The Legacy of Dag Hammarskjold

“I realize now, that in comparison to [Dag Hammarskjöld], I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.”—John F. Kennedy

We conclude our week-long feature on Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War, and White Supremacy in Africa, by Susan Williams with an excerpt from her moving epilogue. Williams focuses not on the mystery surrounding his death but rather his important legacy. Who Killed Dag Hammarskjold, Susan Williams

On 14 March 1962, six months after Hammarskjöld’s death, President John F. Kennedy invited Sture Linnér [a Hammarskjöld aide], who had by now left the Congo and was at UN headquarters in New York, to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. He told Linnér that he wanted to apologize for the pressure that had been put on Dag to implement US policy in the Congo—a pressure which Dag had refused to heed. The Secretary-General’s strategy had been straightforward: ‘I do not intend to give way to any pressure, be it from the East or the West; we shall sink or swim.’ Equally clear were his instructions to Linnér: ‘Continue to follow the line you find to be in accordance with the UN Charter.’

Kennedy explained to Linnér the reasons for US opposition to Dag’s policy in the Congo. For his own political survival, said the President, he had felt obliged to heed the deep aversion towards Communism and left-wing views, which even after McCarthy’s heyday played an important role in American politics. He then said that because it was now too late to offer an apology to Hammarskjöld, he wished to do so to Linnér. ‘I realise now,’ said Kennedy, that in comparison to [Dag], I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.’

Unlike Kennedy—or, indeed, the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie—Hammarskjöld did not make compromises with the political establishment. On 31 October 1956, during the Suez crisis, he stated to the Security Council that in his view, ‘the discretion and impartiality … imposed on the Secretary-General’ could not be allowed to ‘degenerate into a policy of expediency.’ He reiterated this point in his introduction to the Annual Report of the UN for 1959–60. ‘It is my firm conviction,’ he argued,

that any result bought at the price of a compromise with the principles and ideals of the Organisation, either by yielding to force, by disregard of justice, by neglect of common interests or by contempt for human rights, is bought at too high a price.

‘That is so,’ he went on, ‘because a compromise with its principles and purposes weakens the Organisation in a way representing a definite loss for the future that cannot be balanced by any immediate advantage achieved.’ Kofi Annan has said that he was guided by the example of Dag Hammarskjöld when he was UN Secretary-General between 1997 and 2006. There could be no better rule of thumb for a Secretary-General, believed Annan, than to ask himself, ‘How would Hammarskjöld have handled this?’ Hammarskjöld’s life and his death, his words and his action, argued the seventh Secretary-General, ‘have done more to shape public expectations of the office, and indeed of the Organization, than those of any other man or woman in its history. His wisdom and his modesty, his unimpeachable integrity and singleminded devotion to duty, have set a standard for all servants of the international community.’

In a sense, Hammarskjöld’s unswerving high principles and his determined search for peaceful solutions contributed to his death. A different Secretary-General, faced with the Katangan crisis in September 1961, might have found an easier option than flying, exhausted, to a small town in central Africa to negotiate with an enemy of the United Nations. But Hammarskjöld was indefatigable in the cause of justice and peace. ‘We can put our influence to the best of our understanding and ability,’ he stated firmly in 1953, ‘on the side of what we believe is right and true. We can help in the movement toward those ends that inspire our lives and are shared by all men of good will—in terms very close to those of the Charter of the United Nations—peace and freedom for all, in a world of equal rights for all.’

Tragically, he was never allowed to reach Ndola and to speak with Tshombe. But his mission of peace and self-sacrifice offers a lesson to the world. It exemplifies
a goodness and a love of humanity to which Hammarskjöld, though keenly aware of his own failings, consciously and determinedly aspired.

Leave a Reply