Interview with Brian Urquhart, former Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, on Dag Hammarskjöld

Brian Urquhart, former Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs

22 September 2011 – Sir Brian Urquhart, a veteran international civil servant who helped guide the United Nations from its inception through decades of dramatic challenges, was one of the Organization's first staff members. He served with various Secretaries-General throughout his 40-year career, including Dag Hammarskjöld, who led the UN from 1953-1961 until his death in a plane crash on 18 September 1961 while trying to bring about a ceasefire during the attempted secession of Katanga from the Democratic Republic of the Congo [then called Republic of Congo].

Upon Hammarskjöld’s death, Sir Brian helped organize his private papers and was instrumental in their posthumous publication as Markings. He subsequently penned the biography, Hammarskjöld.

On the 50th anniversary of Hammarskjöld passing, the UN News Centre spoke with Sir Brian about the UN's second Secretary-General.

UN News Centre: Can you tell us about Dag Hammarskjöld’s arrival as Secretary-General?

Brian Urquhart: I was the personal assistant to the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, until we parted – we had some disagreements after about three years.

In 1953, the UN was in a very parlous condition because the bright, wonderful atmosphere of the San Francisco conference, the relief at the end of the war and the assurances by everybody that they wanted a world at peace, all of that, had sort of worn off.

Trygve Lie had, quite rightly, backed the Security Council’s intervention in Korea and as a result he had been “excommunicated” by the SI think you have to look at Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General as someone who had dedicated himself to – for him – the most important cause in the worldoviet Union and was not on speaking terms with anyone in the Soviet bloc which made it very difficult to operate.

He resigned in November 1952. Then there was a sort of a free-for-all trying to find someone – not who would be the best for the job, but who could escape one veto or another in the Security Council. Something like ten distinguished persons from various parts of the world were tried.

Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956)

Finally, the British and the French suggested that it was essential to solve this problem. By this time we were in March 1953, and they suggested that four names should be put up by the Western countries to see if any one of them was acceptable to the Soviet Union. The British and the French, among others, suggested Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, who in those days was not a famous international figure at all. He was very young and he was very successful in his own country but not known much anywhere else.

To everybody’s amazement, the Soviet Union agreed. I should go back and say that when Hammarskjöld arrived, he looked incredibly young – he was a very young looking 45 – he was extremely quiet, and in no sense a show-off. He started extremely quietly and people wondered how he would manage to deal with an organization that was split clean down the middle by the east-west political and ideological divide.

And it was assumed – I think by most people in the Security Council who didn’t know Hammarskjöld – that they’d elected a nice, competent Swedish civil servant who wouldn’t rock the boat and wouldn’t be very independent and wouldn’t create trouble. Well, I must say that was quite a surprise, the next eight years, because he actually turned out to be anything but that!

Secretary-General Hammarskjöld outside of UN Headquarters. (1 June 1953)

UN News Centre: What was your relationship to Hammarskjöld?

Brian Urquhart: I was the sort of deputy to Ralph Bunche who, if we weren’t talking about Hammarskjöld, I’d like to talk about – he was an amazing person, remarkable. Ralph had just received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the armistice agreements between Israel and the five Arab neighbours.

Hammarskjöld was very anxious to avoid an east-west split, a Soviet-United States split, in the Secretariat. So he took the senior American and the senior Soviet official and made them both under-secretaries in the Secretary-General’s office.

The President of the Security Council for the month of March, Mr. Ahmed S. Bokhari (centre) of Pakistan, announces to the press the Council's decision to recommend to the General Assembly the appointment of Hammarskjöld as UN Secretary-General. (31 March 1953)

He first called them Under-Secretaries Without Portfolios, but unfortunately that caused a lot of jokes among the journalists, so they were changed and they became the Under-Secretaries-General for Special Political Affairs. They were supposed to take on things which weren’t allowed for in the ordinary range of the Secretariat, like conflict control. Bunche was the American one and I became his chief assistant.

Hammarskjöld was rather sceptical about Bunche to begin with; I think partly because Bunche knew far more about the UN than Hammarskjöld did. But he then discovered that Bunche was somebody who was absolutely exceptional. He was totally honest, intellectually brilliant, and extremely loyal and very effective. He was an immensely effective person. So he really became Hammarskjöld’s sort of strong right arm. And I, as the rather relatively junior official in Bunche’s office, certainly was within the kind of circle, if not the aura, of Dag Hammarskjöld.

Secretary-General Trygve Lie welcomes his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld (right), upon his arrival in New York from Stockholm, ahead of his induction ceremony the following day. (9 April 1953)

I may say that Dag Hammarskjöld, who was very unusual in almost every possible way, was not a person who the people he worked with could become extremely close to. He didn’t like that. I think he was right – he was a relatively lonely person and he did not think that work was helped by any kind of favouritism or anything like that. I don’t think anybody probably knew him very well; Bunche knew him probably better than anyone else.

But I, inevitably, worked on some of the issues he was dealing with and when nobody else was around I would also be dealing with him, and I must say I developed a tremendous admiration for him.

The newly-appointed Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld (left), with his predecessor Trygve Lie at UN Headquarters. (13 April 1953)

Bunche, who was no slouch himself, said somewhere that, “Dag Hammarskjöld was the most remarkable man I ever encountered; I learned more from him than any other man.” This was from a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a crackerjack member of academic intellectual circles, it was quite a compliment. And I think that this was the standard at which the leadership of this organization was at, at that moment.

UN News Centre: What do you think he should be remembered for and what do you think he would have liked to be remembered for?

Secretary-General Hammarskjöld at a press conference at UN Headquarters. (2 August 1954)

Brian Urquhart: I think he’d like to be remembered as an absolutely unequalled, genuinely international leader of an organization. I think he should also be remembered as the person who, to some extent, put the UN on the map as an organization that could actually take action in crises, one that didn’t just pass resolutions, but actually got into the field and did things. And also as the person who transformed the position of Secretary-General into a major player in international affairs on the political side and everything else. This was not at all what it had been. The role of the Secretary-GHe was the chief administrative officer with some rather vague political attributes in terms of article 99 [of the UN Charter] and so on.

Brian Urquhart (right) is among several aides gathered for talks with Secretary-General Hammarskjöld. (12 April 1955)

I think you have to remember that Hammarskjöld was operating in the Cold War. And during the Cold War, everyone – including one’s children if they were over five – had at the back of their minds a constant feeling that if you were in New York or Washington or Moscow, you might quite likely encounter a nuclear war, suddenly and quite unexpectedly. It was a very disagreeable background – I mean nuclear war, east-west, was perfectly possible.

So that this really was the unspoken ultimate objective of any person who thought the UN could do something. And Hammarskjöld became, for seven of his eight years, a person who was completely accepted as above the Cold War, who could tackle difficult situations which the Security Council simply couldn’t tackle because of countermanding vetoes of the west and the east.

UN News Centre: You wrote that Hammarskjöld’s death was not “only an appalling blow to the UN and to all who had worked for him. There was also an agonizing sense of irreparable personal loss which I still find hard to account for.” In the years since writing those words, have you come any closer to understanding why there was that sense of irreparable personal loss?

Hammarskjöld (second from left) attends a meeting on the financial needs for the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency, along with Brian Urquhart (far right). (15 February 1955)

Brian Urquhart: I think you very rarely in your life meet somebody who is sort of a genius – that is to say, who has some unaccountable quality which appears to put them in a completely different position to anybody else and who can do things not just by intellectual brilliance or anything but by a kind of a spirit that is extremely commanding. Sometimes it’s bad and sometimes it’s good.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Hammarskjöld was a sort of a genius. If I may give you just one example: Hammarskjöld was quite a shy man. He was not a good orator and didn’t like oratory – he thought it verged on demagoguery and wasn’t a good idea. He was very, very self-contained. He did not make intimate friends easily. He made political friends, but that was different. But, by the time he’d been going for about five years, you could take a taxi in Rio de Janeiro or talk to a Syrian border guard in the desert or talk to somebody who was handling your baggage at the New Delhi airport – and they would have heard of Hammarskjöld, and it wasn’t just that. They had a perfectly clear, rather simple idea, that what he was doing was very important and very good.

Now, how did a shy Swede fix this? I don’t think there’s any explanation for that except that there was a certain genius in Hammarskjöld. And with all the best will in the world, most people aren’t geniuses. Very few are. It sounds a wishy-washy thing to say, but I think this quality was very important to why he’s so much remembered.

Secretary-General Hammarskjöld (left) on the presidential rostrum during the Emergency Special Session of the General Assembly on the Middle East. (5 November 1956)

UN News Centre: You were asked to help go through his personal papers after his death. What impact did this have on you?

Brian Urquhart: In the first place, his papers were quite exiguous. It wasn’t just 285 boxes or anything like that. He had kept everything like his library. It was sort of pruned every year and everything essential was kept and all the froth and everything had gone – at least I think that must be the case – so that it was a very intensive business to go into his papers.

But you weren’t overwhelmed at the sheer bulk, and I think that was deliberate on his part. He was, intellectually, an extremely disciplined man. He was one of the rare people who, if suddenly confronted overnight with a problem, was capable of going home and thinking about it and coming back in the morning with a pretty clear strategy of what he was going to do, who he needed to talk to, and if something didn’t work, what else to try, and so on. For example, getting out the 17 American airmen who’d come down in China during the Korean War and been convicted as spies; we had people in Washington talking about nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland, it was a major problem. This takes an enormous intellectual effort and he could do it, and that is – quite apart from anything else – something that sets him aside from most people in public life. It’s a very difficult thing to do and he could do that.

UN News Centre: You have also said he was a “complex and elusive” man. Was there another side to him which showed through? The man behind the myth, so to speak?

Hammarskjöld on the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat building, standing in front of a painting lent to the UN by New York's Museum of Modern Art. (1 March 1954)

Brian Urquhart: I think you have to look at Dag Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General as someone who had dedicated himself to – for him – the most important cause in the world, which was the UN and peace in a divided east-west nuclear world. He didn’t really feel that there was too much time for much else except he thought that literature, all the arts, particularly music and painting, were an absolute key part of life and he was very active in all these areas.

He was a member of the committee which awards the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. He loved on long air journeys to translate extremely difficult texts in French and English into Swedish: Martin Buber, Saint John Perse, Djuna Barnes in the United States. He loved doing that. He had a passion for modern painting and modern art; and he thought those were part of an integrated life.

He also, although he never said it and never showed the slightest sign of it, was deeply religious in a rather free-for-all way. He certainly – just looking at Markings, his spiritual diary – was developing his own version of mysticism as he went along. And that in itself is a fascinating study, which I’ve not undertaken but … in other words, he was a very integrated man. Integrity normally means purity of purpose and that kind of thing, but integrity also means the whole of your life being part of a single whole. And it’s quite rare, particularly for people embroiled in an absolutely all-consuming public job like he was.

UN News Centre: Over the years, you’ve been very firm in your belief that the plane crash that killed Hammarskjöld was an accident. What do you make of claims that his aircraft was deliberately shot down due to foreign mineral interests in Katanga?

Hammarskjöld with Prime Minister Chou En-Lai of the Chinese People's Republic, in Peking, where he went to seek, at the UN General Assembly's request, the release of detained UN Command personnel. (10 January 1955)

Brian Urquhart: You know, the older I get the more absolutely convinced I am that the conspiracy theories don’t hold out at all. There are about 50 of them and if one’s right, all the others are wrong for a start. That puts out 49 of 50.

The present so-called revelations, which come from interviewing 86-year-old charcoal burners in Zambia, are not new at all. These same people, when they were much, much younger 50 years ago, were interviewed by the Commission of Inquiry for five days on the ground where they’d been when the crash took place.

This new theory is based on the charcoal burners believing they saw a small plane following steadily behind the big plane when it crashed. Well, the Commission of Inquiry were not stupid. They came to the conclusion that what the charcoal burners had seen was the navigation beacon on the high tail-fin of the DC-6, which was a great feature of that aircraft. And of course it was following steadily – it was part of the aeroplane!

People seem to assume that you just jump into an aeroplane in the middle of Africa in the dark and say “’bye chaps, I’m going to shoot down Dag Hammarskjöld, see you in the morning!” It’s nonsense. There were no aircraft in that part of the world with night-flying control, no aircraft with proper ground control, and finding an aeroplane in the middle of Africa at midnight is not something you just do.

The Security Council discusses a Syrian complaint against Israel concerning the work on the West Bank of the Jordan River in the Demilitarized Zone. (21 January 1954)

At the point the plane crashed, it was in the landing mode. It had its wheels down, it had its air-brakes on, and it was exactly ten feet too low to clear the trees on the top of a little mound which was on the run-in path and it hit them. Frankly, I don’t really think that the conspiracy theories help very much.

UN News Centre: Why do you think there is this fascination about his death?

Brian Urquhart: Well, there is about everybody who dies a violent death, particularly if they’re famous. Look at JFK or anybody you can think of. And people who like to see their names in the paper can do it easily now, particularly on anniversaries, by saying they’ve got new evidence.

Hammarskjöld (right) on the Red Square during a visit to Moscow to meet with Soviet officials. (5 July 1956)

I would be the first to wish to discover someone who had murdered Dag Hammarskjöld. I think the world lost an incredibly valuable citizen in that disaster. But I’ve been thinking about it for 50 years and I’ve never been able to see the smallest evidence of this at all, or indeed that it was possible.

Incidentally, he wasn’t flying in his own aircraft. He changed aircraft two hours before he took off so that Lord Lansdowne, who was the undersecretary for the colonies, I think, for the British Government, could go to Ndolo, which was then in northern Rhodesia [now Zambia], to prepare a reception for Hammarskjöld. So if they were going to shoot the plane down, they would have shot down the one with Lord Lansdowne in it.

UN News Centre: What do you think he would have made of all these events to commemorate his life and work?

Brian Urquhart: Hammarskjöld had a marvellous phrase about this. He said, “When you are successful in something, it’s very important to resist the temptation to mirror yourself in an obituary.” And that says it all!

Hammarskjöld in Katanga for talks with authorities and Belgian representatives concerning the withdrawal of Belgian troops and the deployment of the UN Force. (14 August 1960)

In a way it’s a bit much. Hammarskjöld was a very disciplined person and I daresay that would have made him quite difficult to spend a lot of time with. But this was a rare form of emotional discipline and he was very aware of these problems. We all loved him because we were working for him and we knew what we were trying to do and it was very difficult and we had complete confidence in it. I don’t think anybody would mind being remembered 50 years later for being an important and wonderfully imaginative person. I would certainly like to be remembered like that, but I won’t be – but I don’t think it mattered to him all that much.

UN News Centre: What do you think he would make of the UN in its current incarnation and its future outlook in the 21st century?

Brian Urquhart: Hammarskjöld was an intellectual in action, which was quite a rare breed when you come to think of it. He was extremely sensitive to the essential, basic problems that had to be faced, either in the UN or outside it. And he was very good because he was someone who carried great conviction. He was very good at focussing public attention on to an issue – peacekeeping, for example, which was very necessary then in order to avoid an east-west nuclear war.

The UN flag at half-mast following the confirmation of Hammarskjöld's death in a plane crash in Africa. (18 September 1961)

Nowadays, I think he would have looked at something like, let’s say, global warming and the environment, or the probable extreme shortages of vital resources like food and water, or the potentially fatal combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, and probably several other things, and I think he would have provided the impulse and the kind of intellectual leadership you need to really get governments and people to actually think about those things and, much more importantly, to actually work together on them. So you wouldn’t have a mess-up like Copenhagen, which was a wasted opportunity, it seems to me, simply because nobody had really prepared the ground properly, in any sense, to get people to agree on something that could be done.

He was an economist by trade. He was a pupil of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge. I don’t know if he was a particularly good economist, but he was very interested in the whole place of ideas and intellectual energy in solving public problems. He was very good at it, very imaginative.

UN News Centre: How does it feel to be so closely identified as a champion or a defender of Dag Hammarskjöld?

A special plane carrying the bodies of the late Dag Hammarskjöld, and other staff members who died with him, on a stop-over in Geneva. (27 September 1961)

Brian Urquhart: I’m not sure it’s quite true. I certainly didn’t know Hammarskjöld well. I don’t know many people who did. But I did think he was quite remarkable and when I went through his papers after he died, it seemed to me a great pity and that someone should try to put it all together in a book, to make people understand what he was trying to do, how he tried to do it and who he was. I wrote a very long book – I think I would have written a shorter book if I’d been older – but at least it’s all in there.

I don’t think he needs defending. I think he needs remembering. You know you can make all sorts of criticisms about Hammarskjöld. That he was too complicated and obscure for people to understand and this kind of thing; but when you look at the actual record, unfortunately with the final episode in the Congo, it is pretty impressive if you see what happened later or what could have happened then.

He was a major defender of the peace, in a time when a regional conflict which had nothing to do with the Cold War could creep up like a brush-fire and suddenly produce an issue between the east and the west which could come to a nuclear confrontation, in the Middle East, in Africa, in some parts of Asia and so on.

A view of the General Assembly Hall during a memorial ceremony for the late Dag Hammarskjöld and those who died with him. (28 September 1961)

You have to remember it coincided with a huge effort at decolonization – which is why the UN then was at 60 members and is now at 192. This was an enormous revolution, which took place very largely under the umbrella of the UN and it produced huge problems, including many border conflicts. Hammarskjöld was very concerned with the relation of that to the dangers of a nuclear war, that misunderstandings could set off this whole chain reaction. And I think that was, in a way, one of his most remarkable performances at the time.

The other thing I perhaps should say about him was that Hammarskjöld saw the UN as an institutional organization, with meetings and a Secretariat that was supposedly a totally international body and which was suddenly confronted, quite often, with situations it wasn’t prepared for, like the Suez crisis for example. In general, he thought that the UN ought to be able to respond to any crisis – even if it was the first time it had ever thought about it – and by responding it would begin to build the kind of bits and pieces which would take the UN the next step forward to a much more comprehensive organization.

All in all, I think Hammarskjöld is important and remembered because he was very specifically, right from the beginning, an international civil servant. He owed nothing to anyone. And he kept it that way.

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