The Platform

A family celebrating Bangladesh's independence. (Sajeeb Ahmed Photography)

Among the many things Henry Kissinger got wrong was his opposition to an independent Bangladesh.

In the waning days of November this year, the world witnessed the passing of Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, whose tenure bridged the fraught expanse of the Cold War. His death has resurfaced long-standing resentments and sparked heated debate over his legacy.

While Kissinger was favored by the political elite for his realist stance on nuclear arms, and national and international security, his strategies were loathed by countless affected by his policies, notably in Vietnam and Cambodia, where the repercussions of his authorization to indiscriminately bomb these nations during the 1970s are still being felt. His controversial actions earned him the label of a war criminal in some circles, despite paradoxically winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in negotiating the end of the Vietnam War—a conflict marked by the loss of over a million lives, including through the use of chemical weapons.

Kissinger’s role in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 is equally infamous, particularly for his support of the Pakistani regime’s genocidal campaign and his dismissive reference to an independent Bangladesh as a ‘basket case.’ His counsel to President Richard Nixon led to the deployment of the U.S. 7th Fleet to the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly to pressure for a UN ceasefire that would have undermined Bangladesh’s fight for independence through intimidation. This decision raises questions about his opposition to Bangladesh’s independence, given the widespread support for ending the genocide and halting Pakistani massacres in what is now Bangladesh. The explanation may be twofold: Kissinger’s personal adherence to realpolitik and his defense of U.S. national interests.

As a Harvard-trained political scientist who escaped Nazi Germany, Kissinger’s Jewish background and the shadow of the Holocaust influenced his worldview. His academic alignment with the realist school in international relations underscored the idea that the state is the paramount actor on the global stage, aiming primarily to fulfill its national interests, including the attainment of power and security, especially in uncertain times. To a realist, even the gravest actions are permissible if they serve national interests, a concept known as political realism.

Kissinger’s vision of realpolitik, which prioritizes practicality over moral or ideological considerations, influenced his decisions serving both Nixon and President Gerald Ford. His application of realpolitik aimed at containing communism and ensuring U.S. dominance. His policies included controversial measures such as advocating for a nuclear first strike when he deemed it necessary for national survival.

His realpolitik was instrumental in his tolerance of the Pakistani military’s genocide, given Pakistan’s status as a key ally against communism in South Asia and a conduit to China, which was a pivotal aspect of Kissinger’s foreign policy achievements. This underscores the dismissal of Archer Blood’s warnings and the misinformation fed to Nixon, all to keep the diplomatic channels to China open.

Kissinger’s refusal to apologize for his role in these events, his miscalculations concerning Bangladesh, and his actions in other nations, as per international law, cast him as a controversial figure who pursued power and credibility at any cost. His legacy is marred by his advocacy of genocide, intimidation through military force, and the misuse of power, yet the rise of Bangladesh as a significant regional player serves as a testament to the resilience of a nation he once underestimated.

Khandakar Tahmid Rezwan is pursuing a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka. His research interests include theories, military security, counterintelligence, international law and geopolitics.