Do You Remember Dag Hammarskjöld? You Should. An Interview with Biographer Roger Lipsey

Historians/History
tags: interview, Dag Hammarskjold, Roger Lipsey



Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney and features editor of the History News Network. His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, NW Lawyer, Re-Markings, and other publications. He has a special interest in the history of medicine and of conflict and human rights. He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com.. Click here to view a list of his other interviews.


If we are to prevail, we must be seers and explorers.

Dag Hammarskjöld


On December 29, 2014, the United Nations General Assembly approved by consensus a resolution requesting that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appoint an independent panel of experts to reopen the investigation and examine new evidence on the 1961 death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the UN. (“Consensus” means that all 193 member nations agreed without the formality of separate votes.)

The resolution encourages member nations to release any relevant records in their possession and information related to the deaths of Hammarskjöld and 15 others who were with him in an aircraft that crashed near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia), on the night of 17-18 September 1961. Hammarskjöld was en route to negotiate a cease-fire in Congo.

Building on several prior inquiries, a UN investigation in 1962 reached an open verdict on the cause of the crash: possibly pilot error (as claimed by the previous inquiries), but foul play could not be ruled out. No evidence available to the UN pointed to the second hypothesis, though it could not be excluded.

Hammarskjöld (born 1905), a Swedish economist and intellectual, served as UN Secretary General from 1953 to 1961, during the tumultuous years of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear annihilation haunted the world. He is remembered for his moral courage, integrity and impartiality. An international civil servant both by formal obligation and by personal conviction, he refused to bow to the will of the great powers.

During his tenure at the UN, Hammarskjöld pioneered tools of international statecraft such as shuttle diplomacy, the use of peacekeeping forces, preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution processes. Giving new stature and scope to the office of the Secretary-General, he endowed the larger Organization, as he often called it, with a persuasive voice heard and respected worldwide. A few months after Hammarskjöld’s death, President John F. Kennedy called him “the greatest statesman of this century.”

Hammarskjöld was also a deep spiritual thinker who left behind his now classic journal of meditations, Markings. Theologian Henry P. Van Dusen called Markings “the noblest self-disclosure of spiritual struggle and triumph, perhaps the greatest testament of personal faith, written in the heat of professional life and amidst the most exacting responsibilities for world peace and order.” The most apt parallel in earlier literature is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Historian Roger Lipsey, author of the magisterial biography Hammarskjöld: A Life (University of Michigan Press), agrees with the call for a new investigation of Hammarskjöld’s death.

Dr. Lipsey’s biography of Hammarskjöld, based on extensive research including previously unpublished correspondence and documents, deliberately strikes a balance between Hammarskjöld’s engagement in world affairs and his spiritual journey, and how the two were intimately related, mutually supportive.

Dr. Lipsey’s book has been widely praised as the most comprehensive biography of Hammarskjöld. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, commented: “Lipsey is brilliant at reading the life in tandem with the meditations so that we can see something of what was in Hammarskjöld’s mind at points of crisis—not just his thoughts about the details of a crisis but what was nourishing him internally.” The late Per Lind, a Swedish Foreign Service official and personal aide to Hammarskjöld, wrote of Dr. Lipsey’s work: "An important, brilliantly written book. Its wide selection of sources gives a masterful, true, and full portrait of Hammarskjöld. Lipsey's learned and wise comments contribute much to understanding the inner life and outward actions of a unique person." And Michael Ignatieff, Canadian historian, human rights advocate and politician, described Dr. Lipsey’s book as “a patient, discrete and compassionate guide to Hammarskjöld’s inner world.” 

Dr. Lipsey is a biographer, art historian, editor and translator who has written on a wide range of topics and intellectual figures. His books include a three-volume edition of the works of the art historian and metaphysician Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, as well as Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton, and An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art (now available in a reprint under the subtitle). His forthcoming book (May 2015) is Make Peace Before the Sun Goes Down: The Long Encounter Between Thomas Merton and his Abbot, James Fox (Shambhala Publications).

Dr. Lipsey's website, dag-hammarskjold.com, is a central resource for readers interested in Hammarskjöld's political wisdom (there are nearly 50 brief explorations on the site) and in current news of the UN investigation. Contributions by others to the website range from a meditative article by Rowan Williams, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, to a powerful letter from a Swedish soldier serving in the Congo at the time of Hammarskjöld's death, who lost two friends in the air crash.

Dr. Lipsey recently discussed the life and untimely death of Hammarskjöld by phone from his home in New York State. We began by addressing the December 2014 decision of the UN to reopen the investigation into Hammarskjöld’s death.

Dr. Roger Lipsey


Robin Lindley: The UN has reopened the investigation into 1961 the death of Dag Hammarskjöld in an air crash. What is your sense of how this resolution came about?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: What we are witnessing is a multifaceted return of Dag Hammarskjöld. The first step was provided by Dr. Susan Williams, a British scholar working in London, who published in the fall of 2011 her brilliant book Who Killed Hammarskjöld?: The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa. Both an outstanding scholar and an able sleuth, Dr. Williams uncovered masses of neglected or previously unknown evidence pointing away from the longstanding notion that the air crash that took Hammarskjöld’s life on the night of September 17-18, 1961, in central Africa [near the Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, airport], was due to pilot error—that the pilots were unfamiliar with the airfield, they were likely weary, they made technical errors. That theory prevailed for decades.

The investigation conducted immediately after the fatal crash, by a multinational group of air safety experts, focused on the crash itself and activity at the air field before and after. Though finding fault with the air traffic controllers, it uncovered no evidence of foul play.

A second investigation was conducted soon after by a court of inquiry in the white supremacist nation of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia. That inquiry took extensive evidence from white and black Africans, but it categorically disregarded not only the evidence of black Africans who had seen a smaller attacking plane in the sky, perhaps two, but also the evidence of white Africans who witnessed an explosion in the sky before the crash. Yet these men and women were practiced observers of the airspace around Ndola airport. They had long lived and worked there, had seen thousands of airplanes come and go. Several black African witnesses, humble town officials or citizens at the time, later went on to become ministers in newly independent Zambia. The court of inquiry concluded pilot error.

The United Nations conducted its own inquiry but accepted too trustingly the evidence taken by the second inquiry. The UN concluded that pilot error was the likely cause, though foul play could not be ruled out. Significantly, the UN also decided that, were additional evidence to be brought forward at some later date, its investigation could be resumed.

Nothing changed in the next forty-odd years, although some people close to the event and to those who lost their lives at Ndola never accepted the finding of pilot error—or some other less than notable cause. Hammarskjöld’s nephew Knut Hammarskjöld—who became director of the International Air Transport Association, based in Montreal—was persuaded that there had been foul play. On the other hand, the genuinely great author and UN diplomat Brian Urquhart, who wrote the 1972 biography of Dag Hammarskjöld and had served both Hammarskjöld and later secretaries-general with distinction, was equally persuaded that pilot error had brought the plane down; in his view, conspiracy theories were nonsense.

Susan Williams completely broke up this frozen pattern of opinion—about a progressively forgotten though admittedly tragic “incident”—by going back to original transcripts, examining testimony that had been disregarded or denigrated, identifying new sources of information, and interviewing surviving witnesses, now elderly—some of whom hadn’t dared to testify because they feared retribution from the white supremacist government. Susan Williams’s book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? is critically important.

At the time her book appeared in September 2011, I was still working on Hammarskjöld: A Life, published in April 2013. The two books became like rails down which so much new knowledge could run. My book concerns the life, its inner and outer dimensions; her book concerns the savagery of his death and the recovery of evidence for conspiracy and assassination.

Dr. Williams’s book led to the formation of the Hammarskjöld Commission, a panel of four eminent retired jurists and international leaders who generously decided pro bono to examine all of the existing evidence, to develop new evidence if possible, to interview surviving witnesses, and to write a report with recommendations to the United Nations and the Secretary General.

The resulting report, released in September 2013, is intricately detailed, beautifully and clearly written. It concludes that it is extremely plausible that there was an attack or an attempted diversion of Hammarskjöld’s airplane. Further, it points out, crucial evidence might well lie in currently classified files of the US National Security Agency (NSA), which was operating listening posts likely to have been capable of capturing air traffic and ground control communications at Ndola.

The Hammarskjöld Commission submitted its report in early October 2013 to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose office immediately announced that it would be seriously studied. Several months later, he asked the General Assembly to consider whether to reopen the investigation and recommended doing so.

In December 2014, the Swedish ambassador introduced a resolution for Sweden and 19 other countries requesting the appointment of an independent panel of experts to examine all of the evidence on behalf of the General Assembly and to make recommendations, and also requested that all member countries release relevant records. On December 29, the resolution was funded and 36 nations joined the original 20 in sponsoring this resolution. As noted earlier, the resolution was adopted by consensus. Now we must wait. A number of member states may have decisively revealing information in their archives. A moment of truth lies ahead—but what is the truth?

Robin Lindley: Will you have a role in this UN investigation?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: The UN Office of Legal Affairs is responsible for selecting the independent panel of experts. I doubt that Susan Williams or I, or our close colleagues, could be selected. I believe that well qualified people new to the material will be invited to participate.

Robin Lindley: Could you say something about the context of Hammarskjöld’s death in 1961? Why would anyone want to assassinate the UN Secretary-General?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: On June 30, 1960, Belgium granted independence to the Congo, and the Republic of Congo was formed with Patrice Lumumba as Prime Minister and Joseph Kasavubu as President. The transition from colonial status to independent country was handled in a very superficial and rushed way by Belgium; the government of this enormous country with vast natural resources was ill-prepared to govern.

Within three or four days of independence the fabric of the country began to fall apart. The army mutinied against its Belgian officers, attacked Belgian civilians, rumors of violence against Belgians spread across the country, and the Belgians who had essentially been running the country for decades fled by every available means. And in response the Belgian government deployed troops already stationed in the Congo, and flew in paratroopers, to restore order.

Soon after, within days, Katanga Province, the richest province of the Congo, seceded and declared its independence under the protection of Belgian administrators and troops. Katanga produced some 60 percent of the annual revenue of the country through the mining and export of its mineral resources: vast amounts of copper and rare minerals, and notably uranium (which had been used in the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan). The capital behind Katanga’s mining industry was predominantly Belgian, British and American.

The legitimate government of the Congo called on the UN to send peacekeeping forces to replace the invading Belgian troops and recover Katanga. Hammarskjöld brought the case to UN Security Council, which authorized him to send a peacekeeping force accompanied by civilian administrators to restore the country’s basic services.

The situation generally worsened over the next 18 months. In September 1961, Hammarskjöld went to the Congo with an agenda that he hoped would bring together the president of the seceded province of Katanga [Moise Tshombe] with the president and other officials of the central government to work out a way to undo the secession—the UN mandate from the beginning had been to support a united Congo.

Hammarskjöld was on his way to Africa when deadly skirmishes broke out in Katanga between UN peacekeepers and Katangese forces led by South African, French, and other mercenaries for control of the province. When Hammarskjöld landed in Lagos on September 13, 1961, he learned only then that something resembling war had broken out without his agreement or knowledge. When he landed some hours later in Congo, the scope of the crisis was evident. He came under immense pressure from the British, Belgians, and Americans—from everybody—to stop this war of deadly skirmishes that had broken out in Katanga. He decided that the best way to do so was personal diplomacy, and to fly not to Katanga itself but to a mining town in Northern Rhodesia, Ndola, ten miles from the Katanga, and to meet there with the president of Katanga and other officials to gain a cease-fire and time for diplomacy.

He and fifteen others in his party flew to Northern Rhodesia in the night. The plane reached within a few miles of the airport and disappeared.

Robin Lindley: And the Cold War was also playing out then in the Congo.

Dr. Roger Lipsey: Absolutely. At UN headquarters in New York and on the ground in Congo, the Cold War was largely determining what happened in the harshest of language and conflicting views. What was at stake, in the view of Hammarskjöld and many others, was to avert a nuclear World War III.

Robin Lindley: There were suspicions about the roles of the Soviet KGB and the American CIA in the Congo at this time.

Dr. Roger Lipsey: It’s very hard to sort out. But you asked who would want Hammarskjöld dead? At this point, and with the help of Susan Williams’s book, one can only speculate. The mining interests wanted to keep Katanga separate, not subject to the perturbations going on in the Republic of Congo. White supremacists recognized in Hammarskjöld a powerful champion of decolonization. And who knows about the secret services operating in the Congo. The secret services of the great powers were all there. I hope we’ll soon know a great deal more.

Patrice Lumumba was assassinated some nine months before Hammarskjöld’s death. It wasn’t until ten years ago—long after the event—that the full story of his assassination became public knowledge thanks to excellent investigative reporting by a Belgian author. Although the CIA had Lumumba in its sights, ultimately it was Katangese authorities with support from the Belgians who actually did the deed. Appropriate apologies and remorse were shown at the national level over this political murder, once revealed.

From my point of view, the deaths of Hammarskjöld and Lumumba represented the death of any hope of legitimacy in the Congo for decades. It remains a place of immense violence. It remains a place where people aren’t cared for, a place with child soldiers and conflict minerals and rape as a strategy of domination. Such misery. It needn’t be that way. Congo has some of the richest mineral resources in the world. It has ancient cultures and indigenous knowledge from which the world at large can and should draw. The people of the Congo should be comfortable and secure. The resources are there. It has never happened. Not yet.

Robin Lindley: Didn’t Western governments fear that Lumumba would ally Congo with the Soviet bloc?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: Yes. He was viewed in Washington as unreliable, unstable, left-leaning—a danger. The record implies that President Eisenhower asked for him to be eliminated.

Robin Lindley: You devoted years of study of Hammarskjöld to write your sweeping biography of him.

Dr. Roger Lipsey: My concern has been Hammarskjöld the political genius and spiritual seeker, and the relationship between those two. I’m also haunted by the question of what this rare paradigm, this unified duality, suggests for twenty-first century politics and leadership. We needed—and I needed—to know Hammarskjöld much better, to clarify his politics and his person.

Robin Lindley: You’re an expert on cultural and spiritual issues. Some readers who see Hammarskjöld strictly as a political figure may be surprised that you decided to write this detailed biography. How did you come to study and write about Hammarskjöld?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: I trained as an art historian, but the operative word there is historian. At my perfectly wonderful graduate school, the Institute of Fine Arts (New York University) we trained in the interpretation and writing of history—focused of course on works of art and on artists. As it happens, my doctoral dissertation had in it a large dose of biography, and I’ve tended to take a biographical perspective in later books. So it wasn’t a sharp turn to write this biography, which I felt called to write. The idea of a “call” is perhaps too religious—but one sometimes knows what to do, what comes next.

Robin Lindley: Did reading Markings, Hammarskjöld’s journal of meditations, prompt your interest in him?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: Yes. It was partly that. I’m 72 now, and I think one assembles a self slowly, piece by piece. One is lucky if the pieces fit. In my case, in 1964 when Markings was published in English, I was impressed with it; it appealed to the person I was then, who was more drawn to aesthetics and philosophy and spirituality than anything else. But gradually, additional pieces of self appeared, encouraged particularly by my participation as a colleague and leader in some difficult political settings. I realized I needed to be more adroit politically. I needed a political education and I knew where to turn. I turned to Hammarskjöld and the other half of his life’s work, the political work, the international diplomacy, which became as important to me personally as Markings had been in years past.

In the course of my sixties, I read carefully that aspect of Hammarskjöld’s work and began to go to the archives in Sweden and at Oxford and elsewhere. The primary archive for which he arranged toward the end of his life is at the Royal Library in Stockholm. As I explored masses of material, much of it unpublished and unstudied, I realized that this man embodied and integrated the two aspects of self that were somehow joined also in me: the lifelong interest in aesthetics, philosophy and spirituality, and a sense of engagement with the needs of society and community.

I knew that what I was beginning to understand about Hammarskjöld, particularly through his correspondence and a very close reading of Markings, needed to be communicated. Its time had come after a long eclipse in his reputation, in the simple memory of the man. And so I wrote.

I am wary of the notion of examples. I’ll caricature it: Winston Churchill was great in 1940 so we should all be like Winston Churchill in 1940. That is a ridiculous statement. Dag Hammarskjöld joined spirituality and personal discipline with the most meticulous, creative practice in international affairs, therefore we should follow his example. That too is a ridiculous statement. Each individual is unique. What we can take from Churchill or Hammarskjöld are general principles and guidelines and a lot of inspiration. That explains the balance in my book. I’m careful to show where he was in his inner life and relate that, whatever it may be, to the outer circumstances and crises he was dealing with. I do my best to show his astonishing richness as an example of what’s possible—not to be copied but to be understood. If men and women in political life today at many levels, from community to world affairs, can encounter Hammarskjöld at work, encounter his thought and concerns, encounter his integrity. . . What a help that would be in this dangerous world.

Robin Lindley: You’ve said that in your archival research, you studied a trove of correspondence and documents that hadn’t been published before.

Dr. Roger Lipsey: The collection of documents in Sweden has been a known resource, but little explored. Remember that Dag Hammarskjöld had faded from view—a great individual, but of another era, of unclear relevance.

I worked with a Swedish collaborator, the late Daniel von Sydow, who became a dear friend. He translated Swedish correspondence for me and acted truly as a second self when I couldn’t be in Sweden. Much of the correspondence was in English, some in other European languages I could read. There were masses of correspondence that hadn’t been looked at, hadn’t been pieced into his life. If you look at the section “Power and Responsibility” in my book, you’ll find an astonishing communication between him and one of his Swedish Academy colleagues, the novelist Pär Lagerkvist. It’s extraordinary material that had never seen the light of day.

Robin Lindley: I was struck by your comment in the book that Hammarskjöld should be read thematically or musically. What did you mean?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: As the chief spokesman for the UN in his era, 1953 to 1961, he often had to address audiences on the same topics. What is the UN? What is it doing? All that. He repeated himself the way a composer does variations on a theme. A skilled composer—Handel or Brahms or, Lord knows, Bach—writes variations that keep you rapt the whole way through even though the same basic melodic and harmonic structure is preserved. That’s the way it was for him. He could give talks on the UN and every time present variations on the theme, altogether interesting and fresh.

Robin Lindley: You stress how his thought propelled his actions as Secretary General. Can you give a couple of examples of when Hammarskjöld’s actions were influenced by his thought?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: When the General Assembly elected him to a second term, he was sitting at his place on the high dais in the General Assembly—and he was writing out the Lord’s Prayer during the complimentary speeches. Find me another solid statesman—not a fire-breathing fundamentalist—who would do that.

For many of his years as Secretary General, though not all, events would often fall into place. For example, the crisis with the People’s Republic of China, leading to the release of several imprisoned US airmen in 1955, went so well in the end that he felt he had to ask himself, “Who is the agent here? Who is prompting these things to happen?” He would struggle to understand the course of events: was it his own sense of strategy, a very human phenomenon, or something like Providence at work, pulling the threads together into a welcome pattern? He would ask himself what attitude is really just and appropriate when things work out very well. In that particular negotiation, which took some ten months, when the airmen were released everyone was praising Dag Hammarskjöld. He had pulled off an amazing diplomatic feat at a time when Maoist China was not a UN member nation and had recently embittered the Western powers by its strong participation in the Korean War. Hammarskjöld understood better than anyone that he and his colleagues had to get things right in a material, political, sequential way—but all of that, however well executed, was not necessarily the decisive factor.

Toward the end of his life, he made an entry in Markings,and even drew on it in a talk with the entire Secretariat staff, in which he expressed this balance: how foolish it would be not to acknowledge that the UN’s work is significant, yet how foolish it would be to assign all credit to oneself or the Organization. We are participants in a network we don’t fully understand or govern.

When Hammarskjöld was in the Middle East in 1955-56, he invented shuttle diplomacy. He was constantly shuttling between Ben Gurion’s Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to Nasser’s Cairo, to Jordan, to Syria, tremendously engaged in trying to keep the peace. Here’s an entry he wrote April 22, 1956, in Beirut: “Understand—through the stillness. Act—out of the stillness. Prevail—in the stillness.” To which he added this passage from Meister Eckhart, the 14th-century teacher and preacher who was his most significant spiritual master: “In order for the eye to perceive color, it must divest itself of all colors.” That’s from Page 127 of Markings, thought through and written in the middle of an exercise in shuttle diplomacy at an exhausting period of his life. He’s reminding himself of the value of starting from and returning to stillness. No egotism there. The pure intention of a peacemaker.

Robin Lindley: It’s so timely.

Dr. Roger Lipsey: This is the Hammarskjöld paradigm: constantly mindful participation and leadership that does not exclude the pragmatic need to “act, prevail.” Ready to engage, yet aware in some large sense. He embodied this paradigm more clearly than anyone else.

I admire Václav Havel. He was one of the heirs of Hammarskjöld. How can this paradigm be realized by people today? If there were some in leadership roles who shared this perspective on understanding, action, and the fulfillment of sound intentions, wouldn’t that change many things for the better?

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about Hammarskjöld and his legacy?

Dr. Roger Lipsey: Hammarskjöld’s greatness was eclipsed for years. Every reader who encounters him in Markings and the new literature about him will help to bring the sun out. And it’s a real sun. He has so much value in terms of understanding what leadership really can be and must be. 



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