Books review continued impact of Nixon's presidency

A refugee camp in Benapol, near the border in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), on April 14, 1971 (AP Photo/Michel Laurent)

A refugee camp in Benapol, near the border in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), on April 14, 1971 (AP Photo/Michel Laurent)

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By Gary J. Bass
Published by Vintage, $16.95




By Fredrik Logevall
Published by Random House, $20

Every few years, there is occasion to commemorate a date related to the checkered life of Richard M. Nixon. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation as president; the year before was the centennial of Nixon's birth.

Pity the remaining pockets of Nixon defenders. Fewer and fewer Americans even have memories of this sad historic figure. And among those of us who still have an interest in (and vividly recall) our nation's most controversial and inglorious presidency, the stream of White House tapes, new documents and histories -- nearly all unflattering to Nixon -- continues unabated.

Add to this a new look at a long-forgotten war and genocide -- at least long-forgotten in the United States. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the effects of a 1971 war (in which the U.S. supported Pakistan against India) still resonate deeply, emotionally and strategically.

And for good reason, as Princeton political scientist Gary J. Bass argues in his gripping history The Blood Telegram. With quiet nods of approval from Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, Pakistan's military government launched a brutal campaign of repression against the Bengalis of East Pakistan -- Pakistan at the time was a geographically truncated nation, with two halves on either side of India. (The "blood telegram" in the title refers to the courageous U.S. Foreign Service officers in East Pakistan who, in a message back to Washington, pre-Internet, warned of what Pakistan was doing and urged a reconsideration of U.S. policy.)

The Pakistan campaign resulted in a humanitarian crisis of mammoth proportions -- hundreds of thousands in what eventually became the country of Bangladesh perished, and as many as 10 million refugees fled into neighboring India.

These events drew India into war with Pakistan, a war that Pakistan soundly lost and resulted in a wounded country's embrace of militarism -- a legacy that continues with tragic consequences even today. As for Bangladesh, Bass writes, the atrocities sustained in that still-impoverished nation remain its "defining national trauma, leaving enduring scars on the country's politics and economy."

India, too, suffered from the war, not the least because the hubris of victory helped lay the foundation for the eventual domestic crackdown and repression by its wartime leader, Indira Gandhi. She is depicted here, unflatteringly, as mercurial and insecure.

A major theme of Bass' book is the extreme enmity that both Nixon and Kissinger felt toward Gandhi specifically and India generally. While some of these episodes (caught on White House tapes) have the element of a "Saturday Night Live" parody of Nixon and Kissinger ranting and scheming in the Oval Office, these paranoiac incidents are far from funny. They had tragic consequences.

Though Bass rightly calls this sorry chapter in U.S. foreign relations a gross example of moral blindness, Nixon and Kissinger viewed their geopolitical maneuvers as a way to play the "Great Game" and help ease the welcomed opening to China. China and Pakistan were allies, and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai shared Nixon's animus toward India.

Kissinger comes off here as both tetchy and fawning to an often irrational Nixon. Kissinger asked his boss, "Why would we give a damn about Bangladesh?"

Nixon replied: "We don't."

This realpolitik view of statecraft is not surprising -- for years, Kissinger has long been its major proponent. But in this particular context, it comes off as clumsy and crude. Appalling, really.

And even illegal: As Bass notes, when it came to supplying arms to Pakistan, Nixon and Kissinger engaged in covert operations to provide weapons to Pakistan from Iran and Jordan. A Democratically controlled Congress had imposed an arms embargo on Pakistan.

Nixon and Kissinger broke the law to get around Congress, Bass writes, taking "no notice of legal warnings from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House staff; in the Nixon White House, it already went without saying that the president was above the law."

Nixon plays a role, though much smaller, in Fredrik Logevall's Embers of War, a detailed history of the critical two decades, roughly 1940-60, in which a "prostrate France," exhausted by war, left Vietnam. The U.S., fresh and confident from its World War II victories, became a dominant player in Southeast Asia.

Logevall tells the story freshly. What I had forgotten or missed in other histories of Vietnam was how some of the paragons of the U.S.-Anglo establishment -- including Anthony Eden, Walter Lippmann and even Winston Churchill -- had nagging doubts about Western involvement in Vietnam. So did a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

Tellingly, Vice President Nixon was part of a faction in the President Dwight Eisenhower administration that, determined to oppose a communist presence in Southeast Asia, argued for a more aggressive stance in Vietnam.

A key takeaway from the book is how very aggressive the U.S. was in the 1950s in pressuring France to continue its military role in Vietnam, and how close the Eisenhower administration came to committing U.S. combat troops in Vietnam long before President Lyndon Johnson did.

Despite Eisenhower's continuing reputation as a canny strategic thinker, it was his administration that set the stage for much of the tragedy that was to follow in the 1960s. It did so in spite of what anyone who cared to look could plainly see, even before the milestone 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu: Vietnam was in the midst of strong anticolonial fervor.

As a result, when it came to war itself, the Americans would eventually learn the hard way what the French had: that Vietnam was a place where it was often impossible, as Lovegall writes, for outsiders to tell "friend from foe. It was a war without fronts, where the enemy was everywhere and nowhere at the same time."

The Blood Telegram and Embers of War, now both in paperback, are uncommonly fine additions to the histories of the Cold War era, showing how the effects of U.S. foreign policy have been experienced as a horror show in parts of the world.

Bass' study, though not as elegantly written as Logevall's, has about it the immediacy of good page-turning journalism. Embers of War, though a slower, longer and more deliberate book than The Blood Telegram, is a magisterial work. It has won Logevall, a Cornell University historian, the Pulitzer Prize and is close to a definitive history as anything I have ever read.

[Chris Herlinger, a contributing writer to Global Sisters Report and a frequent contributor to NCR, is also senior writer for the humanitarian agency Church World Service.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: Books review continued impact of Nixon's presidency.

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