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Hammarskjold: A Life
University of Michigan Press, 2013
752 pp., $35.00
A man for our time."
What could such a miserable phrase mean? It's the sort of thing one hears at a retirement party: bold enough to sound important, vague enough to be void of content. Rarely does one learn what "the time" requires, or what makes a person fit for it, and yet one bandies the phrase about with confidence.
Still, here it is: Dag Hammarskjöld was a man for our time.
The son of a one-term Swedish prime minister, Hammarskjöld was born into a long line of distinguished public servants. Young Dag hobnobbed with the Archbishop of Sweden, and met a stream of world dignitaries at dinners hosted in the "family castle" in Uppsala. A voracious reader even as a child, he proved a quick study in art, literature, economics, and law, and became fluent in French, German, and English as well as his native Swedish. He entered civil service early, grew to be a capable administrator, and earned a reputation as an apolitical "technocrat." He worked hard and inspired trust. He held a top economic post when he was 30 years old; at 36, he headed up Sweden's central bank; at 46, he joined the Swedish mission to the United Nations. And then, at age 51, Hammarskjöld received a call that changed his life.
No one expected the Secretary General appointment, least of all him. Hammarskjöld was not even waiting for the news when it broke. Upon receiving word from a Swedish journalist in the evening between March 31 and April 1, 1953, Hammarskjöld said: "This April Fool's Joke is in extremely bad taste: it's nonsense!" One observer of the press conference the next day "had the impression that [Hammarskjöld] had spent the night reading ten books about the United Nations."
The UN apparently chose Hammarskjöld for his independence. In 1953, the Cold War was heating up, and the UN needed a leader who wouldn't favor any of the world powers. Sweden was neutral; Hammarskjöld was competent. But no one anticipated what Hammarskjöld would achieve during his ...