The United Nations murder mystery: Who killed Dag Hammarskjold?

United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold makes his way through a crowd of reporters at Tokyo International Airport in November, 1959. Hammarskjold, on his way back to New York, declined to comment on the success of his just-completed visit to Laos, but did say that the situation in the troubled nation was quiet.


By JACQUELINE CUTLER | New York Daily News | Published: July 10, 2020

NEW YORK (Tribune News Service) — The question wasn’t who wanted Dag Hammarskjold dead. The question was, who didn’t?

For a quiet diplomat, the Secretary-General of the United Nations made many enemies and at least one finally caught up with him. While he was on a peace mission in the new and chaotic Republic of the Congo in 1961, his plane mysteriously crashed.

“Mr. Hammarskjold was on the point of getting something done when they killed him,” angry former President Harry Truman told reporters the next day. “Notice I said, ‘when they killed him.’”

Pressed further, though, the famously plain-speaking pol turned cryptic. “Draw your own conclusions,” he snapped.

Ravi Somaiya’s “The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjold” also asks who they were. And it raises scary questions about just how far people, and governments, will go.

The story begins with the Congo itself. An area the size of Western Europe, it contains the world’s fastest river, its largest lakes and some of its greatest mineral resources.

In 1482, a Portuguese captain sailing the South Atlantic saw its shoreline. After landing, he quickly erected a monument trumpeting his supposed discovery. It was news to the peaceable people already living there.

Their lives were about to change, horribly.

The African slave trade began in 1500 and before it was over, some 4 million Congolese would be enslaved and exiled, forced to pick cotton or cut sugar cane. Once the slavers finally left, a new villain moved in.

The white imperialist.

Having already grabbed chunks of Asia and South America, the old European empires now looked to Africa to claim even more. By 1900, Britain and France had seized the lands of modern-day Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and 12 other nations. Their rule was brutal.

But the Congo became a new kind of hell.

Lacking a real army, King Leopold II of Belgium used trickery to gain a foothold on the continent. Claiming charitable intentions, he sent emissaries to “civilize” the Africans. Instead, the Belgians traded bolts of cloth for vast ancestral lands.

By 1885, the king personally owned most of the region. He turned it into a massive rubber plantation. Men who didn't work fast enough had an arm cut off. Repeat offenders lost their heads.

Seventy-five years later, the brutality had abated, but the injustice remained, with 100,000 white colonists ruling over 14 million increasingly rebellious blacks. Finally, after months of uprisings, Belgium gave in and allowed free elections.

The Mouvement National Congolais party won a majority, and on June 30, 1960, declared the Republic of the Congo. Patrice Lumumba became the independent nation’s first prime minister.

The police force was still under white control, however, and Belgian troops remained. Foreign governments and major mining interests quickly played one black political faction against another. Soon, civil war erupted.

With the country falling apart, the United Nations became involved. They demanded Belgian forces withdraw, and sent an international peacekeeping force.

They also sent the secretary-general.

The son of Sweden’s former prime minister, Hammarskjold, grew up in a pink castle. He studied law and economics but came to love linguistics, and translated books of theology for fun. He went into government and, in 1953, was elected head of the UN.

But even after Hammarskjold moved to New York, the middle-aged bachelor’s private life remained precisely that. There were reports he had a pet monkey and wrote poetry. There were rumors he was gay. No one was certain if his politics were right or left.

Meanwhile, by Hammarskjold’s second term in office, life in the Republic of the Congo had gone from bad to unbearable.

Many of the whites who remained had already fled to the secessionist state of Katanga. Supported by the big mining companies, encouraged by the racist government of neighboring Rhodesia, they were soon joined by shady soldiers of fortune.

Meanwhile, fearing the leftist Lumumba could be another Castro, the CIA declared, “his removal must be an urgent and prime objective.” One potential assassination plot involved a tube of poisoned toothpaste.

Before they could act, though, the prime minister was deposed by rivals, tortured and executed. Decades later, a British spy, Daphne Park, would brag about having helped arrange it.

At the time, though, critics blamed Hammarskjold for letting things devolve. While defending the UN’s efforts, the secretary-general admitted the country had spun out of control. “Events in the Congo move quickly,” he said, “and it seems so far, always badly.”

Then it all got worse.

Although the UN forces were there to keep the peace, they were soon fighting a real war in Katanga. On April 17, 1961, Hammarskjold was en route to the region, hoping to negotiate a ceasefire with rebel leader Moise Tshombe.

He never arrived.

Hammarskjold’s plane was 10 hours overdue before search parties were finally dispatched. It was another five hours before they found the crash site. The plane had gone down in the nearby jungle and shattered on impact. Much of it was still burning.

Hammarskjold had been thrown clear. His back was to an anthill, and his body was nearly unmarked. A clear message was left on the corpse: A playing card, the ace of spades, lay on his chest.

Of the 16 onboard, there was only one, horribly burned survivor, the mission’s head of security. “It blew up,” he gasped. “Then there was the crash. There was a lot of explosions all around.”

Taken to the hospital, he slipped in and out of consciousness until he died six days later.

Because the plane had gone down in Rhodesia, its apartheid government led the investigation. Disregarding black witnesses who recalled seeing a mysterious “flash” in the sky, the Rhodesians concluded the pilot had flown too low and crashed into the trees.

Then why were the bodies of several passengers bullet-ridden? Guns had gone off accidentally during the fire, experts claimed. Why was the ace of spades, the so-called death card, on Hammarskjold’s corpse? No one seemed to care.

It has been almost 60 years since the crash, and there are still more theories than answers. Was it an armed stowaway? A bomb? Did the plane crash, trying to evade pursuers? The aircraft was shot down by an assassin.

There are even more suspects than theories.

“Russia hated Hammarskjold as an agent of the West,” Somaiya writes. “The West hated him for opening the door to Russia in the Congo. The Congolese hated him for Lumumba’s death. The white Africans and Belgians who had actually killed Lumumba hated him because he had attempted to stop their secession.”

Eerily, it was a death Hammarskjold himself had predicted.

“We countered effectively efforts from all sides to make the Congo a happy hunting ground for national interests,” Hammarskjold said, defending the UN’s work. “To be a roadblock to such efforts is to make yourself the target.”

Like many who try to save lives, Hammarskjold paid with this own. It was a violent end to a peaceful man, the first in that dreadful decade.

More than half a century later, the country he tried to help, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is as poor and violent as ever.

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