September 18

This Day in History

General Interest

Sep 18, 1961:

Hammarskjold dies in plane crash

United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold dies when his plane crashes under mysterious circumstances near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjold was on his way to meet with Moise Tshombe, leader of the breakaway Congolese province of Katanga, with the aim of negotiating an end to the Congo crisis.

Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary-general of the United Nations, was an influential force for peace during his seven years as head of the United Nations. He was the son of Hjalmar Hammarskjold, who was the prime minister of Sweden from 1914 to 1917. Dag Hammarskjold worked as an economist and in 1930 joined the Swedish civil service as secretary of a government committee on unemployment. Beginning in 1936, he was permanent undersecretary in the Ministry of Finance. He joined Sweden's foreign ministry in 1947 and in 1951 formally entered the cabinet as deputy foreign minister. The same year, he traveled to the United Nations as vice chairman of the Swedish delegation and in 1952 was appointed acting U.N. chairman for Sweden.

Elected U.N. secretary-general on the recommendation of the Security Council on April 7, 1953, he led missions to China, the Middle East, and elsewhere to arrange peace settlements and become better acquainted with the United Nations' member states. He played a key role in the resolution of the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956. In 1957, he was unanimously reelected secretary-general.

During his second term, he initiated and directed the United Nations' vigorous role in the Congolese Civil War, which broke out after Belgium granted independence to the Congo in June 1960. A U.N. force was sent to restore order, but it soon became entangled in the Cold War aspects of the conflict. In September 1960, the Soviet Union demanded Hammarskjold's resignation after the United Nations gave tacit approval to the removal of Congo's left-leaning prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Despite the challenge to his authority, Hammarskjold remained secretary-general.

In 1961, the U.N. force in the Congo turned its attention against Katanga, the wealthy Congolese province that had seceded in 1960 with the support of Belgium mining interests. The U.N. troops mounted an offensive against Katanga, fighting Katangalese troops and white mercenaries, and Katangalese leader Moise Tshombe escaped with some of his forces to Northern Rhodesia.

On the night of September 18, 1961, Hammarskjold was flying to Ndola to meet with Tshombe to negotiate an end to the bloodshed when his Swedish DC6 aircraft crashed just a few miles short of its destination. The secretary-general and 15 others were killed. Hammarskjold's body was thrown out of the wreckage and came to rest in a sitting position beside a giant ant-hill. Many suspected that the plane had been shot down or exploded by a bomb, a theory that was reinforced when the sole survivor of the crash, an American security guard, spoke of hearing an explosion before the plane went down. In 1962, the Rhodesian Federal Inquiry Commission, which investigated the crash, concluded that the pilot flew too low and struck trees, thereby bringing the aircraft to the ground.

Dag Hammarskjold was posthumously awarded the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize. He was succeeded as U.N. secretary-general by U Thant of Myanmar.

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