In the privacy of the Oval Office, Nixon said that “if
they’re not going to have a famine the last thing they need is another war. Let
the goddamn Indians fight a war.” Kissinger agreed: “They are the most
aggressive goddamn people around there.”
He said that they should pressure Gandhi to avoid military action, and complained that the Indians were “getting so devious now.” Nixon wanted to be sure that Pakistan would be well looked after: “But we don’t say anything against Yahya?”
“No, no,” Kissinger assured the president. “You just say you hope the refugees will soon be able to go back to East Pakistan. He will then reply to you that’s exactly what he wants. I’ve got it all arranged with the embassy. You can tell the Indians to pipe down, and we’ll keep Yahya happy.”
Nixon bitterly said, “The Indians need – what they need really is a – ” Kissinger interjected, “They’re such bastards.” Nixon finished his thought: “A mass famine.”
On November 5, just before the Indian prime minister arrived at the Oval Office, Kissinger stopped by to give the president a final pep talk. He found Nixon already furious. The president said that the United States had given more relief aid to India than the rest of the world combined, and immediately exploded with rage, hollering, “Goddamn, why don’t they give us any credit for meet with a Bangladesh leader,” although not Mujib.
“No,” said Kissinger. “No, no, no.” Meeting Mujib “would be political suicide for Yahya.” Nixon, aiming for a high tone, suggested telling Gandhi that while the Americans had no treaty with India, they were “bound by a moral commitment” to promote peace—and then snarled at Gandhi, calling her “the old bitch.”
Kissinger urged Nixon to be tough on her. “I think publicly you should be extremely nice,” said the national security advisor – and at this point the tape is bleeped out, to hide whatever words he used to urge being rougher in private. Kissinger recommended sternly telling her that her Soviet treaty had cast doubt on India’s ostensible nonalignment, and that “a war with Pakistan simply would not be understood.”
Kissinger’s briefing set Nixon at ease. The president was impressed with what they had gotten the Pakistanis to do. Stumbling on the name, he said, “They’ve agreed not to execute Muju – Muju – however it is you say his name – ”
“Mujib,” said Kissinger. Nixon fluently rattled off Kissinger’s list of Pakistani concessions, such as a civilian governor and the unilateral troop withdrawal. The only options, the president concluded, were “accommodation or war,” and war would benefit no one. He was ready. “I’m going to be extremely tough,” said Nixon.
At last, away from the trappings and distractions of a state visit, Richard Nixon and Indira Gandhi faced off in the Oval Office. In an angry and protracted meeting, they grappled one-on-one, with only Kissinger and Haksar attending their chiefs. It was explosive. He thought she was a warmonger; she thought he was helping along a genocide. Summits are often pretty placid affairs, but this was a cathartic brawl, propelled not just by totally opposite views of a brewing war, but by the hearty personal contempt that the president and prime minister had for each other.
Nixon first emphasised US aid to the refugees, but then sharply warned that launching a war was unacceptable. He said that the United States needed to maintain some influence with Pakistan, which explained a “most limited” continuation of military supply. Hitting his talking points, he recited the ways that the United States had ameliorated Pakistan’s positions: preventing a famine in East Pakistan, naming a civilian governor of East Pakistan, welcoming back refugees, talking to acceptable Awami League leaders, not executing Mujib, and now withdrawing some troops from India’s border. The United States could go no further.
Gandhi listened, Kissinger later wrote, with “aloof indifference.”
Nixon, refusing to push for negotiations with Mujib, said that he “could not urge policies which would be tantamount to overthrowing President Yahya.” India would win on the battlefield, Nixon said, but a war would be “incalculably dangerous.” With the superpowers involved on opposite sides, it would threaten world peace. Hinting broadly at a possible Chinese attack on India, he told the prime minister that a war might not be limited to only India and Pakistan.
Gandhi was blunter – if anything, less tactful than Nixon. Kissinger later wrote that her tone was that of “a professor praising a slightly backward student,” which Nixon received with the “glassy-eyed politeness” that he showed when trying to muscle down his resentment. She ripped into US arms shipments to Pakistan, which had outraged the Indian people, despite her efforts to restrain her public. She hammered away at Pakistan’s “persistent ‘hate India’ campaign,” which she blamed for the two previous India-Pakistan wars.
Then she gave an expansive denunciation of Pakistan. Since its creation, it had jailed or exiled rival politicians. Many of its regions, like Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, sought autonomy. (India, she claimed, had always shown some forbearance toward its own separatists – something that might have come as news to the Nagas and Mizos.)
She blasted Pakistan’s “treacherous and deceitful” mistreatment of the Bengali people, and told detailed atrocity stories. She said that it was unrealistic to expect East and West Pakistan to remain united; the pressures for autonomy were too strong. The prime minister turned to the huge numbers of refugees still streaming into India. (There were, by India’s count, over nine and a half million on that autumn day.)
Nixon, trying to undercut what he and Kissinger saw as India’s pretext for war, said he would keep pressing Congress for a large relief effort. He wanted the refugees to go home. But Gandhi said that the refugees were from a different background and religion from Indians in the border states, leaving her government hard pressed to prevent bloody communal riots.
Nixon denounced the Bengali insurgents for interfering with relief supplies on ships near Chittagong harbour. This kind of guerrilla warfare, the president said, had to rely on sophisticated training and equipment. Gandhi dodged the accusation, foggily saying that “India had been accused of supporting guerrilla activity but that the situation was not that clear.”
Nobody sitting in the Oval Office believed that, least of all Gandhi and Haksar. She perplexingly compared the insurgency to Cuban exiles in Florida striking against Cuba. The two leaders sparred fiercely. It was, Kissinger later wrote, “a classic dialogue of the deaf.”
Gandhi complained bitterly of Yahya’s talk of “Holy War,” and said that the vital issue was Mujib, who was a symbol of the autonomy movement. She raised Nixon’s and Kissinger’s hackles by mentioning her Soviet friendship treaty. Nixon, claiming that the United States had put “great pressure on Pakistan,” brought up again Yahya’s offer to unilaterally pull back his troops. Haksar dodged that, for which Nixon slapped him down.
Nixon ended with a steely warning. He said that the U.S. government would continue to help with humanitarian relief, urge restraint on Yahya, and try to find a political solution. But he declared that the disintegration of Pakistan would do no good for anyone, and rumbled, “The initiation of hostilities by India would be almost impossible to understand.” He warned, “It would be impossible to calculate with precision the steps which other great powers might take if India were to initiate hostilities” – hinting not just at the reaction of the United States but also the possibility of Chinese intervention. This implicit threat hung in the Oval Office as the final ugly moment.
Nixon and Kissinger were stunned by the showdown. They had been sorely taxed by the sustained need to be civil to Gandhi. The next morning, in the Oval Office, alone except for Haldeman, they vented their frustrations. “This is just the point when she is a bitch,” said the president. Kissinger replied, “Well, the Indians are bastards anyway. They are starting a war there.”
The two men stripped the bark off the Indians. Kissinger, struck by Gandhi’s unyielding condemnation of Pakistan, suspected that she was out not just to free East Pakistan but to smash West Pakistan. He lavished praise on Nixon’s performance: “While she was a bitch, we got what we wanted too.” Nixon was revolted by the politesse shown to Gandhi. “We really slobbered over the old witch,” he said.
Kissinger, doing a little slobbering of his own, reassured the president: “How you slobbered over her in things that did not matter, but in the things that did matter, you didn’t give her an inch.” Kissinger flattered Nixon’s toughness and skill, while Nixon gloated, “You should have heard, Bob, the way we worked her around. I dropped stilettos all over her.”
Kissinger said, “Mr President, even though she was a bitch, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that we got what we wanted, which was we kept her from going out of here saying that the United States kicked her in the teeth.” He added, “You didn’t give her a goddamn thing.”
Although it would have been “emotionally more satisfying” to rip into her, Kissinger said “it would have hurt us… I mean if you had been rough with her then she’d be crying, going back crying to India.” Thanks to the president, Kissinger said, Gandhi could not say that the United States had been cold to her and therefore she had to attack Pakistan.
Kissinger understandably winced at Gandhi’s protestations that she knew nothing about the guerrillas in East Pakistan. He was also incensed by India’s relationship with the Soviet Union: “They have the closest diplomatic ties now with Russia. They leak everything right back to them.” And Nixon cheered Kissinger, who had “stuck it to her on that book”—the one recommended to Kissinger by Zhou Enlai, which, in Kissinger’s words, “proves that India started the ’62 War” against China.
Kissinger sarcastically said, “It was done with an enormous politeness and courtesy and warmth.” Nixon added that “she knew goddamn well that I knew what happened.” Nixon and Kissinger were bitter at India for winning support in the US media and Congress. “You stuck it to her about the press,” said Kissinger. “On that I hit it hard,” Nixon agreed. “I raised my voice a little.”
Kissinger had also met with Haksar, whom Nixon called “that clown.” Kissinger said that he had been just as rough on Haksar. He had complained to the senior Indian official that India gave visiting Democratic politicians “a royal reception, tremendous publicity, personal meetings. And then after you do all of this you come over here and ask us to solve all your problems.” Nixon said, “Good for you.”
Kissinger continued, “I said look at the record the last three months. You’ve had a press campaign against us. You put out the word that our relations are the worst ever. You get Kennedy over.… You make a treaty with the Russians. And then you come here and say we have to solve your problems for you.” Nixon decided to make that day’s meeting “cool.” Kissinger suggested giving Gandhi a rougher day, as the conversation turned to Vietnam and other international issues: “even though she is a bitch, I’d be a shade cooler today.”
Excerpted with permission from The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan, Gary J Bass, Random House India.