How Race Hampered the Investigation Into Dag Hammarskjold’s Death
Testimony of African eyewitnesses to the U.N. secretary-general’s death was dismissed because of their lack of education and perceived susceptibility to political manipulation.
Dag Hammarskjold, the late United Nations secretary-general killed in a 1961 plane crash, may have been murdered, his aircraft shot out of the sky by a hostile fighter jet as it prepared to land, according to a U.N. report published Tuesday by a Tanzanian judge.
Speculation that the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish diplomat’s DC-6 was shot down or sabotaged has been gaining steam since Susan Williams, a British scholar, published her groundbreaking 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld: The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, which helped trigger a series of international investigations into the case.
As part of Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week series, we are highlighting a critical memo cited by Williams that showed how the U.N. discarded critical evidence from local African eyewitnesses, whose testimony was given less value than that of Western experts. It also lent weight to claims that the plane’s lone surviving passenger—Harold Julien, who then died a few days later—heard explosions on the plane before it went down.
The document—a Feb. 21, 1962, memo by Hugo Blandori, a U.N. consultant—recalled that a number of African charcoal merchants working in the northern Rhodesian forest (modern-day Zambia) on the night of the crash described seeing another plane in the sky alongside Hammarskjöld’s aircraft, and seeing a flame. The document was found in the archive of Bjorn Virving, the son of Bo Virving , the chief engineer at Transair, the Swedish operator of Hammarskjold’s plane. Virving told the U.N. commission investigating the crash that Hammarskjold’s airplane “had been shot down or forced down by a plane above it.”
“He based his theory primarily on the statements of African witnesses that had been interviewed in Ndola,” Blandori wrote. “Concerning the African witnesses, I wish to point out it is most difficult to distinguish from their testimony what is truth and what is fiction or imagination,” he added. “There were so many inconsistencies and discrepancies in their stories to have believed them would refute the testimony of other witnesses who are generally accepted as being reliable.”
The African witnesses, he said, had limited education, lacked expertise in aviation, and were susceptible to manipulation by political actors who may have had an interest in challenging the findings of a Rhodesian government investigation that concluded pilot error was responsible for the crash.
“As a consequence, I am of the opinion that the testimony of the African witnesses to the effect that they saw one or more small crafts flying along with SE-BDY [Hammarskjold’s plane] just prior to its crash, has to be accepted with a grain of salt.”
On the night of his death, Hammarskjold was flying from the Congolese capital of Léopoldville, now called Kinshasa, to the airfield in Ndola, a town in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, to discuss a peace plan with Moïse Tshombe, the president of the secessionist Congolese state of Katanga.
In the absence of conclusive evidence, Hammarskjold’s mysterious death has persisted as one of the Cold War’s greatest whodunnits, spawning conspiracy theories and casting a spotlight on a dizzying array of potential suspects, including Congolese separatists, Belgian diamond magnates, European mercenaries, a shadowy South African paramilitary organization, and the CIA.
An initial investigation by Rhodesian authorities maintained that Hammarskjold’s pilot descended prematurely, plowing into the forest canopy. A subsequent U.N. commission’s investigation was inconclusive, leaving open the possibility of everything from human error to a plot to murder the U.N. leader. Following the initial U.N. investigation, the U.N. General Assembly instructed the new secretary-general in 1962 to revisit the case if new evidence became available.
The publication of Williams’s book helped prod a group of four eminent international jurists to form the Hammarskjold Commission, which produced a lengthy report on the case in 2013.
The commission went back and interviewed local eyewitnesses, including John Ngongo, who described seeing “something in the sky … coming down in a tilted position. … Because of the sound you could tell it was a plane. … It had already caught fire. Within the inside of the plane [we] could see some fire, but what [I remember] is that the fire was on the wings and the engines.” Ngongo, who was in the forest with a neighbor, said that when they approached the plane wreckage they could hear the sound of something that sounded like a jet.
The commission’s findings spurred the U.N. to reopen what has become one of the most compelling cold cases of the 20th century. Over the past three years, it has conducted two investigations, drawing on newly declassified government documents and the work of scholars, archivists and journalists.
Mohamed Chande Othman, a former chief justice of Tanzania who has headed the new inquiries, has called on the U.N. to appoint an independent investigator to try to extract critical documents he believes have been withheld by South Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom that may help prove who was responsible.
In the absence of such evidence—including intelligence analysis and intercepts—conclusions “about the cause of the crash cannot yet be reached,” Othman wrote. “Information that must exist but remains undisclosed only fuels conspiracy theories about what may have happened.”
But, he added: “It was plausible that an external attack or threat was a cause of the crash and that the burden of proof had shifted to member states to show that they had conducted a full review of records and archives in their custody or possession.”