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How Ted Kennedy helped create Bangladesh

As I mentioned before, a lot more could have gone into this week’s list of Ted Kennedy’s little-remembered foreign-policy achievements. One more example is his role in the creation of Bangladesh. In 1971, the government of Pakistan, with the support of the Nixon administration, sent troops into what was then called East Pakistan, in order ...

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As I mentioned before, a lot more could have gone into this week’s list of Ted Kennedy’s little-remembered foreign-policy achievements. One more example is his role in the creation of Bangladesh. In 1971, the government of Pakistan, with the support of the Nixon administration, sent troops into what was then called East Pakistan, in order to contain a secessionist movement. This created a massive refugee crisis as millions streamed across the border to India.

Although the situation got little coverage in the United States, Kennedy, who had a lifelong interest in refugee issues and was eyeing a run against Nixon, traveled to inspect the situation:

On his return, he issued a scathing report to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Refugees. The report, “Crisis in South Asia,” spoke of “one of the most appalling tides of human misery in modern times.”

“Nothing is more clear, or more easily documented, than the systematic campaign of terror — and its genocidal consequences — launched by the Pakistani army on the night of March 25th,” he wrote.

“All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad. America’s heavy support of Islamabad is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy of East Bengal.”

The Nixon administration maintained its stance. But Kennedy’s focus on the mass killings came as everyday Americans began to share in the outrage. For instance, Beatle George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit event of its kind, was staged to further highlight the plight of Bangladeshi refugees.

Besieged, the U.S. Congress pushed through a bill to ban arms sales to Pakistan.

Kennedy received a hero’s welcome in Dhaka in 1972, just after Bangladesh gained independence. Yesterday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recalled Kennedy’s role, saying, “The people of Bangladesh will remember his contribution forever.”

“Rezwan” of Global Voices has a great roundup of Bangladeshi blogger reactions to Kennedy’s death, including “Unheard Voice,” which posts Kennedy’s original report to Congress.

Yesterday’s New York Times obit of Kennedy devoted one paragraph to his international contributions, saying he “had less impact on foreign policy than on domestic concerns.” That’s probably true. But considering the impact Kennedy had in Chile, Bangladesh, South Africa, and Northern Ireland as well as the not-insignificant role he played in the debates over Vietnam and Iraq, this says more about the size of his overall legacy than anything else.

Photo: Ted Kennedy in Dhaka in 1972. From Flickr user faria!

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating