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The courage of one's convictions

The previous entry explores physical courage: putting oneself on the line in life-and-death situations. That is not routinely required of participants in political processes. More necessary by far is the courage of one’s convictions, and Dag Hammarskjöld often returned to this need. Without some real consistency between words and acts, between verbal positions taken and practical solutions pursued, he warned that the United Nations would be little more than "static conference machinery". The same is observably true of many organizations large and small, then and now. The passages in this entry again speak for themselves.

Hammarskjöld wrote:

Courage? On the level where the only thing that counts is a man’s loyalty to himself, the word has no meaning. – "Was he brave?" – "No, just logical."
(Markings, 133)

An earlier entry in Markings explores the same terrain through a citation from Ezra Pound’s translation of an ancient Chinese text. The rare word ‘tergiversation’ has a pair of Latin roots meaning literally ‘to turn one’s back’. The italic emphasis is Hammarskjöld’s own:

"Who has this great power to see clearly into himself without tergiversation, and act thence, will come to his destiny."
(Markings, 133)

In November 1953, at the invitation of the celebrated broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow, Hammarskjöld gave a radio talk about his beliefs. From that talk, a little masterpiece and his only public statement about his religious faith and personal values, herewith a brief passage on courage:

From generations of soldiers and government officials on my father’s side I inherited a belief that no life was more satisfactory than one of selfless service to your country—or humanity. This service required a sacrifice of all personal interests, but likewise the courage to stand up unflinchingly for your convictions concerning what was right and good for the community, whatever were the views in fashion. (Public Papers 2, 195)

In December 1954, following centuries-old custom, Hammarskjöld gave his inaugural address as a new member of the Swedish Academy on the topic of his predecessor in the chair he would occupy. Most unusually, that predecessor was his father, Hjalmar Hammarskjöld, who had served as Swedish prime minister in the early years of World War I. The address, a meditation on his father, powerfully raises the issue of courage:

A mature man is his own judge. In the end, his only firm support is being faithful to his own convictions. The advice of others may be welcome and valuable, but it does not free him from responsibility. Therefore, he may become very lonely. Therefore, too, he must run, with open eyes, the risk of being accused of obdurate self-sufficiency. As the [First World War] went on and difficulties increased, this was the fate of Hjalmar Hammarskjöld. (Public Papers 2, 412)

In the course of an oral history project in 1984, Brian Urquhart, commented on what he called "moral courage":

A very high degree of moral courage is required [of the secretary-general]: day to day the courage not to wish to be popular, not to wish to be liked and not to succumb to the temptation to tell everybody what they want to hear; and, possibly, in some situations, much more than that: the ability to take a stand in public which will be unpopular with a very wide circle of persons but which you are convinced is the right stand and therefore what you have to do. I am thinking, for example, of Hammarskjöld’s conduct in the Congo, which was extremely unpopular with practically everybody.

The United Nations is an arena for multilateral diplomacy. Early in his years as secretary-general, Hammarskjöld called attention to the need for consistency between views and acts:

No diplomat is likely to play the multilateral game well unless he believes in the need for and value of a multilateral approach. No diplomat will adjust himself to the new type of publicity—which is unavoidable in all official activities but is of special importance in multilateral diplomacy—unless he has the courage of his own actions. (Public Papers 2, 105)

During the spring 1961 session of the UN General Assembly, the Communist bloc of nations continued to attack Hammarskjöld’s conduct of UN operations in the Congo. Hammarskjöld was acutely aware of the distance, for some, between the ‘party line’ and their personal convictions. Writing privately to a Swedish diplomat, he commented:

During the present session I have superficial contacts with several whom I have to place in the category MDP (Morally Displaced Persons)…. I rather pity them, but what is nauseating is this repetition of the experience of decent Germans one met during the war, or in the late ‘30s, who were left with little choice and hadn’t the guts to break out. It must be a consolation for the Poles that they are MDPs collectively, while in some of the other delegations there are ‘loners’ who must have a rather sad time.
(DH letter to Sture Petrén, 9 April 1961, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library)