199. Editorial Note

President Nixon, Secretary of State Rogers, and National Security Assistant Kissinger met in the Oval Office of the White House at 12:30 p.m. on November 24, 1971, to discuss developments in South Asia in light of the expanding conflict in East Pakistan. Rogers began the conversation by denying that there was any difference in perspective on South Asia between the White House and the Department of State and offering his assessment of how the United States should respond to the crisis. “First, it seems to me we should engage in the maximum diplomatic efforts to do everything we can to caution restraint on both sides at the highest level always so that everyone can look at the record and see that we have done everything that we can diplomatically. Secondly, I think that our relations with Yahya are good and should continue to be good and we should continue to keep very close to him. Three, I donʼt think we should try to mastermind a political solution. I never thought so. I donʼt think it is possible and I think he [Yahya] is coming to the conclusion that something has to be done politically.” Rogers went on: “He is going to have to do it on his own.” He added: “I think he is going to be forced to do something, either that or he is going to get out. There is the possibility that he will turn over to Bhutto, which would not be a good development…. I think the thing we have to face up to, and not make any decisions so this is not to ask you to decide anything, but I think, I want to express my view that I think it is probably going to get worse. I donʼt see any solution for—so I think our principal objective should be to do what we can to prevent fighting from breaking out.”

Nixon referred to news reports on the fighting in East Pakistan and asked if the Indians were still denying that they had divisions fighting there. Rogers responded that they were denying it and that while they did not have divisions involved, India was in East Pakistan in brigade strength. Kissinger noted that the Indian brigades were supported by artillery, air, and armor. Rogers concluded that India would “get more involved” in the fighting in East Pakistan and that Pakistanʼs position would progressively deteriorate. “I think we have to face the fact that Yahyaʼs position militarily is extremely weak. Heʼs got 60–80 thousand men in East Pakistan.” Nixon interjected: “Heʼll be demolished there.” Rogers pointed to the logistical problems confronted by Pakistan. “It is a 2500 mile flight” to resupply the troops in East Pakistan. “The logistics, you know, are impossible…. My own judgment is that probably it will get worse, and probably we will have to face up to the fact that it will get worse.” He added: “Our ability to affect the course of events is quite limited.” Rogers noted that he had instructed Department of State officials to delay processing export licenses to [Page 556] India and not to make any commitments on economic assistance to India. But he felt that these were effectively symbolic gestures that would not serve to deter India: “The leverage we have on India is very minimal. If we take some action against them, which you might decide to do, it would be symbolic rather than substantive.”

There was inconclusive discussion about whether anything would be gained by submitting the crisis to the United Nations Security Council. Nixon then reverted to Rogersʼ observation that the United States appeared to be limited to symbolic gestures in attempting to restrain India. “I know it can be said that it wonʼt do any good, and we donʼt have any leverage, and itʼs only symbolic and the rest. But on the other hand, I want you to look into what we could do that is symbolic because “I think we need some symbolism.” He recognized the realities of the situation: “Looking at the balance there, the Indians are going to win…. Pakistan will disintegrate.” It was therefore “very much in our interest to get the damned thing cooled if we can…. Under those circumstances, it seems to me that, clearly apart from the fact that Yahya has been more decent to us than she has, clearly apart from that, I think that our policy wherever we can should definitely be tilted toward Pakistan, and not toward India. I think India is more at fault…. Having said that, it seems to me that our whole game has got to be played—if you could find something symbolic to do I think it really has to be … [He did not complete this thought.] She knows that we did not shoot blanks when she was here. Maybe it doesnʼt mean anything…. In terms of the merits of the situation, to the extent that we can tilt it toward Pakistan, I would prefer to play that. Thatʼs where the UN game comes in.” Rogers felt that if the issue was taken up by the United Nations “Pakistan will come off better than India.”

Rogers “agreed fully” that the United States should tilt toward Pakistan. The question was how to do it. He felt there were several possibilities. “One would be right now weʼd just announce that weʼre not going to grant any more export licenses…. We actually could embargo everything in the pipeline…. We may have $10 or $15 million worth in the pipeline…. military equipment…. We could say that weʼre not going to permit economic assistance [to be] committed, itʼs about $11 million worth. Itʼs insignificant. I think that would be probably not a wise thing to do because weʼre going to have to provide help for them for the refugees anyway.” Rogers added that “300 and some odd million is done in irrevocable letters of credit, so we canʼt get out of that.” Nixon said “I just may want to take a hard line on that.” Kissinger agreed with Rogers that it would be hard to finesse the letters of credit that had been issued.

Whatever the constraints, Nixon was determined to do something that might serve to restrain India: “I feel that we ought to do something [Page 557] symbolic, I really … feel that something symbolic might have an effect on restraining India.” Rogers suggested an announcement on November 26 of a suspension of any further export licenses. Nixon indicated that he wanted to review his policy options before meeting again on November 26. He was wary of economic sanctions that might prove “useless.” He said he was looking for an approach that was “very firm.” “In anything that we say,” he added, “there should be a very positive statement that the United States commitment to help refugees, to help hungry people, et cetera remains.” He felt that military assistance, on the other hand, should be halted.

The conversation continued with Kissingerʼs interpretation of Indiaʼs objectives in the crisis. He saw India as striving to split the two wings of Pakistan, with West Pakistan ultimately reduced to the status of Afghanistan, and East Pakistan similarly reduced to the status of Bhutan. Rogers viewed the conflict as growing out of the deeply ingrained sectarian animosity that had animated the initial division of the subcontinent. There was general agreement with Nixonʼs assessment of Yahya Khan as a “decent and reasonable man” if “not always smart politically.” All three viewed the prospect of Yahya stepping aside in favor of Bhutto with trepidation. Nixonʼs assessment of Bhutto was that he was “a total demagogue.” In a concluding admonition to Rogers and Kissinger, Nixon said: “I donʼt want to get caught in the business where we take the heat for a miserable war that we had nothing to do with.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Recording of conversation among Nixon, Rogers and Kissinger, November 24, 971, 12:27–1:12 p.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 624–21) A transcript of this conversation is published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–7, Documents on South Asia, 1969–1972, Document 156.