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A tangled tale

Cover of The Golden Thread: The Col
A review of The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjold by Ravi Somaiya

The 1960s was an especially rife period for political assassinations, but for years, one of the most famous deaths of the decade—the killing of United Nations General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold—was officially an accident. The downing of the general secretary’s plane in the skies of Rhodesia (modern Zambia) in the early hours of September 18, 1961, has long been cast in doubt, almost from the moment the burnt out remains of the plane and its fifteen crash victims were discovered in the sweltering jungle (the sole survivor would later die in hospital after making some intriguing comments). But as journalist Ravi Somaiya finds in The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjold, the crash of the Albertina and loss of all aboard could serve as a microcosm of the tangled connections and cruel realities of the hot wars that comprised the Cold War.

Hammarskjold, a Swede whose tenure at the UN was marked by a mix of admiration and distrust from both the West and the Communist bloc, was attempting to broker peace between the newly independent Congo and its breakaway region Katanga. Marked by the some of the richest mineral deposits anywhere on earth, Katanga was lusted over by a toxic mix of interests—the Soviets, British and Americans were battling for influence in the heady days of recent independence, French and Belgian industrialists sought to retain control of the Congolese cash cow they had been exploiting for decades, and nearby Rhodesian and South African white supremacists refused to cede power to the Africans who had already survived the brutal regime of the Belgian colonists. Added to the mix were lawless mercenaries, a few fighter jets and distinctly anti-UN sentiment, and Hammerskjold’s peace mission seemed doomed to fail. But was it murder? Somaiya brings to light accounts from eyewitnesses that report seeing and hearing multiple planes over the airfield, questions the disappearance of flight logs from the evening of the crash and why a search party was dispatched hours after the plane was due to arrive. And what to make of reports that Hammerskjold appeared to have been moved after the crash, and the report that an ace of spades playing card was placed on his body?

The Golden Thread offers an approachable history to often overlooked and difficult early years of African independence, and the little known (by intention) role that the CIA, KGB, MI-6 and other players in the Cold War had in stoking the very hot wars of the Cold War. But it also reveals a period when the UN was still a relatively new, untested organization with a general secretary that captured the attention of the world’s population and whose death would mark a turning point in the UN’s history. Somaiya’s well-researched and readable account would be a good choice for those interested in modern African and diplomatic history and readers of espionage fiction or nonfiction.

Sep 9, 2020