On a peace mission to the Congo, his plane dropped out of the sky

Dag Hammarskjöld was an idealistic diplomat who sought to do the right thing. Author Ravi Somaiya argues that people in high places wanted him gone.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjöld” by Ravi Somaiya, Twelve, 304 pp.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 18, 1961, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld was on a flight to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), to negotiate a cease-fire to a civil war in the newly independent Republic of Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Hammarskjöld’s plane, the Albertina, crashed minutes before starting its final descent to Ndola Airport, killing 15 of the 16 people on board, including Hammarskjöld. The one survivor, an American security officer, died of his injuries six days later. 

In “The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjöld,” former New York Times correspondent Ravi Somaiya sifts through the evidence, conflicting testimonies, and theories about what happened. This book is a fascinating attempt to find the truth about a decades-old mystery, but it’s also an examination of one of the battlefields of the Cold War, when both the West and the Soviet Union eyed former European colonies with a view toward controlling them. Politicians such as President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson found themselves confronted with Hammarskjöld, that most frustrating sort of human – an idealist.

Many immediately suspected the crash was no accident. When informed of the secretary-general’s death, former President Harry Truman said, “Mr. Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him.”

There were obvious red flags. The Ndola Airport control tower logs for that night are missing. Ndola air traffic control staff realized the Albertina’s radio was dead five minutes after its scheduled landing time, yet it took local officials 10 hours to launch the search for the downed plane. When the bodies and material from the wreckage were collected and warehoused, Lord Alport, the local British high commissioner, took Hammarskjöld’s still-
intact briefcase.

Shortly after the Republic of Congo gained its independence from Belgium in 1960, many European settlers retreated to the province of Katanga, home to virtually all of Congo’s vast mineral wealth and the offices of Union Miniére – the Belgium mining company that had run Katanga since 1906. Soon a council of ministers with a figurehead Black president, Moïse Tshombe, declared Katanga an independent nation, taking with it between half and two-thirds of Congo’s revenue. The Congolese president, Patrice Lumumba, appealed to Hammarskjöld for U.N. peacekeeping forces to help reunite the country. Within weeks troops from various U.N. member states were fighting Katanga’s army of European mercenaries. 

Officially, President Kennedy and Prime Minister Wilson supported the reunion of Congo. Privately they were furious. They suspected (with little evidence) that Lumumba was a Soviet puppet and that Hammarskjöld was handing Katanga’s wealth to the USSR. Meanwhile, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev believed Hammarskjöld was securing Katanga’s resources for the West. The CIA actually sent an agent to Congo with poison to be injected into Lumumba’s toothpaste, but getting access to Lumumba’s toothpaste turned out to be impossible. 

In the crossfire of such competing agendas, Hammarskjöld was simply determined to do the right thing, according to the author.

Somaiya vividly re-creates 1960s Leopoldville, the Congolese capital: a city in chaos, rife with vigilante violence, spies, diplomats, and agents of multinational corporations. He recounts with admirable clarity how espionage often works, or doesn’t, as in his account of how MI6 agent Daphne Park cultivated sources in the Congolese government, or of the CIA’s attempt, referred to above, to assassinate Lumumba. And despite the darkness of his subject matter, Somaiya’s writing style is often charming and witty, as when he describes Park driving around Leopoldville in “a dull-blue Citroën 2CV that sounded, and accelerated, as though it were powered by enthusiasm alone.”

In stark contrast to this rough world of spies and hardened politicians are the wistfully attractive glimpses Somaiya provides of Hammarskjöld himself: an Old World polymath fluent in multiple languages, an economist who could talk intelligently about medieval art and poetry. Most
poignantly of all, he was a man who tried to ensure the U.N. lived up to its founding principles. He carried the hopes and ideals of 1945 into a Cold War that seemed to have no room for them.

But Somaiya’s finest work is in the chapters on the investigations of the crash of the Albertina. 

He has mastered a staggering amount of detail – the basics of 1960s aviation, the operations of Union Miniére, conjectures about flight patterns, multiple eyewitness testimonies, competing conspiracy theories, questionable confessions – all conveyed with a breathtaking clarity. And his retelling of all the possible reasons and explanations for the Albertina’s crash, all the irregularities and implausibilities of the night’s events, provides irresistible reading. 

Somaiya is persuasive: Readers will finish this book convinced that some very powerful people believed they had much to gain from Hammarskjöld’s death.

“The Golden Thread” is a tour de force of a real-life murder mystery.

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