Weekly The Generation, Year 1, Issue 14
December 05, 2023
By Azmin Azran
Henry Kissinger’s death at the age of 100 has garnered a wide range of reactions from across the globe. For Bangladesh, he was a man with immense power and influence during the early days of independence. What he did, or maybe more importantly, decided not to do during those days, had a great impact on our country’s history.
Henry Kissinger was the National Security Advisor for the US government during the Liberation War of 1971. Between 1973 and 1977, when Bangladesh was struggling to establish itself on the world stage, he held the position of Secretary of State.
Richard Nixon was the president of America during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. While much of the American people, and Congress opposed it, the president and his national security advisor felt otherwise. They supported the Pakistani actions, mostly because of the role Pakistan had been playing at that time as a mediator to establish diplomatic relations between the US and the People’s Republic of China.
Henry Kissinger was the architect who envisioned and structured this relationship. The fact that this was heavily prioritised by such a high-level American official had seismic effects on the fate of the Bangladeshi people.
Kissinger’s visit to Asia in the summer of 1971, for example, could yielded significantly different outcomes than it ended up achieving. He went to India and met Indira Gandhi. After gauging the reaction of the Indian government to the stance the US had taken on the war, he travelled to Pakistan. An interesting encounter took place there. When Yahya Khan asked whether he thought the Pakistani general was a dictator, Kissinger reportedly replied, “I do not know, but for a dictator, you run a lousy election.”
This possibly captures from which angle Kissinger viewed the situation in the region—explicitly as an American diplomat with a mission, with no scope to consider the misdeeds of a dictator or the suffering of a people.
During this visit, secret arrangements were made for Kissinger to go to China via Pakistan, laying the groundwork for Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Throughout 1971, Kissinger and the White House focused on the diplomatic coup that would establish relations with China. The fact that Pakistan was massacring Bangladeshis was considered an inconvenience, as taking a stance against that would distance Yahya Khan—their main go-between with China.
The Nixon administration stuck to this stance for as long as they had to, as their new strategic partner in the Cold War, the People’s Republic of China, also supported the Pakistani government’s actions. China and the USA jointly tried to impede Bangladesh’s march to victory with resolutions in the UN Security Council, but support from the USSR helped counteract those efforts.
For many Bangladeshis, Henry Kissinger is infamous for his comment that Bangladesh was a “basket case”. This remark originated from a meeting in Washington on December 6, 1971, when U Alexis Johnson, an under-secretary for the State Department, was the first to refer to Bangladesh as an “international basket case”, when it was brought up that Bangladesh would require aid because of an impending famine in the following spring of 1972. Kissinger’s response to this comment was simply, “But not necessarily our basket case.”
Henry Kissinger is viewed by many as a deadly proponent of realpolitik, and the reality is that Bangladesh’s humanitarian situation was a thorn in the side of American diplomatic goals in 1971. The policies he implemented cemented his image as a ruthless figure in Bangladesh’s history, a position he carved out for himself.