Kissinger’s desire for a stable U.S.-China relationship, for example, depends as much on China as it does on the United States. There’s no question that America wields great power, but it must assess correctly the intentions and actions of others in order to exert it effectively.
In his book World Order, Kissinger describes India as “a fulcrum of twenty-first century order: an indispensable element, based on its geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership, in the strategic and ideological evolution of the regions and the concepts of order at whose intersection it stands.” But in 1971, when Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing fought to become Bangladesh, Kissinger had scorned India as “a Soviet stooge, supported with Soviet arms” over its support for Bangladeshi independence.
India was no less important then than it is now. Its “geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership”—recognized by Kissinger in recent years—were similar even if its policy of non-alignment was different. Many American officials, prominent among them the diplomats George Kennan and Chester Bowles, advocated distancing the U.S. from Pakistan to win over India. But U.S. diplomats beginning with John Foster Dulles, who served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state in the 1950s, embraced the notion that an unreliable ally in hand was better than a long-term friend that needed to be wooed. To be fair to Kissinger, he inherited the affection for Pakistan from his predecessors, and had the additional burden of working for a president who had been enamored of Pakistan since his first visit there in 1954.
During his first tour of Asia as Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon had liked the well-staged anticommunism he encountered in Pakistan, especially as it contrasted with his experience in India. He was offended by what he saw as Indians’ unwillingness to even discuss the notion that communism was the gravest threat to civilization. The Indians had lectured Nixon about global poverty and injustice, both of which, they said, Western colonialism had exacerbated. Conversely, the Pakistanis seemed eager to join the American-led ideological struggle, even though their real purpose might have been to ensure economic and military assistance.
In his memoirs Nixon described India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as “the least friendly leader” that he had met in Asia. He once told the National Security Council that “Pakistan is a country I would like to do everything for. The people have fewer complexes than the Indians.”
By the time of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971—when Pakistan imposed martial law on what was then East Pakistan to crush the territory’s bid for more autonomy—Nixon felt he owed Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan a debt of gratitude for his government’s role in facilitating Kissinger’s secret trip to China. Ignoring reports of Pakistan’s military atrocities against Bangladeshi civilians, the U.S. actively supported Pakistan to the extent of violating congressional restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistani troops. Estimates of the human toll of what became known as the Pakistani Army’s genocide in Bangladesh range from 300,000 to 3 million fatalities.
As national security advisor, Kissinger visited both India and Pakistan several times during the Bangladesh crisis and fashioned the “tilt towards Pakistan”—a policy that avoided joining international condemnation of Pakistan’s actions in East Pakistan without expressly supporting them—that Nixon probably demanded. Nixon did not want “Soviet stooge” India to overrun “U.S. ally Pakistan” and wanted to spare the Pakistani Army from humiliation. In the end most of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s exertions proved futile. On December 16, 1971, Indian forces marched triumphantly into Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, where Pakistan’s army laid down its arms. Ninety thousand Pakistani troops, civilian officials, and allies became prisoners of war. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born and was, after some hesitation, recognized by the United States.
Although the United States, with Soviet help, had prevented India from overrunning West Pakistan as well, it received no gratitude from Pakistan for its efforts. The Indians claimed that they had no plans of doing that anyway, whereas the Pakistanis resented the United States for not stepping in with guns blazing to help save the country’s eastern wing. Meanwhile, the Indians often recall America’s failure to scare them from supporting the Bangladeshis. Nixon had ordered the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet to move to the Bay of Bengal to psych out India, though the fleet was instructed not to engage in conflict. The Bangladeshis to this day remember that the U.S. supported Pakistan’s army as it committed atrocities against them.