Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

The “Blood Telegram” That Angered Henry Kissinger: Violence in East Pakistan/Bangladesh


Shortly after joining USAID in 1969, Desaix “Terry” Meyers found himself witnessing both the aftermath of a major natural disaster, and the devastating levels of sectarian violence that followed in East Pakistan in the early 1970s. After a cyclone hit Pakistan in the fall of 1970, killing over 500,000 people, a famine ensued. This particular famine occurred during an election in Pakistan that subsequently resulted in great levels of violence and discrimination against an ethnic Hindu minority (Bengalis) within the city of Dacca. Despite the level of violence and death that followed, especially at the University of Dacca, the United States remained “largely mute” in the midst of all the chaos. Department of State and USAID staff at the consulate (including Myers) signed a letter expressing their frustration with the lack of U.S. government action.  While he didn’t sign it, Archer Blood (the U.S. Consul General in Dacca) forwarded the letter in a cable to headquarters. The “Blood Telegram” eventually garnered a response by Henry Kissinger, who was quite upset at this rare form of correspondence. Myers was interviewed by Alexander Shakow in January 2017.

Read Desaix “Terry” Myers’ full oral history HERE.

Excerpts:
“No one knows exactly how many people were killed that night.”

The humanitarian and political aftermath of the 1970 natural disasters in East Pakistan: “Well, after the cyclone and tidal wave, because they had come at the end of a harvest, tremendous food stocks were lost. We were all concerned about a famine in East Pakistan. Far more concerned than the Pakistan government. The Pakistan government was more interested in the election scheduled for December and didn’t want a lot of international activity in the run up to the election.”

 

“They did not really recognize the extent of the emergency. And the Bengalis really resented the lack of response on the part of the Pakistanis. So when the election came, they voted 98 percent for the Awami League, which was the Bengali party. And because the Bengalis outnumbered West Pakistan’s population, they carried the election and should’ve dominated Pakistan’s Parliament. Sheikh Mujib (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), their leader, should have become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This posed real problems for the generals and for Bhutto (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto), who was leader of the Pakistan People’s Party. In any event, on March 25, Yahya Khan [President of Pakistan at that time] accused the Bengalis of treason and ordered a crackdown. That night, the Pakistan military attacked the university (Dacca University); they attacked the Hindu quarter; they arrested people across the city; they tried to neutralize the East Pakistan Rifles, the largely Bengali portion of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan.”

 

“No one knows exactly how many people were killed that night. We were watching the attacks from the top of my house in Gulshan. We could hear machine guns and see tracer bullets. We could see the fires in certain sections of towns, the sections where Hindus lived, and at the university. We could sense what was going on. In the coming days, the army continued to arrest people, particularly the intellectual leadership; they continued to target Hindus; and we began to see a flood of Hindu refugees moving into India, particularly into Calcutta (Kolkata). The U.S. administration was largely mute, describing the crackdown as an internal problem and declining to comment on it.”

“Going into work, we would see dead bodies on the streets and in the park.”

A cable dissenting with U.S. policy in Pakistan during the attack on the Bengalis: “So we sent a cable with a letter dissenting from U.S. policy. The cable later became known as “the Blood Telegram” since it was signed by Archer Blood, the U.S. Consul General in Dacca. We could see the situation deteriorating. We became concerned about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to India and a possible war with India. Twenty-one of us signed it, pretty much the entire staff of the consulate and USAID. We signed the letter which was sent off in a cable signed by Arch Blood. Arch associated himself with the principles of the letter and forwarded it in the cable, but said he couldn’t sign the dissent letter itself because of his position as Consul General. It was an interesting nuance, but it didn’t protect him from the the wrath of Kissinger (U.S. National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger) and Nixon (U.S. President Richard M. Nixon). And boy, it’s interesting reading the traffic, the memcons (memoranda of conversations) and the comments that they made to each other.”

“We could see it [the conflict] going on. Going into work, we would see dead bodies on the streets and in the park. We would pass by burnt out shanties by the railroad tracks. We could see the pockmarks and holes in the walls of the university dorms. It was brutal.”

Drafted by Tyler Ventura

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA, University of California at Berkeley                                                                        1967

     JD, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University                                   1969

 

Joined USAID                                                                                                                 1969

     East Pakistan—USAID Assistant Program Officer                                                       1970-1971

     Jakarta, Indonesia—USAID Mission Director                                                              1998-2003

     Moscow, Russian Federation—USAID Mission Director                                            2003-2007

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