Christopher Van Hollen, a career State Department officer who became an authority in Southeast Asian affairs and a leading diplomatic voice during the volatile birth of Bangladesh, died Jan. 30 at the Washington Home hospice.
He was 90 and had complications from Alzheimer’s disease. His son, U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen Jr. (D-Md.), confirmed the death.
Dr. Van Hollen joined the State Department in 1951 and spent much of the next decade as a political officer in India and its arch-rival Pakistan. The assignments were a significant launching pad to a Foreign Service career during the early Cold War, when those countries were viewed as political and military counterweights against the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Dr. Van Hollen served from 1969 to 1972 as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. The Vietnam War was continuing, but the matter that most consumed Dr. Van Hollen’s energy was the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan to form Bangladesh in 1971.
Hundreds of thousands Bengalis reportedly died and millions more were languishing as refugees during the tumult. In much of the world, there was overwhelming public sentiment for Bangladesh because of atrocities committed by the Pakistani army, including killing and mass rape.
A 1971 benefit concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden — featuring entertainers such as George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton — helped galvanize mass opinion in the United States on behalf of the new country of 75 million.
The Nixon White House moved gingerly toward diplomatic recognition of Bangladesh, and Dr. Van Hollen was left to explain why before an often hostile U.S. Congress.
Decades later, Dr. Van Hollen said his personal judgment was that the creation of Bangladesh was inevitable because of ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences in the region. Publicly in the early 1970s, he presented the U.S. case for continuing economic and military aid to Pakistan in order to maintain political leverage over Pakistan’s president, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan.
At the time, Henry A. Kissinger, then serving as President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser, was participating in an elaborate ruse to slip into China via Pakistan to restart U.S.-Sino relations.
“Because Pakistan was seen as a key intermediary in this process, Nixon and Kissinger were very reluctant to take any action against Pakistan which might upset the evolution of the U.S.- Chinese relationship through the good offices of Pakistan, which had at that time a good relationship with China,” Dr. Van Hollen said in a 1990 oral history.
The United States formally recognized Bangladesh in 1972, the year Dr. Van Hollen was appointed ambassador to the Indian Ocean countries of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The United States and the Soviet Union were competing for influence in the region, and he described the Sri Lankan government as “left-center Socialist” with “a fairly strong streak of anti-Americanism.”
Dr. Van Hollen said he enjoyed cordial relations with President Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister. He said their smooth rapport was likely because as deputy assistant secretary of state, he had approved of U.S. military support against a short-lived insurrection against Bandaranaike.
After four years in Sri Lanka, Dr. Van Hollen returned to Washington and ran the State Department’s senior seminar before retiring in 1979. He was later a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of the old American Institute for Islamic Affairs.
Christopher Van Hollen was born in Baltimore on Sept. 23, 1922. After Navy service during World War II, he graduated in 1947 from Haverford College in Pennsylvania. On the G.I. Bill, he received a doctorate in political science from Johns Hopkins University in 1951.
Two years later, he married Edith Eliza Farnsworth, who became a top analyst on Afghanistan and South Asia in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She died in 2007.
Besides his son, of Kensington, survivors include two daughters, Caroline Van Hollen of Washington and Cecilia Van Hollen of Fayetteville, N.Y.; two sisters; and five grandchildren.
In the 1990 oral history, Dr. Van Hollen said he was probably the source for the oft-quoted remark that Bangladesh was an “international basket case” amid corruption, chronic malnutrition and the legacy of a merciless war.
He had made the quip while attending a White House meeting chaired by Kissinger, and a State Department colleague went on to repeat it in the media. The phrase, Dr. Van Hollen said, has “hung around Bangladesh’s neck ever since.”