How the Cold War Shaped Bangladesh’s Liberation War

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How the Cold War Shaped Bangladesh’s Liberation War

The 1971 war served as a perfect ground for the age-old India-Pakistan hostility to play out, it also attracted the attention of the Cold War’s key players.

How the Cold War Shaped Bangladesh’s Liberation War

Crowds cheer the acting Bangladesh president and the acting government during a mass meeting in Jessore, East Pakistan on Dec. 11, 1971.

Credit: AP Photo

In his seminal book of nonfiction, “The Blood Telegram,” Gary J. Bass scathingly remarks that the United States displayed “moral blindness” in its foreign policy by “actively and knowingly” backing Islamabad’s control over Bangladesh – then East Pakistan. His book is based on a series of telegrams sent by Archer K. Blood, the U.S. consul general to Dhaka at the time of the war in 1971. As seen from his memoir, “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh,” the telegrams strongly portrayed the U.S. consul’s condemnation against West Pakistani atrocities and Washington’s silence. Sending out those telegrams staunchly criticizing American foreign policy cost Blood his coveted desire to rise to the ranks of an ambassador someday. Owing to his sacrifice, he is revered in Bangladesh to this day.

One factor that begs the attention of many is the United States’ role during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. Why did the United States choose to look away while its ally was involved in systematic massacres? Blood’s memoir and Bass’s investigative reporting seek to answer that question and, in so doing, highlight how the Cold War’s great powers had a lot at stake in Bangladesh’s Liberation War.

The animosity between India and Pakistan dates back to the 1947 Partition, which cleaved the Indian subcontinent into two separate countries: On the surface, India was designated for Hindus and Pakistan – then constituted of West and East Pakistan – for Muslims. In the period before the British Empire’s departure from India, the Indian National Congress advocated for a united subcontinent while the Muslim League wanted a separate country for the Muslims due to the presence of heavy communal tensions. This opposition only solidified after the Partition, as territorial disputes regarding Kashmir came to the fore. By 1971, India and Pakistan had already fought two wars, in 1947 and 1965.

In 1954, Pakistan became a “double treaty ally” of the United States as it joined both CENTO and SEATO. The Eisenhower administration saw the country as one that could help Washington exert influence over South Asia by curbing the threat of communism. India, as shown by Bass, felt threatened as the United States kept supplying arms to Pakistan, ostensibly to “ward off communists.” According to Indian estimates, the U.S. arms supply to Pakistan over the 11-year period from 1954 to the India-Pakistan war in 1965 was worth between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. Against this backdrop, India – an openly non-aligned country in the Cold War’s shadow – sought Soviet help for weaponry. But taking Soviet assistance, alongside holding a stance of non-alignment and criticizing America for the Vietnam War, put India in a bad light before the United States.

Bass argues that although India was buying arms from the United States, after the 1965 war ultimately it had received less than a quarter of the amount Pakistan was receiving. As if the 1965 war weren’t enough to flare up the existing animosity between India and Pakistan, the United States’ pro-Pakistan foreign policy – such as the “one-time exception” of the U.S. arms embargo imposed on both countries – made India more alert, not only about its neighbor but also about a world power.

Pakistan’s image as an anti-communist and pro-American country helped serve the United States’ strategic interests in South Asia. Besides dampening the threat of communism and standing as a hurdle to India’s interests, Pakistan provided a valuable conduit for the U.S. opening to China in the early 1970s. China’s influence over South Asia back then greatly rested on its enmity with India regarding their border disputer. Pakistan already shared strong ties with China and the United States. In the face of an existing arrangement like that, Bass shows how then-President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, couldn’t let go of the opportunity to use Pakistan as a backchannel for U.S. communication with China. In fact, Kissinger’s first visit to China in 1971 was arranged with Pakistan as an intermediary. Making an opening to China was crucial for U.S. foreign policy to forge friendly relations with a key regional player.

But even as United States wanted to stay on Islamabad’s good side to avoid jeopardizing the opening to China, the Pakistani military was massacring people in East Pakistan. Pieces of evidence like Blood’s memoir, U.S. and British witness testimonies, and Bass’s own research agree on “a disquieting fact” – Pakistan was cracking down on its own citizens and it was “heavily armed” by the United States. From M-24 Chaffee light tanks and .50 caliber machine guns to planes such as F-86s and C-130s, the presence of U.S. weaponry was evident in West Pakistani military operations in East Pakistan.

Bass shows that Harold Saunders, then a member of the U.S. National Security Council, warned Kissinger about the Pakistani Army’s possibility of cracking down on East Pakistani civilians. “There was still a last chance to avoid slaughter by leaning hard on [then-Pakistani President] Yahya [Khan],” Bass writes. Saunders recommended an economic aid embargo to Pakistan to divert the government from unleashing its troops on its people. Despite warnings and condemnation from officials like Saunders and Blood, Bass shows that Kissinger was keener on keeping Pakistan satisfied than taking any moves that hinted at a U.S. interest in splitting the country apart.

After the slaughter of East Pakistanis began, refugees poured across the borders into India. By May, according to India’s estimate, the country was host to almost 2 million refugees, “with about 50,000 more arriving daily.” The refugee crisis played an instrumental role in leading India to back and champion the cause of East Pakistani self-determination.

Besides getting on Pakistan’s nerves, India’s support for East Pakistan exasperated China – a Pakistani ally that abhorred secessions, owing to its own history with Tibet and Taiwan. In light of Indian involvement in East Pakistan’s fight for independence, India’s intelligence reports suggested that it had significant reasons to be wary of Chinese aggression. India and China already shared a strained bond and had been involved in a war in 1962. Moreover, the threat of China supplying arms to Pakistan and attacking India’s borders in the event of an open war between India and Pakistan loomed large.

Until mid-1971, it seemed that India was left alone in supporting East Pakistan’s Liberation War. However, its amicable link with the USSR finally paid off in the form of the historic Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. Bass argues that although the treaty did not promise any all-out defense from hostile forces, it effectively fulfilled its role as a “deterring warning to both China and Pakistan.” Soviet allyship was important for India in terms of weaponry too. When India was openly embroiled in the war with Pakistan in December 1971, the USSR’s supply of PT-76 amphibious light tanks and Mi-4 transport helicopters came in handy. On the diplomatic front, the USSR rendered its support for India by twice vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions that called for a prompt ceasefire and withdrawal of troops. Vetoing the resolutions gave India enough time to gear up for triumph in the final stage of the war.

What mainly glued the USSR to India, meanwhile, was its own strategic interest. According to a paper by University of Dhaka’s Professor Abul Kalam in “History of Bangladesh 1704-1971” (edited by Sirajul Islam), the Soviet Union’s strategic interest in South Asia lay chiefly within India, since the country was a perfect channel for Soviet communication to Asian and African non-communist states. India was also advantageous to Soviet interests as a model on the world stage of the benefits that a Soviet alliance could bring.

The power dynamics ushered in by the Cold War inevitably cast their shadows on Bangladesh’s Liberation War by pitting India and Pakistan against one another over the issue of East Pakistan and igniting old regional wounds with new flames. The South Asian episode of the Cold War reveals the striking failure of the Nixon administration in avoiding a large-scale loss – according to Bangladesh’s estimates, the Liberation War cost 3 million lives – in a bid to secure the United States’ strategic interests under a desperate climate of rivalry with the USSR. In doing so, it immortalizes how the foreign policy decisions of a major world power like the United States reverberate in struggles far abroad.