Hammarskjöld: A Life

(University of Michigan Press, 2013)

“It is difficult to hear the low voice of reason or see the clear little light of decency, but, of course, both endure and both remain perfectly safe guides.” So Hammarskjöld wrote to a friend, late winter 1957, a few months after settling many aspects of the Suez Crisis which had seen Britain, France, and Israel wage a brief and futile war against Egypt. Hammarskjöld was the second secretary-general of the United Nations, serving from April 1953 until his death, September 1961, in a suspicious air crash in central Africa, now viewed by many as an assassination. John F. Kennedy described him as the greatest statesman of the century. I’m sure that was true. His example and influence need to reach us; he still has so much to offer.

I first noticed Hammarskjöld in 1964 when his private journal Markings was published. The journal revealed the statesman to have been a man of religion, a spiritual seeker who knew the world’s spiritualities—Christian, Taoist, Indian, and more—and had taken them to heart. He held himself to a high standard of self-awareness and, yes, self-criticism; it is fair to say that he was the first mindful political leader of the West. From his perspective he was a work in progress, an instrument through which good could be achieved if and only if he sustained a vigilant attitude toward himself and an intensely inquiring mind in world affairs. In his private journal he often wrote as a religious seeker and poet; in public life he explored issues with admirable lucidity, addressed the UN member nations and world public with integrity and quiet eloquence, and acted decisively where needed. What linked the two sides of Hammarskjöld, the immensely rich inner life and the immensely rich and challenging public career? That is the recurrent focus of the biography.

I became, in effect, his student. For years, while I was employed as a writer and communications director in the US accounting industry, I knew that one day I would write about him. Sir Brian Urquhart’s biography of 1972, a major and permanent contribution, is primarily the biography of the world’s leading diplomat. Using additional resources—correspondence, new reflection about Markings in relation to the public life, interviews with surviving colleagues, and other source material—I set out to redraw the portrait of this truly great individual, a world leader then, a teacher now.

I am grateful that Hammarskjöld: A Life has been so well received across a broad readership. Had I written nothing else, this would have been enough.

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