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"Whole in your duty of the moment"

The Nobel Peace Prize 1961

More than 50 years ago, Rolf Edberg, Swedish ambassador to Norway, accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of "the administrators of the estate of Dag Hammarskjöld". A few months earlier, Hammarskjöld had died in an air crash in Africa; the world was still assessing what he was. In his excellent address (available online through the Resources page at this site), Ambassador Edberg said: "Had he stood here today, he would, I believe, have had something to say about service as a self-evident duty". Which way should we turn in response to this, with its provocative words "self-evident"? Toward an exploration of service—or of duty? Why not both in weeks to come; they were closely linked in Hammarskjöld’s mind and practice. Is duty a dry concept from the past, a bony fossil with no living tissue? Or is it alive, interesting?
Some duties are tacit—for example, duties in a family. Many others are contractual and explicit. Hammarskjöld’s "contract" with the United Nations was embodied in the secretary-general’s oath of office, which he apparently carried with him on a small typed sheet of paper at nearly all times:

I, Dag Hammarskjöld, solemnly swear to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as Secretary-General of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any government or other authority external to the Organization.

Hammarskjöld had an exalted concept of duty, and we’ll encounter it. But he also perceived duty as a plain necessity, the glue and diligence that make organizations reliably efficient. The exalted and the common meet:

For some people the driving force in life is faith in the success of their efforts. For others it is simply a sense of duty. We need both types of men. We need the man of faith and his imagination, his inspiration, in the search for great achievement. But we also need the other one, who is animated by his feeling of collective responsibility, without consideration of such recompense. We need both the architect and the bricklayer. (Public Papers 2, 297)

That plain sense of duty was evident at the first press conference after his return from Beijing in January 1955, where he had made initial efforts to obtain the release of American pilots held as spies by the People’s Republic of China. There was reason to believe that the negotiations, although still in progress, pointed in the right direction. His language here, stripped to the minimum, is oddly memorable:

Well, first of all, I am glad to see you all again. It was kind of you to applaud. There is no reason for such applause. If I have done what I hope I have done, that is part of what I should do. (Public Papers 2, 441)

The monosyllables just above, acknowledging the possible success of a daring mission, disguise the profound thought which Hammarskjöld had, in reality, given to the topics of duty and service. The following from his private journal, written sometime between August and mid-November 1955, and after the pilots’ release at the end of July, reflects his larger thought:

A task becomes a duty from the moment you suspect it to be an essential part of that integrity which alone entitles a man to assume responsibility. (Markings, 111)

Hammarskjöld perceived duties as contextual, nested within one another. Speaking with a university audience in 1955, he explored this notion at some length:

At this time of great ideological conflicts and violent clashes of interests, technological and economic developments have, as never before, brought us together as members of one human family, unified beyond race or creed on a shrinking globe, in face of dangers of our own making. In such a situation many ethical problems take on a new significance and our need to give sense to our lives exceeds the inherited standards. True, our duties to our families, our neighbors, our countries, our creeds have not changed. But something has been added. This is a duty to what I shall call international service, with a claim on our lives equal to that of the duty to serve within those smaller units whose walls are now breaking down. The international service of which I speak is not the special obligation, nor the privilege, of those working in international economic corporations, in the field of diplomacy, or in international political organizations. It has become today the obligation, as well as the privilege, of all. (Public Papers 2, 502–03)

And finally we can witness him applying this notion of nested duties to a concrete situation: the Middle East. The following is from a private communication to David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel, one of the regional leaders with whom Hammarskjöld met repeatedly in search of peace with justice in the Middle East. Hammarskjöld had the greatest appreciation for Ben-Gurion’s intellect and fiery leadership, despite reservations about some of the strategies Ben-Gurion pursued:

I fear that in our never-abandoned efforts to get nearer to the target we have in common—in your case peace for Israel, in my case perhaps just simply peace—we may have reached a dead point…. Such a situation requires some boldness. Indeed, it seems to me to be a situation where we must individually try to transcend our immediate duty in order to fulfill the higher duty of creative action. You know that my personal confidence in your ability in this respect has never flagged.
(DH letter to David Ben-Gurion, 19 April 1957, Hammarskjöld Collection, Swedish National Library)