The Blood Telegram takes its title from a dissenting diplomatic communication from the staff of the US Dacca mission, protesting the conduct of US policy in relation to what was then East Pakistan. The US was at the time uncritically supporting the Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan in spite of his very bloody crackdown on the people of East Bengal who had the temerity to defeat him in a democratic election. The slaughter Khan unleashed in East Pakistan was carried out substantially with US supplied weapons and with a disproportionate focus on the Hindu minority of the region, leading the US dissenters in the Dacca consulate, amongst others, to describe it as a genocide.
From this important incident in US diplomatic history the book opens out into a wider consideration of the Bangladeshi independence struggle and its geopolitical context. The bloodshed in East Pakistan prompted a massive outflow of refugees into India and led to the beginning of a guerrilla war between Bengali nationalists, supported by India, and the West Pakistani army, supported by the US. Nixon and Kissinger justified their uncritical support for West Pakistan because that country was providing a highly secret diplomatic channel between the US and China that promised to recast the entire Cold War. But it is clear from the transcripts of their White House conversations that they also held a visceral and irrational hatred of India and Indians which shaped their policy.
There is a strong echo of Shawcross’ Sideshow (Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia) in this book with its close consideration, from transcripts of White House conversations, of the role of these two’s formulation of foreign policy and bolstering the Pakistani dictatorship against the democratic will of the Pakistani people. However unlike Shawcross Bass augmented this enquiry with a careful consideration of India’s political, military and humanitarian response to the crisis and the politics of Bengali nationalism including and first hand and secondary accounts (many from Sydney Schanberg of The Killing Fields fame) of the actions of the Bengali guerrillas.
The result is a consistently gripping account of a war that is substantially forgotten in the West but which still casts a long shadow of the politics and development of South Asia.