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Book Review: Hammarskjöld 

A Life

click to enlarge Hammarskjöld: A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan, 2013, $35
  • Hammarskjöld: A Life, Roger Lipsey, University of Michigan, 2013, $35

When UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in 1961, John F. Kennedy—who himself was one of the savviest international problem solvers—called him the "greatest statesman of our century." Plucked from obscurity, a mediocre economist and Swedish civil servant, he demonstrated a grasp of complexities and a lucid simplicity at explanation that promptly earned respect. The Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, upon encountering Hammarskjöld's prowess and fairness at negotiation jokingly asked, "And where did they find you?"

The role and scope of the United Nations was uncertain in the 1950s. The generation who created it had survived a period of violence unparalleled in history and could well imagine the apocalyptic outcome of a third world war. There were nonetheless concerns that the UN aspired to be a hegemonic global government. Propaganda against the institution was generated in all quarters: Americans steeped in a red scare, for example, had no intention of letting the UN tinker with their lucrative banana republics. A postwar climate that favored decolonization gave new sparks to old conflicts, and atom-bomb-toting superpowers were inclined to take sides.

A probing biography by Garrison resident Roger Lipsey shows that Hammarskjöld, who was celibate and an intellectual, did not reject the role of prophet. But he was one for whom understatement and careful metaphor were the components of a cool style that would become his trademark. In a New York Times interview he described the UN as "a mold that keeps the hot metal from spilling over." Hammarskjöld's posthumously published and widely-read Markings, a journal comprised of haikus, meditations on nature, and entries addressed to God, is the focus of Lipsey's study. Minutiae of diplomatic history are of secondary importance as he devotes his energy to pinpointing Hammarskjöld's interior progress. (Previous subjects of this biographer are Thomas Merton and Ananda Coomaraswamy.)  

This new book offers little to contradict the notion that Hammarskjöld—who made a regular practice of reading Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and Thomas á Kempis, and whose host of admirers included Martin Buber and Zhou Enlai—was a modern, and perhaps modernist, saint. W. H. Auden, one of the 20th century's preeminent poets, collaborated on the English translation of Markings. In its preface he writes, "I loved the man from the moment I saw him." Not untypical for Western visionaries of his generation, Hammarskjöld displayed an interest in Eastern classics. He even wrote a fan letter to Ezra Pound praising a volume of Chinese poetry translations (it is curious that Lipsey does not mention the poet was at the time imprisoned in a D.C. psych ward for traitorous, pro-Fascist activities—a fact that might alter the sheen of Dag's halo). A notable expression of Hammarskjöld's spiritual platform is the essay he provided for the UN's Meditation Room: "It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer." Though not originally his idea, he made the somewhat unusual room his project—overseeing every detail of its creation.    

Hammarskjöld's varied dimensions emerge in Lipsey's pages—he was both a suave party-thrower and a solitary mountain climber, but primarily a workaholic. His legacy is vast. He devised and deployed the first UN Emergency Forces, for instance. One is struck by an attitude that seems both lofty and innocent whenever Hammarskjöld makes note of his disgust at the low motives he encounters in other leaders.

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