With the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union at its height, the two warring global superpowers had gotten enmeshed in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Their respective military and diplomatic manoeuvres and subsequent mobilisation of naval forces to stand by their allies during the crisis pushed the world on the brink of a nuclear war—and many feared an impending World War, WWIII.
US President Nixon was desperate to establish a diplomatic link with China with the secret help of Pakistan President General Yahiya Khan who had unleashed his military on the civilian people in East Pakistan to conduct a genocide to suppress Bangalees' armed struggle against political and economic deprivation of freedom.
Official records show Nixon was hell bent to extend support to General Yahiya Khan, regardless of his crimes against humanity in East Pakistan, to prove himself a friend of Pakistan in his maneuvering to win the hearts of Chinese leadership to strengthen the US block against Soviet Union in the bipolar world.
Moreover, Pakistan was a formal ally of the then western security umbrella as a member of the 1954 SouthEast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the 1955 Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO)—the two cold war alliances led by US to prevent communism from gaining ground in South East Asia and Middle East region. The only goal of SEATO and CENTO was to contain the Soviet Union and provide support to partners in need.
Therefore, analysts say, there was an obligatory need to take some action by Nixon that could be interpreted as safeguarding the security interests of Pakistan and to send a reassuring signal to other allies about the US commitment.
The situation in China was apparently in favour of Nixon. The relation between China and India, a Soviet ally, had been soured by the Indo-China border conflict just a few years ago of the Bangladesh Liberation War.
A similar war between India and Pakistan had tainted the relation between the two neighbours who were partitioned as independent nations two decades ago in 1947.
Against this backdrop, China strengthened its relation with Pakistan in a tactic to mount pressure on India who built a strong relation with Soviet Union in a similar fashion to fortify its defensive capabilities against China and Pakistan.
Nixon had rightly chosen to play the Pakistan card to connect with China to gather more powers regionally to counter its global rival Soviet Union—the federal socialist state that too had soured its relation with China following the seven- month undeclared Sino-Soviet border conflict a few years ago.
Against China, Soviet Union's preference was India in this region. This would later appear as a game changer in the balance of power in the South Asian region during the Liberation War of Bangladesh.
From the onset of the Liberation War, India in many ways stood by Bangalis. It sheltered more than 10 million Bangladeshis who had fled to the neighbouring country with which it had a long and porous border, after Operation Searchlight launched by the
Pakistani Army. India then provided the freedom fighters with training and weapons to conduct its unconventional warfare against the Pakistan army.
The situation in the sub-continent took a grievous turn after Pakistan launched preemptive air strikes in North India on 3 December, 1971 dragging India into a full scale direct war with its neighbour for the second time since they had emerged as independent nations from British colonial rule.
The military attack launched by India on Pakistan seemed to have compelled Nixon to stand by Pakistan in line with the objectives of SEATO and CENTO and power his relentless efforts to reach out to China with the help of General Yahiya Khan.
Spurred by Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, Nixon conceived a deceptive idea to defend Pakistan. He ordered the US Seventh Fleet's Task Force 74, led by the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, to proceed towards the Bay of Bengal under the pretext of evacuating American citizens from the warzone.
Nixon also asked Beijing to mobilise troops on the Indian border. He even contemplated "lobbing nuclear weapons" at the Russians if they retaliated by going to war with China.
But as Moscow had moved its crack army divisions to the Chinese border, Beijing decided it was not going to sacrifice itself at Nixon's bidding. At any rate, China considered East Pakistan a lost cause.
Nixon however was adamant to proceed with his gunboat diplomacy.
Former Indian Navy Commander Raghavendra Mishra, a research fellow at the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation in a paper titled 'Revisiting the 1971 USS Enterprise Incident' listed reasons behind Nixon's mission.
"A broad plan of action emerged which included cutting off economic aid to India, and transfer of military equipment from other US regional allies to West Pakistan. These were to be supported by a possible naval deployment and a simultaneous move by the Chinese military along the border."
"The aim was to put pressure on the Soviet Union which, in turn, would prevail upon India from expanding the conflict. Nixon directed Kissinger to explore the option of US naval deployment with Chinese representatives before taking a final decision," he writes in the paper published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
"A livid Nixon stressed he would not allow India to break up Pakistan's core territories in the west. He warned the Indian ambassador L.K. Jha in Washington: "If the Indians continue their military operations (against West Pakistan), we must inevitably look toward a confrontation between the USSR and the US. The Soviet Union has a treaty with India; we have one with Pakistan."
Not satisfied with the envoy's reply, Nixon ordered the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal.
On 10 December, the US carrier along with its escorts left 'Yankee Station' off Vietnam. TF 74 assembled in the holding area north-east off of Singapore on 12 December. It transited through the Strait of Malacca on 14 December, arriving in the Indian Ocean on 15 December.
Henry Kissinger appeared more aggressive than Nixon in favour of Pakistan. Declassified US documents say on 9 December, Nixon wanted the US and China to jointly move against India.
That same day, during his meeting with the Chinese delegation led by Huang Hua, China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to Canada (as the US did not have diplomatic relations with China), Kissinger apprised his counterpart about the US naval task force move through a map showing the deployment of the US and Soviet forces.
India had already moved fast much before the month of December to strengthen the line of defense fearing the worst from China as Nixon asked Beijing to mobilise troops alongside Indian border.
India already strengthened its ties with the Soviets. In August 1971, it signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Soviet Union on the heels of Henry Kissinger's groundbreaking trip to China.
Indian's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent her aide DP Dhar racing back to Moscow on December 11, carrying a personal message for the Soviet's premier. Her message worked.
Soviet Navy did not take time to respond as it quickly dispatched two groups of cruisers and destroyers and a submarine armed with nuclear missiles from Vladivostok in between on 6 and 13 December of 1971. The Soviet Navy had kept a close watch on the US Seventh Fleet. So the Seventh Fleet was unable to assist Pakistan after the Indian navy attacked Pakistani warships and Karachi harbour.
The Soviet Union also sent a very strong message to China and backed it up with the deployment of 40 divisions along the Sino-Soviet border which prevented China from attacking India.
The preparations made the Soviet Ambassador to India confident as he had dismissed the possibilities of US or China intervention by emphasising that the Soviet Fleet was also in the Indian Ocean and would not allow the US Seventh Fleet to interfere.
If China moved into Ladakh, the Soviet force would respond in Sinkiang, Xinjiang.
With the gunboat diplomacy reaching its peak, the US backed by China and other allies launched diplomatic efforts in the United Nations to save Pakistan from an imminent defeat by enforcing a ceasefire between India and Pakistan.
The USA moved a number of resolutions in the UN Security Council from December 4 calling for an immediate ceasefire in East Pakistan. But it could not move further as every time Soviet Union vetoed the resolutions.
But freedom fighters were moving fast capturing new cities and areas by defeating the Pakistan army. And finally they emerged victorious forcing the Pakistan army to surrender in Dhaka.
In Washington, around 13,000km away from Dhaka, Kissinger on 16 December informed Nixon about the surrender.
The US Seventh Fleet operations however continued until the morning of 8 January 1972 when it returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines. It did not enter the Bay of Bengal, writes Navy Commander Raghavendra Mishra.
Declassified documents of the Nixon administration disclosed this horrific prospect of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia in 1971.
In an interview with Time Magazine on July 21, 1985 Nixon said he had considered using nuclear weapons in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
According to his interview Nixon considered the option of using nuclear weapons as he was concerned that the Soviets would intervene for India if China moved its troops along the Indian border in support of Pakistan.
Pulitzer winning US journalist Jack Anderson in his book "The Anderson Papers" in 1973, documented the Nixon administration's tilt towards Pakistan and how Nixon planned for the use of nuclear weapons. "Richard Nixon brought the United States to the edge of another world war. His actions were deliberate; he operated in secret; and he lied to the American people about his actions."