Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was proud of himself. It was March 26, 1971, and the Pakistani president’s troops had quickly put down what he called a violent Bengali insurrection in East Pakistan — which is today Bangladesh. US President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger marveled at the operation’s efficiency. “The use of power against seeming odds pays off,” Kissinger said.
Yet while Yahya told the world that he had targeted terrorists, his government had in fact carried out a mass slaughter, killing some 50,000 Bengali civilians after a Bengali, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was elected to be prime minister of Pakistan — not only the largely Bengali East Pakistan but also West Pakistan, which was mostly Punjabi. Yahya, a Punjabi, was furious, so he unleashed a further wave of violence to secure Punjabi control.
From March to May, Yahya’s men killed somewhere between several hundred thousand and 3 million civilians in a war that ultimately failed, leaving Pakistan forever split and paving the way for an independent Bangladesh. And they did it all with American weapons.
This is the history that journalist Scott Carney and conflict researcher Jason Miklian tell in their tremendous new book, “The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation.” Drawing on hundreds of interviews and years of research, their book details how Yahya’s war grew out of instability caused by the Great Bhola Cyclone, which itself killed 500,000 people in East Pakistan right before the election.
Yet as much as “The Vortex” is about natural disasters and climate change, it is also about US foreign policy: about how Washington’s expedient decisions can leave indelible marks on history thousands of miles away, even in places where few Americans are present. It is an ugly reminder, too, of America’s willingness to support despots like Yahya throughout the Cold War — and a warning to choose our partners carefully today. Americans may not bear the brunt of such authoritarianism ourselves, but somebody always will, and they will remember if Washington supported their oppressors.
Nixon’s relationship with Yahya was both personal and practical. The American president considered the Pakistani a friend. Meanwhile, Yahya, who preferred the United States to the Soviet Union, also had contacts in the Communist Chinese government, which Nixon wanted to use to reestablish ties in Beijing. In an odd twist of history, it was Yahya who arranged to sneak Kissinger into China to negotiate Nixon’s eventual opening of relations with Mao Zedong. Nixon rewarded Yahya with a steady stream of weapons and aid packages.
But Yahya’s violence in East Pakistan threatened to render Washington’s support untenable and compromise Nixon’s China efforts. So when US diplomats sent reports documenting Yahya’s crimes and calling on Washington to act, Nixon ignored them and fired the US consul general in Dhaka, East Pakistan. When public pressure finally prompted the White House to proclaim an embargo on arms shipments to Pakistan, Nixon continued to secretly send Yahya weapons nonetheless. And, much worse, when India and the Soviet Union moved to support the Bengalis, Nixon sent a nuclear-armed ship to the Bay of Bengal, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.
“Let’s remember, the Pakistanis have been our friends in these late few days,” Nixon told Kissinger. In a handwritten note penned nearly a month into Yahya’s military campaign, Nixon told White House staffers: “To all hands. Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.” When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto eventually ousted Yahya, Nixon coaxed Bhutto not to hang Yahya for treason.
Nixon’s approach to Pakistan, troubling as we may find it, was par for Washington’s Cold War course. Indeed, during this era of competition with the Soviet Union, the United States supported a swath of autocrats from Indonesia to Chile. Again and again, we overlooked leaders’ lack of liberalism at home as long as they supported America abroad.
And while these relationships sometimes produced strategic gains — like Nixon’s normalization of ties with China — it’s impossible to look any Bengali in the face, or even read Carney and Miklian’s book, and say that Nixon’s tradeoff was worth the brutal bloodshed in East Pakistan.
As the United States looks to compete with China (and Russia) today, we would do well to remember the human costs of our past authoritarian alliances. Supporting leaders like Yahya undermined America’s appeal, prompting people to call out Washington’s hypocrisy as justification for closer ties with the Soviet Union.
People everywhere have long memories. They remember their past leaders’ brutality. And they will remember who provided those despots with cover.
In fact, US support for Yahya and Nixon’s nuclear gambit was hugely unpopular in India. This fueled distrust of the United States that lingers today. Indeed, the current Indian government is staffed at all levels by people who remember these and other American errors, making them less willing to back Washington’s Russia sanctions today.
Of course, the United States cannot ignore all non-democracies, for the simple reason that there are more of them than there are democracies. But “The Vortex” should remind us of the need to stay vigilant with our partners, no matter the strategic benefits they may offer.
Charles Dunst is a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is writing a book for Hodder & Stoughton on combating autocracy.