Home | Interpreting Hammarskjöld's Political Wisdom | Chain reactions of words and acts

Chain reactions of words and acts

Dag Hammarskjöld often met at first hand the strong reactions of adversaries to one another’s words and acts. A well-intentioned third party finds it challenging to come between them: where is the opening, who is willing? The most astonishing—and mysterious—words in Entry 30 ("Negotiation (part 4)") concern the Suez crisis of 1956–57, about which Hammarskjöld wrote: "It was one of those irrational and extremely dangerous situations in which only something as irrational on a different level could break the spell". Difficult to know just what he is referring to—perhaps to conviction, to the power of intelligent emotion. His words remain provocative. In another letter of 1956 about Suez, he was thinking along the same lines: "You saw them caught in the causal chain, making the wrong choice and again making the wrong choice. Maybe you could say that what we succeeded in doing was breaking the causality by rushing up on stage and forcing them to see for themselves—for a moment! And then?" Some years later, in early 1960, he was again working through issues in the Middle East and thinking about the danger of chain reactions of words and acts. His observations and ideas are startlingly relevant today. Has someone turned on a magical slow-motion camera, so that scarcely anything changes in the larger region? Who will turn it off, with a peaceful hand?

Hammarskjöld said:

We see here, as so many times in the Middle East, a kind of…shuttle reaction. One thing is explained by the other thing. One reaction is explained by another reaction. And in an atmosphere of general distrust which has not diminished in any way, even a move which in its intention is fairly innocent may be misinterpreted by the other side and release, in words or acts, a reaction which in turn seems to justify stronger steps from the side where the ball started, perhaps in all innocence. For that reason it is again a situation where we have to, if possible, break a chain reaction, as I do not believe that we can change overnight the basic atmosphere…. How you break such a chain reaction is extremely difficult to say, because in fact you must come to grips on both sides with the situation.
      I know that practically on no side…is this a popular idea at all, but all the same I would say that I do not see any other way than the time-honored one: to strengthen the hand of the United Nations and for the United Nations to stick to its guns. (Public Papers 4, press conference of 18 February 1960, 543-44)