Cold War Files: The Showdown That Almost Happened Over Bangladesh in 1971


In 2016, the United States backed India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group — but didn’t support Pakistan’s. This marked an extraordinary turning point in the United States’ relationship with these historical adversaries.

In 1971, the United States sent part of its Seventh Fleet to threaten war with India on Pakistan’s behalf.

The reasoning behind the deployment is stranger still — it was supposedly to befriend China.

The convoluted Cold War schemes of Pres. Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger help to explain why the United States threatened war with the second most populous country on Earth while also seeking to court the most populous country on the planet.

When the United Kingdom withdrew from colonial rule of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the territory was partitioned into Hindu-majority India under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Muslim Pakistan under Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

However, there were large Muslim populations on both the western and eastern flanks of the Indian sub-continent — resulting in Western and Eastern Pakistan being separated by over a thousand miles, with India in the middle.

Western Pakistan contained the capital, where the Punjabi political elites of the new nation resided. East Pakistan was populated by the Bengali, an entirely different culture speaking an entirely different language.

A significant Hindu minority resided there, unlike in West Pakistan. Despite constituting the majority of Pakistan’s population, Bengalis were second-class citizens and received little development aid.

Pakistan and India almost immediately went to war over Kashmir, a Muslim-majority state whose Hindu ruler elected to join India in exchange for assistance putting down a local revolt. The incident escalated to a full-scale confrontation which simmers to this day.

During the 1950s, the United States and the Soviet Union vied to recruit India and Pakistan into their respective Cold War camps. India remained a democracy, and led the non-aligned movement seeking to avoid entanglement with one side or the other.

However, India’s cordial relationship with the Soviet Union, including major arms deals, resulted in uneven relations with Washington.

Pakistan, by contrast, received most of its military and economic aid from the United States. Military coups in Pakistan didn’t sour the relationship — but a 1965 war between India and Pakistan brought an embargo on all U.S. military aid to both countries. Millions in economic aid continued to flow, however.

Read the Remainder at War is Boring


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