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Book Review: The Blood Telegram

by James Graham 

Posted: 09 January 2014
Word Count: 1387
Summary: All comments welcome. This book made me angry, and I wonder if that comes across too much in the review. Also if you spot any inconsistencies, or anything that's not clear, let me know.

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Book Review
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2013)
Jeremy Paxman once asked Henry Kissinger, ‘When you heard you had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, did you feel a fraud?’ The great man’s reply was brusque, and after one more Paxman-style question in the same vein he walked out of the studio. But Paxman had a point.
Since the publication in 2001 of Christopher Hitchens’ book The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso Books), a picture has emerged of Kissinger not as a peacemaker but as a war criminal. Hitchens’ case is closely argued. He shows pretty conclusively that Kissinger, as National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon, was heavily involved in the 1973 coup in Chile which brought down the democratic government of Salvador Allende and replaced it with the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet - a regime that was to become infamous for arbitrary arrests, torture and summary executions. Equally convincingly, Hitchens exposes Kissinger’s role in prolonging the Vietnam War. In 1968, during Nixon’s presidential campaign, Kissinger and Nixon used secret agents to sabotage the Paris peace talks, promising the Vietnamese a better deal under Nixon’s presidency. The Vietnamese negotiators withdrew from the talks. Instead of a better deal, Indo-China suffered a six-year extension of the war, with massive bombing raids on Laos and Cambodia and an estimated death toll of 950,000. Kissinger’s Peace Prize was awarded for negotiating the long overdue withdrawal of American troops; his Vietnamese counterpart Li Duc Tho declined the Prize, for reasons we can readily imagine.
Now, with Gary J. Bass’s book we have an exhaustively researched chronicle of yet another sorry episode in the career of this great player of war-games. The ‘forgotten genocide’ of the title refers to the 1971 crisis in East Bengal, then part of Pakistan but subsequently to become Bangladesh. Following a general election in which East Bengalis voted overwhelmingly for the Awami League, a moderate centre-left party dedicated to Bangladeshi independence, the Pakistani military seized power and began a campaign of terror. Their forces went from district to district, village to village, killing several hundred thousand unarmed civilians and forcing many more to flee to India. The Pakistani army was equipped with American weaponry, which Nixon and Kissinger continued to supply as the massacres were going on.
Archer K. Blood, US consul in East Bengal, sent report after report to Washington, describing events in unsparing detail: corpses rotting in the streets, the deaths of children, the summary executions of academics at the University of Dhaka. Kissinger made sure these reports were suppressed, until Blood, exhausted and frustrated, sent a ‘Telegram of Dissent’ - the term used for an official communication in which an American diplomat registers fundamental opposition to the foreign policies of his government. It was career suicide. Blood was dismissed from the diplomatic service.
What Bass does in his book is remarkable. The nineteen main chapters, plus the Epilogue, are virtually a day-by-day account of events in India, East Bengal and Washington, with Kissinger and Nixon’s political manoeuvres receiving perhaps the closest attention. Details are drawn from reliable witnesses and - most revealingly - from Nixon’s famous ‘White House tapes’. There is political argument, Hitchens-style but somewhat more detached, in the Preface; but the rest of the book is straight narrative history. To say it reads like a novel would be misleading, but it’s a true narrative that has something in common with a good novel. The characters of Kissinger, Nixon, Indira Gandhi, Archer Blood and others develop gradually as events unfold. And it’s a page-turner.
We discover Nixon’s often appalling coarseness. For Nixon, political allegiance easily merges into the crudest prejudice. Pakistan is a ‘friendly’ state, allied to the US in the Cold War; non-aligned India - preparing to intervene to stop the killings - is seen as an enemy. Thus the Indians are ‘bastards’. Hearing that the population of India was a few millions more than he had thought: ‘Why anybody would want to reproduce in that goddam place I don’t know’. And as if this wasn’t gross enough, he adds: ‘What they need is a mass famine’. Nixon complains about the courtesy shown to Indira Gandhi on her visit to Washington: ‘We really slobbered over the old witch’.
The character of Henry Kissinger is more complex, and its multiple strands emerge at key points in the narrative. We discover his talent for manipulation, especially his ability to work on the President. Finding Nixon in an angry mood, he fans the flames by telling him something he doesn’t want to hear, then nudges him towards making a decision that suits Kissinger’s purposes.
His anti-democratic, authoritarian tendencies are unmistakeable. He strives to keep news from East Bengal out of the media, and fumes at journalists such as Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times who publish the truth regardless. He wants to control and censor the media, but fortunately American democracy does not allow him to do so. He sees adverse public opinion as a threat. As liberal congressmen and Senators try to enact legislation to stop arms shipments to the murderous Pakistani regime, Kissinger seeks ways to supply them illegally through Iran and Jordan. At one point, his anger once again stoked up by Kissinger, Nixon exclaims: ‘The hell with the damn Congress!’
There are other moments, very different from these. We are shown the plight of the East Bengali refugees, safe for the time being in Indian West Bengal, but desperately in need of food and shelter. In a chapter sub-section titled ‘Rock and Roll’, Bass describes the Concert for Bangladesh, organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. It was the first rock event for humanitarian relief, a model for Live Aid and many other shows. It drew forty thousand people. Its climax was a performance that, in its own way, deserves to be called historic. Harrison introduced a surprise guest, who had not been billed to appear. ‘I’d like to bring out a friend of us all,’ he said. ‘Mr Bob Dylan’. Dylan’s performance was electrifying. As he sang ‘How many deaths will it take till he knows/ Too many people have died?’ there was a breathtaking moment of recognition that the words of this already famous song had taken on a new meaning.
This book is narrative history of the first order. At its best, and we find the best of it in every chapter, it offers high definition exposure of the machinations of political leaders - including, at times, Mrs Gandhi. And equally it offers insight into the courage of the oppressed and the commitment of ordinary Americans and others who refuse to acquiesce in such injustice.
It could be said that readers are left in no doubt as to what sort of conclusions to draw. But Bass - rightly in my view - uses the Preface to point us in the right direction. Often, he argues, US presidents can be accused of ‘uncaring disengagement’, standing idly by as atrocities happen - as Bill Clinton did during the Rwanda massacres. But the East Bengal genocide is different: ‘The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime.’ Bass goes on: ‘This stands as one of the worst moments of moral blindness in US foreign policy’. Though Nixon and Kissinger clearly ‘bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis’, the truth has, up to now, been little known due to the ‘farrago of distortions, half-truths, and outright lies’ vigorously promoted by both men in interviews and numerous volumes of memoirs.
Nixon is no longer with us, but Kissinger, at 90, is still in possession of all his faculties. He will not be prosecuted for war crimes or aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, because the US has exempted itself from the international laws that brought other human rights abusers, such as Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, to account. But a book like this helps to ensure that the evidence is laid before the public, at least informally if not through the judicial process. Perhaps the Nobel committee should read Gary Bass and consider issuing an apology, or even withdrawing Kissinger’s Peace Prize, seeing it as an insult to the memory of such honourable laureates as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

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Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 21:28 on 10 January 2014  Report this post
Great review. I can't think how to critique this piece. I'll reread tomorrow when it is not so late and see if anything 'strikes' me.

However, I did want to say that I read without pausing - other than to think through the information - and I wanted to read it all. It was absorbing and interesting. I know many of the characters you have outlined and some of the history, but if Gary J. Bass’s research is true (and I can believe it is) the US of then is certainly more corrupt and blood-thirsty than I had envisaged.

And all this was going on while Vietnam was still raging. So much death and destruction surrounding these men.

I have thought of one thing!  

The nineteen main chapters, plus the Epilogue, are virtually a day-by-day account of Kissinger and Nixon’s political manoeuvres, drawn from reliable witnesses and - most revealingly - from Nixon’s famous ‘White House tapes’.

I assume that the nineteen main chapters are a day-by-day account of the East Bengal crisis, but when I first read this I thought you meant all their manoeuvres. Or did you, and in your review just choose to centre on this part of the crisis? Or am I tired?

I did enjoy reading this. Well done for writing such an interesting review. Thanks for posting.

James Graham at 11:57 on 11 January 2014  Report this post
Hi Sharley - The bit you quote is rather misleading. It should say the main chapters are a day-to-day account of several things: the massacres, the activity at the US consulate in East Bengal, activities of Indian politicians, and White House doings. The last of these possibly more than any one of the others. I'll find a way to change that without being too long-winded.

Glad you found the review readable and interesting.



I've revised that sentence.

Manusha at 16:03 on 12 January 2014  Report this post
Hi James,
Thanks for another well written and interesting article. It was to easy read and follow, and I would have quite happily read more on this subject. The way you link the closing paragraph with the opening is excellent. I didn’t think you came across as angry, although you clearly had good reason to feel that way. Kissinger’s manipulations and Nixon’s comments illustrate that the primary qualification we need in our leaders is an impeccable moral and ethical character, something that they, and too many other so-called leaders, clearly lack.
I think the change you’ve made following Sharley’s comments works well. Just a teeny point, perhaps it needs the word ‘with’ before ‘Kissinger and Nixon’s political manoeuvres receiving perhaps the closest attention’.

‘Why anybody would want to reproduce in that goddam place I don’t know’. ‘What they need is a mass famine’. 

This is such a tiny point, and only my personal preference, but I was slightly unsure about having two quotes back to back and perhaps would have chosen to have a bridge between the two.

‘The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime.’ ‘This stands as one of the worst moments of moral blindness in US foreign policy’.

Only for the briefest of moments did I wonder who you were quoting, so you might not feel this necessary, but perhaps you could introduce this as Bass’ words. And maybe bridge the two comments with something like, He goes on to add, etc.  
The points I’ve raised are so small they are hardly worth mentioning really. I thought this was an excellent, and well written, review of a subject that shouldn’t be forgotten if society wishes to improve itself by reflecting on the mistakes of the past. As always, I look forward to reading more of your work. smiley
Regards, Andy

James Graham at 16:42 on 12 January 2014  Report this post
Thanks for making these points, Andy. Those small changes do avoid confusion and improve readability. I’ll make the revisions.
It’s good that it doesn’t come across as too angry, i.e. ranting. If it were a published review that would turn readers off. There is one valid point, though: while I do think I’m justified in giving Kissinger a bad press (as Gary Bass does) still the article should mention somewhere the reason why he got the Nobel Prize. It was for negotiating the Peace Accords which finally ended the Vietnam war. But the Nobel people must have chosen to ignore - or were even ignorant of - the fact that Kissinger and Nixon had sabotaged earlier talks and then prolonged the war. If the Nobel committee really didn’t know the whole story - which is possible because Kissinger is a tremendous cover-up merchant - the fact that they were ill-informed might partly exonerate them. Many people think the Peace Prize is discredited, but if so that would be a pity. I’ll try to work something about that into the article.


Manusha at 17:47 on 12 January 2014  Report this post
That's a really good point and I agree it would be interesting to include something about it. One other thing that occurred to me when I read the opening paragraph: considering that Kissinger is now 90 years old I would've been interested to know when the prize was awarded and when the interview took place, although I must admit, for the purposes of the article that info isn't particularly necessary. 

James Graham at 11:30 on 13 January 2014  Report this post
Andy, all your suggested revisions are done. Our new system helpfully makes them appear in a smaller font size. The Prize was awarded to Kissinger in 1973. The Nobel Prize Committee's website says it was the most controversial award in the history of the Prize; two committee members resigned and the Norwegian government afterwards reformed the committee structure to try to make it more impartial.

There are more ramifications. Li duc Tho declined the Prize without hesitation; Kissinger accepted it then offered to return it. Maybe that could be seen as an honourable gesture, but less so than that of his Vietnamese counterpart.

Thanks again for your helpful suggestions.



Font size seems to be sorted.

Catkin at 04:55 on 07 February 2014  Report this post
An excellent and beautifully written review. I don't think it sounds too angry at all.

What are you going to do with this, James - or what did you do with it?

James Graham at 15:00 on 07 February 2014  Report this post
Hello Catkin - thanks for your positive comment. I haven't submitted it anywhere because it was written about 6 months after the book came out, and book reviews are usually written at the time of, or even before, publication. However, I may try to turn it into an article, adding some more of the Kissinger/ Nixon history to broaden it out. There's a US print magazine called New Politics which once published an article of mine. Worth a try...


TassieDevil at 19:44 on 13 February 2014  Report this post
Hello James,

Once again I am attempting to broaden my scope of reading and was impressed with your, I think, balanced review of what is a controversial book about a controversial incident. I could see no fault with it You are obviously a gifted writer with a passion for your craft.

I found your review to be enlightening as it illustates a part of history of which I was ignorant. If a review is designed ti introduce the reading public to the contents of a particular book, whetting their appetite in the process, then you have succeeded admirably.

Thanks for making my life just that little bit richer.


James Graham at 21:13 on 13 February 2014  Report this post
Thanks, Alan.

it illustates a part of history of which I was ignorant.

By no means your fault. So was I, and so I think were the vast majority of people, even historians.


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