Skip to main content

Gary J. Bass is the winner of the 2014 Lionel Gelber Prize for his book The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide. He will receive his award and deliver a free public lecture this Thursday, April 24 at 5:30 p.m., at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Henry Kissinger and Archer Blood were the same age, both 48 years old in 1971 – a pivotal year for both men. You almost certainly know who the former man is, but may well have never heard of the latter. Yet Mr. Blood's is a name worth remembering. This little-known U.S. diplomat deserves to be commemorated in the annals of conscience.

Mr. Blood was a patriot and a career man, a tall and rather bookish gentleman from Virginia, disciplined and precise. After serving as a naval supply officer in the Second World War, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1947. He channelled his considerable ambitions into his work, moving up through tours of duty in Greece, West Germany, Algeria and Afghanistan.

His fateful assignment would be in East Pakistan. He was first posted there as a political officer and later as consul-general, the top-ranked American diplomat to a population of about 75 million people.

Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan had been a single Muslim country with a bizarrely bifurcated geography: the dominant West Pakistan (today, simply Pakistan) was split from downtrodden East Pakistan (today, Bangladesh) by a thousand miles of Indian soil. This order began to come unglued in 1970, when Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan won a free and fair nationwide election. After a series of constitutional negotiations deadlocked, on March 25, 1971, the military dictatorship based in West Pakistan launched a brutal crackdown on the Bengalis in the country's east wing.

Mr. Blood found himself with a bloodbath outside his doors. He spent the night of March 25 on the roof of his official residence, watching as tracer bullets lit up the sky, listening to the machine guns and tank guns. In the grim days that followed, the consul-general and his horrified staffers diligently and bravely documented what would turn out to be one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War.

Mr. Blood and some of his officials hid Bengalis in their homes. Midway through the crackdown, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department privately reckoned that some 200,000 people had died. Ten million Bengali refugees fled into India, many later perishing in ramshackle refugee camps.

But Mr. Blood's cables to Washington got no response. As recently declassified documents and White House tapes show, president Richard Nixon and Mr. Kissinger (then White House national security adviser) backed Pakistan's generals, even as the army rampaged across East Pakistan.

Pakistan was a Cold War ally, and was covertly helping with the secret American opening to China. Beyond considerations of realpolitik, Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger had an emotional grudge against India. In the Oval Office, Mr. Nixon said that the Indians needed "a mass famine." Mr. Kissinger added, "They're such bastards." Mr. Kissinger would later sneer at people who "bleed" for "the dying Bengalis."

So Mr. Blood's desperate reports had scant impact, even when he warned of "selective genocide." When his staffers drew up a formal cable dissenting from U.S. policy, Mr. Blood knew that signing on could end his career. He signed all the same, joining 20 officials in what he later called a "roll call of honour."

Mr. Kissinger was furious. Alone with Mr. Nixon in the Oval Office, he denounced Mr. Blood as "this maniac in Dhaka, the consul-general who is in rebellion." Soon afterward, the two unceremoniously ousted Mr. Blood from his high-profile post in East Pakistan, leaving him stuck at a desk back at the State Department in Washington.

While Mr. Nixon was in power, his career was stalled. Even after the president resigned over Watergate, Mr. Kissinger was ensconced as secretary of state under Gerald Ford. Mr. Blood could only try to restart his career late in his life. After a last stint in New Delhi, he retired from the Foreign Service in 1982.

Mr. Blood died in relative obscurity in 2004, with the library at the U.S. embassy in Bangladesh named after him. Meanwhile, Mr. Kissinger remains perhaps the most celebrated figure in U.S. foreign policy.

To celebrate a diplomacy of conscience, and to encourage future generations of officials to behave with such professionalism and decency, we would do well to also remember the moral legacy of Mr. Blood and his brave staffers.

The Lionel Gelber Prize was founded in 1989 by Canadian diplomat Lionel Gelber. A prize of $15,000 is awarded to the winner. The award is presented annually by the Lionel Gelber Foundation, in partnership with Foreign Policy magazine and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Interact with The Globe