the east.
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