The year 1971 will go down in Indian subcontinent history as a watershed moment. Between March and December, the world watched Pakistan’s first election under a military dictatorship, the rejection of the public result, genocide, mass exodus, civil war, a fortnight-long battle between two hostile neighbours, and finally, the tragic birth of a new country, Bangladesh.


We learned of the brave but perilous stand taken by many foreigners, international media, and Christian missionaries in the face of Pakistani military threats soon after Bangladesh was established. They backed the Bengali people in their quest for independence from the occupying troops and provided whatever assistance they could to people and liberation fighters in need of shelter, food, and medicine. They loved Bangladesh with all of their hearts and souls, so they had legitimate reasons to support the people’s independence battle. Some missionaries have lived here since the 1950s and consider this place to be their home. But what about an American diplomat who has never met a Bengali or had the opportunity to get to know them well enough to say more than a perfunctory hello? Would a distinguished gentleman from Washington’s exclusive pool of professional diplomats risk everything — including his next assignment as an American Ambassador in a faraway place — for the love of Bengalis? Would he give up everything he was looking forward to during the training period for individuals he barely knew? The most likely response is no. 


However, Mr. Archer Blood, the then-Consul General of the American Consulate in Dhaka, did just that, ruining his diplomatic career. He never received his ideal job as an Ambassador. He worked at a desk at the State Department until his retirement. Let us remember him during this month of December, the month in which we celebrated our long-awaited victory against our adversary.


To begin, in 1947, the Quaid-e-azam (or “great leader”) Mohammad Ali Jinnah recognised Pakistan, a geographical oddity, after lengthy and arduous talks. The new country’s two wings were divided by 1000 miles of territory, which was ruled by the unfriendly India. The muscular, violent Punjabis and suave Sindhis of the Western side always called the shots over the East’s small and sensitive Bengali inhabitants. The two were as different as chalk and cheese in terms of culture and habits, and religion was the only thing that brought them together.


When the Awami League, East Pakistan’s main political party, won 160 out of 162 seats in the election, Sheikh Mujib, the party’s president, had a strong claim to become Prime Minister. The junta and the ambitious Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party finished second in the election, were both opposed to such a scenario. In March 1971, Mujib wanted autonomy for Bangladesh, and negotiators were dispatched to talk with him. When the talks fell through, the army took over. Soldiers stormed Dhaka University on the night of March 25, shooting indiscriminately and killing a huge number of students, academics, and intellectuals, all of whom were supporters of Mujib’s Awami League.


The assassinations didn’t end there; they got worse. Although statistics are unreliable, it is estimated that a few million people were slain. Around 10 million refugees were forced to seek refuge in neighbouring India, causing severe socioeconomic challenges for the unwilling host. Pakistan has 70,000 troops on the ground to govern 75 million people. They were led by Tikka Khan, the ruthless general known as the ‘Butcher of East Pakistan.’


Archer Blood, the American Consul-General in Dhaka, commented on the devastation. This career diplomat wrote detailed reports to Washington every day, much like a reporter, updating his government about the current situation in East Pakistan. He believed that at this important, violent juncture, the world’s most powerful democracy should not remain a mute spectator, but his dreams were dashed. Since President Nixon was a friend and lover of Pakistani President General Yahya Khan, nothing happened on Capitol Hill.


Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, may have thought Khan was a moron, but he wasn’t about to take up the cause of a “bunch of goddamned brown Moslems,” as Nixon put the Bangladeshis. Also, Kissinger was fascinated with courting China in order to counter the Soviet power in global affairs, and Khan aided him much in this endeavour. He had arranged a covert meeting with China’s top authorities and given Kissinger with a cloak-and-dagger cover to fly into and out of China via Pakistan. Bass and his crew have listened to hundreds of tapes that contain talks between Nixon and Kissinger. This is how we obtain such tasty tidbits of information and the previous president’s colourful jargon. (For example, Indians are referred to as “bastards,” while Indira Gandhi is referred to as “a bitch” or “a witch,” or both.)


Blood – whose name is chillingly poignant, given the events of the period – did something unusual when faced with silence. On April 6, Blood, along with twenty-odd consular personnel, submitted a cable expressing their “dissent from US policy in East Pakistan.” “Our administration has failed to oppose the suppression of democracy,” said the cable, from which Bass’s book takes its title. Our administration has failed to condemn human rights violations.” “We, as professional public servants, express our discontent with current policy and ardently hope that our genuine and long-term interests here can be established and our policies redirected…,” the note said.


Blood had filed a ‘no confidence motion’ against his own government, which few bureaucrats can even contemplate in their darkest dreams.


Blood was the first to point out that there was “selective genocide,” with Hindus being singled out and slaughtered in order to shift the demographic trend. Ethnic cleansing was carried out by Pakistani military in the green plains of East Pakistan long before Serbia and Bosnia.


Nixon was not a man who tolerated dissent. So, 18 months before his term was to finish, Blood was abruptly hauled away from Dhaka and deposited somewhere in Washington’s State Department. His name was never mentioned again. When he died 33 years later, the news of his death was on the first page of every Bangladeshi daily, and his family was stunned by the outpouring of flowers, phone calls, and messages from that country.


In 1971, shortly after the country’s freedom, the Bangladeshi media learned of his role and published brief reports on him. But it wasn’t until much later, approximately three or four years ago, that we learned in detail about Archer Blood and his consular staff members’ valiant, albeit perilous stand, thanks to Gary J. Bass’s book Blood Telegram. Reading through the pages of Blood Telegram was like viewing a feature film-length flashback to the events of 1971. Indeed, it was as if the people of East Pakistan were reliving those terrifying days when the line separating life and death had shrunk dangerously.


The book chronicled political happenings in Dhaka, Rawalpindi, Delhi, and Washington at the same time, during pivotal stages in the history of Bangladesh’s formation. Blood Telegram contains authentic accounts of classified telegrams between Dhaka, Rawalpindi, and Washington, including responses, high-level meetings, conversations, notes, comments, the White House-State Department squabble, Henry Kissinger’s role, and President Nixon’s imperceptive diplomacy, and much more, all based on recently declassified State Department documents, White House tapes, and commendable investigative reporting by some courageous correspondents.


Mr. Blood’s career was irrevocably destroyed by the cable, which had no obvious effect on Washington’s policy. According to Howard B. Schaffer, one of 29 diplomats who signed the dissent cable in 1971, by the time he earned another diplomatic posting, he had “lost career time” and never became an ambassador. He chose the risky path of defying a policy from within the system. Would it have been more effective for him to object if the cable had been released to The New York Times? Would it have been better for him to resign in protest, to make a scene, than to sit back and watch his bureaucratic punishment play out?