The Blood Telegram
BY ROBERT J. SILVERMAN
My new year’s recommendation to you is The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide, by Princeton professor Gary Bass. It tells the story of Archer Blood, a Foreign Service officer who as consul general in Dhaka in 1971 supported his subordinates’ dissent cable, knowing that doing so would derail his career, which it did. Spoiler alert: Blood wins in the end, at least in my reading.
The genocide described in the book is the Pakistani military’s systematic targeting of the Bengali Hindu minority in East Pakistan in the spring of 1971, during the events that led to the creation of an independent Bangladesh. The military went into villages, rounded up the Hindus, and shot them en masse. About 300,000 Bengalis in total were murdered. The vast majority were Hindus.
The book illuminates U.S. relations in South Asia during the Cold War. Kissinger passed messages to China and arranged Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing through Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan, even as the massacres were taking place in East Pakistan. This secret Pakistan channel, India’s leadership of the non-aligned movement, Nixon’s near pathological dislike of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi—all come out in the salty Nixon-Kissinger dialogue of the White House tapes. The result was U.S. silence about the aforementioned genocide, committed with U.S.-supplied arms.
The dissent cable, drafted by young political officer Scott Butcher during the round-ups and shootings, calls our policy “morally bankrupt” and urges the U.S. government to use its considerable influence with the Pakistani government to stop the genocide. Consul General Blood could have merely authorized the cable to be sent. Instead, he added his endorsement to the cable: “I support the right of the above-named officers to voice their dissent … I also subscribe to these views.” He added pragmatically that the Bengali nationalists were pro-American and likely to prevail and establish an independent Bangladesh, so “one-sided support of the likely loser” was foolish. He didn’t know about the Pakistan channel to China.
I am neither an expert on South Asia nor in a position to judge the policy narrative of this book, which assumes that the U.S. could indeed have been effective in slowing down the massacres. I just don’t know. But I enjoyed the book for another reason—its contrast between the choices of FSO protagonist Archer Blood and NSC antagonist Henry Kissinger.
Both men were 48 years old in 1971. Archer Blood was a rising political officer with 23 years in the Foreign Service. Recently promoted into the Senior Foreign Service, he was pleased to get Dhaka, where he had served earlier, as his first command position. When the massacres started, his team responded with a steady stream of detailed spot reports, leading over a period of two weeks to increasing advocacy as the outlines of genocide became clear. “The silence from Washington was deafening,” Blood recalled later in an oral history interview.
The cable provoked Kissinger to call Blood “this maniac in Dhaka” and have him recalled. Henry Kissinger’s management style as it emerges from the White House tapes is euphemistically known as “managing up.” He flattered Nixon and supported Nixon’s worst instincts, while suppressing policy options such as those presented by Blood. Kissinger’s NSC team appeared quiescent on the matter of Blood’s dissent. “One did not want to be perceived as being too much on Blood’s side,” said one.
In my reading, the result is an indelible stain on Kissinger’s reputation for leading a groupthink policy process that worked brilliantly in some cases but failed in others. Bass’s book makes the case for East Pakistan as one of the failures.
And Archer Blood? He never got a chief of mission job, with another six years of Kissinger in power after Dhaka. His moral courage at the moment of truth inspired others, and his reputation continues to shine bright with the publication of the Bass book. He also won AFSA’s Christian Herter Award for constructive dissent by a senior officer.
Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,
- A Shining Example of Dissent (The Foreign Service Journal)
- Archer K. Blood: Dissenting Diplomat (The Washington Post)
- Collateral Damage: ‘Blood Telegram,’ by Gary J. Bass (The New York Times)
- Gary Bass – The Blood Telegram and Other Publications (Princeton University website)
- Fortieth Anniversary of The Blood Telegram (BBC Radio)
- The Blood Telegram text (The George Washington University website)
- Interview with Archer Blood (Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training)