24. Editorial Note

Between December 10 and 12, 1971, the military crisis in South Asia reached a climax. Assistant to the President Henry Kissinger and Soviet Minister Counselor Vorontsov as well as President Nixon and Soviet leaders exchanged multiple messages in an attempt to bring an end to the fighting and resolve the crisis.

On December 10, at 11:59 a.m., Kissinger met with Vorontsov and outlined a newly modified U.S. proposal for a settlement of the war that no longer required Indian withdrawal, but instead a cease-fire and standstill agreement between India and Pakistan monitored by United Nations representatives in East and West Pakistan. After the cease-fire took effect, negotiations would lead to troop withdrawal and satisfaction for Bengali aspirations in East Pakistan. (Kissinger’s Record of Schedule; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–1976, and White House Years, page 905) In describing the meeting to President Nixon, Kissinger reported that he told Vorontsov that the United States had a secret treaty with Pakistan (actually a secret understanding, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume XIX, Document 100, and footnote 6, Document 191) and characterized his informing the Soviet Minister Counselor of it as a “veiled ultimatum.” Nixon responded, “If Brezhnev does not have the good judgment not to push us to the wall on this miserable issue, we may as well forget the summit.” Kissinger assured the President that there would be an acceptable cease-fire by December 12 or 13 supported by the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, December 10, 1971, 12:47–1:01 p.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 635–17) Also on December 10, Nixon sent Brezhnev a letter responding to Brezhnev’s letter of December 8; see Document 22 and footnote 2 thereto. Nixon’s letter proposed a joint USUSSR appeal [Page 73]for an immediate cease-fire. Nixon suggested that if the Soviet Union was unwilling, the United States would conclude: “there is in progress an act of aggression directed at the whole of Pakistan, a friendly country toward which we have obligations.” Nixon asked Brezhnev to use his influence and take responsibility to restrain India. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 492, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 8)

At 7:30 p.m. on December 11, Kissinger telephoned the President and discussed taking the issue to the UN Security Council the next day. Nixon insisted that “we have to use the word aggression—naked aggression.” Kissinger agreed: “And if this continues, now that East Pakistan has practically fallen there can no longer be any doubt that we are dealing with naked aggression supported by Soviet power.” Kissinger suggested informing the Soviet leaders what the United States planned to do in the Security Council the next day. Nixon was at first dubious about “telling the Russians before we hear from them,” but then agreed that Kissinger should inform Vorontsov that night. Kissinger suggested: “We will then take public steps, including the Security Council steps, in which we will publicly have to say what their [USSR’s] role is.” The President responded, “Well, I would rather it be stated in which it will be clear what their role is—that the steps would inevitably show what their role is unless they cooperate in a policy of stopping aggression at this point.” Next Kissinger and Nixon discussed China’s probable reaction, with the President doubting they would do anything and Kissinger suggesting they would support Pakistan. Kissinger then complained, “Bleeding hearts are saying that we are driving India away and that no one mentions what the Russians are doing.” The President then authorized Kissinger to call Vorontsov. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 370, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)

Soon after this telephone discussion (there is no time on the transcript), Kissinger called Vorontsov and informed him of his discussion with the President. Kissinger told Vorontsov: “He [Nixon] has asked me to tell you that if we don’t hear from you by tomorrow morning that we will proceed unilaterally. We have now waited for 48 hours and in a matter that affects the peace of the world in these circumstances we will proceed unilaterally and if we do we will have to state our view about the involvement of other countries.” Vorontsov replied “Kuznetsov [Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister] is embarked on a mission to India now; and I have reasons to believe that that’s in direct connection to whatever we have discussed here.” After confirming when Kuznetsov left—that morning, Moscow time—Kissinger told Vorontsov, “I cannot stress to you sufficiently seriously how gravely we view the situation.” The Soviet Minister Counselor said he understood, that Kuznetsov’s trip also showed the Soviets’ serious view. [Page 74] Vorontsov suggested that he might have something from Moscow the next day. Kissinger responded, “Well, I understand it, you have to understand that we have not made a move for 72 hours in order to give us a chance of moving jointly. We cannot in all honor wait any longer.” Vorontsov asked what Kissinger meant by unilateral action. Kissinger answered: “We will of course move unilaterally in the UN, but we may also take certain other steps which were not irrevocable [but which] would be preferable if we did not have to take them.” Kissinger added that, “We again want to underline that this is something that we prefer to do.” Vorontsov said he understood and “in Moscow they understand that.” Kissinger was referring to U.S. plans to move an aircraft carrier task force into the Bay of Bengal, but he did not specifically inform Vorontsov of that fact. Vorontsov promised to transmit Kissinger’s message to Moscow. (Ibid.)

The morning of December 12, President Nixon and Kissinger, later joined by Deputy Assistant to the President Haig, had a long meeting on South Asia in which they agreed to send a “hot line” message to Moscow, the first use of that channel by the Nixon administration. Nixon outlined the message as follows: “Basically all we are doing is asking for a reply. We’re not letting the Russians diddle us along. Point one. Second, all we are doing is to reiterate what I said to the Agricultural Minister and what you [Kissinger] said to Vorontsov.” Nixon and Kissinger agreed this was a good plan and a bold move. Most of the meeting was taken up with discussing China’s potential reaction, especially after Haig informed the President and Kissinger that the Chinese wanted to meet with them. The three men discussed the likelihood of Soviet military action against China in the event of Chinese military moves to threaten India. Kissinger stated: “If the Soviets move against them and we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.” The President asked: “So what do we do if the Soviets move against them? Start lobbing nuclear weapons?” Kissinger suggested that if the Soviets moved against China it would be “the final showdown” and if the Soviets succeeded “we will be finished.” After tentatively considering restraining the Chinese, Kissinger suggested, “I think we can’t call them off frankly” Kissinger continued, “If we call them off, I think our China initiative is pretty well down the drain.” The three men then discussed the crisis at length in ever increasing disastrous scenarios. Kissinger suggested, “If the outcome of this is that Pakistan is swallowed by India, China is destroyed, defeated, humiliated by the Soviet Union, it will be a change in the world balance of power of such magnitude that the security of the United States may be forever, certainly for decades—we will have a ghastly war in the Middle East.” The President then suggested that China and the Soviet Union would not go to war, but Kissinger demurred. Finally the President agreed with Haig and Kissinger that if the Chinese moved against India, the United States [Page 75]would tell the Soviets that war with China was “unacceptable.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Recording of conversation among Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig, December 12, 1971, 8:45 a.m.–9:42 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 637–3)

At 10:05 a.m., Vorontsov called Kissinger and read him the text of a message from the Soviet leadership, which Vorontsov then gave to Haig at 10:45 a.m. The message read: “The first contacts with the Government of India and personally with Prime Minister I. Gandhi on the question which was raised by President Nixon in his letter [December 10] testify to the fact that the Government of India has no intention to take any military actions against West Pakistan. The Soviet leaders believe that this makes the situation easier and hope that the Government of Pakistan will draw from this appropriate conclusions. As far as other questions raised in the President’s letter are concerned the answers will be given in the shortest of time.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 492, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 8)

At 10:27 a.m., Kissinger and the President met again in the Oval Office to discuss the hot line message in light of the interim Soviet message read to Kissinger at 10:05 a.m. They revised the hot line message. The President and Kissinger alternated between optimism and fear that the crisis could take a dangerous turn, especially if the Chinese supported Pakistan. The overall assessment was one of optimism that the Soviet Union was unwilling to move towards military confrontation with the United States. (Ibid., White House Tapes, Recording of conversation among Nixon, Kissinger, and Haig, December 12, 1971, 10:27–10:37 a.m., Oval Office, Conversation No. 637–6) At 11:30 a.m., the White House dispatched the “hot line” message to Brezhnev drafted earlier that morning by Kissinger and the President. It read: “Mr. General Secretary: I have just received your interim message concerning the grave situation in the Indian Subcontinent. However, after delaying for 72 hours in anticipation of your reply to my conversation with Minister Matskevich and Counselor Vorontsov I had set in train certain moves in the United Nations Security Council at the time mentioned to Counselor Vorontsov. These cannot now be reversed. I must also note that the Indian assurances still lack concreteness. I am still prepared to proceed along the lines set forth in my letter of December 10, as well as in the conversations with your Chargé d’Affaires Vorontsov, and my talk with your Agricultural Minister. In view of the urgency of the situation and the need for concerted action I propose that we continue closest consultations through established confidential channels. I cannot emphasize too strongly that time is of the essence to avoid consequences neither of us want.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 492, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 8)

Kissinger then called Vorontsov at 11:45 a.m. to inform him about the “hot line” message and to chastise him about not receiving a [Page 76]message from the Soviet leadership until after 10 a.m. despite Kissinger’s earlier insistence to Vorontsov that the United States would move in the UN Security Council that morning unless they received a Soviet response by 9 a.m. Although concerned about trouble in the Security Council, Vorontsov suggested there would be an agreement from India by the time the Council met. Vorontsov then hoped that “maybe everything will fall into place.” Kissinger responded: “We can still make it fall into place.” “We need an agreement,” Vorontsov said. “I hope you will not be insistent on a fist fight in the Security Council because we are in agreement now. All that is needed now is the tactical things. The terms will be acceptable to you.” Kissinger responded: “You will find us cooperative. Make sure your leaders understand this.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 370, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)

Before leaving for the Azores with the President to meet with French President Pompidou, Kissinger called Vorontsov at 12:30 p.m. and gave him the following message: “Yuli, I just talked to the President again. I reported our conversation to him and he asked me to tell you that we will work it out in a spirit so there are no winners or losers. And so we are not looking for any public humiliation of anybody. We also believe—and we will use our influence in the Security Council as it evolves to come up with a compromise so far as the UN is concerned in which everybody gives up a little. We are also prepared to proceed on our understandings on which you are working. We want to make sure that you approach us first so that for [from] now on we will not take any additional steps beyond what we have told you… and then work out a strategy and tactics and then work toward a solution as rapidly as possible. That is the spirit in which we will approach it as soon as we get confirmation from you.” (Ibid.)

The afternoon of December 12, Haig met with Chinese Permanent Representative to the United Nations Huang Hua in New York and discovered that China was not prepared to support Pakistan militarily, but rather wanted a cease-fire, mutual troop withdrawal, and settlement brokered by the United Nations. The full text of the conversation between Haig and Huang Hua, which was sent to Nixon and Kissinger en route to the Azores, is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 177.

Haig called Vorontsov at 7:40 p.m. on December 12 to inform him that he had just spoken to the President and Kissinger in the Azores. Haig stated the President and Kissinger were holding up the movement of the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal for 24 hours to give the Soviets time to nail down an agreement with the Indians and to avoid publicity. Vorontsov responded: “During this 24 hours we might have good results.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 370, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)