Courage (part 1)
His co-workers knew that Dag Hammarskjöld was courageous in life-threatening circumstances. He deliberately accepted the threat of physical danger on the few but crucial occasions when he calculated that important aims of the United Nations could be advanced by doing so. Where did he learn this sort of courage, if in part it has something to do with training and experience? Probably in the mountains of the Swedish far north as a younger man; he was a skilled climber in difficult terrain.
During his years as secretary-general he would sometimes speak about other kinds of courage. In this entry and several following we’ll look at three forms of courage as Hammarskjöld understood them: physical courage, the courage of one’s convictions, courage rooted in faith—and their integration in acts of political courage. No interpretive commentary is really needed for this entry, and so there is none. The issue of direct physical courage invites quiet assessment.
In July 1953, a few months after becoming secretary-general, Hammarskjöld addressed the need for courage with a group of journalists. As much as any passage in his writings and talks, this one offers his "field theory" of courage—his general understanding:
When trying to change our world, we have to face it as it is. Those are lost who dare not face the basic facts of international interdependence. Those are lost who permit defeats to scare them back to a starting point of narrow nationalism. Those are lost who are so scared by a defeat as to despair about the future. For all those, … dark prophecies may be justified. But not for those who do not permit themselves to be scared, nor for the organization which is the instrument at their disposal in the fight—an instrument which may be wrecked, but, if that happens, would have to be, and certainly would be, re-created again and again. (Public Papers 2, 63)
Pauline Frederick, the NBC reporter covering the United Nations, was a favorite of Hammarskjöld’s. In an oral history project, she recalled a conversation with him that occurred while the first UN peacekeeping force was flying from a staging zone in Italy to the Suez Canal:
We talked about a number of things, but he said very clearly that he was quite aware of the fact that when you step out in front in a situation, you can become a target. And he was quite aware of the fact that he would someday become a target—which, of course, he did.
One of the greatest personal risks taken by Hammarskjöld occurred in August 1960, when he flew into Katanga, the secessionist province of the Congo, at the head of a small contingent of UN peacekeeping troops. He had no certainty that his flight would be permitted to land. This account is from a contribution to a UN oral history project by Brian Urquhart:
[Hammarskjöld] decided the only way he could [introduce UN troops into Katanga] without taking an enormous risk of casualties would be to lead them in himself. I must say that that was a fairly remarkable decision, because nobody had the faintest notion what the Katangese were going to do. They had said they were going to resist the UN with all means, including poison arrows—and that, to some extent, was a lot of empty talk. Nonetheless, you never quite knew what was truth and what wasn’t in the Congo in those days. It was a place where very fantastic claims were made on all subjects, and some fairly fantastic things happened, too.... He landed—it was a very squeaky occasion, I must say, because there was an effort then to stop the troops from landing, but Hammarskjöld managed to deal with that by personally [speaking with the newly elected secessionist president, Moïse Tshombe, via] the control tower…and telling Tshombe that this was going to happen, or he would leave immediately and summon another meeting of the Security Council, which would take enforcement action. Tshombe then gave in.
In his Hammarskjöld biography, Urquhart noted the following about this incident:
His plan had required…considerable physical courage, for during the twenty-five minutes he was circling over Elisabethville and speaking to Tshombe in the control tower, it seemed entirely possible, at least to Hammarskjöld’s companions, that he might be descending into a violent and potentially fatal situation.