In this May 19, 1953, file photo, Dag Hammarskjold, recently appointed secretary general of the United Nations who is on a visit to Sweden, smokes his pipe at a press conference held at the Foreign Office in Stockholm. (AP Photo/Uncredited)
Fifty-two years after Dag Hammarskjold was killed in a plane crash, the violent and still unresolved death of the legendary United Nations secretary-general continues to fascinate. Just this morning, an international commission of inquiry presented its recommendation to the UN that there was enough convincing new evidence to reopen its 1962 investigation.
The continued interest derives from the mystery surrounding Hammarskjold’s death, which occurred when his plane from the Congo crashed at night on September 18, 1961, and may have been a simple pilot error or part of an elaborate plot. But the intrigue often diverts attention from a proper assessment of the man and his remarkable nature. Fortunately, the new biography by Roger Lipsey, while carefully examining the evidence of Hammarskjold’s death, examines in some depth both his achievements and his thinking.
It is hard to overstate Hammarskjold’s contributions. In two quite separate areas, personal integrity and breadth of intellect, he may well have been unsurpassed by any other leader of the twentieth century. He was elected to head the United Nations in 1953, at a time when the role of the organization was still being shaped. During his eight years in office, he invented the concepts of “preventive diplomacy” (negotiations to prevent conflict), “shuttle diplomacy” (negotiations to end a conflict), classical “peace-keeping” (troops to monitor a cease-fire and implement peace agreements) and a UN “political presence” in conflict areas (to try to stop conflict from re-erupting).
At least as impressive was his consistent courage in taking an ethical position on momentous issues, even when the Great Powers came down on him with relentless vituperation and threats. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried every ploy to force Hammarskjold to resign, which the latter rightly perceived as an attempt to destroy the entire executive capacity and therefore usefulness of the UN. Hammarskjold publicly declared it would be easy to resign, far harder to stay on. “It is very easy to bow to the wish of a Big Power,” he said. “It’s another matter to resist.”
When Hammarskjold was elected secretary-general, following the resignation of Trygve Lie as a result of Soviet pressures deriving from the Korean War, few people outside Sweden had heard of this relatively young, acute, diligent and cultivated minister. As Lipsey writes, almost nobody had any inkling of the breadth of his political philosophy, integrity, capacity for dialogue and strategic acumen. Indeed, had his full range been better known, he would not have been elected, because “the Big Powers would only compromise their separate interests around someone believed to be safe.” They wanted apolitical reliability and decided on a man they took to be some Swedish aristo-bureaucrat.
Similarly, Brian Urquhart, one of Hammarskjold’s key advisers and his main biographer, described how the Big Powers went searching and, “by pure accident, picked up someone who was exactly the opposite of what everyone wanted. They thought they had got a safe, bureaucratic civil servant, non-political, and they got Hammarskjold. It will never happen again. Nobody is going to make that same mistake twice.”