Just after midnight on Monday 18 September 1961, the plane carrying Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary-General, on a peace mission in the Congo, crashed near Ndola in what was then Northern Rhodesia. Hammarskjöld was killed, along with the other 15 passengers and crew and, almost immediately, rumours about sabotage and an official cover-up began to circulate.
Fifty years on, Susan Williams’ scrupulously researched investigation into the Hammarskjöld affair has painstakingly pieced together the available evidence and gathered testimony from surviving witnesses of the crash. Her book’s subtitle, ‘The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa’, encapsulates her conclusions: namely, that the strategic interests of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa and the US, Belgian and British governments were not best served by a successfully brokered peace in the Congo, and Hammarskjöld was ‘collateral damage’ in the calculations of the Cold War.
The picture of Hammarskjöld the man that emerges from this fascinating book is that of an idealist who regarded the geopolitical stage as an entirely appropriate setting to enact humane and principled policies. That he paid the ultimate price for this philosophy should only make us wish more fervently for such a character among our present cast of politically and morally diminished ‘world leaders’.