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.”
What the Big Powers soon discovered was that they had elected a man who stood up to them, in particular the permanent members of the Security Council, whenever his conscience or the UN Charter required it. His cardinal values and hallmarks were independence, impartiality, integrity and moral courage. This enraged some of the world’s leaders, but at the same time they respected him for it.
Hammarskjold brought to the job a rigorous interpretation of what it means to be an international civil servant and to have a UN Secretariat “as something lifted above all national contexts.” Staff should be assumed to be loyal to the UN rather than to their own countries, whose interests they are bound not to consider above others. His views on this developed during his time of office, culminating in a famous Oxford lecture in 1961. Integrity ranked even higher than strict neutrality. If integrity in the sense of respect for law and truth were to drive the international civil servant into positions of conflict with a particular interest, “then that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not of his failure to observe neutrality,” and thus it is fully in line with his duties. This is an observation that many UN staff are tempted to trot out whenever they are harangued by a national diplomat for not having shown “proper neutrality”—by which is meant having done something not in line with the political interest of that diplomat’s government.
Living in a time before the mass circulation of self-help maxims of military and business gurus from Sun Tzu to Lee Iacocca and Sheryl Sandberg, Hammarskjold held very different views on leadership. “Your position never gives you the right to command,” he concluded. “It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated.” This may be the noblest (and in his case consistently practiced) leadership precept ever expounded.
As with every Secretary-General since the UN was created in 1945, a substantial portion of Hammarskjold’s time was taken up with the Middle East. Hammarskjold had a strong respect for—and intellectual affinity with—Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. But in 1956, he wrote a stinging letter over Israel’s disproportionate military responses to provocations from Egypt and Gaza. “You are convinced that acts of retaliation will stop further incidents,” he told Ben-Gurion. “I am convinced they will lead to further incidents. You believe that this way of creating respect for Israel will pave the way for sound co-existence with the Arab peoples. I believe that the policy may postpone indefinitely the time for such co-existence.” With little change in the overall pattern in and around Gaza Strip in the intervening fifty-seven years, it’s not hard to conclude whose analysis turned out to be closer to reality.
Hammarskjold returned from a trip to the Middle East in October 1956, convinced that Egypt and Israel would not attack each other. As Lipsey comments, Ben-Gurion had neglected to mention that Israel was planning to launch a land, sea and air invasion of Egypt within weeks. The attack was executed in collusion with Britain and France, two permanent members of the Security Council and arguably the two countries Hammarskjold most admired for their values and culture. The dishonesty, belligerence and incompetence these nations displayed in the episode shocked him deeply. Like President Eisenhower, Hammarskjold feared that the invasion, had it actually led to the overthrow of Nasser, could have been the opening salvo in a nuclear world war.
The three aggressors hugely miscalculated the nature of the US president—a Republican ex-general who turned out to have some extremely high-minded and internationalist views, and who strongly praised the Secretary-General’s performance. In a pointed reference to his allies, and echoing Hammarskjold’s own sentiments, Eisenhower declared that there could not be one law for the weak, another law for the strong, “one law for those opposing us, another for those allied with us.”
Aside from the Middle East, the defining issue of Hammarskjold’s term was the decolonization of Africa, and one colony in particular (the Belgian Congo), against the backdrop of the cold war. At the time many were convinced that the total break-up of the Congo (as appeared imminent at one point) would lead to a regional conflagration that would, in turn, suck in the superpowers.
The UN’s role in the Congo was criticized by almost all sides—both for its design and its execution. Hammarskjold acidly pointed out to those who accused the UN of failure that dealing with a territory five times the size of France with fewer peace-keepers than there were policemen in Manhattan was unlikely to make the UN more efficient than the NYPD “in the prevention of murder, rape and similar time-honored ways for man to realize himself.”
As they tried to hold the country in one piece and maintain a semblance of order throughout its transition to independence, Hammarskjold and the UN officials on the ground found themselves bitterly opposed by Soviet Communists, African and Congolese nationalists, American cold warriors, French Gaullists, Katangese secessionists, Belgian colonialists, mining companies and mercenaries. Despite this formidable array, Hammarskjold doggedly went on doing what he thought was best for the people of the Congo, the African continent and global peace.
The episode still stands as the classic example of the UN doing demonstrably the right thing, despite being attacked from all points of view. As Hammarskjold put it, the UN had tried to counter tendencies to put the young African countries under the shadow of the cold war, as well as efforts to make the Congo “a happy hunting-ground for national interests. To be a roadblock to such efforts is to make yourself the target of attacks from all those who find their plans thwarted.”
Lipsey’s biography is far too good a book to be hagiography. It does nevertheless (and understandably) veer in the direction of hero worship. Like its predecessors, this biography shows a man who never made a major mistake, did not have a moral flaw, never veered from his high principles, was almost never driven by ego, never committed a vindictive act and rarely even made a memorably catty remark. (This last attribute can be something of a downer for readers of a lengthy biography; to leaven the unremittingly profound wisdom that is depicted, an occasional flash of genuine Churchill-style wit would have been welcome.)
The author makes clear that his book is not a diplomatic history. “No challenge is intended” to Urquhart’s classic account of forty years ago, which he calls “the best biography we shall ever have of Hammarskjold,” and which incidentally is also the most influential book ever written about the UN. What Lipsey brings is a significant amount of new materials (from personal and national archives), which he has superbly put together and analyzed.
Lipsey also offers an in-depth exploration of Hammarskjold’s “other dimension”: his intellectual interests, spiritual leanings and writings. He cleverly weaves into the story the intensely personal meditation that underpinned Hammarskjold’s activities on the world stage.
And the two are clearly related. As the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, recently put it, Hammarskjold’s constant “self-reflection led to selfessness,” and the resulting dedication to the goals of the UN created the foundations for much of what is still good about it today.
There are occasions in the book (like the cursory one-paragraph coverage of the devastating CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954, and Hammarskjold’s principled and courageous opposition to the US government’s handling of the affair) when one feels the balance may be slightly wrong—as if a biography of FDR devoted several pages about his stamp-collecting just when you want to read about his reactions to Pearl Harbor. But readers less interested in the subject’s “inner life” than in his UN record ought to try to curb their impatience.
Lipsey, whose background is far more on the spiritual than the diplomatic side, and who came to the biography by way of Hammarskjold’s posthumous work Markings, ranks his subject one of the finest religious thinkers of his time, on a par with Dietrich Boenhoffer, Martin Buber and Thomas Merton. For him, Hammarskjold proved to be “Pascal-like in his critique of self and society, Montaigne-like in his questioning, Augustine-like in his need and willingness to chronicle his hard journey.” He never broke his links with Christianity, but became increasingly infused by a more universal spirituality that drew on Eastern religions, combining aspects of many, and perhaps even hoping to narrow men’s differences through such a synthesis. Exploring his personal brand of fatalistic mysticism was a perennial concern of Hammarskjold—and of this book.
But it was not the only extracurricular activity pursued by the secretary-general. Even during times of relative crisis, he spent up to two hours a day on his other pursuits. He had a deep love of nature and photography; was a proficient mountaineer schooled in Sweden’s far north; and closely followed developments in law, philosophy, history, music, modern art and dance. He was a member of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize for literature, and had a vast knowledge of literature over many centuries, continents and cultures.
He spoke and wrote four languages fluently—French, German and English, as well as his native Swedish—and one of his favorite forms of recreation was to translate especially complicated works from the first three into the fourth. During the plane ride from the Congo that was to cost him his life, he was busy translating a work by his Israeli friend Buber.
In the decades following his death, the most powerful member states have often made it clear that they cannot tolerate the idea of a secretary-general acting with firmness or independence when it is against their perceived interests. The memoirs of Hammarskjold’s successors, such as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, illustrate this point. The article of the UN Charter that seems most systematically flouted is number 100, whereby member states undertake “not to seek to influence” the Secretariat staff in the conduct of their duties.
Hammarskjold’s reputation in UN circles remains stellar. If anything, the more that member states insist (through their actions if not always in their rhetoric) that the UN Secretariat is there solely to implement governments’ decisions rather than to provide an independent impartial voice in favor of international law, the greater the nostalgia on the part of many UN officials for a time when the international arena seemed to permit something a little more exalted. In the abstract and over the long term, many governments may recognize the value of the Secretariat acting in a predictably principled fashion. Unfortunately, however, governments’ objections to such behavior, whenever it appears to go against shorter-term interests, often trumps their support for the values of the UN Charter that they all signed up to.
Six months after the fatal plane crash, Hammarskjold’s closest Swedish associate was summoned to the Oval Office. President Kennedy explained that he had belatedly come to realize that he had been wrong to oppose the UN Congo policy on anti-Communist grounds, and regretted that it was too late to apologize to Hammarskjold in person. “I realize now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.”
There are many who agree with Kennedy there—except that it may not go far enough. After all, the word “statesman”—from Talleyrand and Metternich to Kissinger and Gorbachev—has always connoted national realpolitik and, at most, enlightened self-interest, but never universal principles. Hammarskjold went beyond that. In addition to his statecraft and intellect, he can lay claim to being the pre-eminent exponent of a truly ethical approach to world affairs.
Andrew Gilmour has worked for the UN for twenty-four years. He is currently Director in the Secretary-General’s Office for Political, Peace-keeping, Humanitarian and Human Rights. This article is written in his personal capacity.