When I was a Reuters trainee, long hours were spent in Fleet Street pubs absorbing the folklore of journalism from seasoned veterans. One popular story concerned the hapless correspondent sent to verify that Dag Hammarskjöld, head of the United Nations, had safely landed at Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia on his way to talks with separatist Congolese leader Moise Tshombe. A plane landed, the police confirmed it was the UN secretary general, the hack duly filed his story.
Trouble was, the disembarking white man was someone else. Hammarskjöld was dead, killed as his DC-6 crashed on night-time approach to Ndola. Rival reporters, drinking at a nearby hotel, heard the news and rushed to correct their stories. Our man, who had soberly retired to bed, was left looking like an idiot. Moral of the tale: never accept anything on hearsay. Alternatively: never be the first journalist to leave the bar.
Hammarskjöld died 50 years ago, his aircraft bursting into flames after scything through a stretch of forest and careering into an anthill. The sole survivor expired five days later in hospital, his strange testimony dismissed as delirious raving. Despite its tease of a title — you rather expect a definitive answer with a title like that — academic Susan Williams acknowledges that exactly what happened that night remains murky, but rejects the conclusion, reached by a Rhodesian inquiry in 1961, of pilot error. ‘His death,’ she says, ‘was almost certainly the result of a sinister intervention.’
Why would anyone have wanted this aloof, rather spiritual Swedish technocrat dead? The UN leader had allowed himself to become sucked into the Congolese imbroglio. When Tshombe, with Belgium’s support, declared the independence of Katanga, Hammarskjöld sent UN forces to prop up Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, disapproving of what he saw as a neo-colonial lunge by Congo’s former master, bent on retaining access to the country’s minerals. In so doing, the UN found itself in an undeclared war against the white settler administration in neighbouring Central African Federation and the French, British, South African and US governments, who regarded Lumumba as a Soviet sympathiser and dangerous maverick.
Part detective, part archivist, part journalist, Williams schmoozed spies, befriended diplomats and mercenaries and won the trust of Hammarskjöld’s still grieving relatives and UN colleagues to get her tale. She unwinds each thread of the narrative with infinite patience, leading us carefully down the torturous paths of Cold War intrigue.
The resulting tale is as gripping as it is exasperating. Each time the reader thinks the true explanation has finally been revealed, it turns out that no, this witness is not entirely credible, his testimony clashes with that of others or is fatally undermined by existing evidence. Each theory — a hijacking-gone-wrong, a bomb placed before takeoff, a deliberate shooting-down by a fighter jet, pilot fatigue, a wrong chart — is explored, only for inconsistencies to emerge.
Who to believe? The task is not helped by a tsunami of memoirs penned by the shady characters who flocked to central Africa. Until I read this book I had not fully registered how blabby undercover agents and soldiers of fortune can be. There seems scarcely a mercenary operating in Congo in the 1960s who didn’t go on to write their memoirs or call Williams to offer to reveal all. But of course, this makes perfect sense. Buccaneering lifestyles appeal, by definition, to mythmakers and inveterate romantics. Having met quite a few of the breed in Africa, I can attest to the difficulty of distinguishing the genuine Wild Goose from his quacking farmyard imitator.
Williams is both dogged and indefatigable. But in turning her readers into forensic sleuths, her grasp of the big picture suffers. The concerns of that era feel a long way off and modern readers will need to remind themselves constantly just why MI6, the CIA, the Belgian secret services and French commandos who had served in Algeria felt they had a dog in this particular fight.
Towards the end, I found myself chafing at the detail, hungry instead to know more about the ideological convictions and strategic calculations that set Hammarskjöld, his Irish deputy Conor Cruise O’Brien and others at the UN on their high-risk course of geopolitical confrontatation.
Hammarskjöld once said:
It is better for the UN to lose the support of the US because it is faithful to law and principles, than to survive as an agent whose activities are geared to political purposes never avowed or laid down by the major organs of the UN.
I would have liked to know what UN officials in New York think of such sentiments today, whether they regard Hammarskjöld as dangerously naïve or superbly high-minded, and how far UN policy since then has been influenced by the sneaking, terrible suspicion that a former boss paid for such defiance with his life.