The Security Council waited till March 1953 (two-thirds of the way into Lie’s three-year extension), before meeting to pick a successor. At meetings on 13 and 14 March, the Council voted informally on four candidates. Lester B. Pearson of Canada, proposed by Denmark, got nine votes in the then 11-member Council, but the Soviet Union vetoed him. Vijayalakshmi Pandit of India (Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister), the first and so far the only woman to be considered for the post of Secretary-General, received two votes in favor, one against and eight abstentions. Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, proposed by the United States, got one vote in favor, three against and seven abstentions. The Soviet candidate, Stanislaw Skrzeszewski of Poland, got one in favor, three against and seven abstentions. The Council met twice more and discussed a number of other names without voting on them. Then, on 31 March, acting on a French proposal which the Soviet Union had signalled was acceptable, it picked Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden by a vote of 10 in favor and one abstention. China, represented then by the government in Taiwan, abstained because Sweden had recognized the People’s Republic in Peking (not yet called Beijing).
Hammarskjold was Minister of State in his country’s Foreign Office and had attended a number of meetings at the UN, including the General Assembly as Head of Delegation. But he was not picked because his quiet brilliance was widely known. On the contrary, as Ambassador Carl Schurmann of the Netherlands noted in a foreword to Hammarskjold’s posthumous book, Markings, his election reflected the hope of “the Big Powers to see É at the head of the Secretariat someone who would concentrate mainly on the administrative problems and who would abstain from public statements on the political conduct of the Organization.” Other assessments were less kind. Trygve Lie, who remained in a 38th floor office at the UN for several weeks after relinquishing his duties, told Lester Pearson that Hammarskjold would be no more than a clerk. He also gossiped about Hammarskjold being homosexual, a charge repeated by others in subsequent years. Brian Urquhart in his 1972 biography of Hammarskjold had this to say on the topic: “Stupid or malicious people sometimes made the vulgar assumption that, being unmarried, he must be homosexual, although no one who knew him well or worked closely with him thought so. When he was confronted, in the first month of his Secretary-Generalship, with the rumors to this effect then being put about by his predecessor, Hammarskjold remarked that if there had been any element of truth in the story he would not and could not in the prevalent state of public opinion on the question of homosexuality, have accepted the office.”
Low expectations of Hammarskjold proved to be spectacularly off the mark. He did focus on administrative issues to begin with, and his public persona was indeed flat and unexciting, but when political challenges arose, a formidable combination of integrity, idealism, intelligence and diplomatic skill came into play. And luck was with him in the early years. Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 augured the end of the first virulent stage of the "Cold War". In Korea, an armistice was agreed in July. In Washington, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s star was fading, and after the Senate condemned him in 1954, his power was broken. The gloom that had settled on the UN Secretariat in Lie’s final years began to lift as Hammarskjold’s steady leadership took hold. He pressed for and got from the Eisenhower Administration an amendment to Truman’s January 1953 Executive Order under which the FBI had identified staff for the UN to fire. While refusing to reinstate a number of the discharged staff members who had appealed to the UN administrative Tribunal and won, he did sidestep American opposition to paying them compensation. (The US Congress had decreed that no part of Washington’s dues to the UN budget could be used to compensate people it viewed as traitors; Hammarskjold used the taxes collected by the Organization from staff, funds normally used to offset national dues.) In November 1953, he asked for the removal of the FBI office in the UN. However, the “loyalty” screening of American staff members continued for decades, with the UN receiving factual “advisory” dossiers from the FBI.
Dag Hammarskjold died in a plane crash in Africa, while on a mission to negotiate an end to the secession of Katanga province from the Congo. A former Belgian colony enormously rich in natural resources, the Congo had become independent in June 1960 and with considerable help from its former rulers, immediately plunged into conflict and political chaos. The secession of Katanga was the work mainly of Moise Tshombe, supported by white mercenaries in the pay of Union Miniere du Haut Katanga, a politically well connected Belgian company with major investments in the province. Hammarskjold’s meeting with Tshombe had been arranged by the British Consul in Katanga, who, the Secretary-General had been informed by his representative there, was sympathetic to the secessionists and might even be sheltering the separatist leader from UN peacekeeping forces. The meeting with Tshombe was set for 18 September, in Ndola, in Rhodesia, a country then in the control of a rabidly anti-UN white-supremacist leader, Sir Roy Welensky.
There was much speculation after Hammarskjold’s death about a conspiracy involving Tshombe, the British and Rhodesian authorities, but nothing was ever proved. The official United Nations inquiry found “no evidence to support any of the particular theories that have been advanced.” But it was also unable to exclude any of the possible causes it had considered, including “sabotage and attack from the ground or air.” The inquiry commission raised a number of questions which remain unanswered to this day, and it was particularly critical of Rhodesian authorities for their inexplicable delay in searching for the Secretary-General’s aircraft, which was last seen about 10 minutes past midnight (i.e. early on 18 September). The pilot had told Ndola air control he could see their lights, and the DC-6 passed over the airport at 2000 feet with its landing beacon on. Ignoring a police report of a large explosion nearby, the Rhodesian authorities did not begin an immediate search. The wreckage of the plane was found some nine miles from the airport, 15 hours after the crash. Hammarskjold had survived the impact but died of massive injuries, including a broken spine. There was only one badly burned survivor, who died five days later.
Why was a conspiracy to kill Hammarskjold considered credible? The answer is complex in its many details but can be simply stated: it was a period when European colonialism was dying hard. Repeatedly, major European Powers tried to protect with violence their major strategic and economic assets in developing countries. In a number of such cases, including the 1956 British-French attempt to retain control of the Suez Canal, the United Nations, with strong support from the United States, stood in the way. In the Congo, that pattern was repeated, but with one vital difference: Washington’s support of the UN, carefully calibrated so as not to give aid and comfort to the local allies of the Soviet Union, did not extend to confronting the mining interests in Katanga. Not only was Hammarskjold without American support in Katanga, he was giving offence to a set of people who depended on brutal white supremacist regimes to protect their very substantial stakes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Those interests were under increasing threat. After the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the Security Council, for the first time, asked the Secretary-General to get involved in the South African situation. Hammarskjold had visited Pretoria in January 1961, and hopes were high that he would emerge as a strong voice against apartheid. (Posthumously, he shared the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize with Albert Luthuli of South Africa.) His no-win situation must have been obvious to Hammarskjold, for he told a colleague in New York before leaving on his last trip that if he failed in that effort to resolve the Katanga problem, he would resign.
By the end of the UN’s first decade it had become clear that there were major obstacles to realizing the Charter ideal of a career international civil service capable of pursuing the general interest. Trygve Lie’s fate highlighted the fact that the Soviet Union and its client States never accepted the idea of such a service. They insisted on seconding staff for fixed terms to the Secretariat and, to guard against loss of bureaucratic influence, claimed hereditary rights to key posts. Major Western Powers also laid claim to prime positions for their own nationals; in fact, the five Permanent members of the Security Council had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1946 that each would have a top cabinet-level job in the Secretariat. Also striking at the root of the concept of the Secretariat as a pure meritocracy was a General Assembly decision to establish a loose quota system linking each country’s share of the UN budget to the number of its nationals employed by the UN. Lobbying for staff appointments and placements became a standard ambassadorial duty at the UN. The scuffle for Secretariat jobs reflected a larger struggle for national advantage that continued unabated despite the high rhetoric of the UN Charter. And as Dag Hammarskjold’s ill-fated second term showed, if the Secretary-General became involved in that, the result could be deadly.