Q&A with Ravi Somaiya, author of ‘The Golden Thread’

United Nations secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld “genuinely tried to do good and was also quite effective” during the Cold War, according to Somaiya.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group and Caroline Villard
Journalist Ravi Somaiya appears with his book “The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjöld.”

Journalist Ravi Somaiya suggests in his new book that the United Nations secretary-general in the 1960s, Dag Hammarskjöld, paid a terrible price for his efforts to broker a cease-fire in the bloody civil war in Congo. Mr. Somaiya spoke with Monitor correspondent Randy Dotinga. 

Q: What drew you to this story?

I came across this in an archive, and I just was just blown away. It’s a ripping mystery, and I love stories where people aren’t entirely good or entirely bad. It becomes so much more interesting when the characters are ambiguous.

Q: How did Congo become such a global hot spot?

It had the world’s most desirable uranium for purposes that both the Soviets and the West had in mind, and there were other vital minerals there. Then, it came to be strategically vital as the Cold War developed. It borders nine other nations and is really the heart of Africa. 

Q: Hammarskjöld tried to bring peace to the region. What was his vision?

He felt that the Black majority deserved to rule after many decades of [colonial] oppression and brutality. It’s amazing to me just how incendiary a position that was in 1961 and how much it drove everyone absolutely crazy. He managed to annoy an enormous number of very powerful people. 

What I love about him is that he’s one of the purest idealists I’ve come across in any position of power. It’s very rare. He genuinely tried to do good and was also quite effective. You’ve really cracked something if you can manage to apply idealistic principles in a meaningful way when surrounded by segments who oppose you. 

Q: How did this Swedish economist become the head of the United Nations in the first place?

He didn’t seem like any sort of threat, and U.N. leaders just said, “Great, shove that guy in, he’s not going to cause us any trouble.” But in the end, he was both principled and willing to fight for his beliefs. Now, many diplomats say he represents the best of the U.N.

Q: What do you think would have happened in Congo if Hammarskjöld had lived?

I like to hope that we might have had a more peaceful resolution. To me, it’s about the original sin of colonialism. You can’t have that much murder and brutality and oppression without having some rage and division to overcome afterward. There’s still a lot of healing left to be done in the Congo. 

Q: What is his legacy?

Moral leadership is principled leadership and idealistic leadership. Sometimes it’s OK to do the right thing. But I look around the world, and everyone seems to be trying to do what’s expedient. Our leaders seem to check the polls before making a decision.

Q: How close to the truth is your book in answering whether Hammarskjöld was murdered or died in an accident?

You can’t really know for sure until everything’s been revealed. Governments are still holding onto documents, and I can’t imagine why. I’m sure it’s for some silly reason like petty embarrassment.

Q: But we are getting closer, correct?

Reports from the U.N. coming out later this year are going to reveal more, and I’m also going to keep pushing. We’ve gotten nearly all the way there. I don’t know if one can ever discover the truth in capital letters, but we can have the most honest, accurate accounting of what happened.

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