Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Nixon and Kissinger's Forgotten Shame

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Nixon and Kissinger's Forgotten Shame

Article excerpt

Their stout support for the regime that killed thousands of Bengalis has been largely overlooked.

Bangladesh is in fresh turmoil. On Sept. 17, its Supreme Court decided that Abdul Quader Mollah, a leading Islamist politician, should be hanged for war crimes committed during the country's 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. When he was given a life sentence by a Bangladeshi war-crimes tribunal back in February, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis took to the streets demanding his execution. Since then, more than a hundred people have died in protests and counterprotests.

This may sound irrelevant to Americans, but the unrest has much to do with the United States. Some of Bangladesh's current problems stem from its traumatic birth in 1971 -- when President Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser, vigorously supported the killers and tormentors of a generation of Bangladeshis.

From the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan was created as a unified Muslim nation with a bizarrely divided geography: dominant West Pakistan (now Pakistan) was separated from downtrodden East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by a thousand miles of hostile India. Pakistanis joked that their bifurcated country was united by Islam and Pakistan International Airlines. This strange arrangement held until 1970, when Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan triumphed in nationwide elections. The ruling military government, based in West Pakistan, feared losing its grip.

So on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched a devastating crackdown on the rebellious Bengalis in the east. Midway through the bloodshed, both the C.I.A. and the State Department conservatively estimated that about 200,000 people had died (the Bangladeshi government figure is much higher, at three million). As many as 10 million Bengali refugees fled across the border into India, where they died in droves in wretched refugee camps.

As recently declassified documents and White House tapes show, Nixon and Kissinger stood stoutly behind Pakistan's generals, supporting the murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments. This largely overlooked horror ranks among the darkest chapters in the entire Cold War.

Of course, no country, not even the United States, can prevent massacres everywhere in the world -- but this was a close American ally, which prized its warm relationship with the United States and used American weapons and military supplies against its own people.

Nixon and Kissinger barely tried to exert leverage over Pakistan's military government. In the pivotal days before the crackdown began on March 25, they consciously decided not to warn the Pakistani generals against opening fire on their population. They did not press for respecting the election results, nor did they prod the military to cut a power-sharing deal with the Bengali leadership. …

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