Dag Hammarskjold wrote an essay, "The Public Servant in Society," in which he outlined his philosophy about his work. He felt that the public servant had to be neutral in his relationships. He should always be committed to his work but not committed to any particular personal view. He felt that it was very important to transcend the desire for personal satisfaction in public work.
He became Secretary General of the United Nations on April 10, 1953. It was a time of great world crisis. The first major problem that Dag Hammarskjold dealt with as a representative of the United Nations was relations with the Chinese communists. Several American airmen had been shot down in Korea and were being held prisoner by the Chinese. This was a delicate situation, and Dag had to gather all his diplomatic skills in resolving this problem. He finally was able to get the Americans released, and this success was to lead to a kind of turning point in the history of the U.N. He helped to transform the U.N. into an agency of action. Rather than remaining in the background, in conversation and exchange of viewpoints, Dag Hammarskjold was fearless in his direct involvement with mediation between countries in conflict.
Dag Hammarskjold was involved in the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 and in the mediation among Arab states over Lebanon and Palestine in 1958. In 1960, he worked on the conflict in the Congo, and this was to be his last work. During this crisis, Dag faced the most difficult of all situations in his diplomatic work. He was asked by the Soviet Union to resign, under the allegation that he always made decisions with a bias against the socialist countries. In a remarkably moving speech before the United Nations on October 3, 1960, Dag Hammarskjold made clear his sense of responsibility to the U.N. He pointed out how historical truth is often established: "Once an allegation has been repeated a few times," he said, "it is no longer an allegation. It is an established fact, even if no evidence has been brought out in order to support it. However, facts are facts, and the true facts are there for whomsoever cares for truth." He refused to resign under the political pressure of a superpower such as Russia, saying that it was not the big powers that needed the protection of the U.N. but all the others. In the interest of the small nations he would stay, as long as they wished him to. The members of the U.N. showed their approval by an enthusiastic standing ovation.
During the years he spent in New York, Dag carried out a very active private life. He was interested in art and drama and was outstandingly educated about them. He was personally responsible for reviving interest in Eugene O'Neill's plays in America and Europe during the 1950s, and he arranged the staging of many of them in New York. Eugene O'Neill was apparently very appreciative of this effort. Dag also liked modern art and was very knowledgeable about it. He went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to acquire some works of art to be displayed at the U.N. The curator did not know who he was and thought that he might be the curator of the Royal Swedish Museum because he was so knowledgeable. He was also a collector of books and had a huge personal library. He did translations, making many French and English writers available to Swedish readers. He translated the work of a French poet, Saint-John Perse, into Swedish, and because of its availability to the Swedish public, Perse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960. Dag carried on translations even during the most difficult crises. It was a kind of release for him.
Dag Hammarskjold's death in 1961 took place under rather mysterious circumstances. He died in a plane crash in the Congo, and controversy surrounds exactly what happened. Some people thought he was shot down, others thought that maybe he arranged the accident himself. This rather bizarre idea is indicative of the reaction to his book published after his death. People were very critical of him for his private religious feelings, especially in Scandinavian countries, where spiritual life is something that is not much discussed. But some readers recognized the true spiritual search that was part of Hammarskjold's writings. His journals have become a source of inspiration for those with a similar inner quest.
Dag Hammarskjold was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961.
References and Recommended Reading
Hammarskjold, Dag. Markings. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964.
Stolpe, Sven. Dag Hammarskjold: A Spiritual Portrait. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966.
Reprinted from Walking With Contemplation