Lt Gen Ashok Joshi (Retired)



It so happened during 1971 that South Asia got pulled to the centre of the vortex created by forces released by major realignments in the Cold War line up. The US was aware that China (PRC) was dissatisfied with the Soviet Union because it felt that the Soviets wanted to keep China dependent upon it. China was on the look out to break loose from the hold of the Soviets. The US wanted to take advantage of the situation not only to improve their stance in the ongoing Cold War, but also to fulfill the more enduring aspirations of the US in the geopolitical context. The US decided to prise China out of the Soviet fold and set about achieving its goal with fixity of purpose. What tied South Asia to the emerging courtship dance between the US and China is a mix both of design and intent on the one hand, and coincidences on the other.

It is well known that the US showed a remarkable consistency in backing Pakistan through out 1971 in face of mounting domestic and international criticism and the prevailing public opinion in the US itself. This came to be known as the US tilt because it was difficult to publicly explain the stance of the US Administration without giving up the secrecy associated with the cherished project of establishing workable contacts with China at the highest level. A lot more has surfaced recently[1] that helps to interpret and understand the US tilt towards Pakistan in days following March 25, 1971. On that day, the then President of Pakistan, General AM Yahya Khan, on his way back from Dacca, asked Lt Gen Tikka Khan to “Sort out” the Bengalis in East Pakistan. He and his successor Lt Gen AAK Niazi[2] went about their task in a manner that was widely condemned all over the world. Pak atrocities and genocide[3] have been well recorded. The US Consulate in Dacca started sending earnest reports about the killing in East Pakistan. The first report of March 28 speaks of ‘reign of terror’ unleashed by the Pak Army; the report of March 31 estimates the dead between 4 and 6,000[4]. US Ambassador Keating in New Delhi showed his concern as early as March 29 that the US military equipment was being used by the Pak Army. The happenings in what is now Bangladesh were so horrendous that even the Pak envoy on Washington was required to plead special circumstances—civil war-like situation—in mitigation of what was going on. All this left the US Administration unmoved. What were the inputs that went into the US policy and what were the consequences of that policy both need to be reviewed in the light of the latest revelations[5].

Apart from the all encompassing Cold War compulsion of containing the Soviet Union and diminishing its support base, what really inspired President Richard M. Nixon, and his Assistant Dr. Henry A. Kissinger in their China-initiative has been summed up later by Kissinger:

“Geopolitically, America is an island, off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia, whose resources and population far exceeds those of the United States. The domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principle powers—Europe or Asia—remains a good definition of strategic danger for America, Cold War, or no Cold War...

“Of all the great, and potentially great, powers China is the most ascendant…

“As the nation with the longest history of independent foreign policy and tradition of basing its foreign policy on national interest, China welcomes American involvement in

Asia as a counterweight to its feared neighbors, Japan and Russia—to a lesser degree—India[6]”.

Establishment of contact with China was such an important strand of the US policy making that during their meeting with Chairman Mao, Kissinger emphasized that, “It was the President who set the direction and worked out the plan[7].” This was in February, 1972. Before that, in July, 1971, Kissinger had made his initial trip to China in great secrecy with the aid and assistance of Pakistan. He also held several secret meetings with representatives of China in Paris before February, 1972. Since secrecy was one of the fundamental preconditions till the deal was struck and matter could be brought out in the open, the US seems to have been particularly beholden to Pakistan.

As early as April 6, 1971, the US Consulate at Dacca addressed a cable to the Secretary of State, inter alia mentioning the following:

“We as professional public servants express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our position as a moral leader of the World[8].” This obviously produced no dent, and a decision was taken by Nixon on April 28 not to pressurize President AM Yahya Khan. If the US interest in South Asia was Pak-centric, the Chinese interest had strong anti-India dimensions: the first was derived from the residue of the 1962 conflict, or unsettled border dispute; and the second was on account of the sanctuary to Dalai Lama that India had granted. In the context of the Cold War, China looked upon India as pro-Soviet, and by implication, anti-China. The US policy formulation that backed Pakistan, in opposition to India, was music to the Chinese ears, particularly as it represented a turn around after 1963. “Gratitude is not the outstanding quality of India, as Moscow will learn[9]”, said Kissinger, during the October 22, 1971 meeting with Chou-En-Lai. Even when shorn of the bantering tone, the meaning is clear. Earlier Chou had pointed out that India does not believe in the existence of Pakistan, and, “We understand the traditions of India.” The US and China both had expected India to go to war, so it seems. In spite of all this, the US decided to risk war in South Asia, but would not restrain Pakistan.


The possibility of war between India and Pakistan was foreseen by the US as early as end May 1971, but the thrust of the US policy was never directed towards avoidance of war. It was to partially compensate India for expenditure on account of refugees, and justify the US position by saying that if the US were to bear heavily on Pak; it would lose such influence as it had. Kissinger also assured India, just before going to China that the US would ‘not encourage’ China against India[10]. Later this also changed, and by December 9, 1971, he was virtually coaxing China into some small actions in mountains[11]. The Chinese connection seems to have become an obsession with the Nixon-Kissinger team to the exclusion of many other considerations.

Predilections of Nixon and Kissinger both seemed to have influenced the US policy to a great extent, initially to hold back action, and subsequently to intervene. President Yahya Khan was ‘indulged’, so it seems, because he was ‘a good friend[12]; Kissinger is more than aware of Nixon’s special feeling for Yahya;[13] Kissinger emphasized that ‘it was a fact of life’. Perhaps, ‘sometimes stupid’ Pakistanis were to be preferred to the ‘devious’ Indians.[14] Without such an assumption it is difficult to share the perception of the US policy makers that it was President Yahya who needed sympathy because he was anguished[15] over decisions which he had to take, namely the orders that he had issued to General Tikka Khan to sort out the Bengalis. Rarely does one come across such a transformation in which the perpetrator is viewed as the victim. This attitude of the principle policy makers explains quite a lot which is otherwise difficult to understand.

The US decided to reward the perpetrators, namely, the ruling Army oligarchy of Pakistan. The scale of wanton killing and barbarities by Pak Army was staggering. Since the US faced no grave danger at the time, and such a threat could not be pleaded in defence of the total lack of compassion that the US displayed, it must be presumed that it was walking in the footsteps of Richelieu, believing that universal values are inconsistent with raison d’etat.[16].''  This conviction of Nixon and Kissinger seems to have been the guiding light of the US Administration.

China certainly was a beneficiary of the US policy. Subsequent developments have vindicated the Chinese wisdom in accepting the olive branch proffered by the US. But it spelt disaster even for Pakistan the beneficiary of the US sympathy and consideration. It ended up by losing its Eastern Wing. By equating the interest of the Pak military junta with that of Pakistan, the US supported Yahya and vitiated the natural checks and balances that operated within the two Wings of Pakistan, and also between India and Pakistan. Yahya drew all the wrong conclusions, possibly because he basked in the sunshine of the US support, and decided to subdue the Bengalis and fight the Indians. He declared that, “If that woman wants war...” etc. Had he not been given to understand that he could continue to draw upon the US support, no matter what he did, for so long as he served as a catalyst, he might have been more prudent and less cavalier in challenging ‘that woman’.

The US policy makers in 1971 opted for the hard-nosed raison d’etat[17] as conceived and practiced by Cardinal Richelieu and Father Joseph the Grey Eminence, and set aside all humanitarian considerations. Understandably, Indian protests might have been devalued by the US because of the well-acknowledged animosity between Pakistan and India, but what about the public opinion all over the world and in the US? What about the US laws? The US Administration had the defence equipment of the US origin delivered to Pakistan through subterfuge.  There was clearly an assumption by the US Administration that it knew best what was good for the US. This assumption of infallibility in judgment and action by the US Administration is frightening; and it was not even the only super power then. It is well known that Nixon at the time toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons in the Sub-continent. These indeed are disturbing reminders, particularly in the charged atmosphere of today. Being the only surviving super-power no international body or the UN are in a position to restrain the US Administration from willfulness. The world community would rather rely on the internal checks and balances in the US constitution for this purpose. To a certain extent, the public opinion in the US matters, but not directly and immediately. How the US Administration functioned during the tumultuous days of 1971 is interesting and instructive also from this point of view.

The famous checks and balances, a significant part of the US constitutional fabric, did not seem to work in 1971; nor was the value-based policy much in evidence. In so far as the interests and aspirations of Bangladesh and India were concerned the US Administration might as well have signed off 1971 with, ‘Without compassion or remorse, Cynically Yours’.



[1] The Tilt: The U.S. and the South Asian Crisis of 1971

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 79

Edited by Sajit Gandhi. 45 Documents can be viewed. They cover a time span between March 28, 1971 and January 6, 1972.


[2] General A A K Niazi, reportedly described Bangladesh as ‘a low lying land of low lying people.' An officer of Pak Army had boasted that they could ‘kill anyone for anything’. We are accountable to no one.'  The source of these quotes is the site


[3]’ lists numerous estimates of the genocide in Bangladesh. The most conservative estimate of those killed by the Pak Army are in the region of 300, 000. Some estimates are as high as 3 million. The number of raped women is estimated at around 400, 000.

[4] Documents 1 and 5 refer. Refer to End Note 1 for the source.

[5] To the citing at End Note 1 above must be added the excerpts published in October, 2002 in Indian Express, Pune, from  ‘The White House and Pakistan: Secret Declassified Documents, 1969-1974, by Mr. Fakir Syed Aijazuddin.

[6]  Henry Kissinger, `Diplomacy', Simon and Schuster, London, 1995, (Pp 823-829).

[7] Indian Express, Pune, October15, 2002. See End Note 2 above.

[8] Document 8, vide End Note 1.

[9] Indian Express, Pune, October 9, 2002.

[10] Document 15; vide End Note 1.

[11] Document 35; vide End Note 1.

[12] Document11; vide End Note 1.

[13] Document 13; vide End Note 1.

[14] Document 21; vide End Note 21.

[15] Document 10; vide End Note 1.

[16] Henry Kissinger, `Diplomacy', Simon and Schuster, London, 1995, (P .63)

[17] “‘Many men’, wrote the Cardinal [Richelieu], ‘would save their souls as private persons who damn themselves as public persons.’…..

“To benefit the French people….he was prepared to run the appalling risk of going to hell.” See Aldous Huxley, ‘Grey Eminence, A Study in Religion and Politics’, Chatto and Windus, London, 1949.