US vowed to come to China’s aid against USSR in 1971 crisis
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: The United States assured China in 1971 after it had encourage it to “menace” India that if the Soviet Union moved against China in support of India, Washington would protect it from the Soviet Union. China, however, chose not to menace India, and the crisis on the subcontinent ended without a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.
According to documents pertaining to 1971 released by the State Department on Friday, for a brief period in December 1971, the crisis had a dangerous potential and President Richard Nixon and his National Security Assistant Henry Kissinger were prepared to accept serious risks to achieve their policy objectives.
After Gen Yahya postponed the National Assembly session and the Awami League agitation launched agitation, the initial reaction in Washington was to avoid involvement in the internal politics of Pakistan. When the National Security Council's (NSC) Senior Review Group members considered the situation on March 6, they agreed with Under Secretary of State U Alexis Johnson that it called for “massive inaction” on the part of the United States. The United States did not want to be open to the charge that it had encouraged the break-up of Pakistan.
The papers say that the army crackdown in East Pakistan was “brutal”. The US consulate there reported, “Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military.” During the following week, it reported that the army was setting houses on fire and shooting people as they emerged from the burning buildings and that the army had killed a large number of unarmed students at Dacca University. When Nixon was told about it, he said, “I wouldn't put out a statement praising it, but we're not going to condemn it either.” On another occasion he said, “We should just stay out - like in Biafra, what the hell can we do?” Dhaka kept sending cable after cable to Washington about the “indiscriminate killing” of the populace of East Pakistan by the army, but Nixon maintained his original position, saying, “The people who bi.ch about Vietnam bit.h about it because we intervened in what they say is a civil war. Now some of the same bas.ards ... want us to intervene here - both civil wars.”
Washington had come to the conclusion that it was a no-win situation for the army and
US officials began to encourage efforts by representatives of the Awami League operating out of Calcutta to negotiate a compromise settlement. Kissinger was dubious about facilitating these contacts. At one point he observed that asking Yahya to deal with the Awami League was “like asking Abraham Lincoln to deal with Jefferson Davis (a Confederate general in the American civil war)” Kissinger warned Nixon on April 28 that tension between India and Pakistan was at its highest since 1965, and that there was danger of a new conflict between the two if the situation continued to deteriorate in East Pakistan.
Nixon, in response to suggestions that Pakistan should establish a regional civil administration that might win back some Bengali support and halt the flow of refugees, wrote in his own hand, “To all hands. Don't squeeze Yahya at this time.” The motives that drove Nixon’s policy flowed from his desire to protect the channel to China being provided by Pakistan. Kissinger flew secretly to Beijing from Pakistan in July. Indian forces began to gather at East Pakistan’s borders in May. Washington told India that it was opposed to military intervention in the civil war. Nixon said that if India intervened militarily “by God we will cut off economic aid.” On May 26 he said that “the goddamn Indians” were promoting another war. Kissinger agreed: “they are the most aggressive goddamn people around.” Nixon and Kissinger met Indian Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh in June and attempted to persuade him that the civil war need not evolve into conflict between India and Pakistan. Nixon offered Singh $70 million in humanitarian assistance to help with the refugee situation. Mrs Indira Gandhi told Kissinger in Delhi that she did not want to use force. When Kissinger went to China, Chou En-lai told him that China would support Pakistan in a confrontation with India.
Nixon told an NSC meeting on 16 July that the Indians are “a slippery, treacherous people.” He felt that they would like nothing more than to take advantage of the opportunity to destroy Pakistan. Kissinger agreed that India seemed bent upon war. He thought that China would enter any such war on Pakistan's side, but concluded that might not dissuade India. On 9 August, India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation, which was seen in Washington as offering a carte blanche to India in its confrontation with Pakistan. Soviet Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko told Kissinger in September that the Soviet Union like the US did not want to see war develop between India and Pakistan and, further, that India had offered assurances to Moscow that it would do nothing to precipitate a clash with Pakistan. Gromyko felt that Pakistan was the country that needed to be restrained. When Mrs Gandhi visited Washington in November, Nixon told her that the United States would find the initiation of hostilities between India and Pakistan to be totally unacceptable. In a stiff meeting, Gandhi denied sponsoring the Mukti Bahini guerrillas and denied that Indian forces were poised to initiate a conflict. Kissinger's assessment was that “the Indians are bas.ards anyway. They are plotting a war.”
India launched an attack on East Pakistan on 22 November. Pakistan sought to offset the pressure on its forces in East Pakistan by launching an attack on 3 December from West Pakistan. Pakistan's air force struck at six Indian airfields in Kashmir and the Punjab and Pakistani artillery began shelling at several points along the border. Kissinger told Nixon that the fighting in the west had been initiated by India. Nixon responded, “It's a tragedy the Indians are so treacherous.”
Nixon and Kissinger increased the pressure on the Soviet Union to rein in India. Kissinger warned that the United States viewed the situation in South Asia as a “watershed” in US-Soviet relations. Nixon wrote to Leonid Brezhnev on 6 December 6, warning that if India achieved its ends militarily, with Soviet support, it would have an adverse effect on US-Soviet relations.
Meanwhile, Mrs Gandhi outlined her war aims: she would not accept a settlement until Bangladesh was liberated, the “southern area of Azad Kashmir” was liberated, and the Pakistani armoured and air force strength was destroyed to prevent any future challenge to India.
Reports were coming in that the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan were “crumbling.” At that point, Nixon decided to introduce the carrier Enterprise and its supporting vessels into the Bay of Bengal to apply military pressure on India. Nixon instructed Kissinger to ask the Chinese to move some forces toward the frontier with India. Kissinger went to New York and met Huang Hua, China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. He told the Chinese diplomat that Nixon wanted China to know that if China took action, the United States would oppose the efforts of others to interfere with China. There were no qualifications to Kissinger's diplomatically worded but clear assurance that the United States would be prepared for a military confrontation with the Soviet Union if the Soviet Union attacked China.
At one point, the US thought that China was going to move militarily against India. That raised the likelihood that the Soviet Union would be given an excuse to strike China. Kissinger said, “If the Soviets move against them and we don't do anything, we will be finished.” Nixon asked, “So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?” Kissinger responded, “If the Soviets move against them in these conditions and succeed, that will be the final showdown … and if they succeed we will be finished.” He added that “if the Russians get away with facing down the Chinese and the Indians get away with licking the Pakistanis ... we may be looking down the gun barrel.” In the end, they concluded that the projected confrontation with the Soviet Union would not involve a nuclear exchange. Kissinger felt that to preserve credibility, the United States, if necessary, would have to support China with conventional forces: “We have to put forces in. We may have to give them bombing assistance.”
Kissinger saw the danger of war between the Soviet Union and China as a strong possibility, with the Soviets looking for “a pretext to wipe out China,” but Nixon concluded at the end of the discussion that “Russia and China aren't going to go to war.” Nixon's prediction was borne out when it developed that China had no intention of threatening military action against India. Pakistani forces surrendered in East Pakistan on 16 December and India announced a ceasefire. With a “nudge” from Ambassador Farland, President Yahya accepted the ceasefire. Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger felt that they had achieved their fundamental goal of preserving West Pakistan intact and congratulated each other on having “scared the pants off the Russians” and having come through the crisis “amazingly well.” The papers conclude that “India, however, had emerged from the crisis confirmed as the preeminent power on the subcontinent, and Soviet support for India during the crisis had enhanced Soviet influence in India. The United States would have to adjust to that reality.”