The Presidency 1971
On the morning of November 4, I met in the Oval Office with the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Her visit to Washington came at a critical time. Eight months earlier there had been a rebellion in East Pakistan against the government of President Yahya Khan. Indian officials reported that nearly 10 million refugees fled from East Pakistan into India. We knew that Yahya Khan eventually would have to yield to East Pakistan’s demands for independence, and we urged him to take a more moderate and conciliatory line. We could not have known the extent to which India would seize this opportunity not just to destroy Pakistan’s control of East Pakistan but to weaken West Pakistan as well.
Mrs. Gandhi complimented me highly on the way I was winding down the war in Vietnam and on the boldness of the China initiative. We talked about the uneasy situation in Pakistan, and I stressed how important it was that India not take any actions that would exacerbate it.
She earnestly assured me that India was not motivated in any way by anti-Pakistan attitudes. “India has never wished the destruction of Pakistan or its permanent crippling,” she said. “Above all, India seeks the restoration of stability. We want to eliminate chaos at all costs.”
I later learned that, even as we spoke, Mrs. Gandhi knew that her generals and advisers were planning to intervene in East Pakistan and were considering contingency plans for attacking West Pakistan as well.
Even though India was officially neutral and continued to receive foreign aid from us, Mrs. Gandhi had gradually become aligned with the Soviets, and received substantial economic and military aid from Moscow. President Ayub Khan and his successor, Yahya Khan had responded by developing Pakistan’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. With Moscow tied to New Delhi and Peking tied to Islamabad, the potential for the subcontinent’s becoming a dangerous area of confrontation between the Communist giants was great.
In our conversation that morning I was disturbed by the fact that although Mrs. Gandhi professed her devotion to peace, she would not make any concrete offers for de-escalating the tension. Yahya Khan had agreed to move his troops away from the border if India would do the same, but she would not make a similar commitment.
I said, “Absolutely nothing could be served by the disintegration of Pakistan. For India to initiate hostilities would be almost impossible to understand.” I said that in some respects the situation was similar to that in the Middle East: just as American and Soviet interests were involved there, so Chinese, Soviet and American interests were at stake in South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. “It would be impossible to calculate precisely the steps which other great powers might take if India were to initiate hostilities,” I said.
A month later, primed with Soviet weapons, the Indian army attacked East Pakistan. Fighting also erupted along the border with West Pakistan, but it was impossible to tell whether the Indian objective there was to pin down Pakistani forces or whether the action was the prelude to a full-scale attack. Battle plans of such dimensions are not formulated in less than a month, and I could not help thinking that Mrs. Gandhi had purposely deceived me in our meeting. I was also concerned that the Soviets had ignored several, clear signals from us that we would react very unfavourably if they supported India in an invasion of Pakistan. I felt that one of the primary Soviet motives was to show the world that, despite the much-heralded Sino-American rapprochement, the U.S.S.R. was still the premier Communist power. In fact, the Soviets moved troops to the Chinese border in an unsubtle attempt to tie up Chinese forces and prevent them from going to the aid of Pakistan.
I felt it was important to discourage both Indian aggression and Soviet adventurism, and I agreed with Kissinger’s recommendation that we should demonstrate our displeasure with India and our support for Pakistan. To coordinate our planning, Kissinger convened a meeting of the Washington Special Action Group (WSAG), composed of representatives from State, Defense, CIA, and the NSC. He found that the State Department felt that independence for East Pakistan was inevitable and desirable, and that India had limited aims in East Pakistan and no designs on West Pakistan. The risk of Soviet or Chinese intervention, according to this reasoning, was small. The State Department, therefore, argued that we should keep calm, sit back, and let the inevitable happen.
I completely disagreed with this bland assessment. I wanted to let the Soviets know that we would strongly oppose the dismemberment of Pakistan by a Soviet ally using Soviet arms. Kissinger, therefore, summoned Soviet Charge Vorontsov to the White House and told him that this crisis had once again brought our relations to a watershed because we considered that promoting a war in the Indian subcontinent was inconsistent with improved relations with us.
Kissinger said that we wanted a cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Indian troops from Pakistan. Once the fighting had stopped, the parties could begin to negotiate a political settlement of the problem. We recognized that political autonomy for East Pakistan would be the probable outcome of a political solution, and we were willing to work in that direction. The main point was that the fighting should stop and the danger of a great power confrontation should be removed.
The next day I wrote a letter to Brezhnev that left no doubt about my feelings:
The objective fact now is that Indian military are being used in an effort to impose political demands and to dismember the sovereign state of Pakistan. It is also a fact that your government has aligned itself with this Indian policy . . .
I am convinced that the spirit in which we agreed that the time had come of us to meet in Moscow next May requires from both of us the utmost restraint and the most urgent action to end the conflict and restore territorial integrity in the subcontinent.
At eleven that night, Vorontsov delivered a note replying to the points Kissinger had made the day before. It accused the United States of not being active enough in maintaining peace, and it proposed an immediate cease-fire coupled with a demand that Pakistan immediately recognise the independence of East Pakistan. The Soviets clearly intended to play a hard line. What we had to do, therefore, was remain absolutely steadfast behind Pakistan. If we failed to help Pakistan, then Iran or any other country within the reach of Soviet influence might begin to question the dependability of American support. As Kissinger put it, “We don’t really have any choice. We can’t allow a friend o ours and China’s to get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia’s.”
On December 9 Vorontsov arrived with a long letter from Brezhnev. In an attempt to put the shoe on the other foot, he said that the crux of the problem lay in finding ways to exert influence on Yahya Khan to give up East Pakistan. Kissinger felt that the cordial tone of the letter at least indicated some responsive movement on the Soviet side, but I expressed my doubts.
In the meantime, the crisis had taken a disturbing turn. Through intelligence sources we learned that at a meeting of the Indian Cabinet Mrs. Gandhi had led a discussion of plans to expand the war on the western front and to invade West Pakistan. Kissinger called the Indian Ambassador, virtually told him that we knew his government’s plans, and demanded that the Ambassador urge New Delhi to reconsider any precipitate action.
The Soviet Minister of Agriculture happened to be visiting Washington at this time. I knew he was a close friend of Brezhnev’s, so I asked him to carry back a personal message to Brezhnev from me, conveying my seriousness in saying that it was incumbent upon the two of us as the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers not to allow our larger interests to become embroiled in the actions of our smaller friends.
Late that afternoon I authorised Admiral Moorer to dispatch a task force of eight ships, including the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise, from Vietnam to the Bay of Bengal.
The military situation in East Pakistan was hopeless. The numerically superior Indians had been joined by fierce Bengali rebels, and Yahya Khan’s forces were in total retreat. The almost unbelievable cruelty of the fighting on both sides had turned the situation into a nightmare. Millions of people were left homeless before the fighting ended.
Finally, Yahya recognised that he should follow the course of action we had been recommending: that he could no longer defend East Pakistan and that he should concentrate his forces in the defence of West Pakistan, in which event I indicated he would have my complete support. On December 9 Pakistan accepted the UN General Assembly’s call for a cease-fire. India rejected it, however, and tension was still rising along the border in West Pakistan, as I wrote another letter to Brezhnev calling on him to join me in ending the crisis before we ourselves were dragged into it. I began by stating that, in our view, his proposal for the political independence of East Pakistan had been met by Pakistan’s own action. Then I wrote:
This must now be followed by an immediate cease-fire in the West. If this does not take place, we would have to conclude that there is in progress an act of aggression directed at the whole of Pakistan, a friendly country toward which we have obligations.
I therefore propose an immediate joint appeal for a complete cease-fire. Meanwhile, I urge you in the strongest terms to restrain India with which, by virtue of your treaty, you have great influence and for whose actions you must share responsibility.
On December 11 we waited all day for a reply from Brezhnev. This delay was intolerable, since the possibility of an Indian attack on West Pakistan increased with each passing hour. On December 12, shortly before I was to fly to the Azores for a Franco-American Summit with President Pompidou on the international monetary crisis, a brief reply arrived from Moscow, stating simply that the Government of India had no intention of taking any military action against West Pakistan.
I immediately sent back a message that the Indian assurances lacked any concreteness. In view of the urgency of the situation and the need for concerted action, I proposed that we continue consultations through the secret Kissinger-Dobrynin channel. I added that I could not emphasise too strongly that time was the essence to avoid consequences that neither of us wanted.
Despite the urgent tone of my message, the hot-line wires were cold until 5 A.M. the next day, when a three-sentence message arrived that the Soviets were conducting a “clarification” of the circumstances in India and would inform us of the results without delay.
In Washington on December 14, Vorontsov handed Haig another message from the Kremlin. Once again it offered only vague assurances that India had no intention of taking any military action against Pakistan. Since this reply offered no improvement over the earlier message, I agreed with Kissinger that Haig should call Vorontsov and tell him so.
On the flight from Azores back to Washington, Kissinger talked to the three pool reporters flying aboard Air Force One. One of them asked if there was any danger that the crisis might deteriorate to the point that it would affect my plans to go to the summit. “Not yet,” Kissinger replied, “but we will have to wait and see what happens in the next few days.” the reporters immediately realised that they just been given a big story. “Should we infer from statement that if the Russians don’t begin to exercise a restraining influence very soon, the plans for the President’s trip might be changed?” one asked.
Kissinger replied, “We are definitely looking to the Soviets to become a restraining influence in the next few days, and if they continue to deliberately encourage military actions, we might have to take a new look at the President’s plans.”
As soon as the plane landed, the reporters rushed to share their notes with their colleagues and file their stories. The early evening news programs flashed the report around the country and around the world.
Kissinger summoned Vorontsov to the White House and told him that I had been concerned that the Soviet leaders were not doing everything possible to arrive at a settlement. In view of their continued delays, I had begun to believe that they were dealing only in words, with the intention of letting events on the ground dictate the ultimate outcome.
“It is not President Nixon’s style to threaten, ” Kissinger said. “He has long sought a genuine exchange in U.S.-Soviet relations. Despite his desire, however, your government has proceeded to equip India with great amounts of sophisticated armaments. If the Soviet government were to support or to pressure other foreign leaders to dismember or to divide an ally of the United States, how can they expect progress in our mutual relationships?”
The next day, Kissinger called Vorontsov back and showed him the text of a letter I had written to Kosygin urging that our countries take prompt and responsible steps to ensure that the military conflict not spread and that assurances be given against territorial acquisition by either side.
Vorontsov complained that the Indians were proving very resistant to Soviet pressure. Kissinger replied, “There is no longer any excuse. The President has made any. Umber of personal appeals, all of which have been rejected, and it now time to move.”
Vorontsov said that the Soviets were prepared unconditionally to guarantee that there would be no Indian attack on West Pakistan or on Kashmir. But to do this publicly would mean that they were, in effect speaking for a friendly country. In other words, the Soviets would urge the Indians to accept a cease-fire as long as they did not have to do so publicly. Without the prospect of Soviet support and aid, the Indians were almost certain to agree to a settlement.
The next day Yahya Khan’s forces in East Pakistan surrendered unconditionally. On December 17, the explosive situation on the western front was also resolved when Pakistan accepted the Indian offer of a cease-fire there. By using diplomatic signals and behind-the-scenes pressures we had been able to save West Pakistan from the imminent threat of Indian aggression and domination. We had also once again avoided a major confrontation with the Soviet Union.
The Indo-Pakistan war involved stakes much higher than the future of Pakistan–and that was high enough. It involved the principle of whether big nations supported by the Soviet Union would be permitted to dismember their smaller neighbours. Once that principle was allowed the world would have become more unstable and unsafe.
The Chinese played a very cautious role in this period. They had troops poised on the Indian border, but they would not take the risk of coming to the aid of Pakistan by attacking India, because they understandably feared that the Soviets might use this action as an excuse for attacking China. They consequently did nothing, but the presence of their forces probably had a deterrent effect on India.
Three days after the cease-fire was arranged, we sent the Chinese a brief description of its major points. We concluded, “It is the U.S. view that recent events in South Asia involve sobering conclusions. The governments of the People’s Republic of China and the United States should not again find themselves in a position where hostile global aims can be furthered through the use of proxy countries.”
As a result of the Indo-Pakistan crisis, my respect and regard for Mrs. Gandhi diminished. A few months later, in March 1972, after having seen a film biography of Mahatma Gandhi–who was no relation to her–during a weekend at Key Biscayne, I dictated a brief reflection in the diary I had begun keeping in November 1971.
As I saw Gandhi’s assassination and heard his words on violence, I realised how hypocritical the present Indian leaders are, with Indira Gandhi talking about India’s victory wings being clipped when Shastri went to Tashkent and her duplicitous attitude towards us when she actually made up her mind to attack Pakistan at the time she saw me in Washington and assured me she would not. Those who resort to force, without making excuses, are bad enough– but those who resort to force while preaching to others about their use of force deserve no sympathy whatever.
One of the most serious incidents of the Indo-Pakistan crisis occurred on our domestic front. On December 14, while we were still uncertain whether India would attack West Pakistan, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson published verbatim excerpts of the minutes of the WSAG meetings of December 2,4, and 6. The minutes revealed Kissinger’s statements to the group relaying my strong pressure to “tilt” toward Pakistan, which differed from the posture that had been adopted by some State Department sources as well as from the more neutral public position we embraced in order to exercise greater leverage on all parties. From a diplomatic point of view, the leak was embarrassing; from the point of view of national security, it was intolerable.
The leak came as a shock because WSAG meetings had been attended by only the highest-ranking members of the military intelligence organisations and the State Department. We learned that Rear Admiral Robert O. Welander believed that one of the leaked documents had to have come from his office, which handled liaison between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council. Bud Krogh and David Young were assigned to investigate.
Suspicion centred on a young Navy yeoman assigned to Welanders’s office. In the course of questioning, Young learned that for some time the yeoman has been making copies of secret NSC documents. He had rifled burn bags for carbon or xerox copies, and in some cases, he actually took documents for copying out of Kissinger’s and Haig’s briefcases. On one occasion, he copied a memo of Kissinger’s conversation with Chou En-lai during the first secret mission to Peking. He passed the documents to his superiors in the Pentagon.
We were not able to establish beyond doubt that the yeoman was Anderson’s source. However, circumstantial evidence was strong. They were personally acquainted and had met on several occasions. Whether or not he had disclosed classified information to Anderson, the fact remained that he had jeopardised the relationship of the JCS to the White House.
I was disturbed–although not perhaps really surprised–that the JCS was spying on the White House. But I was, frankly, very reluctant to pursue this aspect of the case because I knew that if it were explored, like so many other sensitive matters it would wind up being leaked to the media where it would be completely distorted, and we would end up doing damage to the military at a time when it was already under heavy attack.
The yeoman himself presented a similar problem. I felt the circumstantial evidence that he had provided information to Anderson was convincing, and I knew that such actions could not be tolerated.
What concerns me about this story is the Ellsberg complex that drove the yeoman to put out the information. His spying on the White House for the Joint Chiefs is something that I would not particularly be surprised at, although I don’t think it’s a healthy practice. But his proceeding to put out top secret information to a newspaper columnist, because he disagreed with the policy on India is the kind of practice that must, at all costs, be stopped.
I felt, however, that it would be too dangerous to prosecute the yeoman. He had travelled with Kissinger and others on a number of secret missions and had had access to other top-secret information, which if disclosed, could have jeopardized our negotiations with China and with North Vietnam. In this respect, he was a potential time bomb that might be triggered by prosecution. We had him transferred to a remote post in Oregon and kept him under surveillance, including wiretaps for a time, to make sure that he was not dispensing any more secret information. It worked: there were no further leaks from him.