On this day in 1961, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold is killed when his plane crashes under mysterious circumstances near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjold was on his way to meet with Moise Tshombe, leader of the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga, with the aim of negotiating an end to the Congo crisis.
The son of Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, himself prime minister of Sweden (1914–17) and a chairman of the Nobel Prize Foundation, Hammarskjöld studied law and economics at the universities of Uppsala and Stockholm and taught political economy at Stockholm (1933–36). He then joined the Swedish civil service as permanent undersecretary in the Ministry of Finance and subsequently became president of the board of the Bank of Sweden.
From 1947 on he served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1951 Hammarskjöld was chosen vice chairman of Sweden’s delegation to the UN General Assembly, for which he became secretary-general in 1952. After his initial five-year term heading the UN, he was unanimously reelected to a second term commencing in 1958.
For several years, Hammarskjöld was specifically concerned with fighting and threats of fighting in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab states. He and the Canadian statesman and future prime minister Lester Pearson participated in the resolution of the Suez Crisis that arose in 1956. Hammarskjöld also played a prominent role in the 1958 crisis in Lebanon and Jordan.
In 1960, the Belgian Congo became independent, and civil strife erupted there soon afterward. Hammarskjöld sent a UN peacekeeping force to suppress the violence, and in September 1960 his action was denounced by the Soviet Union, which demanded that he resign and that the office of secretary-general be replaced by a three-man board, or troika, comprising representatives of the Western, communist, and neutral, non-aligned nations. With the US and USSR supporting different sides in the conflict, and pitted against one-another in the region, the Congo crisis became an extension of the Cold War.
Amid fighting between UN peacekeepers and secessionists in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, Hammarskjöld in September 1961 undertook a peace mission to engage Moise Tshombe, president of Katanga, which had declared itself independent. In shocking world news, Hammarskjöld was killed when his aircraft crashed as it was approaching Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The cause of the crash has remained the subject of much speculation for decades; in 2017 UN-appointed Mohamed Chande Othman, a Tanzanian judge reviewing the crash, stated “it appears plausible that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack . . . or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.”
Known for his apportionment of moral force and nuance, Hammarskjöld has been referred to as one of the two best secretaries-general, and his appointment has been mentioned as one of the most notable successes for the UN. He is one of only four people to be awarded a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, and is the only UN secretary-general to die in office.
Upon his death, President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”