Last August, we talked about the UN reopening an investigation into the 1961 death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, whose plane crashed in the Congo while he was trying to broker peace between the new post-colonial government and Western-backed Katanga separatist factions.
The reason it was re-opened is that it was always suspected that the plane was deliberately brought down. Remember, it had only a few months since the CIA worked with Katangese separatists to murder the left-leaning Congolese liberation leader, Patrice Lumumba. And now Hammarskjöld was attempting to get the rebels to be part of a the newly independent Congo, instead of another white-dominate vassal state. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he was marked for death.
In February 1961, the French secretly supplied three Fouga warplanes to the Katanga rebels, “against the objections of the US government”. Contrary to previous findings, they were used in air-to-air attacks, flown at night and from unpaved airstrips in Katanga.
Fresh evidence bolsters an account by a French diplomat, Claude de Kemoularia, that he had been told in 1967 by a Belgian pilot known as Beukels, who had been flying for the rebels as a mercenary, that he had fired warning shots to try to divert the plane away from Ndola and accidentally clipped its wing. Othman said he was unable to establish Beukels’ identity in the time available for his inquiry.
The UK and Rhodesian authorities were intercepting UN communications at the time of the crash and had intelligence operatives in the area. The UK should therefore have potentially crucial evidence in its classified archives
The US had sophisticated electronic surveillance aircraft “in and around Ndola” as well as spies, and defence officials, on the night of the crash, and Washington should be able to provide more detailed information.
The report’s author, Mohamed Chande Othman, says that member states (namely the US, UK, and France) should have the information that proves Western involvement. But maybe not murder! It might have been an accident during an attempt to send a “message”.
But, to make it clear, the West was involved in arming rebel groups in order to splinter the sovereignty of a newly-independent nation, going so far as to murder the leader of the country, and harass the Secretary-General of the United Nations because he was attempting to preserve Congolese nationhood. And, when things went pear-shaped, covered it up for more than 50 years.
Even if this wasn’t murder, it was pretty damn close to manslaughter. And it was covered up because, man, that’s how did things. It wasn’t for the Congolese to know what was happening in their country, and it wasn’t for the rest of the world to know what the Western powers were up to. A UN head gets iced? That’s the price of doing business.
As I wrote then, this isn’t the distant past.
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.
Since its inception, the CIA has been on the wrong side of the law, an institution dedicated to operating without the hard work of participating in our self-governing experiment. It has perverted that, and in doing so, distorted our image around the world.
When you wonder why people in hotter, angrier countries blame the west for everything, it is because they have reason. A true reckoning with the death of Dag Hammarskjöld could be the purgative we need.