Dag Hammarskjold and the Congo Crisis are both fascinating subjects, joined together by the United Nations connection. Either would merit a book in itself by Rajeshwar Dayal who had an intimate knowledge of both. But in choosing to write on his ‘mission for Hammarskjold’, Dayal hardly notices the UN Secretary-General outside his Congo role and does not discuss the Congo crisis in its fullness, limiting himself to the period in which this mission was undertaken. The result is fragmentary, being neither a portrait of Hammarskjold nor an account of the trauma attending the birth of an independent Congo, today’s Zaire, in which the UN played a unique role. Nor again is the book an autobiography of Dayal who, as India’s Permanent Representative at the UN, High Commissioner to Pakistan, Foreign Secretary and much else, is a very seasoned diplomat with a good deal to say.
In the result, what we have is essentially a documentary narrative of Dayal’s stewardship of the UN Operation in the Congo from September 1960 to May 1961, laced with quotations from the telegrams and correspondence that passed between Dag Hammarskjold and his Special Representative in the Congo. ‘I have relied heavily on this source material in presenting the facts as objectively as possible’, Dayal acknowledges. If ‘objectivity’ is established by generous reference to the contemporary record, with its nuances of mood and urgency, readability suffers which is a pity since there is a story to tell. Nonetheless, Hammarskjold’s human qualities, philosophic bent and humour come through and this is rewarding.
With so much having already been written about the Congo crisis, now fifteen years behind us, Dayal has little new to add by way of fact. He does however reveal Hammarskjold’s attitude and response to the fast-changing scene and, of course, his own reactions and assessments. Strangely enough, he almost altogether omits to say anything about the UN’s role in sustaining and developing a civil administration for the Congo at a time when the Congolese were neither equipped nor politically able to do so; such was their unpreparedness through Belgian default, external intrigue, civil commotion and a divided leadership. Nor are the antecedents of the Congo crisis fully spelt out while the denouement remains untold.
The rupture between President Kasavubu and his Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, had been enacted almost simultaneously with Dayal’s arrival in Leopoldville. Andrew Cordier was still heading the UN Congo Operation while Dayal was familiarizing himself with the new situation. Kasavubu charged Lumumba with dictatorial and Communist tendencies and sought UN assistance not only in arresting his adversary but in guarding the presidential palace and closing the airports and the radio station. Cordier declined to have anything to do with the arrest but did act to close the radio station and airports—actions of which Hammarskjold disapproved, as he told Dayal, and which alienated the pro-Lumumba elements in the Congo and his supporters outside, including the Soviet Union, and led them to charge the UN and Hammarskjold with partisanship.
The subsequent murder of Lumumba and his associates was a gruesome affair which aggravated tensions and suspicions all round. As Dayal notes, it constituted a watershed in the UN Operation ‘as it brought about a sharp revision in the concept of the methods to be employed by the United Nations in the fulfilment of its task’. Secessionist tendencies were furthered by Parliament’s inability to meet. Belgian mercenaries stiffened Tshombe’s defiance in breakaway Katanga province, while western intrigue was matched by Soviet intransigence in denouncing Hammarskjold and demanding a new arrangement that would replace the UN Secretary-General by a troika (all this in the background of the Bay of Pigs fiasco to be followed by the Cuban missile crisis). Hammarskjold’s defence of the UN as the only hope of the smaller nations of the world and his cool in the midst of sharpening attacks on the UN Force in Congo and on him personally showed him at his best.
Meanwhile, Kasavubu, despairing of re-establishing Congolese unity under his own leadership, had sought to compromise with the rebel regimes of South Kasai and Katanga by proposing a confederation that would oppose the UN and fight Communism. At a conference in Tananarive, in the Malagasy Republic, Kasavubu spelled out the three dangers he foresaw: a return to colonialism in the guise of UN trusteeship; Communist penetration; and external intervention resulting in a Korean-type war. Pressures for Dayal’s recall mounted and the UN lost control over the port of Matadi from which it received the bulk of its supplies and hoped to get reinforcements, notably the Indian brigade. Adlai Stevenson, the US Ambassador to the UN, was at this time more solicitous of Dayal’s health than in hearing his assessment of the situation in the Congo.
The resumed General Assembly debate on the Congo on March 21, 1961 was crucial. Hammarskjold stood firm against the most strenuous attacks and, apart from winning a resounding vote of confidence, saw the passage of two resolutions which, between them, renewed the UN mandate and gave it the finance to execute the task. In the Congo Kasavubu engineered Tshombe’s arrest and his opposition to Dayal’s return from the UN debates to continue his mission as Special Representative grew dangerously insistent. Rather than prejudice the mission, Dayal pressed his resignation which Hammarskjold reluctantly accepted, having defended him strongly all along.
Dayal’s story ends here except for a postscript about the death of Hammarskjold while trying to disengage the UN Force from an abortive show of force in Katanga (which exceeded his instructions) and then flying to Ndola in Southern Rhodesia to parley with Tshombe who, having been released on the understanding that he would cooperate with the Central Government, had reneged on getting back to Elizabethville.
Dayal confesses to a ‘mystical faith’ in Hammarskjold’s wisdom and lofty idealism. The adulation is unconcealed and reflects the strong loyalty and emotional attachment the UN Secretary-General evoked in his subordinates. Dayal writes that ‘as the Congo imbroglio continued, the achievements were obscured by the mistakes for which the Secretary-General had to take the responsibility’. Yet he is not altogether uncritical: ‘Though far-sighted Hammarskjold was not omniscient: nor was his objectivity so absolute as to overcome all sense of self, of personality.’ Dayal faults the Secretary-General for ‘losing touch’ with the powerful and sensitive Soviet delegation. Hammarskjold pointedly excluded the Soviet Under-Secretary at the UN Secretariat from participation in the Congo discussions. He also failed to develop any understanding with Zorin, the Soviet delegate, whom Dayal found amenable to reason. Likewise, Dayal feels that Hammarskjold reacted somewhat too personally to Lumumba’s ‘incivilities and excesses’. Dayal further believes that Hammarskjold could have insisted on the Security Council ‘sharing responsibility’ with him in supervising the UN Operation in Congo through the establishment of .all appropriate machinery. The delay and inefficiency this might have caused would have been traded against an accession of political strength and insulation from unmerited attack. In the event, ‘one consequence of Congo has been the atrophying of the peace-keeping functions of the United Nations’.
Withal, the book is a tribute to Hammarskjold, mentor and friend.
B.G. Verghese works for Commerce Weekly, Bombay.