Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General

Followng his nomination by the U.N. Security Council, Swedish civil servant and diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld was elected by the U.N. General Assembly to the position of secretary-general. No one could have foretold then that he would become the organization’s most activist secretary-general, a person of great courage.

Summary of Event

Two trends formed a backdrop to the emergence of the practically unknown Dag Hammarskjöld on the world scene in April, 1953: first, the Cold War between the Soviet-led communist bloc and the Washington-led Western capitalist democracies and second, the decolonization of the dependencies of the former European empires and the birth pains inherent in that process. The intertwining of these two developments made the 1950’s a particularly challenging time for the United Nations’ chief executive and head administrator—the secretary-general—and for the institution itself. United Nations;secretariat
Secretariat, U.N.
[kw]Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General (Apr. 10, 1953)
[kw]U.N. Secretary-General, Hammarskjöld Is Elected (Apr. 10, 1953)[U.N. Secretary General, Hammarskjöld Is Elected]
[kw]Secretary-General, Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. (Apr. 10, 1953)[Secretary General, Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N.]
United Nations;secretariat
Secretariat, U.N.
[g]North America;Apr. 10, 1953: Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General[04130]
[g]United States;Apr. 10, 1953: Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General[04130]
[c]United Nations;Apr. 10, 1953: Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General[04130]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 10, 1953: Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General[04130]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 10, 1953: Hammarskjöld Is Elected U.N. Secretary-General[04130]
Hammarskjöld, Dag
Lie, Trygve
Pearson, Lester B.

Trygve Lie, the first incumbent, had been marginalized by the Soviet bloc for his allegedly pro-Western position in the U.N.-sponsored action in the Korean War of 1950-1953. In April, 1953, Lie still had a chance that his mandate would be renewed, since the Sovets once again barred the candidacy of Canada’s Lester B. Pearson, as they had done in 1946 for a different reason. There seemed to be a momentary impasse.

Then a “dark horse” emerged from the shadows, one about whom so little was known that few could hold anything against him. This compromise candidate was Dag Hammarskjöld, who had worked first for the Swedish government and then in its delegation to the United Nations in 1951 and 1952. His name was submitted to the Security Council by the French ambassador to the United Nations, Henri Hoppenot Hoppenot, Henri . On April 7, 1953, Hammarskjöld received ten of the council’s eleven votes. The only abstention in the council’s recommendation to the General Assembly was that of Nationalist China, the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa) ruled by the government of General Chiang Kai-shek. The reason for Taiwan’s abstention was that Sweden had recognized the regime of its adversary, the People’s Republic of China, as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people. On April 10, 1953, by secret ballot, the General Assembly confirmed Hammarskjöld’s appointment by a vote of fifty-seven for, one against, and one abstention. He was immediately installed as U.N. secretary-general.

Hammarskjöld’s eight-and-one-half-year tenure was marked by his insistence on being an activist secretary-general: “an instrument, a catalyst, an inspirer,” as he phrased it. Under repeated assaults by the Soviet representatives, he would constantly stress his necessarily neutral position as an international civil servant. Indeed, were it not for Hammarskjöld’s nearly religious devotion to his job and his stated commitment to fill even the slightest vacuum created by the indecision and stalemate that characterized the major policy-making organs of the United Nations—especially its Cold War-locked Security Council Cold War;United Nations
United Nations;Cold War —he would probably not have become the world’s most celebrated peacemaker. Given the stalemate of the Cold War, however, there was considerable decision-making space to fill on the international stage, and Hammarskjöld took full advantage of this political void by practicing his quiet, behind-the-scenes, and often personal diplomacy. That is how he acquired his legendary reputation.

Hammarskjöld certainly did not make much headway as head of the U.N. Secretariat or as chief coordinator of the broader U.N. family, including its specialized agencies. The vested interests in both bodies resisted his attempts at coordination and reform. In addition, when Hammarskjöld assumed his responsibilities in April of 1953, a trend was developing toward recruiting professional staff in senior U.N. positions based on the geographic distribution of their countries of origin. An unwritten quota system (which eventually was to reach the level of the general secretariat itself) was being instituted, rather than one based on an applicant’s meritorious qualifications for a given job.

Despite these difficulties, Hammarskjöld did not tarry in promoting his view that, where a political organ did not speak out clearly, the secretary-general could implement policy. Indeed, he believed that using the power of the U.N. Secretariat to fill the international power vacuum was an obligation. He relied on the U.N. Charter, U.N. Security Council decisions, General Assembly resolutions, common-law precedent, principle, or any other basis that he could find or even invent to justify his actions.

Hammarskjöld’s quiet, behind-the-scenes style of diplomacy became evident as early as 1954, when he interceded with the leaders of “Red China,” as the People’s Republic of China was widely known, to free eleven American airmen whose plane had been shot down near the North Korean-Chinese border during the Korean War Korean War (1950-1953) . The General Assembly had asked Hammarskjöld to obtain their release in accordance with the Armistice Agreement of July 27, 1953, which had concluded the fighting between the U.N.-sponsored coalition led by the United States and its North Korean-Chinese adversaries. On his trip to Beijing, Hammarskjöld convinced the Chinese leaders that his intercession was strictly of a personal nature, since the United Nations had not, at that point, recognized the People’s Republic of China but rather had seated the Nationalist (Taiwanese) Chinese delegates. Even though the United Nations had failed on five earlier occasions, Hammarskjöld now succeeded, and the American fliers were eventually freed.

Another move that greatly enhanced Hammarskjöld’s prestige and that of the United Nations was the creation of the initial peacekeeping United Nations;peacekeeping force—the United Nations Emergency Force United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF)—used after the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt’s Suez Canal Zone United Nations;Suez Canal crisis in November of 1956. UNEF interposed itself between the forces of the tripartite invaders and the defending Egyptians and supervised the evacuation of the threesome by early 1957. The idea of establishing blue-helmeted peacekeepers had been in fact that of Canada’s Lester B. Pearson, but Hammarskjöld’s name became most closely identified with it as one of his longest-lasting legacies. Hammarskjöld’s attempt at a reprise in the Congo in 1960 was to prove a completely different story.

Hammarskjöld also managed to fill space in Lebanon in 1958 through the expanded United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon United Nations Observation Group in Lebanon (UNOGIL), which replaced the ten thousand U.S. Marines ordered to that Middle Eastern country to stabilize a volatile situation. The secretary-general then arranged to provide Jordan with his personal representative’s good offices to prevent a threatened forcible regime-change there. In 1959, Hammarskjöld used similar techniques to settle a territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

Hammarskjöld was not always so successful—or lucky. At one point, he attempted to play a role in the matter of the United States toppling Guatemalan coup of 1954
Revolutions and coups;Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán Arbenz Guzmán, Jacobo , a democratically elected Guatemalan leftist president who had nationalized the American-owned United Fruit Company. Hammarskjöld was told in no uncertain terms by the U.S. delegate to the Security Council, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. , that the United Nations lacked jurisdiction to address the matter. If anything, the coup fell under the jurisdiction of the Organization of American States (where the United States was dominant), not the world organization, despite Hammarskjöld’s opposite interpretation of the U.N. Charter’s provisions.

Similarly, when Soviet forces invaded Hungary to help quash its uprising against communist rule, the veto-bound Security Council (and equally impotent General Assembly) placed the matter in Hammarskjöld’s hands. With the exception of some humanitarian relief, the secretary-general was unable to persuade the Soviets to change their policy. The Hungarian communist authorities even refused to grant an entry visa to Hammarskjöld, who had wished to obtain firsthand information in Budapest.

Great-Power politics also triumphed over Hammarskjöld’s efforts to intercede in France’s quashing of the Algerian war of liberation and in the French army’s refusal to evacuate the Tunisian port of Bizerte, which had ostensibly become independent in 1956. Indeed, French president Charles de Gaulle gave Hammarskjöld to understand that de Gaulle was not prepared to share his country’s foreign policy with the secretary-general. These setbacks, however, paled in comparison with Hammarskjöld’s most intense but ineffective efforts in the newly independent Congo in 1960-1961, efforts that ultimately cost him his life.


Hammarskjöld demonstrated the extent to which the secretary-general’s initiatives could be pushed by an individual dedicated to the cause of peace. There is no question that his efforts saved lives (in Egypt in 1956 and very possibly elsewhere). Hammarskjöld set a benchmark, as his 1961 posthumous Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Dag Hammarskjöld[Hammarskjöld] evidences, by which his successors have been measured. United Nations;secretariat
Secretariat, U.N.

Further Reading

  • Ask, Sten, and Anna Mark-Jungkvist, eds. The Adventure of Peace: Dag Hammarskjold and the Future of the United Nations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Includes essays on Hammarskjöld’s statesmanship and artistic qualities.
  • Heller, Peter B. The United Nations Under Dag Hammarskjöld, 1953-1961. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Assays the U.N. secretary-general both as an individual and as a professional.
  • Johnson, Edward. “’The Umpire on Whom the Sun Never Sets:’ Dag Hammarskjöld’s Political Role and the British at Suez.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 8, no. 1 (1997): 249-278. Explains how Hammarskjöld’s activism, while extricating the tripartite forces from Egypt in 1956 and 1957, gave the British doubts about the secretary-general’s value to their foreign policy.
  • Urquhart, Brian. Hammarskjold. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. An authoritative and laudatory reevaluation of the secretary-general’s significance by a contemporary associate.
  • Vargo, Marc E. Noble Lives: Biographical Portraits of Three Remarkable Gay Men—Glenway Wescott, Aaron Copland, and Dag Hammarskjöld. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2005. Speculates on the possible origins of Hammarskjöld’s alleged sexual preference, which he supposedly hid from the world and from himself.

United Nations Charter Convention

First U.N. Secretary-General Is Selected

United Fruit Company Instigates a Coup in Guatemala

Middle East Turmoil Leads to U.N. Action in Lebanon

United Nations Intervenes in the Congolese Civil War

United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld Dies in a Plane Crash