Global Policy Forum

The Return of Dag


By David Winch

UN Special
September 2005

Coincidence, or a trick of history? At the very moment when the UN appears caught in confrontation with a superpower member and overwhelmed by tectonic geopolitical shifts in the developing world, Dag has returned to the headlines. Dag Hammarskjí¶ld is a large figure - maybe the largest - on the UN horizon. High-minded, dynamic, charismatic, he personified the Charter's ideals. As the 1960s dawned, he combined politics and a memorable personality in the eyes of world opinion. His sudden death on an African mission in 1961 hit people in his native Sweden "like the Kennedy assassination", and was as dramatic for UN staff in general as, say, the 2003 death of Sergio Vieira de Mello in Iraq was for UN Geneva - in the field, in action, at core of world conflict. Hammarskjí¶ld was the only Secretary-General to inspire dramatic biographical accounts, works with titles highlighting the "secret life" and "mysterious death" of Dag. He remains the model Secretary-General, one whose work inspires the question, when making difficult decisions, as Kofi Annan has stressed: What would Dag do?

Markers proliferate

But, is Dag Hammarskjí¶ld lost in time for younger staff members? What remains of his legacy? The year 2005 marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and, as every year, September 18th marks the date his plane crashed in central Africa, killing him and 16 others, in 1961. An audiovisual exhibit at Porte 40 of the Palais des Nations' E building from June through August, called "Peace in Mind - Dag Hammarskjí¶ld, 1905-2005", highlighted his life and achievements - dashing diplomacy, home life and family heritage in Uppsala, Sweden, along with his literary and artistic vocations - as well as the public and private diplomacy that made him a UN icon.

As well, the New York Times recently signaled a new controversy regarding translation issues in Dag's Vagmarken, a posthumous collection of philosophical / poetic musings whose very title is called into question by some critics in Sweden and elsewhere. Translated into English as Markings by eminent poet W.H. Auden, the collection expressed the private, ruminative side of Dag; it was found at his New York bedside after he died. In the 1960s, Markings became a best-seller in the United States. Today, some Swedish critics call the English text Auden's work, not Hammarskjöld's, and even the title, which originates in the book of Jeremiah in the King James version of the Old Testament, is said to be badly translated. Alone among Secretaries-General, Hammarskjí¶ld has had an enduring literary vocation: translations from German, English and French texts, including works of poet Saint-John Perse, novelist Djuna Barnes and philosopher Martin Buber. A formidable ear and an eagerness to communicate moved him.

Public sector star

The core of Dag Hammarskjí¶ld's career was not literary, however, but public service, and this was bred in his Swedish family. His father was both a governor and prime minister in Sweden, one who was criticized sharply for perceived economic failures in the 1930s. Still, his four sons mostly followed his path in the civil service, none more fervently than Dag. A young star, he gravitated quickly to the top ranks of Swedish administration and politics, running the finance ministry while still in his 30s. An economics PhD, Dag coined the term "planned economy" at the Swedish Central Bank, and in concert with brother Bo, in a similar role at the social welfare ministry, they together are credited with helping launch the Swedish welfare state.

Personally, Dag was austere, serious, extremely well read, a workhorse, ascetic, rigorous, and unflagging. But he was also astute politically, able to sidestep blasts from opponents and reconcile opposites. Like the Canadian Lester Pearson, later a Nobel winner for the UN's 1956 Suez mission, Hammarskjí¶ld was an overachiever in his country's foreign affairs ministry. However, Pearson faced the Soviet veto in 1953, so the British urged the French to forward Hammarskjí¶ld as a compromise candidate. His predecessor as SG, Trygve Lie, proved too wilful for some Security Council members. Today, Lie is actually a Trivial Pursuit question (Q. Who was the first Secretary-General of the United Nations?), while the supposedly "neutral" Hammarskjí¶ld proved too daring for the Council's permanent members. He coined the term "preventive diplomacy" while at UN secretariat, and his activism was strongly opposed by Soviet leader Khrushchev, who loudly proposed turning the Secretary-General's office into a three-man operation.

Crescendo of career

The context of Dag's prime in the mid-1950s to early 1960s has a very contemporary feel: with the independence movement surging in Africa, the interference of foreign actors in the Congo was alleged, bringing a civil war that involved the first major UN troop deployment to a live combat area. This proved to be the endgame.

Hammarskjí¶ld's UN career and life work came to a head in August-September 1961, with the war of secession tearing apart the newly independent Congo in ways similar to the Yugoslav wars that bedeviled the UN in the mid-1990s. In exasperation at the war-torn deadlock, a secret agreement reached in September 1961 to meet the secessionist rebel leader in Ndola, now Zambia. To avoid drawing any attention to the mission, the Swedish UN pilot filed a false flight plan, for a night flight close to rebelheld zone, with the constant danger of a fighter plane detecting them. Its approach to Ndola around midnight was confirmed by the airport control tower, then . nothing. The next morning, September 19, 1961, it was battle stations for international staff, and after half a day on the forest floor, 16 dead crew and passengers, including the Secretary-General, were discovered by searchers in the forest among the burnt ruins. One security agent for UNOC (UN Operation in the Congo), Sgt. Julien, a former Marine, survived for a few days and coherently described to investigators a sudden decision by Hammarskjí¶ld to change course and not land. - For what reason? A sense of imminent danger? Technical reasons? Political news?

Daring flight

Today, some legacies of Hammarskjí¶ld remain: aggressive UN peacekeeping forces, a broad outsized personal role for the SG, and a mix of thorough high-mindedness, practicality and political savvy. But the man and his era ended in a daring night flight. The Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjí¶ld remains in the UN library, and is still full of question marks, which remain compelling even today.

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on Secretary General Dag Hammarskjí¶ld's Reform Agenda


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