The Importance of the Thesis in Historical Narratives
I. 50 Years Since Independence, 50 Years Since Genocide
December 17, 2021, marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of the country of Bangladesh. While almost all revolutionary wars are violent affairs, as liberty is won through bloodshed and violence, Bangladesh’s was especially remarkable because it led to what is often characterized by historians and political scientists as a humanitarian crisis and genocide. Tragically, human society has not left the concept of genocide behind in the past. With genocides occurring in Myanmar, China, and Ethiopia, to name a few, it is worth considering how we document and write about these events from a historical perspective.
A significant amount of literature on Bangladesh covers the war and the ensuing crisis, but these books’ perspectives vary drastically. Some books take clear sides on the violence, some take a Pakistan-only approach, some only look at the international order, and others look at the violence in a textbook-like vacuum. Then there are books that seek to strike a middle ground between internal politics and the international triggers of the crisis. This genre of books includes 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh by Srinath Raghavan. 1971 looks at the many phenomena that led to the crisis, including but not limited to: the internal politics of Pakistan, tensions between West and East Pakistan, global tensions, Cold War politics, liberal ideologies, India’s involvement, and the role of many nations, including the United States. The book takes a broad, holistic approach, carefully analyzing various possible variables in the crisis. These variables each receive their chapter and are framed in a progressing chronology that ends with the events of 1971.
In comparison, other books choose to examine one variable involved in the crisis and unpack it carefully. Where 1971 is holistic, these books choose to do a deep dive into one area of the situation and analyze it thoroughly. While they can touch on more components of the crisis, and often do, they choose to place these components in conversation with their core subject of analysis. One such book is The Blood Telegram, by Gary J. Bass, which explores the role of the Nixon administration and Henry Kissinger in allowing—and to an extant aiding— Pakistan’s human rights violations. The Blood Telegram looks at everything from State Department communiques, the opinions of ambassadors, communications with India and Pakistan, the role of Congress, arms deals, trade deals, interactions with other states, and of course, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger themselves. Bass critiques and dissects the role of the United States carefully, preferring to look at their actions in a comparison to other aspects of the conflict as opposed to isolating Nixon and Kissinger as independent components.
In writing a work of historical analysis, authors craft a thesis that orients the book’s goals and explains the author’s intentions. These theses can cause two books that cover the same historical event to paint different aspects of the same event in a different light. This review will argue that with regard to 1971 and The Blood Telegram, the way Raghavan and Bass frame their respective arguments creates a divergence in how the books depict the role of the United States in the conflict.
I want to clarify that neither book tells a false narrative; both books provide a strong, albeit partial, explanation of the crisis. This piece seeks to analyze this divergence by recapitulating the core arguments of each book and analyzing the differences in views concerning their thesis. It will also give a final recommendation and closing thoughts on the books and a brief consideration of how ordinary civilians, from a Western perspective, should educate themselves on mass atrocities now that the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence has come and gone.
II. Comparison of the Core Arguments
The creation of Bangladesh can best be described as a cascading sequence of events that spiraled out of control. Much of the historical literature on the independence movement and the ensuing and humanitarian crises is framed from an internal perspective, examining the differences between West and East Pakistan Bass. As opposed to following this perspective of reviewing only the domestic variables, Srinath Raghavan, in his book 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, states that “the breakdown and breakup of Pakistan can only be understood by situating these events in a wider global context and by examining the interplay between the domestic, regional, and international dimensions.”[i] Raghavan, in his book, proceeds to stick true to his word and examines the various dimensions of the conflict, including the role of the liberal international order, the United States, India, China, and the Soviets. The conclusion Raghavan draws is that “there was nothing inevitable either about the breakup of united Pakistan or about the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. Rather, it was the product of historical events in conjunctions that ranged far beyond south Asia.”[ii]
The book The Blood Telegram takes a similar approach with a fundamental difference. Whereas 1971 attempts to cover everything that impacted the conflict and humanitarian crisis, The Blood Telegram chooses to acknowledge these global impacts but draws attention to the actions taken by the United States in the period beginning from March 25, 1971, until the end of the conflict as a result of policies driven by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon.[iii] 1971 takes a broad approach, choosing to frame the spiraling crisis due to many different actors. Bass makes his opinions clear from the introduction—not only did Kissinger and Nixon lose opportunities to exert pressure on Pakistan, but they also actively worsened the crisis. Additionally, Kissinger and Nixon cared very little for the mass atrocities against the Bengalis, part of their slow reaction to the escalating conflict. This analysis is reinforced in the closing chapter of his book, where he recounts that Kissinger had once said, “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern,” to which Nixon responded, “I know. We cannot blow up the world because of it.”[iv] This short conversation paints Nixon and Kissinger’s international priorities. This difference in focus produces a divergence where 1971 appears to paint the United States’ role as one of passive contempt instead of directly supporting Pakistan, which is only described in 1971 as a “tilt.”
This divergence produces stark differences in the two books’ overall tones, especially concerning the United States. One thing that should be made clear is that 1971 is no less historically accurate than The Blood Telegram. Both books examine the issues from valid perspectives, but the divergence in their viewpoint cannot be understated. I would argue that the books work best when read as a pair; to do otherwise would yield a half-constructed understanding of the situation in the reader’s mind.
III. Differences and Similarities in Argument
The reader may ponder the following question: If Raghavan states that he wishes to portray an unbiased perspective of the problem, why does he choose to gloss over some of the most glaring details of the United States’ complicity in the genocide and humanitarian crisis?[v] While underwhelming, the answer is the perspective and framing of the thesis. As stated above, Raghavan writes in the introduction of his book that “the breakdown and breakup of Pakistan can only be understood by situating these events in a wider global context.”[vi] In this sense, Raghavan’s goal is not to home in on a specific country’s actions or contributions in the same way Bass is. Raghavan’s thesis is anchored in trying to disprove the sentiment that the breakdown and breakup of Pakistan were generated mainly by internal forces.
Furthermore, there is another critical difference. Bass chooses to focus his book on how the United States interacted with both India and Pakistan. In contrast, Raghavan takes a different approach of focusing on the United States’ relationship with India, with only a little attention paid to its relations with Pakistan. For instance, in the section of his book titled “The Grand Strategists,” Raghavan points out that Nixon only cared about the atrocities in East Pakistan because “it would give further ammunition to the administration’s critics over Vietnam.”[vii] Contrast this with an analysis Bass gives in the chapter titled “To Hell with the Damn Congress,” which states “they [Nixon and Kissinger] needed to do so [responding to mounting pressure] without saying anything that might offend Yahya.”[viii]
These quotes paint a starkly different picture of the United States’ involvement in the escalating crisis. In Raghavan’s book, it almost appears that Nixon and Kissinger wished to nearly remain out of the situation entirely, where Bass clarifies that Nixon and Kissinger’s “tilt” towards Pakistan was more robust than what Raghavan describes.[ix]This difference is one of the most curious differing aspects between Raghavan and Bass. While 1971 represents the tilt, the wording used by Raghavan indicates that the shift Nixon had towards a pro-Pakistani perspective was subtle and small, whereas Bass clarifies that the tilt was evident and significant. An example of this significance can be found in “To Hell with the Damn Congress” section, where he quotes Kissinger in saying, “the best way to deter war would have been to continue arms deliveries to Pakistan.”[x] It is clear from this quote that both Kissinger and Nixon had done more than “tilted” towards Pakistan—they saw Pakistan as the most viable option for preventing war. Raghavan, meanwhile, describes the United States as more cautious, supporting Pakistan not out of a clear commitment but rather because they were forced to. The Bass quote makes it clear that the United States did not deliver these arms shipments begrudgingly, but rather with a clear strategic goal in mind. Raghavan does later describe some of the tilt, such in the chapter “Strange Victory,” where he lays out that Nixon “cut off economic aid to India [and] ensured the flow of arms to Pakistan.”[xi]This is the extent of his analysis, and does not analyze the United States’ motivations or attitudes towards the pivot.
Where both books overlap is when describing Nixon’s ingrained prejudices, which are seen when Raghavan quotes Nixon as saying that the Indians were “slippery, treacherous people” and called Indira Gandhi a “bitch [and] witch.”[xii] Bass agrees with this perspective when he quotes Nixon saying that “the Indians are bastards anyway, they are starting a war there.”[xiii] Raghavan and Bass both make it clear that these biases were an explicit variable behind the tilt; that is to say, Nixon went against the advice of his own State Department partially out of his intense dislike of the Indians at a personal level. So, whether the United States was a bystander to the crisis or an active participant in the situation, Nixon’s decisions were partially born out of ill-will and racist beliefs against the Indians. Another dimension both books agree upon is Nixon’s desire to display a “tough guy” personality. This leadership style may have partially influenced Nixon’s decision to support Pakistan’s Yahya due to his liking of Yahya’s strongman tactics.[xiv] Bass supports this argument—he writes that Kissinger told Nixon “publicly you should be extremely nice […]” with the rest of the tape being bleeped out, indicating that Kissinger used strong language for how Nixon should act privately.[xv] The complimenting of the strongman personas likely fostered warm relations between Nixon and the Pakistani leader.
Another piece of convergence is that in the face of genocide, widespread dissent from the State Department, and tensions between India and the United States, Nixon and Kissinger refused to intervene in the situation. Perhaps worse, Nixon and Kissinger refused to address a genocide that they, in a way, they had helped create. The Pakistani military used the United States arms shipments to Pakistan to shoot down civilians in East Pakistan, a significant point of discussion between Nixon and Gandhi during their infamous visit, during which Gandhi accused Nixon of failing to uphold human rights and framing the United States as a colonizer seeking to maintain power in the region. In other words, India felt that the United States was supporting Pakistan from a purely geopolitical stance, with little regards to the normative consequences of its actions. [xvi]
IV. Complimenting Perspectives and Recommendation for Reading
Now that the differences and similarities have been discussed, does either book paint a clear image of what occurred in 1971? The short answer is a simple no—both books leave out significant events to examine their perspectives and thesis. This is where the framing of the books makes a difference. 1971 is framed from a globalist perspective to analyze how different variables all interacted in forming the crisis and genocide in 1971. This globalist framing is well supported by the book’s structure, which contains sections that examine the thematic role of various actors and issues, such as the United States, China, the Soviet Union, internal Indian politics, and even the many states of the Union Nations.[xvii] Comparing this to The Blood Telegram, one can see a different type of framing, a framing that instead looks at the role of the United States. The preface to The Blood Telegram puts it clearly when Bass states, “The United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments.”[xviii] Raghavan does not intend the book to critique the United States’ involvement in supporting a genocidal regime, and Bass does not plan for his book to analyze the global order in 1971.
Because of these different intentions, each book leaves out a core part of the crisis in 1971. One book lacks the nuances of the United States’ role, and the other lacks the context of the international community and more thematic reasons for the crisis. That being said, when both books are read and placed in conversation with one another, the thesis of the two books yields a highly detailed and intricate portrait of what occurred in 1971. All at once, a reader can appreciate the nuances of Bass’s explanations while understanding the international community’s reluctance to intervene or even pressure the great powers of the time to lead to the humanitarian crisis. The analysis around the role of pop culture and the counter-culture movements in 1971 gives essential context for the events leading up to the crisis and conflict.[xix]
This analysis is lacking in The Blood Telegram, which begins in media res or with the understanding that the reader already has the context. This omission does a disservice to the cultural and social factors that led to the crisis. Similarly, The Blood Telegram also focuses on the United States at the expense of other states’ reactions to the devolving situation. We have already seen how 1971 grossly simplifies the United States’ involvement. Each book has limitations to it, but when the books are read together, ideally in the sequence of 1971 first followed by The Blood Telegram, the reader gains a much more nuanced and complex understanding of the events leading up to 1971, the crisis itself, and the aftermath of the situation and conflict.
This recommendation is drawn from the understanding that no retelling of history is perfect. This imperfection in historical narratives is especially prevalent when analyzing a conflict as complex and multifaceted as this one. At the same time, while neither book can perfectly capture history, the two books, although divergent on some points, converge into a strong recollection of the events that transpired in 1971.
V. Concluding Thoughts and Review
Overall, both of these books offer unique perspectives and different benefits and drawbacks to reading them. 1971’s more holistic and survey-like analysis is terrific for getting a general view of the crisis surrounding Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan but lacks some of the more nuanced perspectives on the United States’ role in the crisis. The Blood Telegram, meanwhile, highlights Nixon and Kissinger’s inabilities to prevent the crisis from escalating to conflict and genocide. Neither book is ahistorical in any sense of the word, but read independently, they leave something to be desired. That being said, they did provide a strong introduction into what was a tragic period and genocide that is indeed forgotten by much of the West, even if it remains vivid in the memories of many South Asian residents.
The differences between the two books can be boiled down to a shift in perspective and framing regarding their thesis or the material they chose to focus on. Coming into these books, I expected to read vastly different accounts of the same historical event—this was very much not the case. These two books are two sides of the same coin; one tells the narrative from a more U.S.-centered perspective, whereas the other focuses on the broad global patterns. While they describe the role of the United States in vastly different ways, they complement one another. This complimenting means that the reader will leave with a solid grasp or understanding of the crisis if both are read. As someone who came into this reading process and review lacking a significant amount of context on what transpired in 1971, these two books form a strong foundation or entryway into learning more about the history of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the United States. 1971 also imparted a strong understanding of how cultural and social movements can trigger wide-scale protests and demonstrations, revealing how individual people can force change to occur, even if said change demands conflict and bloodshed.
VI. Genocide and Coverage in Contemporary Society
Part of what motivated me to write a literature review on the independence of Bangladesh was its nickname of the “Forgotten Genocide.” As a citizen of the United States, I have rarely interacted with the history of South Asia, which is unfortunate considering the plethora of cultures in the region and the many ways the region has contributed to the world. South Asia is also an area of the world where the effects of colonialism are still present and pose a threat to the people in the region, and one where the rise of nationalism and militarism threatens internal stability and the lives of millions. More importantly, I was unaware of the role the United States, my own country, played in the genocide and mass atrocity in Bangladesh 50 years ago. This revelation was profoundly upsetting to me, seeing how the United States has been known to cover up its most shameful military activities.[xx] I write this article as a college student, hoping that someone reading this will reconsider how they approach history and historical narratives. It is a well-known saying and truth that history is written by the victors. I want to extend this saying to say, “history is written by the victorious and the powerful.”
I would also like to call to attention the priorities of states when it comes to international relations. In the dangerous and complex world of international relations, human rights land amongst the lowest concerns for countries owing to their high opportunity cost and the amount of political capital needed to be spent. In an interview conducted last year with Richard Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, he stated that
I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be on the agenda, but as a rule of thumb I would not place human rights and democracy promotion at the top of America’s foreign policy objectives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t care about it; again, it’s a question of what the opportunity cost of is doing that, what is the potential likelihood, we will succeed, and what are the risks of doing it.[xxi]
This response is a disappointing but not surprising answer. Ask any politician the same question, and they would likely give the same answer, one steeped in the realist theory of international relations. This reality has been the case every time with every new administration that takes office in the United States, from Nixon’s actions in 1971 to Bill Clinton’s refusal to engage with the Rwandan genocide, to the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan under George Bush, Myanmar, and China under Donald Trump, Syria under Barack Obama, and now Ethiopia, China, Myanmar, and the humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe and South America under Joe Biden. If our administrations refuse to engage with these violations of human rights, as citizens of the world and of our own countries, we must be aware of them and recognize how historically we have played a role in them. Reading books such as 1971 and The Blood Telegram is a helpful and reasonably accessible way to do so, with the understanding that to be truly educated on a matter, one must see a variety of perspectives. Many countries around the world have dark moments in their histories and educating ourselves on these actions allows us to better understand our role in contemporary politics, and how our status quo came to exist. To write down history, we must acknowledge the role we play in it. And we must recognize that the victorious and the powerful write history. The question is whether we will challenge our role in mass atrocities and how we record and recapitulate historical narratives.
[i] Raghavan, Srinath. 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013. 9.
[ii] Raghavan 2013, 265
[iii] Bass, Gary Jonathan. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. First Vintage Books edition, July 2014. New York: Vintage Books, 2014. xi-xv.
[iv] Bass 2014, 339
[v] Raghavan 2013, 12
[vi] Raghavan 2013, 9
[vii] Raghavan 2013, 90
[viii] Bass 2014, 204
[ix] Raghavan 2013, 81
[x] Bass 2014, 205
[xi] Raghavan 2013, 245
[xii] Raghavan 2013, 82
[xiii] Bass 2014, 255
[xiv] Raghavan 2013, 86
[xv] Bass 252
[xvi] Bass 2014, 253
[xvii] Raghavan 2013, 11-13
[xviii] Bass 2014, xiii
[xix] Raghavan 2013, 14-20
[xx] Philipps, Dave, and Eric Schmitt. “How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians In Syria.” The New York Times, November 13, 2021, sec. U.S. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/13/us/us-airstrikes-civilian-deaths.html.
[xxi] Abarca, Bandar, and Will, “CFR President Richard Haas on World Order and the Challenges of the Future,” 1.