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It is often said in Bangladeshi newspapers that ex-US Foreign Minister Henry Kissinger once called Bangladesh a "Bottomless Basket".

If so, why and when did he say this? I.e., what was the context?

Also, did he ever revoke his statement?

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    This seems more like a question for History than Skeptics. Sep 29, 2022 at 15:34
  • To follow up on this being simple history, and not a remarkable claim, Kissenger's Wikipedia page includes plenty of similar rough stuff, including something much worse about Bangladesh: "Kissinger sneered at people who "bleed" for "the dying Bengalis" and ignored the first telegram [...] which informed the US that their allies West Pakistan were undertaking [...]"a selective genocide" targeting the Bengali intelligentsia". Sep 29, 2022 at 22:55

3 Answers 3

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  1. The original phrase was "basket case," not "bottomless basket."
  2. The expression was first used in reference to Bangladesh by U. Alexis Johnson in a meeting held on December 6, 1971. Mr. Kissinger repeated the phrase in the further discussion, but it originated with Mr. Johnson. Transcript of the meeting.

From the transcript:

Dr. Kissinger: (to Mr. Williams) Will there be a massive famine in East Pakistan?

Mr. Williams: They have a huge crop just coming in.

Dr. Kissinger: How about next spring?

Mr. Williams: Yes, there will be famine by next spring unless they can pull themselves together by the end of March.

Dr. Kissinger: And we will be asked to bail out the Bangla Desh from famine next spring?

Mr. Williams: Yes.

Dr. Kissinger: Then we had better start thinking about what our policy will be.

Mr. Williams: By March the Bangla Desh will need all kinds of help.

Mr. Johnson: Theyʼll be an international basket case.

Dr. Kissinger: But not necessarily our basket case.

In searching for information, I found that the phrase "bottomless basket" seems to appear mostly in written media from Bangladesh or India, while the original "basket case" tends to appear in western media.

The phrase "basket case" is a known expression in American English, referring to someone who is helpless and must be assisted. Originally, it referred to soldiers from World War I who had lost all their limbs in battle and had to be cared for since they could no longer care for themselves.

In common usage in the USA, "basket case" also refers to someone who has had a traumatic experience and is incapable of dealing with it. Someone whose spouse has died may be described as a "basket case." Such a person is currently incapable of dealing with the trauma, and will have to be supported and cared for in the immediate future until the person recovers enough to take charge of things again.

In the Bangladesh and Indian media, "bottomless basket" appears to be interpreted as more of what an American would call a "bottomless pit" or a "rat hole" into which money and resources disappear without having any effect. "Bottomless basket" is not a typical American expression.

The phrase is sometimes rendered as "bottomless basket case" in Bangladeshi and Indian media. Given the background of the expression "basket case" in American English, "bottomless basket case" doesn't make sense.

As used by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Kissinger, "basket case" was rather short term. It referred to the expected conditions in Bangladesh in the spring of 1972, shortly after the war of independence that Bangladesh was then fighting against Pakistan.

Due to the war, Bangladesh was going to have to deal with a lot of problems and most likely not be able to handle them on their own. The Bangladesh military was going to be in bad shape. The civilian government was going to be disorganized. The civilian population was going to have trouble getting enough food - despite there having been a good crop in taken in before December. Millions of people left Bangladesh to seek refuge in India.

Those were the conditions that led Mr. Johnson to say that Bangladesh would be a "basket case" in the spring of 1972.

The phrase "basket case" is not a polite or politic way to describe it, but it does reflect the harsh reality of a war-torn country.


You can fault the people in the meeting for being cyincal and harsh in their discussions, but they were looking for solutions to problems they knew were coming.

SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS

It was agreed that:

(1) we should bring public attention in the General Assembly, though speeches and resolutions, to the plight of the Urdu speaking minority in East Pakistan, calling on all parties to take steps to prevent a massacre;

(2) we should make known what political moves we made to foster discussions between the Bangla Desh and Islamabad, and how they were thwarted;

(3) we should show a certain coolness to the Indians;

(4) State will prepare a legal memorandum on the Indian blockade and a draft of a formal protest over the interference with American ships;

(5) State will check the legislative prohibition against third country transfer of military equipment obtained from the U.S. to Pakistan;

(6) Defense will do a paper by Tuesday, December 7, on what emergency equipment the Paks are apt to request and our ability to supply it and get it delivered;

(7) the aid cutoff to India will be announced by State today;

(8) to commence a study of our policy in the event of expected appeals for famine relief and other assistance from Bangla Desh next spring;

(9) AID will prepare a paper by Tuesday, December 7, on ways to ensure that humanitarian aid provided India for refugee relief is in fact going for that purpose.

The background seems to be that the US was supporting Pakistan (as an ally) at the time the war broke out and had tried to prevent the war by encouraging talks between the Pakistan government in Islamabad and the folks in Bangladesh. The war broke out, and India supported Bangladesh. The US supported India in assisting Bangladesh, but there was a (good bit) of uncertainty over how much of the financial aid given to India to support the Bangladesh refugees was actually being used on the Bangladesh refugees.

The discussion linked above was walking a line between supporting the US ally Pakistan while still trying to assist the folks in Bangladesh.

I suggest reading the about the Indo Pakistan war of 1971 and the Bangladesh Liberation War for more details about the conditions in Bangladesh during and after the war(s.) That'll give you a much better impression of things than my summary.

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"Nations Cautious on Bangladesh", published Jan 7, 1972 in the New York Times, said

Documents made public yesterday by the columnist Jack Anderson disclosed that officials in Washington were considering the likelihood of Bangladesh as an independent nation compelled to turn for help to foreign powers.

At one point, according to the documents, U. Alexis Johnson, an Under Secretary of State, remarked that Bangladesh was likely to be an “international basket case” and Henry A. Kissinger, the President's adviser for national security affairs, remarked that it would not necessarily be “our basket case.”

In Google Books, I see claims as early as 1973 that Kissinger called Bangladesh a "bottomless basket case", although it is snippet-view only, so I can't be sure that the year is accurate. This mixed metaphor definitely dates to the 1970s, since it appears in a 1978 news bulletin about Bangladesh in a quote attributed to a journalist named R. M. Westerfield, with no mention of Kissinger or any other source.

"Misreading the Bengal Delta" by Camelia Dewan (2021) also contains the phrase "bottomless basket case" but, unusually, has a source: another NYT article from 1972. However, that article only says

The reported prediction of an American diplomat last year that an independent Bangladesh would become an “international basket case” has been fulfilled [...]

and doesn't contain the word "bottomless". In fact, searching nytimes.com, I find many articles ranging over decades that mention Bangladesh and the phrase "basket case" or "international basket case", sometimes attributing it to Kissinger, but there are no articles containing "bottomless basket". Perhaps that means that the NYT fact checkers couldn't find a source for it.

I haven't found any other source for "bottomless" that seems obviously reliable.

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    "Bottomless basket" is just not a phrase that English speakers use.
    – RedSonja
    Sep 28, 2022 at 8:21
  • @RedSonja it would make sense though, as we talk about countries being breadbaskets Sep 28, 2022 at 16:28
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    It wouldn't make sense in context. A bottomless basket would seem to be an endlessly bountiful cornucopia, rather than the intended Bangladeshi/Indian meaning of a bottomless hole/pit. It's 100% something misattributed to Kissinger from someone in South Asia, whether accidentally or to communicate the American idea of a "basketcase" to a local audience.
    – lly
    Sep 29, 2022 at 5:12
  • @user253751: But breadbasket means a country or a region that has a robust agricultural capacity (particularly for wheat and other grains). The prairies are the breadbasket of North America. Until recently, Ukraine was the bread basket of Europe (you'll even see references to Ukraine's breadbasket-ness during the Stalin-induced famine of the 1930s)
    – Flydog57
    Sep 29, 2022 at 17:06
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This article (in broken English, translated from an article in Bengali) claims that he didn't. During "a meeting at the State Department’s Operations Center" on "December 6, 1971" the following exchange would have happened:

Maurice Williams said that Bangladesh will need all kinds of help in March. Just then Alexis Johnson said, ‘They Will Be and (sic) International Basket Case’ - they will become an international basket case.

Kissinger then said, ‘But not necessarily our basket case’. Neither Alexis Johnson nor Henry Kissinger used the remarkable word “bottomless”. There is no doubt that their style of discussion is insulting to Bangladesh.

It claims to refer to "the State Department’s de-classified papers". I suppose that's where one could find confirmation of this conversation - although Kissinger's remark might have been uttered on another occasion.

The other sources I have found just repeat the quote without precising when (besides the vague "in 1972"), where (maybe "during a trip to India") on what occasion or to whom Kissinger would have said that.

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  • Strictly speaking, the article only claims that he didn't say "bottomless" on December 6, 1971. It doesn't address whether he might have said it one some other occasion. Sep 28, 2022 at 14:00
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    The page says at the bottom that it is a translation of this article in Bengali Sep 28, 2022 at 14:02

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