How two madmen brought the world to the brink of a third great war
Gary J Bass | 19 Sep, 2013
How two madmen brought the world to the brink of a third great war
On December 7, Lieutenant General AAK Niazi, the commander of Pakistan’s Eastern Command, was haggard and exhausted. According to another general, he wept loudly in a meeting. After only a few days of combat, the Pakistan army was being routed in Bangladesh. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger became sincerely convinced that ripping Pakistan in half would not be enough for India. India could next redeploy its eastern forces for a crushing assault against West Pakistan.
What was India fighting for: the liberation of Bangladesh or something more? “The destruction of Pakistan, which seemed to be the ultimate war aim at the time,” answers Samuel Hoskinson, Kissinger’s aide, without hesitation. “Indeed, she was ready to do it. We had pretty good information that this was under serious consideration in the war cabinet.” Once Bangladesh was secured, the White House staffer says, “Her intention was to move troops across northern India and attack in the west, to finish off this problem.” He says, “I know that it was being discussed actively with her generals and her top people.” This was intolerable for the White House. “This would be a mighty strategic defeat for the US,” says Hoskinson. “She had taken on an ally and destroyed it. Nixon and Kissinger were always aware of national prestige. . . . This would be a total victory for the Soviets.”
Although the most sensitive wartime records are still secret, it is not clear that India was seriously trying to break apart West Pakistan. As Kissinger briefed Nixon, “the Indians still seem to be essentially on the defensive” in the west. Even if India could smartly finish up its eastern campaign, it would take more time to redeploy its troops westward than the Soviet Union, stalling a cease-fire at the United Nations, could accept: the CIA reckoned that it would take five or six days for India’s airborne division to move to the western front, and much longer for their infantry and armor fighting in the east. US intelligence analysts argued that in order to hack apart West Pakistan, India would have to not just defeat the Pakistan army, but completely wipe it out— something probably beyond India’s capacities, even if it wanted to do so.
Hoskinson’s verdict, echoing that of Nixon and Kissinger, depended heavily on raw intelligence from a CIA mole with access to Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Based on this one source, the CIA reported that Gandhi meant to keep fighting until Bangladesh was liberated, India had seized a contested area of Kashmir currently controlled by Pakistan, and Pakistan’s armor and air force were “destroyed so that Pakistan will never again be in a position to plan another invasion of India.”
It is still not certain who the mole was, nor how reliable he was. Many intelligence analysts doubted the report. For a start, the real debates and decisions happened in the prime minister’s secretariat, sometimes widening to include a small political affairs committee of key ministers, but certainly not the whole unwieldy cabinet of blabbermouths. It is true that Indian diplomats were evasive when asked about that contested area of Kashmir, and Indian officials later admitted wanting to gain some other small, strategic bits of territory in Kashmir— but they emphasized that Gandhi had overruled her hawks and insisted on waging a basically defensive war in the west. Whether the informant was worth much, the US government relied overwhelmingly on this information.
Kissinger, whose emotions were already running high, was jolted. He did not question the intelligence, which confirmed his preconceived view of India. He did not ask how India would manage such a major campaign against West Pakistan, nor about how it could extricate itself afterward. Instead, he decided that the United States needed to get much tougher on India. On December 8, he told Nixon, “the Indian plan is now clear. They’re going to move their forces from East Pakistan to the west.” They would then “smash” Pakistan’s army and air force and annex some of Kashmir. This, he argued— going beyond the CIA intelligence— could well mean “the complete dismemberment” of West Pakistan , with secessionism in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. “All of this would have been achieved by Soviet support, Soviet arms, and Indian military force.” So Soviet client states in the Middle East and elsewhere would feel free to attack with impunity, while China would think the Americans were “just too weak.” The crisis was, he told Nixon, “a big watershed.”
Nixon was hit hard too. Like Kissinger, he swiftly accepted the intelligence, without wondering whether this was bluster or if India would really be so reckless, or asking skeptical questions about India’s military difficulties besieging West Pakistan. Both Nixon and Kissinger might have seen this one source as revealing hostile but standard Indian war aims in the west: some gains in Kashmir, substantial damage to Pakistan’s war machine, all of it limited by West Pakistan’s own formidable resistance. Instead, they foresaw the imminent annihilation of West Pakistan.
Extrapolating beyond the CIA mole’s information, Nixon spoke of a US intelligence “report on Mrs. Gandhi’s Cabinet meeting where she said that, she said deliberately that they were going to try to conquer West Pakistan, they were going to move their forces from the East to the West.”
KISSINGER’S SECRET ONSLAUGHT
Yahya’s only hope was outside help from China and the United States. Pakistan’s General Niazi says that he was told to hold out for help from “Yellows from the North and Whites from the South”—the Chinese and the Americans. Kissinger urged Nixon to “scare them”— the Indians— “off an attack on West Pakistan as much as we possibly can. And therefore we’ve got to get another tough warning to the Russians.”
Kissinger now proposed three dangerous initiatives. The United States would illegally allow Iran and Jordan to send squadrons of US aircraft to Pakistan, secretly ask China to mass its troops on the Indian border, and deploy a US aircraft carrier group to the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. He urged Nixon to stun India with all three moves simultaneously.
Kissinger knew that the American public would be shocked by this gunboat diplomacy. “I’m sure all hell will break loose here,” he said. Still, Nixon quickly agreed to all three steps: “let’s do the carrier thing. Let’s get assurances to the Jordanians. Let’s send a message to the Chinese. Let’s send a message to the Russians. And I would tell the people in the State Department not a goddamn thing they don’t need to know.”
Nixon and Kissinger’s most perilous covert gambit was the overture to Mao’s China— already on poisonous terms with India. Kissinger believed that Zhou Enlai was somewhat unhinged when it came to India, and the deployment of Chinese soldiers could easily have sparked border clashes. Such a movement of Chinese troops would have made an effective threat precisely because of the danger of escalation out of control. At worst, this could have ignited a wider war. That, in turn, risked expanding into a nuclear superpower confrontation. If China was moving troops to help Pakistan, India would surely want the Soviet Union to do likewise. According to the CIA’s mole in Delhi, Indira Gandhi claimed that the Soviet Union had promised to counterbalance any Chinese military actions against India. Just two years before, China had set off hydrogen bombs in its western desert to threaten the Soviet Union. Would the Soviets dare to confront the Chinese? And if the Soviets got dragged in, how could the Americans stay out?
Back on November 23, Kissinger had enticingly suggested to a Chinese delegation in New York that India’s northern border might be vulnerable. Now, on December 6, Nixon told Kissinger that he “strongly” wanted to tell China that some troop movements toward India’s border could be very important. “[D]amnit, I am convinced that if the Chinese start moving the Indians will be petrified,” the president said. “They will be petrified.” He shrugged off the obvious problem of winter snows in the Himalayas, admiringly recalling China’s bravery in the Korean War: “The Chinese, you know, when they came across the Yalu, we thought they were a bunch of goddamn fools in the heart of the winter, but they did it.”
Kissinger had personally and repeatedly promised Indian leaders at the highest levels— including Haksar and Gandhi herself— that the United States would stand with India against threats of Chinese aggression. Now the Nixon administration was secretly doing the opposite.
Kissinger was heartened at US intelligence reports of truckloads of military supplies flowing from China into West Pakistan. But the CIA insisted that China was “keeping its head down,” neither prepared for nor capable of a full-scale war against India. In harsh mountainous terrain, it would be tremendously hard to move forces fast enough to matter. The CIA argued that it would take at least two months for China to get ready for a moderate amount of combat with India. Still, the CIA noted, with India’s “traumatic” memory of the last war with China, Chinese saber rattling and harassing attacks could cause real trouble for India, even without a war. India would have to divert large numbers of troops to guard its northern flank. As Kissinger wrote to Nixon, the CIA did think that China could launch smaller but still substantial military efforts, from “overt troop movements” to a “limited diversionary attack.”
Kissinger linked the China gambit to the United States secretly providing aircraft from Iran and Jordan to Pakistan. On December 8, in the private office that Nixon kept in the ornate Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, Kissinger told the president that “we could give a note to the Chinese and say, ‘If you are ever going to move this is the time.’ ” Nixon immediately agreed. Kissinger did not think it would be so simple to scare off the Soviet Union. He admitted that if the administration’s bluff was called, they would lose, but added that if they did not act now, they would definitely lose. Nixon was resolute, saying they had to “calmly and cold-bloodedly make the decision.”
The president argued that “we can’t do this without the Chinese helping us. As I look at this thing, the Chinese have got to move to that damn border. The Indians have got to get a little scared.” Kissinger agreed, proposing that they notify the Chinese about what Nixon was secretly doing, and tell them of the advantages of China moving some of its soldiers to India’s frontier. Nixon bluntly instructed Kissinger to go to New York, to the Chinese mission at the United Nations, with a message directly from him to Zhou Enlai. Kissinger, who wanted to impress the Chinese leadership by showing the administration’s toughness, guessed that China might start a small diversion— enough to prevent India from moving too many of its troops west.
Nixon was tantalized by the prospect that the Chinese would move if they thought that the White House would act too. Although Kissinger cautioned that China had “just had a semi-revolt in the military” and had “a million Russians on their border,” the president said, “Boy, I tell you, a movement of even some Chinese toward that border could scare those goddamn Indians to death.”
“IS IT REALLY SO MUCH AGAINST OUR LAW?”
Kissinger told Nixon, “We are the ones who have been operating against our public opinion, against our bureaucracy, at the very edge of legality.” That understates it. In fact, to help Pakistan, Nixon and Kissinger knowingly broke US law— and did so with the full awareness of George H W Bush, H R Haldeman, Alexander Haig, and others.
Yahya desperately needed US military supplies, particularly aircraft. On the second day of the war, he begged for US help, adding, “for God’s sake don’t hinder or impede the delivery of equipment from friendly third countries.” That day, Kissinger told Nixon that they had received a desperate appeal from Yahya, saying that his military supplies had been cut off, leaving him acutely vulnerable. Could the Americans help him through Iran, one of Pakistan’s most reliable friends? Nixon and Kissinger swiftly agreed to this, without considering any legal issues. Kissinger was concerned only that the United States would have to replace whatever Iranian weaponry was lost in the fighting. Nixon agreed: “If it is leaking we can have it denied. Have it done one step away.” Kissinger told the president, “If war does continue, give aid via Iran.” Nixon was relieved: “Good, at least Pakistan will be kept from being paral[y]zed.”
They determinedly kept their actions in the shadows, circumventing normal State Department communications by using a back channel between Nixon and the shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Nixon, reassured that the US ambassador in Tehran was oblivious, was delighted: “Good, well we’ll have some fun with this yet. God, you know what would really be poetic justice here is if some way the Paks could really give the Indians a bloody nose for a couple of days.” The next day, the shah agreed to a US request to send Iranian military equipment to Pakistan, with the United States replacing whatever Iran sent.
Jordan also got a request from Yahya, for eight to ten sophisticated US-made F-104 Starfighter fighter-interceptors. King Hussein seemed keen to move his squadrons, but, fearing congressional wrath, did not want to act without express approval. When he nervously asked the US embassy in Amman for advice, the diplomats balked. Kissinger noted with exasperation that these US officials were lecturing the king of Jordan that it would be immoral to get involved in a faraway war; these diplomats had not conceived of the last-ditch possibility of using Iran and Jordan to provide US weapons to the tottering Pakistani military.
This was illegal. That fact was driven home to Kissinger by lawyers at the State Department and Pentagon, as well as by the White House staff.
On December 6, in the war’s early days, Kissinger for the first time proposed the operation in a Situation Room meeting— not mentioning that the president had already made up his mind, and that the Iranians were already acting. But a State Department official immediately warned Kissinger that transferring Jordanian weapons to Pakistan “is prohibited on the basis of present legal authority.” Kissinger countered, “My instinct is that the President will want to do it”— his way of saying that Nixon had already decided. “He is not inclined to let the Paks be defeated if he can help it.” After this Situation Room meeting, Kissinger walked upstairs to the Oval Office, where Nixon was waiting for the press. Before the cameras arrived, Kissinger told the president that “this military aid to Iran that Iran might be giving to West Pakistan. The only way we can really do it— it’s not legal, strictly speaking, the only way we can do it is to tell the shah to go ahead through a back channel, to go ahead.” Nixon did not flinch at breaking the law. Kissinger continued, “He’d sent you a message saying that he’s eager to do it as long as we don’t— the damn press doesn’t know about it and we keep our mouths shut.” Nixon’s only concern was that the shah did not inform the US ambassador in Tehran: “I don’t want that son of a bitch to know.” “Oh no, no, no, no,” Kissinger assured him.
Nixon and Kissinger then plotted to conceal what they were doing. “We’ll have to say we didn’t know about it,” Kissinger said, “but we’ll cover it as soon as we can.” “Shit, how do we cover it?” Nixon asked. Kissinger explained, “By giving him”— the shah— “some extra aid next year.” “Do it,” said Nixon. He gave his official line: “I don’t know anything about it.” Then he laid out how they could publicly justify increasing military aid to compensate Iran, without mentioning the real reason. “Let’s put it this way: if I go to the Mideast, I think we need a stronger anchor in that area, and I determine, at this moment, that aid to Iran should substantially be increased next year.” Kissinger agreed.
The State Department, sensing the impending scandal, quickly drew up a legal memorandum to stop Kissinger. Pakistan was still formally under a US arms embargo. So, the State Department’s lawyers explained, the president could only consent to the transfer of US weapons to Pakistan from another country if the United States declared it would be willing to directly provide the stuff itself. Nixon and Kissinger knew that that kind of presidential declaration was politically impossible— an overt step that would never be tolerated by the infuriated Congress. Such a White House action would also, as the State Department noted, be in conflict with the ban on military assistance and arms sales to Pakistan in pending foreign aid legislation that had been approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. After quoting from the relevant public law, the State Department emphatically warned, “Under the present US policy of suspending all arms transfers to Pakistan, the U[nited] S[tates] G[overnment] could not consent to such a transfer.”
The Pentagon’s lawyers agreed. They repeated all of the State Department’s legal analysis, chapter and verse, and helpfully sent along copies of each of the laws to the White House. As the Pentagon’s legal experts pointed out, the law “prohibits ‘third-country transfers’ to eligible recipients where simple direct transfers would not be permitted for policy reasons.” Leery of White House skullduggery, they warned that “if simple subterfuge is the only reason for preferring a ‘third-country transfer,’ then that is the type of ‘abuse’ which the Congress intended to prohibit.”
Harold Saunders, Kissinger’s staffer at the White House, echoed these legal alarms. He had actually floated the idea of looking away while Iran and Jordan snuck weapons into Pakistan, but soon after prominently highlighted the legal “serious problem” for Kissinger— leaving his adventurous boss in no doubt that any US weapons that found their way from Iran or Jordan to Pakistan would stand as a stark violation of US law.
Understanding clearly that what they were doing was illegal, Nixon and Kissinger did it anyway. In the Oval Office, Nixon explained to Haldeman that they had told “the Iranians we’re going to provide arms through third countries and so forth and so on.” He casually added, “We’re trying to do something where it’s a violation of law and all that.” The White House chief of staff did not object— or even comment— when the president said that he and Kissinger were planning to break US law.
On December 8, in a Situation Room meeting, Kissinger laced into State Department officials for trying to stop him. “I have reviewed the cables to Jordan which enthusiastically tell Hussein he can’t furnish planes to the Paks,” he said. “We shouldn’t decide this on such doctrinaire grounds”— that is, obeying US law. “The question is, when an American ally is being raped, whether or not the US should participate in enforcing a blockade of our ally, when the other side is getting Soviet aid.” After a Pentagon official reminded him about the law, Kissinger blew up at the group: “We have a country, supported and equipped by the Soviet Union, turning one half of another country into a satellite state and the other half into an impotent vassal. Leaving aside any American interest in the subcontinent, what conclusions will other countries draw from this in their dealings with the Soviets?”
Kissinger urged the president, “I would encourage the Jordanians to move their squadrons into West Pakistan and the Iranians to move their squadrons.” When Nixon asked what effect these squadrons would have, Kissinger replied, “Enough. Militarily in Pakistan we have only one hope now. To convince the Indians that the thing is going to escalate. And to convince the Russians that they’re going to pay an enormous price.” Nixon wanted to “immediately” tell the Jordanians to act. Kissinger said, “I’d let the Jordanians move another squadron to Pakistan simply to show them some exclamation and let the Iranians move their two squadrons to Jordan if they want to.” Nixon agreed. Kissinger pressed him: “right now we’re in the position where we are telling allies not to assist another ally that is in mortal danger.”
Nixon and Kissinger worried about getting caught. The president warned that if Kissinger raised these weapons transfers in a Situation Room meeting, “the whole damn thing will get out in the papers.” When Kissinger doubted that the Jordanians could move squadrons of planes without reporters finding out, Nixon said they would pretend that the Jordanians had acted on their own. Kissinger told Pakistan’s ambassador to “stop all cable traffic with respect to help on ammunition and so forth. We are doing what we can and we will send a coded message. It’s getting too dangerous for you to send it.” Kissinger cautioned him that “we are working very actively on getting military equipment to you— but for God’s sake don’t say anything to anybody!”
Even Kissinger’s own White House staffers, who suspected something was up, were kept in the dark. Samuel Hoskinson denies knowing about the operation. “This would have been in a channel outside of us,” he says. “Covert action was in a separate vein.” Later, Kissinger grew sufficiently nervous about this illegality that he had Alexander Haig, his deputy, gather evidence fixing the blame on Nixon. Haig wrote to Kissinger, “Here are three telcons [telephone conversations] all of which confirm the President’s knowledge of, approval for and, if you will, directive to provide aircraft to Iran and Jordan.”
Nixon and Kissinger made no appeal to theories of executive power, and drew up no legal briefs supporting their actions; they simply acted. For their crucial meeting on the Iranian and Jordanian arms transfers, on December 8, they were joined in the president’s hideaway office in the Executive Office Building by John Mitchell, the attorney general, who proved as unconcerned about violating the law as they were. (The crucial parts of this meeting are bleeped out on the White House tapes, but the State Department has released a declassified transcript.)
Kissinger candidly said, “it’s illegal for them to move them.” A little later, Nixon said, “You say it’s illegal for us to do, also for the Jordanians.” Kissinger explained that “the way we can make it legal is to resume arms sales through— if we, if you announce that Pakistan is now eligible for the purchase of arms.” That would be a massive policy shift, and Nixon balked: “That would be tough, Henry, to go that way.” Kissinger concurred: “you would do more if it were not for this goddamn Senate.”
Instead, Kissinger, unfazed by the presence of the attorney general, said, “the way you get the Jordanian planes in there is to tell the King we cannot give you legal permission. On the other hand, we’d have to figure out a message, which says, ‘We’ll just close our eyes. Get the god-damned planes in there.’ ” Similarly, Kissinger said, the shah of Iran did not dare to act without a “formal commitment from us.” To safeguard their secret, Nixon and Kissinger agreed to covertly send a “special emissary”— probably either the CIA director or an Israeli— bearing that message to King Hussein. “We’d have to do it that way,” said Kissinger. “We cannot authorize it.”
None of this elicited protest from the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. Mitchell waited patiently through the meeting, occasionally jumping into the conversation to disparage “the goddamn Indians” and to slam Ted Kennedy as “stupid.” When Nixon wanted to keep the State Department in the dark, Mitchell immediately concurred. When Kissinger pointed out that the State Department had to know about the movement of the Jordanian planes, Mitchell proposed a cover-up: “Well, you’ve got to give them the party line on that or all a sudden the Secretary of State will say that’s illegal.” Kissinger insisted that the Jordanians had to be told that they would not be punished “if they move them against our law.” Nixon agreed.
The president said, “All right, that’s an order. You’re goddamn right.” In front of the attorney general, Nixon asked, “Is it really so much against our law?” Kissinger admitted that it was. Referring to the Iranians and the Jordanians, he explained again, “What’s against our law is not what they do, but our giving them permission.” Nixon said, “Henry, we give the permission privately.” “That’s right,” agreed Kissinger.
“Hell,” said the president, “we’ve done worse.”
“WE GO BALLS OUT”
This was a radical set of steps. They could ignite a border war between China and India, set up a confrontation with the Soviet Union, cause a domestic firestorm, and get the administration dragged through US courts. If Nixon stood his ground, the crisis could escalate out of control; if he did not, then the United States would lose credibility— always a big concern for Nixon’s team. Nixon momentarily got cold feet. “The partition of Pakistan is a fact,” he told Kissinger, who conceded as much. Nixon said, “You see those people welcoming the Indian troops when they come in. Now the point is, why is then, Henry, are we going through all this agony?” Kissinger stiffened the president’s resolve.
“We’re going through this agony to prevent the West Pakistan army from being destroyed,” he crisply replied, after a pause to consider the question. “Secondly, to maintain our Chinese arm. Thirdly, to prevent a complete collapse of the world’s psychological balance of power, which will be produced if a combination of the Soviet Union and the Soviet armed client state can tackle a not so insignificant country without anybody doing anything.”
Kissinger then went apocalyptic. “I would keep open the possibility that we’ll pour in arms into Pakistan,” he said angrily. “I don’t understand the psychology by which the Russians can pour arms into India but we cannot give arms to Pakistan. I don’t understand the theory of non-involvement. I don’t see where we will be as a country. I have to tell you honestly, I consider this our Rhineland.”
Kissinger direly warned that “the rape” of Pakistan, an ally of the United States, would have terrible consequences in Iran, Indonesia, and the Middle East. When this did not sway Nixon, he added that if the Soviet Union grew too confident after an Indian victory, there could be a Middle East war in the spring. Nixon nervously said, “We have to know what we’re jeopardizing and know that once we go balls out we never look back.” Kissinger agreed that the president was gambling his relationship with the Soviets, but hoped that the very willingness to bet such big stakes would scare them.
This doomsday argument persuaded Nixon. He went forward on all the interlocking parts of Kissinger’s plan: moving a US aircraft carrier and asking China to deploy its troops toward India’s border. And the president again approved the illegal movement of Jordanian warplanes. Kissinger said, “I’d let the Jordanians move some of their planes in,” and added, “And then we would tell State to shut up.” Nixon agreed to that. Kissinger continued, “we would have to tell him”— King Hussein— “it’s illegal, but if he does it we’ll keep things under control.” Once again, neither Nixon nor Kissinger flinched at breaking the law. Nixon said, “with regard to the Jordanians, no sweat.” Soon after, he ordered, “Get the planes over.”
Nixon and Kissinger laid their relationship with the Soviet Union on the line, deliberately risking the cancellation of an upcoming summit of the two superpowers. That afternoon, Nixon hauled the visiting Soviet agriculture minister into the Oval Office for a beating. The startled minister was said to be a close personal friend of Brezhnev, but he was beyond his brief and out of his depth. Nixon— sending a message to Brezhnev— warned that the war could “poison” his relationship with the Soviet Union and cause “a confrontation.”
Afterward, Nixon said, “I really stuck it to him.” “Well, but you did it so beautifully,” Kissinger replied. He predicted that the war would end now, with the United States coming out damaged but not as badly as it could have been, and with India thwarted from launching an onslaught against West Pakistan.
Kissinger told a Soviet diplomat that the United States was moving some of its military forces: as he explained to Nixon, “in effect it was giving him sort of a veiled ultimatum.” Nixon sternly wrote to Brezhnev, urging him to use his influence to restrain India, and telling him that he shared responsibility for India’s actions.
Soon after, Kissinger told the Soviets that they had until noon on December 12, or “we will proceed unilaterally.” With vague menace, he said that “we may take certain other steps.” Nixon privately said that the Soviet Union was abetting Indian aggression. Kissinger, who called the situation “heartbreaking,” agreed: “now that East Pakistan has practically fallen there can no longer be any doubt that we are dealing with naked aggression supported by Soviet power.”
Meanwhile, the illegal transfers of US weaponry to Pakistan went ahead. As Kissinger frankly told Nixon, “Four Jordanian planes have already moved to Pakistan, 22 more are coming. We’re talking to the Saudis, the Turks we’ve now found are willing to give five. So we’re going to keep that moving until there’s a settlement.”
Kissinger pressed a Situation Room meeting: “What if Jordan should send planes to Pakistan? Why would this be such a horrible event?” A senior State Department official again explained the legal problem. Kissinger’s insistence sparked suspicions. Harold Saunders, the White House staffer, warily wrote that Jordan might have already delivered F-104s.
The CIA spotted the covert operation, reporting that a squadron of Jordanian F-104s had gone to Pakistan, totaling twelve warplanes. En route the planes stopped in Saudi Arabia, with some of them flown by Jordanian pilots and others allegedly guarded by Pakistanis. The State Department, too, observed eleven of these Jordanian F-104s in Saudi Arabia, and surmised they were bound for Pakistan. While the US embassy in Amman was never notified, its staffers did notice a conspicuous absence of Jordanian fighter pilots at their favorite bars.38 Haig secretly told a Chinese delegation that Jordan had sent six fighter aircraft to Pakistan and would send eight more soon; Iran was replacing Jordan’s lost airplanes; and Turkey might be sending as many as twenty-two planes. Kissinger assured the Chinese, “Jordan has now sent fourteen aircraft to Pakistan and is considering sending three more.” Nixon later asked, “Did the Jordan[ian]s send planes[?]” Kissinger replied, “17.”
Now Kissinger could ask China to move its troops toward India’s border. Nixon, keen for the People’s Liberation Army to deploy its soldiers, was convinced India would back down: “these Indians are cowards.” About the Chinese, he said, “All they’ve got to do is move something. Move their, move a division. You know, move some trucks. Fly some planes. You know, some symbolic act. We’re not doing a god-damn thing, Henry, you know that.”
So Kissinger raced up to New York on December 10, bringing with him Haig and Winston Lord, his special assistant and China aide. George H W Bush got a call from the White House, telling him to come to an Upper East Side address, which was a CIA safe house. Bush arrived first, then Kissinger and Haig, followed by China’s tough ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua. It was an extraordinarily secret gathering. Kissinger assured the Chinese, “George Bush is the only person outside the White House who knows I come here.” Although Kissinger cringed at the apartment’s mirrored walls and tacky paintings, the place was chosen because it had no doorman and few occupants, so that gossipy New Yorkers would not see Chinese officials in Mao suits entering a building, soon followed by someone looking a lot like Henry Kissinger.
With candor verging on gusto, Kissinger told the Chinese that the Americans were breaking US law: “We are barred by law from giving equipment to Pakistan in this situation. And we also are barred by law from permitting friendly countries which have American equipment to give their equipment to Pakistan.” Making a show of being untroubled by the illegality, he explained that they had told Jordan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia— and would tell Turkey too— that if they shipped US arms to Pakistan, the Americans would understand. The administration would only feign mild protest, and would make up the Jordanian and Iranian losses in the next year’s budget.
This operation, he said, was under way: “On this basis, four planes are leaving Jordan today and 22 over the weekend. Ammunition and other equipment is going from Iran.” And there would be “six planes from Turkey in the near future.” Kissinger reminded the Chinese how sensitive this information was.
While Kissinger spoke, Lord, Haig, and Bush— a future assistant secretary of state, a future secretary of state, and a future president of the United States— all kept quiet. George Bush was well aware of the illegal acts: after the meeting, he wrote, “Kissinger talked about the fact that we would be moving some ships into the area, talked about military supplies being sent from Jordan, Turkey and Iran”— prudently leaving out Kissinger’s admissions of lawbreaking. Winston Lord, who took the official notes, says, “How they were handling it, whether they were stretching or breaking limits, I don’t remember precisely. Clearly it was to help Pakistan and to impress the Chinese. In terms of the legality or morality of it, I can’t untangle that in my own memory.”
Next, as Bush noted, “Henry unfolded our whole policy on India-Pakistan, saying that we were very parallel with the Chinese.” Kissinger said that the Americans had cut off aid to India, including military supplies, pointedly mentioning that they had canceled all radar equipment for India’s northern defense— an invitation for China to strike one day. And he said that they were moving an aircraft carrier and several destroyers toward the Indian Ocean, in an armada that far outmatched the Soviet fleet there.
Kissinger then turned to his main goal: getting the Chinese to move troops against India. He said, “the President wants you to know” that “if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.” In case all that diplomatic verbiage was unclear, he later bluntly said, “When I asked for this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest. That’s what I had in mind.”
Kissinger laid out all of the administration’s innermost secrets to the Chinese. One of the documents he showed them was, a Chinese translator pointed out, classified as “exclusively eyes only.” Kissinger joked, “There’s a better one that says ‘burn before reading.’ ” Turning to Bush, he said, “Don’t you discuss diplomacy this way.”
Huang denounced Indian aggression and the dismemberment of a sovereign Pakistan, harshly comparing India to Imperial Japan. Kissinger, trying to match the Chinese venom at India, said, “I may look weak to you, Mr Ambassador, but my colleagues in Washington think I’m a raving maniac.”
Returning to Washington, Kissinger hopefully noted that China was calling up reserve troops for its mountain divisions. He told Nixon that he was pretty sure that the Chinese would do something. Nixon was optimistically inclined to believe that if China moved troops, it would not “stiffen the Russians” to back up India. Kissinger was confident that China would move.
Bush— whom Kissinger mostly used for comic relief— was frightened by Kissinger’s behavior and startled by how much information he unveiled to the Chinese. After the meeting, Bush privately wrote that he was uncomfortable to be “in close cahoots with China,” and would have preferred to “keep a fairly low profile, let Red China do what they had do to counteract the Russian threat.” He distrusted Huang, who was “a one-way street. We are supplying him with a great deal of information, he is doing nothing.” About Kissinger, Bush noted, “I think he goes too far in some of these things,” especially when Kissinger said he would support any Chinese resolution at the United Nations: “That is going very far indeed, it’s going too far.” But Bush, a team player on his way up, kept his misgivings to himself.
With the Indian army closing in on Dacca, the crisis built to a crescendo. Nixon privately wrote off East Pakistan, and concentrated on safeguarding West Pakistan. Kissinger warned the president on December 10 that “the east is down the drain. The major problem now has to be to protect the west. . . . Their army is ground down. And 2 more weeks of war and they’re finished in the west as much as they are in the east.”
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s efforts to back Pakistan seemingly wound up encouraging its military rulers to fight on in the east. Although a quick surrender would have saved soldiers’ lives, the Pakistani junta still hoped for rescue by the great powers. Even though Yahya seemed to realize that he could not hold East Pakistan, he vowed that his troops there would fight “to the last Muslim” for Pakistan and Islam. On December 10, a senior Pakistani general desperately offered an eastern cease-fire through the United Nations— but Yahya quickly withdrew the proposals. These cease-fire terms were also scorned by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, appointed by Yahya as deputy prime minister and foreign minister in a new wartime civilian Pakistani government. In Delhi, Haksar was shocked at the military junta’s willingness to allow continued wasteful bloodshed.
On December 11, the Pakistan army’s chief of staff exaggeratedly wrote to General Niazi, the commander of Pakistan’s Eastern Command, that the United States’ Seventh Fleet would soon be in position and that China had activated a front. With India under strong Soviet and US pressure, the chief of staff instructed Niazi to hold out, following Yahya’s wishes.
With Niazi’s troops still battling on, Indian officials needed more time to win in the east. So a frenetic Haksar insisted that a cease-fire must address “the basic causes of the conflict”— an effective way of stalling. Indira Gandhi, despite the staggering rebuke from the United Nations General Assembly, told foreign governments that a cease-fire without firm commitments to get the Bengali refugees home would merely “cover up the annihilation of an entire nation.”
Still, Haksar briefed Indian officials that they had no territorial claims in either Bangladesh or West Pakistan. He urged them to avoid saying or doing anything that would help those who were trying to label India the aggressor. India was, he wrote, “fighting a purely defensive battle” against West Pakistan.
Trying to mollify the Nixon administration even as Indian soldiers fought on, Haksar instructed the embassy in Washington to explain that India wanted no West Pakistani soil, and that India’s recognition of Bangladesh was a “self-imposed restraint” proving it had absolutely no territorial ambitions there. By way of contrast, he reminded the US government that Pakistan was attacking in Kashmir and elsewhere on the western front. The Indians were clumsy about explaining their goals in one particular area of Kashmir, called Azad Kashmir, under Pakistan’s control but claimed by India; but even there, Haksar said that India would not wrest that land from Pakistani rule by force. Swaran Singh, India’s foreign minister, told George Bush that India had “no major ambitions” there, leaving open the possibility of what Bush called “minor rectifications.” The Indians assured Bush they did not want to prolong the war. Haksar soothingly wrote that “we have no desire to aggravate the situation and shall exercise self-restraint consistent with the needs of self-defence.”
The State Department’s analysts confirmed that— at least for the moment— India’s troops matched Haksar’s words.
Kissinger told Nixon that Indian troops were still in a holding posture on the western front, despite Indian airstrikes at military sites across West Pakistan. At the same time, Pakistan was on the offensive in Punjab and especially in Kashmir; as the CIA reported, Pakistan’s troops had driven the Indians out of Chhamb and were still advancing. India and Pakistan were, the CIA reckoned, roughly equally matched in Kashmir and the northwest. But the CIA had some signals intelligence to suggest that India might be preparing to shift some troops from the eastern front to the western.
Fearing the worst from China, India shored up its Soviet support. Gandhi’s government sent DP Dhar racing back to Moscow on December 11, carrying a personal message for the Soviet premier. The Soviet leadership stood by India, but cautiously; they were not willing to recognize Bangladesh yet. Still, the Soviet ambassador in Delhi secretly pledged that if China intervened against India, the Soviet Union would open its own border diversionary action against China. Indira Gandhi warned a long list of world leaders that the intervention of outside powers would “lead to a wider conflagration with incalculable consequences”— a reminder of Soviet backing for India.
On the morning of December 12, in the Oval Office, Nixon and Kissinger reached a peak of Cold War brinksmanship. They had warned the Soviet Union to restrain India by noon that day, or face unilateral US retaliatory measures. Believing that China was about to move its troops toward the Indian border, they braced themselves to stand behind China in deadly confrontations against both India and the Soviet Union— with the terrible potential of superpower conflict and, at worst, even nuclear war. Kissinger seemed ready to order bombing in support of China. As he later put it, he and Nixon made their “first decision to risk war in the triangular Soviet- Chinese- American relationship.”
Despite the reassuring signals coming from Indian diplomats, Kissinger wanted China to move some troops. Until the Chinese had acted, he did not want to hear any more of their bombast against India. The opening to China rested on US toughness now, he argued: “If the Chinese feel we are nice people, well-meaning, but totally irrelevant to their part of the world, they lose whatever slight, whatever incentives they have for that opening to us.”
Nixon wanted to “hit in there hard and tough,” publicly accusing India of Soviet-supported “naked aggression.” Calling Gandhi “that bitch,” Kissinger said they needed “to impress the Russians, to scare the Indians, to take a position with the Chinese.” The president resolved to press the Soviet Union. “It’s a typical Nixon plan,” Kissinger told him. “I mean it’s bold. You’re putting your chips into the pot again.” Without acting, he said, they faced certain disaster; with brinksmanship, they confronted a high possibility of disaster, “but at least we’re coming off like men. And that helps us with the Chinese.”
Urging the president on, Kissinger blasted critics who said they were alienating the Indians: “We are to blame for driving 500 million people. Why are we to blame? Because we’re not letting 500 million people rape 100 million people.” Nixon compared India to Nazi Germany: “Everybody worried about Danzig and Czechoslovakia and all those other places.”
Then Alexander Haig strode into the Oval Office with a message from China. “The Chinese want to meet on an urgent basis,” Kissinger said. “That’s totally unprecedented,” he said. “They’re going to move. No question, they’re going to move.” Nixon asked if the Chinese were really going to send their troops. “No question,” replied Kissinger.
Kissinger now fully expected a standoff between Chinese and Indian soldiers, with obvious potential for skirmishing or worse. Although Kissinger often bragged around Washington that he was the only thing standing between a madman president and atomic annihilation (“If the President had his way, we’d have a nuclear war every week”), here he played the instigator. In this nerve-racking session, he repeatedly pressed the president to escalate the crisis to maximum danger. Now that the United States had seemingly unleashed China against India, India would have to beg the Soviet Union for help. If that caused a confrontation between the Soviet Union and China, Kissinger insisted that Nixon had to back China: “If the Soviets move against them, and then we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.”
Nixon balked. “So what do we do if the Soviets move against them?” he grilled Kissinger. “Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?” But Kissinger, rather than backing off at that dire prospect, held fast: “Well, if the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown. We have to— and if they succeed, we’ll be finished. We’ll be through.”
Nixon was not swayed. “Then we better call them off,” said Kissinger, about the Chinese. Then he realized, “I think we can’t call them off, frankly.” Haig said that the Chinese could only be dissuaded now at a terrible price. Kissinger said that “if we call them off, I think our China initiative is pretty well down the drain.” Nixon saw the logic there: “our China initiative is down the drain. And also our stroke with the Russians is very, very seriously jeopardized.”
Kissinger goaded Nixon to confront the Soviet Union, despite the peril: “If the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese, and if the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis, what we are now having is the final, we may be looking right down the gun barrel.” Bucking Nixon up, he said, “I think the Soviets will back off if we face them.” But he did not give any suggestions about what to do if they did not.
Nixon yielded to Kissinger’s pressure, hoping that the Soviet Union would be satisfied with its gains from India’s battlefield victories and in no mood for further confrontation. Kissinger said that “we’ve got to trigger this quickly.”
The president rounded on Kissinger: “The way you put it, Henry, the way you put it is very different as I understand. You said, look, we’re doing all these things, why don’t you threaten them. Remember I said, threaten, move a couple of people. . . . Look, we have to scare these bastards.” In a frightening analogy, Kissinger compared this moment to China’s entry into the Korean War: “They are acting for the same reason they jumped us when we approached the Chinese border in Korea.”
Kissinger demanded that Nixon stand firm. He ratcheted up the geopolitical stakes: “if the outcome of this is that Pakistan is swallowed by India, China is destroyed, defeated, humiliated by the Soviet Union, it will be a change in the world balance of power of such magnitude” that the United States’ security would be damaged for decades and maybe forever.
This induced in Nixon a doomsday vision of a solitary United States isolated against a Soviet-dominated world. “Now, we can really get into the numbers game,” he said darkly. “You’ve got the Soviet Union with 800 million Chinese, 600 million Indians, the balance of Southeast Asia terrorized, the Japanese immobile, the Europeans, of course, will suck after them, and the United States the only one, we have maybe parts of Latin America and who knows.” Kissinger replied, “This is why, Mr President, you’ll be alone.” “That’s fine,” said Nixon, standing tough against his own phantasm.
“We’ve been alone before.”
After that, Nixon tried to take a step back from the brink: “I’d put [it] in more Armageddon terms than reserves when I say that the Chinese move and the Soviets threaten and then we start lobbing nuclear weapons. That isn’t what happens. That isn’t what happens.” Instead, he said, they would use the hotline to the Soviets and talk to them.
“We don’t have to lob nuclear weapons,” agreed Kissinger. “We have to go on alert.” But now he wanted to get the United States to join the war. “We have to put forces in,” he said bluntly. “We may have to give them bombing assistance.”
Nixon added, “we clean up Vietnam at about that point.” Kissinger agreed: “at that point, we give an ultimatum to Hanoi. Blockade Haiphong.” (He would make good on this in May 1972 with the mining of Haiphong harbor.)
Trying again to cool off, the president said, “we’re talking about a lot of ifs. Russia and China aren’t going to go to war.” But Kissinger disagreed: “I wouldn’t bet on that, Mr. President.” The Soviets “are not rational on China,” he said, and if they could “wipe out China,” then Nixon’s upcoming visit there would be pointless. Despite believing that a war— possibly a nuclear war— was possible between the Soviet Union and China, Kissinger still insisted on backing China in a spiraling crisis.
Haig— who would become Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state— concurred, suggesting that the United States might tacitly support a Chinese invasion of India: “they feel they know that if the United States moves on the Soviets that will provide the cover they need to invade India. And we’ve got to neutralize the Soviet Union.” The president asked, “suppose the Chinese move and the Soviets threaten, then what do we do?” They planned to tell the Soviet Union that war would be “unacceptable” once China began moving troops.
They all agreed. The White House was ready to escalate.
Nixon and Kissinger, having set infernal machinery in motion, were rewarded by the more fearful judgments of the Soviet Union and China. A few minutes after that supercharged Oval Office session, the Soviets, having checked with Indira Gandhi, soothingly reassured Kissinger that India’s government “has no intention to take any military actions against West Pakistan.”
Kissinger rushed into the Oval Office to tell Nixon that the Soviets, making the noon deadline he had set, had extracted an assurance from Gandhi that she would not attack West Pakistan. That was what they had been looking for. Kissinger did not disguise his relief: “goddamn it, we made it and we didn’t deserve it.” But he was proud of their brinksmanship earlier that day: “What you did this morning, Mr President, was a heroic act.” “I had to do it,” said Nixon. “Yes,” Kissinger replied. “But I know no other man in the country, no other man who would have done what you did.”
Nixon reveled in his victory. Taking a historical turn, he said that in World War II and the Korean War, the right path was toughness. Kissinger concurred, saying that the Soviets had backed down because they “knew they were looking down the gun barrel.”
The two men congratulated themselves. “Mr. President, your behavior in the last 2 weeks has been heroic in this,” Kissinger said. “You were shooting— your whole goddamn political future for next year. . . . Against your bureaucracy. . . . [A]gainst the Congress, against public opinion. All alone, like everything else. Without flinching, and I must say, I may yell and scream but this hour this morning is worth 4 years here.” Nixon gamely accepted the praise: “It wasn’t easy. . . . [T]he reason the hour this morning was that I had a chance to reflect a little and to see where it was going. The world is just going down the goddamn drain.”
China was not actually going to move its troops. The Chinese leadership knew that picking a fight with the Soviet Union’s friend meant exposing themselves to a million Soviet soldiers on their border. After that dramatic Oval Office meeting, Alexander Haig and Winston Lord bolted up to New York for another secret session with the Chinese delegation. But Huang Hua said nothing to them about deploying Chinese troops to confront India.
General Sam Manekshaw would later say that despite noticeable Chinese military activity along India’s northern border, China avoided any significant provocations. Although China hurled mephitic revolutionary propaganda against India, the Indian embassy noticed that the People’s Daily refrained from promising any direct action. Indian spies in the R&AW did think that China was stirring up insurgencies among India’s restless Nagas and Mizos, and cracked down in response— but this was harassment, not the start of a border clash. India was confident enough that China would stand by that it moved most of its Himalayan mountain divisions from the Chinese frontier to face Pakistan instead.
In the end, China would only act immediately after the news that Dacca had fallen. It would not be until December 16, as India was securing a cease-fire, that China issued a protest note accusing seven Indian troops of violating China’s border at Sikkim, a small Indian state nestled in the Himalayas— a place where the winter weather would not be such an impediment to Chinese intervention. India would flatly deny the charges. Although Kissinger hopefully told Nixon that this “could be the prelude to limited Chinese military actions along the border with India,” it would all come too late to matter. The note was, the Indian embassy in Beijing concluded, “a grudging acceptance of the fait accompli in the East accompanied by fears that the existence of West Pakistan could be in jeopardy.” When Zhou Enlai delivered a furious banquet speech against India, India’s diplomats in Beijing smugly dismissed it as “impotent rage.”
Years later, at a summit in Beijing, Kissinger would tell Deng Xiaoping, “President Nixon and I had made the decision— for your information— that if you had moved and the Soviet Union had brought pressure on you, we would have given military support” to China. He added, “We understand why you didn’t, but you should know our position, our seriousness of purpose.”
IN ENTERPRISE OF MARTIAL KIND
On December 12, after that agitated session in the Oval Office, a top Soviet diplomat in Washington assured Kissinger that they would soon get results from the Indians, and that there was no need for “a fist fight in the Security Council because we are in agreement now.” Kissinger soothingly said that the United States would be cooperative. Although a US aircraft carrier group was on its way, he downplayed that, saying that the Americans had to stand by their allies, but had now gone through that exercise.
There was a fistfight anyway. The same day, in New York, the United Nations Security Council reconvened. After the last debacle, Haksar had sent Swaran Singh, India’s foreign minister, to confront George Bush and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was now leading the Pakistani delegation. Haksar told Gandhi that “the art of diplomacy lies not merely in advocating one’s cause, but in reducing one’s opponents.” That Singh did skillfully. “Is Mr. Bhutto still harbouring dreams of conquering India and coming to Delhi as a visitor?” he caustically asked. When Bush, on Nixon’s and Kissinger’s instructions, inquired about India’s ultimate intentions in the war, Singh asked about US intentions in Vietnam. He denounced Pakistan: “It is not India which has set a record in political persecution, the genocide of a people and the suppression of human rights that inevitably led to the present conflagration.”
For the third and last time, the Soviet Union shielded India with its veto, knocking down another Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal. Kissinger, not checking with Nixon, threatened to scrap the upcoming Soviet summit.
All the while the diplomats traded insults, Nixon and Kissinger had the USS Enterprise carrier group sailing fast toward the Bay of Bengal. To use the wholly implausible pretext of evacuating Americans, Kissinger told the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Send it where there are Americans— say, Karachi.” Kissinger informed Bhutto that US warships would soon cross the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca, heading for the Bay of Bengal, and be spotted by the Indians. Nixon insisted that it continue toward India unless there was a settlement.
The Enterprise, a nuclear aircraft carrier from the US Seventh Fleet, was accompanied by the rest of its formidable task force: the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli, seven destroyers, and an oiler. (They were under the Honolulu-based command of Admiral John McCain Jr., the father of John McCain III, the Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate.) With alarming symbolism, the carrier group set sail not merely from the Vietnam war zone, but, as the Indian government unhappily claimed, from the Gulf of Tonkin.
Nixon and Kissinger had a schoolboy enthusiasm for moving military units without meaning too much by it. Still, compared with India’s ragtag fleet, this was an awfully intimidating force. An Indian official called it “a nuclear-studded armada including the most powerful ship in the world.” The Enterprise had helped blockade Cuba during the missile crisis there. It was a modern, mammoth warship, almost five times larger than India’s own rickety aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant. Even one of the Enterprise’s escorts, the Tripoli, was bigger than the Vikrant. The Enterprise, powered by atomic reactors, could sail around the world without refueling; the Vikrant was lucky if its boiler worked. This US carrier group was, the vice admiral of India’s eastern fleet recalled, “a fantastic threat.”
Indian troops were simultaneously closing in on Dacca from the north, south, and east. While the news of the Seventh Fleet’s deployment broke in the Indian press, Gandhi rallied a gigantic crowd in Delhi, speaking in simple, blunt Hindi. Indian warplanes circled overhead. As one of her top advisers nervously noted, this huge gathering could have made a tempting bombing target.
The wartime prime minister complained that the United States’ alliance with Pakistan was supposed to be against communism, not democracy. Although not naming the United States or China, she warned that India would stand firm against “severe threats” of “some other attack.” And, in words so inflammatory that her press office cut them from the printed version of her speech, she irately declared that the world was against India because of the color of its people’s skin. She led the masses in roaring “Jai Hind!”— victory to India.
That victory was almost in hand. Triumphant in Bangladesh and under pressure from both superpowers to leave it at that, India lost whatever appetite it might have had for a wider war. India by now held some pockets of Pakistani territory in the west, and two Soviet diplomats tried to ascertain the country’s intentions from Haksar and then from Gandhi herself— hoping to restrain them from reckless steps that might drag the United States into the war. The CIA noted that the Soviet Union had advised India to be satisfied with liberating Bangladesh and not to seize any West Pakistani territory, including that contested area in Kashmir known as Azad Kashmir. As Haksar anxiously wrote to Gandhi, the Soviets believed that the United States was firmly committed to defend West Pakistan’s territorial integrity. Thus Indian provocations against West Pakistan could drive the Americans to “enlarge the conflict.”
Haksar urged the prime minister to impress upon General Manekshaw that his troops must use “extreme care” on the western front. The United States, Haksar nervously wrote, would react to any military moves that gave the impression that India was trying to grab land in West Pakistan, including Azad Kashmir, or that India was planning to transfer forces from the eastern theater to charge deep into West Pakistan.
With Indian troops racing against the UN’s clock, Haksar was grateful for every deferral and adjournment of the byzantine Security Council. While Haksar eagerly awaited the end of military operations in Bangladesh, he came up with a quibbling series of stalling tactics for the United Nations, meant to be “sufficiently elastic to generate discussion and give time.” But the Soviet Union, having endured more than its fill of embarrassments on India’s behalf, was, as Haksar told Gandhi, anxious for India to allow it to say something in the Security Council that was not completely negative.
The same CIA intelligence that had so alarmed Nixon and Kissinger now reported that India was almost ready to end its war. According to the CIA’s mole in Delhi, India would accept a cease-fire once an Awami League government was set up in Dacca. Although hawkish military leaders and Jagjivan Ram, the defense minister, reportedly wanted to fight on in southern Azad Kashmir and to smash Pakistan’s war machine, Gandhi had had enough. She wanted to avoid more trouble with the United States and China. Under Soviet pressure to accept a cease-fire as soon as Bangladesh was a fact, India, according to the CIA, was set to “assure the Soviet Union that India has no plans to annex any West Pakistani territory.” Once the war ended, according to this CIA mole, Gandhi was confident that Yahya’s military regime would fall and there would be new pressure for autonomy in Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier Province, and other restive areas in West Pakistan. India would dominate South Asia.
General Jacob remembers, “by thirteenth December we depleted strength on the outskirts on Dacca.” He and the other generals were closely watching the United Nations, as the Soviet Union kept on vetoing cease-fire resolutions. Then, he recalls, “The Russians say, no more veto. Panic— sorry, ‘concern’— in Delhi.” That night he prayed. He says that God evidently answered, as he received information that General Niazi, commander of Pakistan’s Eastern Command, would be going to a meeting at Government House in Dacca. He bombed the gathering. This terrified the remainder of the local Pakistani government. That evening, Jacob says, Niazi went to Herbert Spivack, the US consul general, with a cease-fire proposal.
General Manekshaw, the Indian chief of army staff, sent a third note asking Pakistan to surrender. Once again, he offered protection under the Geneva Conventions to all surrendering soldiers and para-militaries, and promised to protect ethnic minorities—meaning the Urdu-speaking Biharis, who were terrified of the Mukti Bahini’s vengeance. With the Bangladeshi forces under his command, he promised that Bangladesh’s government had also ordered compliance with the Geneva Conventions. “For the sake of your own men I hope you will not compel me to reduce your garrison with the use of force.”
General Niazi urged the United States to help get a cease-fire to spare his troops and avoid street fighting in the city. Yahya accused India of inflicting bloodshed on his military and civilian forces of “holocaust” proportions.
In Delhi, Haksar warned India’s defense ministry that the dominant interest of the United States and China was preserving West Pakistan. He thus cautioned against any statements or military actions that indicated that India had serious intent to sever parts of West Pakistan or seize Azad Kashmir. To Haksar’s annoyance, India’s information ministry had been hard at work generating exactly that kind of impression, by preparing propaganda trying to whip up Sindhi irredentism in West Pakistan. He ordered a stop to that, and demanded the withdrawal of all propaganda “fanning Sindhi, Baluchi or Pathan irredentism.”
Even with the war lost, the CIA reported that pro-Pakistan forces killed “a large number of Bangla Desh intellectuals” soon before the fall of Dacca. According to the State Department, as many as two hundred people were killed. Later, after an Indian general visited the massacre site, he could not eat. Arundhati Ghose, the Indian diplomat, remembers telling him that he was a soldier, accustomed to seeing dead bodies. Yes, the general replied, but he had found the hand of a woman, with her nails painted. He said, “I can’t get that out of my head.”
Yahya begged Nixon to send the seventh fleet to Pakistan’s shores to defend Karachi. But Nixon, despite often sounding like he was on the verge of war with India, had no intentions of any naval combat. The USS Enterprise carrier group was an atomic-powered bluff, meant to spook the Indians and increase Soviet pressure on India for a cease-fire, but nothing more. Kissinger privately said that “we don’t want to get militarily involved and there isn’t a chance. Can you imagine the President even listening to that for three seconds.” Kissinger worried that the American public would not be able to stomach the mere sight of a US aircraft carrier threatening India— let alone actually opening fire. As for Nixon, he left no doubt: “we’re not going to intervene.”
Samuel Hoskinson, the White House staffer, who remains convinced that India meant to destroy Pakistan, applauds the deployment of the carrier group. “To my way of thinking, it was a brilliant strategic move,” he says. “I know Nixon and Kissinger have been faulted for that. I think more than anything else it stopped Madame Gandhi in her tracks.”
But India’s military commanders seem to have doubted the Americans would fight them. “I didn’t think the Americans were so foolhardy,” recalls General Jacob. “We had land-based aircraft.” Vice Admiral Mihir Roy, the director of naval intelligence, says he briefed Indira Gandhi about the composition of the task force, and explained it was possible that it could strike India. But with Vietnam going on, he told the prime minister, he did not believe the Americans would attack. He also noted that the Seventh Fleet could try to break India’s blockade of Pakistan by coming between India’s navy and the land; Vice Admiral N. Krishnan, leading India’s eastern fleet, feared that the Enterprise task force would do this at Chittagong. Krishnan even considered having an Indian submarine torpedo the US fleet to slow it down. But he told his underlings in the Maritime Operations Room that any direct US attack could cause “the end of the world,” or embroil the Americans in “a Vietnam to end all Vietnams.” In defiance of the Enterprise, India intensified its naval assault on Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar. India’s political leaders claim to have been equally skeptical that the Enterprise would actually fight them. Thanks to Soviet surveillance, they knew that Dacca was going to fall before the Seventh Fleet could do anything about it. They were well aware how impossible it would be for Nixon, mired in Vietnam, to send US troops into a new Asian war against India. Gandhi later said, “Naturally, if the Americans had fired a shot, if the Seventh Fleet had done something more than sit there in the Bay of Bengal . . . yes, the Third World War would have exploded. But, in all honesty, not even that fear occurred to me.”
Still, the Indian government asked the Soviet Union to warn against the dire consequences of this threatening movement of the US Navy. At the same time, Haksar ordered D. P. Dhar, the Indian envoy sent to Moscow, to personally reassure Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin that India had no territorial ambitions in either Bangladesh or West Pakistan, and that India’s western position was entirely defensive. The Soviet ambassador assured India that a Soviet fleet in the Indian Ocean would not allow the United States to intervene.
On December 15, India’s R&AW spy agency warned that US warships were moving past Thailand, heading toward India. That day, the Enterprise carrier group entered the Bay of Bengal.
This caused some panic among Indian officials, according to General Manekshaw, although Gandhi and Haksar publicly affected nonchalance. Manekshaw claimed that in a cabinet meeting Swaran Singh and other ministers urged an immediate cease-fire to avoid facing US troops or even nuclear weapons. There were some overheated rumors of a shooting war between Americans and Indians. India was tipped off, seemingly by an American source, that the Seventh Fleet might move into action, maybe even landing troops. One senior Indian official in Washington claimed that the task force was ready to establish a beachhead, with three Marine battalions at the ready, and that bombers on the Enterprise had been authorized by Nixon to bomb Indian army communications if necessary. When India’s ambassador in Washington asked a senior State Department official about the prospect of US troops establishing a beachhead, he got a less than categorical denial, although the official said he had not heard of the possibility. The Indian ambassador fed the story to the press, lashing out against the Nixon administration on American television. Nixon and Kissinger enjoyed frightening India. Kissinger said that India’s ambassador “says he has unmistakable proof that we are planning a landing on the Bay of Bengal. Well, that’s okay with me.” “Yeah,” said Nixon, “that scares them.” Kissinger added with satisfaction, “That carrier move is good.”
Still, the Pentagon said that the task force never got far into the Bay of Bengal, staying over a thousand miles away from Chittagong. Although admitting there were four or five Soviet ships in the same area, the Pentagon said that the Americans never saw any of them, nor any Indian or Pakistani ships. The Indian ambassador assured the State Department that the Soviet warships were not going to get close to the fighting. In the end, the Enterprise carrier group did rather little militarily.
Even before the Enterprise task force entered the Bay of Bengal, anti-Americanism in India had reached worrisome heights. After Pakistani jets bombed an Indian village in Punjab, the survivors found bombs with US markings. With pieces of dead buffaloes strewn about and the smell of burned human flesh lingering, a college student who had just lost his sister screamed out that he blamed Nixon.
Now the threat from the Enterprise drove Indians to a whole new level of wrath. Jaswant Singh, who would later become foreign minister, remembers the hollering of India’s newspapers as the carrier group steamed into the Bay of Bengal, becoming a lasting symbol of American hostility. Even he— as worldly as any person could be— seethes at the memory: “It served no purpose. What possible military purpose did it serve? Was it going to launch an attack on Calcutta?”
That possibility was uppermost in the minds of anxious people in Calcutta. Arundhati Ghose, the Indian diplomat there, who is a Bengali Indian, remembers, “When it entered the Bay of Bengal, there’s a particular kind of fish called hilsa, which Bengalis love. And we said, ‘Don’t let them touch our hilsa.’ And a lot of people said, ‘They’ll bomb Calcutta,’ and we said, ‘Great, so we can rebuild it properly this time.’ ” There were “rubbish” rumors in Calcutta that the Americans “were making a nuclear threat on us, basically to stop our progress in West Pakistan, because they didn’t care about the Bangladeshis in any case.” Then, dropping her jocular tone, she intones, “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that the Americans were threatening us. I just couldn’t believe it.” She says, “We didn’t think the Americans would threaten us. We thought the Chinese might. But the Chinese didn’t. It was the Enterprise which threatened us.”
The Parliament went predictably berserk. Atal Bihari Vajpayee from the Jana Sangh joined a West Bengali legislator from the Communist Party (Marxist) in demanding that Gandhi’s government denounce the United States. Beyond Parliament, the perennial critic Jayaprakash Narayan was incandescent with rage at this attempt to “frighten India to submit to Nixon’s will.” If the Americans actually tried to establish a beachhead, he threatened “the most destructive war that history has yet witnessed.”
Kissinger did not care about such Indian emotions. When a reporter asked if the deployment of the carrier group was meant to influence the outcome of the war, Kissinger said, “What the Indians are mad at is irrelevant.”
But many Americans were appalled too. Harold Saunders, Kissinger’s senior aide for South Asia, says the Indians were right to be furious. In Delhi, Kenneth Keating, the US ambassador who had confronted Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office, had spent the war marinating in Indian grievances. At the start of the fighting, he had decried the hasty US accusations that India was the aggressor, blaming Pakistan’s airstrikes. After Kissinger gave a press briefing, Keating cabled that much of it was misleading or outright false.
Amid roiling rumors of possible US direct intervention to help Pakistan, Keating cabled that if people in Washington were seriously considering doing so, or directly providing US weapons to Pakistan, he wanted to evacuate American families and nonessential American personnel from India. When the Enterprise entered the Bay of Bengal, Keating— fearing that Yahya would be encouraged to fight on— objected that he could no longer defend US policy.
Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times reporter, was in Calcutta when he heard the news about the Enterprise. “I had a sinking feeling,” he says bitterly. “I’m an American, I’m standing in Calcutta, and my country is sailing up, and now I’m the enemy of my country? Because I’m living in India and thinking they’re on the right side? It was the worst feeling, to this day, one of the worst feelings in my life. You don’t want to hate your government. Somehow someone’s tipped the world upside down.”
The Enterprise task force could have reached East Pakistan by the early hours of December 16. But the day before, Pakistan’s General Niazi sent a message to General Manekshaw saying he wanted a cease-fire, passed along through the US embassy in Delhi. In reply, Manekshaw repeated his promises to safeguard the surrendering Pakistanis and the minority Biharis. As a goodwill gesture, Manekshaw ordered a pause in air action over Dacca. Despite Bhutto’s theatrics at the United Nations, where he ripped up papers and stormed out of the chamber vowing to fight on, the war was all but over.
Niazi’s cease-fire letter was delivered to Haksar by Galen Stone, a US diplomat in the Delhi embassy who was possibly even more pro-Indian than Keating. Haksar asked him, “Galen, where are we heading?” Stone, according to Haksar, replied with high emotion, saying that the US relationship with India was being destroyed and wondering if he should resign. Stone said that he— and many people in the State Department— simply did not understand Nixon’s policies. According to Stone, Haksar, in tears, asked what kind of relationships Indian and American children would have.
Haksar pounced on this show of pro-Indian sentiment. He drew up a tough letter for the prime minister to send to Nixon, aiming directly at American hearts and minds, as a way of publicly refuting the accusations made against India by George H. W. Bush and other US officials. Haksar took the United States’ own Declaration of Independence and repurposed it for Bangladesh. Thus Gandhi wrote to Nixon, “That Declaration stated whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of man’s inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it was the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” This gave her a way to write off Pakistan’s sovereignty, like British rule of America: “while Pakistan’s integrity was certainly sacrosanct, human rights, liberty were no less so.” Professing grief at the downward spiral in relations with the United States, she bitterly blamed Nixon for not using US influence over Yahya. But she did assure him, “We do not want any territory of what was East Pakistan and now constitutes Bangla Desh. We do not want any territory of West Pakistan.”
Kissinger dismissed the letter as “defensive and plaintive,” but he told Nixon that a cease-fire was imminent: “we are home, now it’s done.” The Soviet Union had promised that India would not annex any West Pakistani territory. “It’s an absolute miracle, Mr. President,” Kissinger said, praising him for having “put it right on the line.” Although the cease-fire was a foregone conclusion, Nixon said, “I’d like to do it in a certain way that pisses on the Indians.”
In private, Kissinger, still relying on the CIA mole in Delhi, remained convinced that India had meant “to knock over West Pakistan.” Nixon said, “Most people were ready to stand by and let her do it, bombing [Karachi] and all.” Kissinger agreed, “They really are bastards.”
“Look, these people are savages,” said Nixon. Kissinger usually spoke of India raping Pakistan, but Nixon now had a better verb in mind. He wanted to put out the spin that “we cannot have a stable world if we allow one member of the United Nations to cannibalize another. Cannibalize, that’s the word. I should have thought of it earlier. You see, that really puts it to the Indians. It has, the connotation is savages. To cannibalize . . . that’s what the sons of bitches are up to.”
An exhausted group of Mukti Bahini fighters were ecstatic— and relieved— to hear that Pakistan was about to yield. They found abandoned buses and loaded them up with jubilant rebels bound for Dacca. People packed the streets and rooftops, chanting, “Joi Bangla!” Coming into the city, hearing the crowds, a rebel later wrote, “We felt liberated at last.” With the first column of Indian troops about to enter Dacca, the chumminess of elite South Asian officers was not to be disturbed by the minor matter of a war. An Indian commander sent a note to General Niazi, whom he knew personally: “My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up. I suggest you give yourself up to me, and I will look after you.”
On December 16, Niazi, emphasizing the “paramount considerations of saving human lives,” offered his surrender on the eastern front. Manekshaw dispatched General Jacob, the chief of staff of the Eastern Command, by helicopter to Dacca, to negotiate a swift capitulation.
Jacob remembers that India actually had only three thousand troops outside of Dacca, while Pakistan still had over twenty-six thousand in the city. “Just go and get a surrender,” Manekshaw told Jacob. He rushed onto a helicopter, joined by the wife of his superior, Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the general officer commanding-in-chief of the Eastern Command, who said that her place was with her husband. When they landed in Dacca, Jacob remembers, there was still fighting going on between the Mukti Bahini and Pakistani troops. As insurgents shot at his car, he jumped up to show them his olive green Indian army uniform, which stopped their firing. Once he got to Pakistani headquarters, Jacob remembers, General Niazi said, “Who said I’m surrendering? I only came here for a cease-fire.” Alone and acutely aware of how outnumbered the Indians really were at the moment, he took Niazi aside. Jacob recalls, “I said, ‘You surrender, we take care of you, your families, and ethnic minorities. If you don’t, what can I do? I wash my hands.’ He said I blackmailed him, to have him bayoneted. I said, ‘I’ll give you thirty minutes, and if you don’t agree, I’ll order the resumption of hostilities and the bombing of Dacca.’ ” As Jacob walked out, “I thought, my God, I have nothing in my hand.” But Niazi, surely knowing how many more Indian troops were following the tip of the spear outside Dacca, yielded.
With battalions of the Indian army and Mukti Bahini guerrillas crowding into the city, the short eastern war came to an abrupt end. On the afternoon of December 16, General Niazi tearfully surrendered to General Aurora at the Dacca Race Course, surrounded by Hindu neighborhoods that had been destroyed by some of the Pakistan army back in the spring.
Preserving the Pakistanis’ dignity, Jacob says, they set up solemn ceremonies at the Race Course. Niazi handed a pistol to Aurora. When Sydney Schanberg, covering it for The New York Times, told Jacob that the surrender of a Pakistani general to a Jewish Indian general made one hell of a story, Jacob indignantly told him not to write it. General Aurora, beaming, was hoisted aloft by crowds of leaping, cheering Bengalis. While street skirmishes continued, crowds thronged into the streets shouting “Joi Bangla!” and shooting bullets into the skies.
General Manekshaw telephoned Indira Gandhi with the welcome tidings. She ran into the Lok Sabha, exuberant. She informed the Parliament of the unconditional surrender of Pakistan’s forces in the east. “Dacca is now the free capital of a free country,” she declared with satisfaction. “We hail the people of Bangla Desh in their hour of triumph.”
Gandhi got big cheers when she praised India’s military and the Mukti Bahini, and when she said that Indian forces were under orders to treat Pakistani prisoners of war according to the Geneva Conventions, and that the Bangladesh government would do the same. “Our objectives were limited— to assist the gallant people of Bangla Desh and their Mukti Bahini to liberate their country from a reign of terror and to resist aggression on our own land.” There was exuberant jubilation throughout the chamber, with lawmakers giving her thunderous standing ovations and throwing papers and hats into the air.
Yet there was also an uglier side to the surrender. General Aurora was bound by India’s promise of protection for West Pakistanis and ethnic minorities. “If we don’t protect the Pakistanis and their collaborators,” an Indian officer told Schanberg, “the Mukti Bahini will butcher them nicely and properly.” Indian soldiers kept surrendering Pakistanis off the roads lest they be attacked. Aurora even allowed thousands of Pakistani troops who had surrendered to keep their weapons for protection against vengeful Bengalis.
But the Indian army could not stop an awful wave of revenge killings. Gandhi admitted that her generals— although officially in command of the Bangladeshi forces— could not meaningfully promise that there would be no reprisals against loyalists. In Dacca, a Los Angeles Times reporter saw five civilians lying dead in the street, executed as collaborators. The CIA noted “blood-chilling reports of atrocities being perpetrated by revenge-seeking Bengalis in Dacca.” Still, India worked to disarm guerrillas roaming Dacca, and detained one Mukti Bahini leader who whipped up a crowd to torture and murder four men at a public rally. After a few horrific days of bloodshed, the CIA reported that the situation had calmed down.
Meanwhile in the west, there were still tank battles going on. This was the moment of truth for India’s war goals. India could declare victory in Bangladesh and go home, or launch a new and more aggressive phase, trying to capture land and cities in West Pakistan.
The hawks were in full cry. Pakistan was in chaos and vulnerable, and there were some indications that Indian troops were gaining the upper hand in the west. But Manekshaw, as he later claimed, told the prime minister that a unilateral cease-fire in the west was “the right thing to do.” Haksar agreed. “I must order a cease-fire on the western front also,” Gandhi told an aide, wary of the country’s euphoric mood. “If I don’t do it today, I shall not be able to do it tomorrow.” According to her closest friend, Gandhi heard discussions from the army’s chief and her top advisers about the feasibility of seizing one of Pakistan’s cities. The military said that such a battle against Pakistan’s well-trained soldiers would cost roughly thirty thousand casualties. She sat silently for a while. She knew that the United States and China would have to react. She decided it was time to end the war.
The same day that Pakistan surrendered in the east, Gandhi declared, “India has no territorial ambitions. Now that the Pakistani Armed Forces have surrendered in Bangla Desh and Bangla Desh is free, it is pointless in our view to continue the present conflict.” She unilaterally ordered India’s armed forces to cease fire all along the western front as of 8 pm on December 17.
The guns fell silent. India said that 2,307 of its warfighters had been killed, 6,163 wounded, and 2,163 were missing. The death toll was slightly higher in the west, where 1,206 Indians had been killed, against 1,021 in the east. And Pakistan’s losses were presumably worse.
These were terrible human losses. Even so, vastly more Bangladeshi civilians died than Indian and Pakistani soldiers combined. A senior Indian official put the Bengali death toll at three hundred thousand, while Sydney Schanberg, who had excellent sources, noted in the New York Times that diplomats in Dacca thought that hundreds of thousands of Bengalis— maybe even a million or more— had been killed since the crackdown started on March 25. Even the lowest credible Pakistani estimates are in the tens of thousands, while India sought vindication with bigger numbers: Swaran Singh quickly claimed that a million people had been killed in Bangladesh. A few days before the end of the war, Gita Mehta, an Indian journalist working for NBC, showed Indira Gandhi a film on the Bengali refugees. The prime minister, watching with her son Rajiv Gandhi, wept as she saw the images of young and old refugees.
General Jacob, when asked about violating Pakistan’s sovereignty, explodes in anger. “If you knew what was happening there,” he thunders. “You know the rape and massacres that were taking place there? When we get ten million refugees, what do we do with them?” In Bangladesh, he had picked up a diary and read about Bengalis being bayoneted. He is convinced it was an “awful genocide,” although “I didn’t think it was like what the Nazis did.” His fury unabated, Jacob continues hotly, “They had raped, they had killed, several hundred thousand. I was listening to Dacca University on the twenty-fifth– twenty-sixth March night. They slaughtered the students. So we should keep quiet? So I have no problem.” Finally cooling down, he finishes, “I have no second thoughts on it. I’m proud of it.”
Soon after the surrender, Schanberg took a trip across the traumatized new country of Bangladesh. Everywhere The New York Times reporter went, people showed him “all the killing grounds” where people were lined up and shot. “You could see the bones in the river, because it was a killing place.” In Dacca, he went to a hillside burial place. “There were shrubs and bushes, and there was a little boy, maybe twelve or thirteen, he was on his hands and knees, scratching the earth, looking for things. He looked disturbed. He was looking for his father, who he said was buried there. If you scratched enough there— it was shallow graves— you’d find a skull or bones. There were cemeteries everywhere. There was no doubt in my mind, evil was done.”
Kissinger, HR Haldeman noted, was “practically ecstatic” at the imminent cease-fire. Nixon was not. “Dacca has surrendered,” the president told Kissinger glumly.
Sharing none of Kissinger’s ebullience, Nixon was sunk in bitterness at Pakistan’s defeat. He was, he said, “outraged” at India’s media advocacy, and “really teed off” that Kissinger had not adequately publicized their accusations of an Indian plan to destroy Pakistan. With Kissinger’s assent, he wanted to move toward a conflict with India: “If the Indians continue the course they are on we have even got to break diplomatic relations with them.”
The president took some comfort in the fact, relayed by Kissinger, that Jordan had illegally sent warplanes to help Pakistan. But Nixon complained that “when the chips are down India has shown that it is a Russian satellite.” He fumed, “I know the bigger game is the Russian game, but the Indians also have played us for squares here. They have done this once and when this is over they will come to us ask us to forgive and forget. This we must not do.”
Soon after, Kissinger telephoned the president to report the cease-fire in the west. Kissinger saw this as an enduring achievement for himself. Jolly once again, he tried to cheer Nixon up: “Congratulations, Mr. President. You saved W[est] Pakistan.” Nixon brooded, not wanting Indira Gandhi to gloat in victory. “She shouldn’t get credit for starting the fire and then calling in the fire department,” he said. “It’s back to Hitler.”
Kissinger savored a victory lap. He separately told Haldeman and George Shultz, “We have turned disaster into defeat,” and thanked John Connally, the anti-Indian Treasury secretary, for giving him “the moral courage to do it.” He spent the rest of the day calling reporters to claim credit and working the phones to try to cobble together a feeble United Nations Security Council resolution. About the Indians, he told the British ambassador, “I don’t know how you tolerated them for those years.” Kissinger joked to Bush, “don’t screw it up the way you usually do.”
“I want a transfer when this is over,” replied George Bush. “I want a nice quiet place like Rwanda.”