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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

The American historian Wm.Roger Louis and Lord Hurd of Westwell at the one-day conference on Dag Hammarskjold held at the University of London on 2 September 2011: Picture: Trevor Grundy
The American historian Wm.Roger Louis and Lord Hurd of Westwell at the one-day conference on Dag Hammarskjold held at the University of London on 2 September 2011: Picture: Trevor Grundy

By Trevor Grundy (CJA member and journalist)

At the conference on Dag Hammarskjold (The Senate, London University 2 September 2011) a former British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd (now Baron Hurd of Westwell) painted an interesting verbal portrait of the UN Secretary General at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Hurd was personal assistant to one of Britain’s best 20th century diplomats, the late Sir Pierson Dixon, Britain’s Representative at the United Nations.

Hurd told an audience made up mainly of academics, journalists and men and women closely associated with Africa, that at that time he was “insignificant” ”compared to Hammarskjold and Pierson ”but by an accident, as happens in diplomatic life, I found myself over and over again on the 38th floor of the UN building (New York) listening to him (Hammarskjold). I was Sir Pierson’s personal assistant and there was a particular reason why he thought it necessary to have me accompany him to the 38th floor.

“The reason was that Dag Hammarskjold was not and easy man to understand. He spoke perfect English but with a very heavy Swedish accent. He knew that my boss was a learned man, an educated man, acquainted with the main sources of European literature and so perfectly capable of picking up literary allusions with which Hammarskjold might decorate his prose.

“I had simply to sit and remember –without speaking – the points which the Secretary General made. I was simply there as a listener but that was a fascinating role because these were amazing discussions. I had no positive role in the discussions but I had an essential role because I would draft the report which would be on the desk of the British Secretary of State in the morning.”

At the time of his appointment in 1953, Dag Hammarskjold was regarded by the British and the French as “a safe pair of hands.” He was expected, above all, to be a “calming, intelligent influence as one would expect from a senior Swedish diplomat.”

But Hurd said after a while “it became clear that another aspect of his character was coming to the fore. I remember my boss Pierson Dixon making a comparison which often people made in those days where he talked about Hammarskjold as having a pontifical manner. And that was not a word chose at random. It was a suggestion that the Secretary General of the UN was gradually working himself  into the position of a pope. That is to say he was gradually assuming, not precisely infallibility, but an assumption in his own mind that he had a mission: and the mission was to uphold the role and importance and integrity of the |United Nations and the Secretary General was the high priest.

He had that sort of inner strength which comes to people who have a conviction that they have heard voices,as Joan of Arc did .They are inspired. They have a mission. They have a vocation. He was determined to make the office of Secretary General something more important and more interesting, more than his predecessor Trygve Halvdan Lie (1945-1952) had sought to do. Hammarskjold persuaded himself that he had this particular mission and that rather altered the way in which you handled him. Because if you are talking to a high priest you have a different tone of voice from if you were talking to any old diplomat.”

WHO KILLED HAMMARSKJOLD? – The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa by Susan Williams (Hurst & Company, London 2011, 306pp £20.00)

Reviewed by Trevor Grundy

First published in The Sunday Herald (Scotland) 25.09.2011

It’s a new age but still we can’t get enough of the Cold War. The massive box office success of the re-make of John le Carre’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” shows what an insatiable appetite we have for things that happened fifty years ago.

Says le Carre: “We have an audience that knew the Cold War and wants to revisit it. Then we have the new audience that knows nothing about the Cold War Then there is the third general audience that is deeply dismayed by the performance of our intelligence service which feels alienated both from government and from foreign policy. It is simply mystified by all the devious things that are coming our day by day.”

The same separate but inter-linked audiences should get hold of Susan Williams’s new book which seeks an answer to perhaps an unanswerable question – What (or who) caused the crash of the DC-6 plane carrying Dag Hammarskjold, the Sweden- born 56-year old Secretary General of the United Nations nine miles away from Ndola Airport in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) during the opening minutes of Sunday 18 September 1961?

Historians from America, Belgium, France, India and the UK met at London University at a one day (2 September) conference to discuss this issue.  Like Williams, they were unable to give a convincing answer about whether his death was an accident or the result of Cold War intrigue in the mineral rich post-colonialCongo in 1961.

During four years research, Williams examined previously classified documents. In Zambia she interviewed African witnesses who said they saw a second plane in the sky shortly before Hammarksjold’s plane crashed – evidence  that was discounted by the original Rhodesian commission of inquiry. She also found evidence that post-mortem photographs may have been doctored and interviewed a former American intelligence officer (based in Cyprus in 1961) who said he heard a recording of a pilot shooting down Hammarskjold’s plane.

The reason?

Hammarskjold was hated by European settlers in Central and Southern Africa because of the UN’s support for the newly-independent, quasi-communistic Congolese government based in Leopoldville

Separatists, led by Moise Thsombe in the copper-rich Katanga Province, had revolted against central government with the help of Belgian, South African, American and British mining interests. As a result, the Congolese asked the Russians for help. Political tinkers, financial tailors, mercenary soldiers and spies in their hundreds descended on Central Africa.

After Hammarskjold set off from Leopoldville on 17 September for Ndola to meet Tshombe in a UN attempt to end his rebellion and control over Katanga, his plane went down.

Williams knows she’s thrown fresh light upon, but certainly not solved, one of the great mysteries of the last century.

“We don’t have any smoking gun or killer evidence but on the balance of probability on the basis of the evidence I collected my view would be that the Hammarskjold plane was attacked in the sky by a second plane,” says Williams, a senior research fellow at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

As interest in the Cold War hots up, here’s a book for those with an an interest in vile politicians and even viler financiers and, as le Carre puts it , “all the other devious things that are coming our way day by day.”