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Dag Hammarskjöld’s maiden speech at the United Nations

This entry, drawn from Hammarskjöld: A Life, explores Hammarskjöld’s maiden speech before the UN General Assembly. The date was April 10, 1953. He had just pronounced the oath of office. He turned to the large audience. This was his moment. 
Hammarskjold’s maiden speech must have elicited good listening from the representatives of the member nations and journalists who would relay his message and manner to a global public. Entrusted with the most influential post in the diplomatic world, he was all but unknown. He opened with plain words of acknowledgment—“With humility I accept an election expressing a confidence in me which I have still to justify”—and went on to evoke the values of loyalty, devotion, and integrity that he had encountered in the Swedish civil service and in post-war European councils, values closely echoing the oath of office. All of this made sense, it was wholly appropriate, but had not yet flared into a striking statement. That came quickly:

Ours is a work of reconciliation and realistic construction. This work must be based on respect for the laws by which human civilization has been built. It likewise requires a strict observance of the rules and principles laid down in the Charter of this Organization. My work shall be guided by this knowledge. (Public Papers 2, 31 ff.)  

It is a sequence of declarations, set side by side as if by a mason. The UN enterprise is “a work,” the sober term summoning a sense of dedication and due procedure. It is a search for reconciliation; it must be constructive and realistic in its aims and means; it must respect the Charter, which Hammarskjöld would have been reading in depth since his nomination; and it must acknowledge the guidance of “the laws by which human civilization has been built.” This last, pure Hammarskjöld, greatly widens the context and points in several directions. It surely refers to the importance he gave to the rule of law—to the existence and application of respected legal codes and to the promise, sparsely realized then or now, of a robust body of international law. But his compact words point elsewhere, as well. He asks his listeners to remember the long narrative of human successes and failures, and to draw lessons for the present. He asks for active memory—and as we’ll see in a moment, returns to that theme as he closes. It may be that there is one further element here, unstated but implied: his respect for Henri Bergson’s concept of “creative evolution,” a cautiously optimistic view of positive forces at work in nature and history which can be temporarily deflected or defeated but have a way of persisting.

In what was undoubtedly a graceful gesture toward the American host of the United Nations, Hammarskjöld now chose to quote from the Gettysburg Address the powerful passage where Lincoln calls on “the living” to be “dedicated here to the unfinished work” begun by the sacrifices of those who had recently fought and died for freedom. Hammarskjöld had in mind World War II, out of which the United Nations had arisen. There is “a great task remaining to us,” Lincoln had said, and Hammarskjöld now echoed.

Having brought to mind one of the greatest wartime speeches, with its suffering ideals and call to duty, Hammarskjöld turned at the end toward another memory. Easter had been celebrated that year on April 5th, less than week earlier.

In concluding, may I remind you of the great memory just celebrated by the Christian world? May I do so because of what that memory tells us of the redeeming power of true dedication to peace and goodwill towards men?  We are of different creeds and convictions. Events and ideas which to some of us remain the very basis of our faith are elements of the spiritual heritage of man which are foreign to others. But common to us all and above all other convictions stands the truth once expressed by a Swedish poet when he said that the greatest prayer of man does not ask for victory but for peace.

Calling the member nations to a renewed sense of purpose, he again calls them to memory. Remembering is surely one of the deepest and most characteristic of human acts. Events or persons vividly remembered confirm identity, unite us with those who have come before, and continue to radiate wisdom or warning. Hammarskjöld himself had formidable powers of memory. Memory created within him a kind of internal atmosphere; there are unmistakable signs that this was so. He knew when he was pioneering, when there was no precedent, but knew also how to draw on the past for courage, guidance, and a sense of large belonging. Later in 1953, Hammarskjöld would return to the topic of memory and somewhat rebalance it: "The intensity of a man’s faith in life," he said in a public talk in October, "may be gauged by his readiness to say yes to the past and yes to the future, to recognize the good he has inherited while being ready to accept change".