Here’s today’s must-read: Foreign Policy‘s Colum Lynch on the UN reopening an investigation into the Congolese plane crash that killed heroic UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961. If you want to understand what the early 60s were actually like for actually oppressed people, the opening paragraph has a lot of pretty important keywords.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will propose reopening an inquiry into allegations that Dag Hammarskjold, one of the most revered secretaries-general in the organization’s history, was assassinated by an apartheid-era South African paramilitary organization that was backed by the CIA, British intelligence, and a Belgian mining company, according to several officials familiar with the case.
Christ. That’s a rogue’s gallery right there. Basically, in a nutshell, Hammarskjold was working for Congolese independence and security, and try to broker a treaty between the government of the new Congo and the separatists in uranium-rich Katanga, who were backed by the Belgians and other western powers to make sure that the Soviets stayed away (and let’s be honest: to make sure that other riches continued to flow into the right pockets). Hammarskjold believed that the Congo should be one independent nation, and not carved up by colonialists.
There’s a wealth of evidence, some circumstantial, some with the nicotine-stained paranoia of the time, and Lynch does a great job laying it all out. But to me, the key paragraph is this:
Several months earlier, the CIA had played a role in the assassination by Belgian officers and Katangese separatists of Congolese liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba, who was suspected of moving too closely to the Soviet Union.
I suppose I actually always believed that the CIA was heavily involved in Hammrskjold’s death, to the point where, if you asked me (surprisingly, literally no one ever has), I would have said “of course they were” before remembering that was just speculation. It seems a given, especially when you remember that South African and other white governments had vested interests in the wealth of the Congo, and in suppressing cohesive black independence.
Even just the place-names in the story remind you of just how wretched a world it really was. Hammarskjold was flying out of Leopoldville, named after the genocidal Belgian king, who used the Congo and its people as his personal wealth-generating pit. He owned it, not the Belgian government, for the beginning of its colonial history, using the natives as slaves to harvest rubber, killing millions (a demographic crisis from which the country has not recovered, and which arguably set the stage for its post-colonial horrors).
Hammarskjold was flying to an airport in Rhodesia, an entire country named after a colonizing white supremacist. It wasn’t just a historical name, either: the racism inherent in its founding lived on. Amazingly, the primary inquiry into the crash took place in the not entirely disinterested Rhodesia, and they came up with: pilot error. “(Richard, the great human rights judge) Goldstone recalled that none of the locals had previously been interviewed by the Rhodesian commission or the U.N. ‘The Rhodesians tended to dismiss black witnesses as being unreliable,’ he said. ‘It was clearly a racist issue.'”
So, this is a throwback, but it really isn’t. 1961 wasn’t that long ago. It’s in living memory of a lot of people; either you or your parents, depending (maybe not for the youngest readers, if any exist). This isn’t ancient history, and what’s interesting is the way that the old blended with the new. Leopoldville and Congolese slavery seem like a throwback (admittedly, just to the early 20th-century), but they mix with the post-WWII attempts to crush independence, with South African mercenaries and the rise of the apartheid state. And in that you really see the apotheosis of the CIA, grim crew-cuts sweating through the necessary work of protecting “interests” for the US or its racist allies, amoral moralists in short-sleeves deciding the fate of millions.
There’s a through-line between those jungle days and our era’s black sites and other assorted lawlessness. We haven’t changed very much. While I don’t believe that we had anything to do with the Turkish coup (indeed, the sheer pace of purges makes me almost think Erdogan had it planned out), I can barely blame anyone else for believing so. It’s easy, and often correct, to mark hysterical conspiracists as people who don’t want to take control over their own lives, or more broadly, their country. It’s always easy for dime-store authoritarians to say “sure things are bad, but blame the CIA. And also Israel!” None of this was very long ago, and many of the worst tendencies linger on.
I don’t think finding out that the CIA was involved in Hammarskjold’s death will mean anything. It will be treated as ancient, and there will be plenty of people who go on TV to justify, and even celebrate it. But really, it should be a huge deal. If the American government was partly responsible for the murder of the UN Secretary General, it should prompt a fuller inquiry into the organization, and open them up more. It’s important to have a full reckoning with what has been done in our name.