I have a very clear memory of that day. It was a warm September day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was twelve years old and in sixth grade. I walked the half-mile home from Eastridge, Elementary for lunch—yes, in those olden times kids still did this, moms were home to make it, and we had a whole hour lunch break. My mom greeted me at the door. “Did you hear? Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane craft in Africa!” It was devastating news. I may have even cried.
This seems hard to believe now. Most 12 year olds are barely aware of the existence of the United Nations. They certainly couldn’t name the Secretary General. Hell, neither can most adults. I’m sophisticated, aware news junky and I had to look it up to refresh my memory today. Turns out it is a South Korean, Ban Ki-moon. If he dropped dead today it would get two sentences on the evening news and a below the fold short on page 5 of most metropolitan daily papers.
But back in 1961, the United Nations was a huge deal and Hammarskjöld was one of the best known men in the world, and among the most respected. In those days all major papers and the television networks maintained full time correspondents covering the United Nations and the General Assembly. The TV correspondents got almost as much air time as those covering Congress and the White House. The annual speeches of world leaders at the opening sessions of each year’s General Assembly were regularly televised, as were the sometimes acrimonious debates where U.S. and other western powers confronted the Soviet Union and their allies. Empires were dissolving and the United Nations was a key player in the death throes of colonialism.
Even in Cheyenne, which even then had more than its share of right wing “U.S. Out of the U.N.” zealots, the international body was generally respected and admired. Schools hosted Model United Nations events where students acted as diplomats from countries they drew out of a hat. Kids earnestly went door to door in October to Trick or Treat for UNICEF. There was pride that U.N headquarters was in a modern glass and steel tower in New York City. Most folks harbored a hope that an international organization of nations might really be able to “put an end to war”—and just maybe save our asses from getting fried in a nuclear war that would end civilization.
Dag Hammarskjöld was born in Jönköping, Sweden in 1905 and was raised in the northern city of Uppsala. He came from a family who for generations had been high level officials in the Swedish government. His father, Hjalmar was the country’s Prime Minister from 1914-1917 charged with the tricky business of maintaining neutrality as Europe was consumed by war.
He was educated at the prestigious Katedralskolan (Cathedral School) in Uppsala and attended the University of Uppsala, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and a Masters in Economics. He moved to Stockholm to pursue his PhD at the university there.
Hammarskjöld began his public service in 1930 serving as Secretary to a government commission on unemployment while he was still finishing his studies. He held the post until 1934. In 1936 he finished his doctorate from the University of Stockholm. His thesis, The Spread of the Business Cycle, dealing with the world wide Great Depression, attracted considerable notice.
He was appointed Secretary to the Sveriges Riksbank (Swedish State Bank) the same year. By 1941 he President, a post he held until 1948. He also served in several capacities as an economic advisor to the government, including coordinating planning for post-war development.
But upon retiring from the Bank, Hammarskjöld shifted his attention to diplomacy. He was appointed to a key position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He attended a Paris meeting to implement the Marshall Plan for European post-war reconstruction on behalf of Sweden in 1947 and the founding meeting of the Organization for European Economic Co-operation, which administered the Marshall Plan, the next year. In 1949 he became Secretary of State. He became Minister Without Portfolio in 1951. Although he served in Social Democratic Party governments, he never joined any political party was regarded as a technocrat without either ambition or ideology.
Hammarskjöld’s connection to the U.N. also began in ’51 when he was vice-chair of the Swedish delegation to the General Assembly in Paris. The next year, when U.N. headquarters moved to New York City, he was Chairman of the Delegation.
In 1952 the U.N. was thrown into turmoil when its first Secretary General, Trygve Lie of Norway resigned under pressure. The Soviet Union had opposed his re-election because of UN intervention in Korea, and then he lost critical support in the U.S. when Senator Joseph McCarthy accused him of hiring “disloyal Americans” for key U.N. positions.
To his own surprise Hammarskjöld, because of his apolitical reputation and experience as an administrator, he was the choice of the Security Council to succeed Lie. He received the support of 10 of the 11 members. The choice was confirmed by the General Assembly in April with 57 of 60 member nations in support.
He turned energetically to re-shaping the UN staff to be more responsive to world events. He created a Secretariat under his own office that eventually grew to 4,000 diplomats and employees. As a hands-on administrator he dealt with issues big and small. One detail got his special attention—the creation of the Meditation Room in UN headquarters as a place dedicated to silence where people can withdraw into themselves, regardless of their faith, creed, or religion. This was typical of the humanist spirituality for which he later became well known.
Hammarskjöld often played a lead role in trying to diffuse international crisis situations. In 1956 he sponsored the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force, which got its first mission coming between combatants in the Suez Canal Crisis.
In 1960 the Congo Crisis erupted with the exit of Belgium from its former colony. Civil war erupted when the mineral rich province of Katanga attempted to establish its independence. He made four trips to the region to try to negotiate a settlement, but refused to use United Nations troops to quell the Katanga rebellion. Instead he ordered the Emergency Force to enter the Congo as a neutral force to protect civilians and separate combatants.
The Soviet Union, which strongly supported Congo President Patrice Lumumba, charged Hammarskjöld with being insufficiently anti-colonialist because the Katangans were employing white mercenaries and were suspected of being in the control of Belgian mining interests. The Soviets demanded his resignation and the replacement of the office of the Secretary General with a three person troika representing the interests of the Communist Block, the West, and the emerging states soon to me known as the Third World.
In early September fighting erupted between non-combatant U.N. peacekeepers and Katangese troops. Hammarskjöld accompanied by a large staff flew to Africa to attempt to negotiate a cease fire. His DC-8 propeller driven airliner exploded over Northern Rhodesia on September 18, killing him and 15 others on board. Immediate speculation was that a bomb or perhaps a missile may have brought down the plane. Despite three investigations by Rhodesian authorities and a U.N. special commission, no evidence of sabotage or attack were uncovered and no cause for the explosion that brought down the plane could be established.
Speculation has continued that it might have been an assassination. Western interests including Belgium, Britain, and the U.S. were supporting the Katangese independence movement. They were later implicated in the murder of Congo president Lumumba. As late as 1998 South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu reported that recently discovered letters implicated British MI15, the CIA, and South African security forces in the crash.
Later in 1961 Hammarskjöld was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1963 the journal of personal reflection that he had kept since he was 20 years old which was found in his New York apartment after his death was published as Markings. It became an international best seller and has been described as one of the greatest spiritual accomplishments of the 20th Century. My mother ordered the hardcover and I remember reading it with avid interest. The book mostly contained short passages, epigrams really. Here is a sample of some:
Our burdens only become too heavy when the only ones we carry are our own.
The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak.
Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible—not to run away.
You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn't reserve a plot for weeds.
On the bookshelf of life, God is a useful work of reference, always at hand, but seldom consulted.
He is one of those who has had the wilderness for a pillow, and called a star his brother. Alone. But loneliness can be a communion.
We reach out towards the other...in vain—because we have never dared to give ourselves.
A grace to pray for—that our self-interest, which is inescapable, shall never cripple our sense of humor, that fully conscious self-scrutiny which alone can save us.
Only tell others what is of importance to them. Only ask them what you need to know. In both cases, that is, limit the conversation to what the speaker really possesses—Argue only in order to reach a conclusion. Think aloud only with those to whom this means something. Don’t let small talk fill up the time and the silence except as a medium for bearing unexpressed messages between two people who are attuned to each other. A dietary for those who have learned by experience the truth of the saying, “For every idle word...”, but this is hardly popular in social life.
We press body against body—bringing to naught that human beauty which is only physical in that the surfaces of the body are animated by a spirit inaccessible to physical touch.
Don’t be afraid of yourself, live your individuality to the full—but for the good of others.