By Ravi Somaiya
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On September 17, 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld boarded a Douglas DC6 propeller plane on the sweltering tarmac of the airport in Leopoldville, the capital of the Congo. Hours later, he would be found dead in an African jungle with an ace of spades playing card placed on his body.
Hammarskjöld had been the head of the United Nations for nine years. He was legendary for his dedication to peace on earth. But dark forces circled him: Powerful and connected groups from an array of nations and organizations—including the CIA, the KGB, underground militant groups, business tycoons, and others—were determined to see Hammarskjöld fail.
A riveting work of investigative journalism based on never-before-seen evidence, recently revealed firsthand accounts, and groundbreaking new interviews, The Golden Thread reveals the truth behind one of the great murder mysteries of the Cold War.
(in alphabetical order)
Cyrille Adoula—prime minister of the Congo, 1961–64.
Beukels—a Belgian pilot who says he flew as a mercenary for Katangese forces.
Larry Devlin—the Central Intelligence Agency’s Leopoldville chief of station, 1960–67.
Colonel René Faulques—a French soldier who led Katangese rebel forces.
Dag Hammarskjöld1—the second secretary-general of the United Nations, 1953–61.
George Ivan Smith—a UN press representative and close friend of Hammarskjöld.
Harold Julien—an American soldier, acting head of security for the United Nations Operation in the Congo.
Joseph Kasavubu—the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo.
Claude de Kemoularia—a French former assistant to Hammarskjöld and diplomat turned adviser and executive.
John F. Kennedy—president of the United States of America, 1961–63.
Nikita Khrushchev—leader of the Soviet Union, 1953–64.
King Leopold II—a Belgian royal who colonized, then brutalized, the Congo.
Patrice Lumumba—the first democratically elected president of the Congo.
Harold Macmillan—prime minister of the United Kingdom, 1957–63.
Joseph Désiré Mobutu—head of the Congolese army who eventually seized power and installed himself as a dictator.
Godefroid Munongo—interior minister of Katanga, in close contact with Katanga’s Belgian advisers.
Conor Cruise O’Brien—an Irish diplomat, politician, and writer who was Hammarskjöld’s representative in Katanga.
Mohamed Chande Othman—a Tanzanian jurist appointed in 2015 by the United Nations to reexamine the Hammarskjöld case.
Daphne Park (later Baroness Park of Monmouth)—the British Secret Intelligence Service’s head of station in Leopoldville, 1959–61.
QJWIN—a safecracker named Jose Mankel employed by the CIA for assassination recruitment and related activities in Leopoldville.
Bengt Rösiö2—a Swedish diplomat and investigator.
Charles Southall—a US naval pilot seconded to the National Security Agency.
Jean-François Thiriart—a Belgian optometrist and a fascist ideologue and recruiter.
Harry S Truman—president of the United States of America, 1945–53.
Moïse Tshombe—a Katangese businessman appointed leader of the breakaway state.
Bo Virving—a Swedish pilot and investigator.
Roy Welensky—the last prime minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
Susan Williams—a British academic, author, and investigator.
WIROGUE—a forger and former bank robber turned CIA agent in Leopoldville. Real name either David Tzitzichivili or David de Panasket.
1 Pronounced, roughly, ham-ar-heuld.
2 Pronounced, roughly, reu-scheu.
All narrative is a kind of benevolent lie. In telling a story so it’s intelligible, an author must, of necessity, leave some things out and focus on others. I have certainly done so here, and I apologize in advance to anyone who feels that their role in the story of Dag Hammarskjöld’s life and death has been omitted or underplayed.
In an effort to mitigate that, I have worked to place things in context and to credit those who have worked so assiduously before me to unearth original materials. I have used dialogue only where it was precisely recalled and noted by the participants themselves. All descriptions are drawn from the recollections or accounts of those present or from contemporaneous photographs and video.
This is a story with so many twists, and so many duplicitous characters, that unraveling it drove me nearly to madness. But as with all enduring puzzles, it has at its heart a simple question: What happened to Hammarskjöld’s plane in the skies over what is now Zambia in the few minutes between its last contact with the control tower and its fatal crash landing?
“When they killed him”
On the morning of Tuesday, September 19, 1961, Harry S Truman woke before the sun was up. He made himself breakfast, lost in thought, then bathed and dressed in a dapper gray suit, a dark-blue tie, and a gray felt hat.
He picked up his cane, pulled the door shut quietly behind him, and set out through his hometown, now home again, Independence, Missouri, on the outskirts of Kansas City.
Truman, moving slowly against the rising morning light, was seventy-seven. He had been out of the Oval Office for eight years, and had grown into the role of former president. Living quietly with his wife on a modest pension, in the peaceful Victorian home their daughter had been born in thirty-five years earlier, suited him.
He had visited the White House again several times in recent months, at the invitation of its new incumbent, John F. Kennedy. He was gratified to have been taken into his confidence.
But he visibly preferred his freedom to the constraints of high office. The eyes behind his thick glasses, amused and sharp, had come alive since his retirement. A Midwestern tendency toward bluntness had been elevated to a principle.
That morning, as he took his usual turn around the town’s peaceful square, past the red-brick courthouse topped with a white clock tower, and toward Bundschu’s department store, he looked unusually grave.
Truman had been sworn into office in 1945. He had helped found the United Nations that same year, as a bulwark against the kind of war that he never wanted to see again. And then he had watched as his grand hopes for peace had turned to global suspicion, antipathy, and scheming.
Few understood better how the Cold War worked. And on that morning he could not shake the idea that it had taken a particularly evil turn.
He arrived at his presidential library, a modernist complex built on a hill overlooking the Kansas City skyline. It was home to exhibits that included a replica of his old desk, complete with the little sign that said THE BUCK STOPS HERE. He climbed the broad staircase, passed through a colonnade of elegant white pillars and a set of glass doors, and made for his office. He had thinking to do, and calls to make.
Later in the day, he emerged for a formal ceremony. Soldiers of the Thirty-Fifth Infantry Division, Truman’s old World War I unit, had raised $6,903.10 to donate to the library. Truman stood next to the division’s major general, both men behind a podium and in front of a blue curtain, as the press photographers’ magnesium bulbs flashed. He was transparently touched to collect the check, along with a flag that the division had paraded in November 1945 after the war.
He also looked, for all the world, angry. Unprompted, as he drew the ceremony to a close, he expressed his sorrow at the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second secretary-general of the United Nations, who had died a day or so previously while attempting to mediate a savage war in the Congo.
But he could not restrain himself there. As the soldiers and reporters began to disperse, he made a side remark.
“Mr. Hammarskjöld was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”
The journalists pressed him to explain further.
“That’s all I’ve got to say on the matter. Draw your own conclusions.”
One reporter, likely aware of Truman’s connection with Kennedy, asked whether he had any inside information. Truman walked away, ignoring the question, thinking perhaps that he had already said too much.
He had little to fear. His aside made only the bottom paragraphs of a short United Press International wire report. The local Independence Examiner primly elided the incident.
At around the same time in the Sarek National Park in the north of Sweden, an otherworldly landscape of gray-brown mountains reflected in icy blue lakes, an indigenous Swedish child, Laila, of the Sami people, was visiting the community store.
As soon as she and her parents stepped inside the building, a sturdy hut, painted red, that still smelled of sawn timber, she froze and stared at a shelf of newspapers and magazines. She saw pictures, on each front page, of the man she had met earlier in the year when she was playing outside her family kåta—a conical tent made from peat moss and long branches.
It had been a frosty morning, and he had walked past, hiking under the cold blue sub-Arctic sky, and asked her about herbs growing in the area. She talked in an excited babble, and he looked amused. She liked the man. He could see things, she felt, and he really listened when she talked. He had danced, terribly, swaying, his legs all over the place, to show her how the children danced in Africa, where he had been recently.
Before he left, he said that she and her family should visit him at his work in New York, where she could meet children from across the world. And a letter had arrived a few weeks later, inviting them all to the United Nations. But her parents had been too busy tending the family’s reindeer, and they could not go immediately.
Now the headlines all said versions of the same thing: DAG FOUND DEAD IN PLANE. DAG HAMMARSKJÖLD KILLED IN THE CONGO. HAMMARSKJÖLD DEAD. And each pictured, in black-and-white halftone that turned to dots when she looked closer, the wreckage of his plane, the Albertina.
About five thousand miles away, in the Congo, as a guard of honor escorted Hammarskjöld’s coffin across the airport for transportation back to his native Sweden, hundreds of black Congolese stood in massed ranks to pay tribute. They were, in a nation marked by near-constant noise and color utterly silent.
In the days that followed, the Congolese protested in the streets, decrying Britain and its prime minister, Harold Macmillan, and America and Kennedy, whom they felt sure were behind the death.
The new Congolese prime minister, Cyrille Adoula, had his own theory. Hammarskjöld, he said, had “fallen victim to the shameless intrigues of the great financial powers of the West” and their thirst for his country’s boundless mineral riches.
“How ignoble is this assassination,” he said, “not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers. Mr. Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.”
Outside the United Nations building, a monolithic skyscraper overlooking the East River on Manhattan’s East Side, a smaller group of protesters had gathered. Their fury was undimmed by the miserable rain pelting from a mutinous gray sky. Their placards asked, WHO SHOT DOWN DAG’S PLANE? and answered themselves with a reference to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev: DIAL K FOR MURDER.
Inside, thirty-eight floors above the bedraggled protesters, Hammarskjöld’s staff had gathered in his elegant suite of offices, decorated with paintings and sculptures that he had chosen himself. Some discussed the mocking invitations they had received from wealthy white Europeans living in Africa to attend lavish parties they were throwing to celebrate his death.
Others reflected, in a kind of impromptu vigil, on the rarity of Hammarskjöld’s awareness that humankind had a tendency to get stuck in ridiculous and destructive predicaments of its own making, and his certainty that there were always solutions to those predicaments.
They knew he would have considered the tributes to his life and work inappropriate and unseemly. But also that none really captured him. Because Hammarskjöld was, fundamentally, an honest man. And honest men are difficult to define.
In upstate New York, at the modest house Hammarskjöld had kept for hiking weekends, his colleagues found papers filled with his neat, urgent handwriting. A diary of sorts. In the early 1940s, years before he was to think in any meaningful way about the Congo, he had written: “There is only one path out of the steamy dense jungle where the battle is fought over glory and power and advantage—one escape from the snares and obstacles you yourself have set up. And that is—to accept death.”
Two official inquiries, conducted shortly after the plane crash, ruled it was likely an accident. Pilot error or an act of God. Hammarskjöld was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year he died—one of only two occasions on which it has been awarded posthumously.1
And that is where this story might have rested, a neat bow tied on top, his name remembered for the Manhattan plaza that would be named in his honor. Except for the work of a band of ingenious devotees who never believed the official verdict, and who kept digging for information. This book draws on their accounts, and archives in America, Britain, Sweden, and elsewhere.
It is also built on the experiences of the diplomats, soldiers, spies, and ordinary Congolese people who lived the very peculiar, very bloody, forgotten war that seized the Congo for five years between 1960 and 1965.
It pitted a black Congolese independence movement, roused to rage by centuries of genocidal colonial exploitation, against white colonialists willing to die to keep an Africa, and a way of life, they considered theirs.
It pitted the Soviet Union, eager to seize advantage and make allies in Africa, against Britain and America, willing to do whatever it took to prevent the Congo falling into the clutches of an empire they equated with the Third Reich.
And underneath it all lay the torrents of money that corporations, especially mining companies, had been able to extract from the Congo, and which they used to amass influence and connections that made them pseudo-governments in their own right.
The factions were united on only one point: that Hammarskjöld, and the United Nations, stood in their way.
1 The other occasion was for the Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931.
Tar man fan i båten får man ro honom iland. If you take the devil in the boat, you must row him ashore.
But they hated the town for the intruders who had ruled in it and from it; and they had preferred to destroy the town rather than take it over.
—V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River
The Congo1 is shaped like a real human heart, messy and organic and the size of Western Europe. It tilts counterclockwise across the lower half of the African continent and borders nine other nations.
From above, shortly before dawn in January 1959, it appeared as an unsettlingly vast swath of darkness. As the first red glow of the sun hit, it turned into the wet, dark green of an ancient forest.
It was wreathed with mist, and studded with irresistible riches. Those who lived on its borders spoke of it as a dark, dangerous place. People who entered, the legend held, either returned wealthy and brutal or disappeared entirely.
On its eastern edge, where a row of active volcanoes spat and burbled, and the world’s largest lakes gradually turned a dark blue in the morning light, the ground was marbled with gold. Oil and gas deposits were so abundant they occasionally leaked out unbidden, poisoning the locals.
On its western edge, near the modern-day border with Angola, the land was riven with veins of diamonds, both industrial and ornamental.
In the far south, toward the point of the heart, lay Katanga, a region the size of France that is one of the most naturally rich areas on earth. Under the tan-colored dirt of its cool hills were ores of copper, nickel, tin, tungsten, and cobalt so pure, they haunted the dreams of mining geologists. Bilious yellow rocks of uranium ore littered the ground. It was the source of countless fortunes.
The Congo River, the deepest and fastest on earth, which loops for three thousand miles across the north of the country, has its sources in those hills. It feeds 1.4 million square miles of fragrant, outrageously fertile land known as the Congo Basin. Crops will grow anywhere you plant them there. And its rain forests and swamps host a wild, chaotic, crawling, flying, swinging, jumping ecosystem, featuring buffalo, elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, and a thousand species of birds. Some Congolese scraped their yards to smooth dirt to avoid ants and snakes wending relentlessly toward their homes through the undergrowth.
The river eventually bursts through a channel on the west coast, into the South Atlantic, near Leopoldville, a port city of about three hundred thousand and the capital of a nation that has never really submitted to being governed in the Western sense of the word.
The city sits on the south bank, where the river is nearly a mile wide, and clumps of green-and-purple water hyacinth drift past on the coppery water. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Leopoldville was often described by non-Africans as the pride of Africa. Pictures show white, modernist high-rise buildings arrayed along handsome boulevards, broken up with landscaped lawns and grand plazas. On the ground the architecture often feels like a temporary intrusion that the pale-reddish dirt and profusion of plants are working to dislodge.
Avenue Prince Baudouin ran down from the river. It was a determinedly straight line that betrayed the attempts by the Congo’s Belgian colonial rulers both to impose rigor, and to name it after themselves. It went on past the giant Stade Roi Baudouin, a shallow concrete bowl like a half-buried amphitheater rising from a patch of lush green grass.
Inside, at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 4, 1959, a soccer match between a local team, Victoria Club, in vivid green-and-black-striped shirts, and their crosstown rivals, FC Royal Leo Sport, was nearing its climax, and the voices of tens of thousands of fans echoed through the sweltering tropical afternoon.
South of the stadium, where Avenue Prince Baudouin met Avenue de la Victoire, a separate crowd of about four thousand young black Congolese men had gathered, spilling out into the broad intersection. Some of them were wearing Stetson hats, rakishly tied neckerchiefs, and cowboy-style jeans. All of them emanated a suppressed anger—a giddy, terrifying kind of potential energy.
Only the first brave souls were acting on it. As white Europeans drove past in Peugeots and Mercedes, they shouted “attack the whites” and “independence.” The cars swerved, with a squeal of rubber, as rocks rained down on them.
Slightly away from the main throng, one young man had pulled his fist back to throw a punch that would loose decades of hatred and frustration. It would also begin a war that would come to kill at least a hundred thousand Congolese and one United Nations secretary-general.
It is possible to trace the motivations of that delirious blow virtually step by step back to 1482, when a Portuguese explorer named Diogo Cão, navigating his ship through the South Atlantic, noticed that the sea had turned from a cobalt blue to a rusty ocher.
He had found the mouth of the Congo River, pushing back the ocean. After he landed, he erected a monument proclaiming the Congo discovered.
It came as news to a population of two or three million native Congolese who lived in loosely linked polygamous village tribes, ruled over by local kings, busy growing bananas and yams, and raising goats, pigs, and cows.
They measured time by the cycles of the moon, and distance in marching time. They had no written language, but communicated across long distances using drum rhythms long before Morse and his code. They had a history of their own—of conquest, triumph, tragedy, of empires rising and falling—every bit as vivid as the Europeans who claimed them as property.
The white men began to take people. They loaded them onto ships. Between 1500 and 1850, one stretch of Congolese coastline 250 miles long sent four million people on slave transports. They were bound for the sugar plantations of Brazil or the Caribbean, or for the cotton plantations of the American South.
The slave trade had barely ended, in 1874, when a self-styled grand explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, arrived in the Congo with a walrus moustache, a pith helmet, and ambition in his eyes.
He had come to fame three years earlier, spinning a career as a writer and adventurer from his discovery of a lost explorer, David Livingstone, who had disappeared—from European and American view, at least—while seeking the source of the Nile.
Stanley claimed he had located Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871 and that he had the presence of mind to greet him with the line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”2
By 1874, he had a new assignment: to send more tall tales from Africa for the New York Herald and the London Daily Telegraph. They were a hit, and he fed a frenzy for global exploration, and global commerce, and added fuel to a race among European nations to claim colonies.3
The Congolese called him bula matari—stone breaker—because he could blow up rocks with dynamite. They marveled that his entire body was covered in cloth except for his head and arms, and that his canoe rowed itself. Stanley described them in turn, privately, as “filthy, rapacious ghouls.” In his stories he portrayed them as noble savages, obsequious in the face of his obvious superiority.
In Brussels, a gangling and overweening princeling with a long, gray beard that made him look like an authoritarian Santa followed each turn of Stanley’s tales, and each new colony claimed, with breathless rapture.
At forty, King Leopold II had ruled over Belgium for ten years. He had grown to dislike, even resent, all the things he had—the palaces, the jewels, and the toys. He grew obsessed, instead, with colonialization and a new phenomenon, globalized business. Plummeting transport costs and a fashion for the exotic4 combined to make it worth shipping tea from India or ostrich feathers from South Africa to the capitals of the West.
Leopold had calculated that if he found the right colony and allied himself with global companies keen to strip it of its natural assets, the profits were potentially endless. He tried to obtain Fiji. He lusted after the Argentine province of Entre Rios. He attempted to lease part of what is now Taiwan. But he came to realize that he could not merely buy a colony. He would have to take one.
He did not have an army. Nor did he have the political clout of a nation like Britain or France behind him. In order to claim territory, he had to resort to cunning. So he disguised his desire to pillage as a heartfelt wish for the furtherment of the noble savages and chiefs Stanley had depicted in his stories. He called it a fight against slavery, for the rights and lives of black Africans.
He started a society—the Association Internationale Africaine—with the stated aim of studying the blank spot in the middle of Africa by establishing outposts there. It meant he had license to explore, and to plant his flags, in the Congo. He hired Stanley, who put together a large team of subordinates.
Leopold’s agents began to travel the country, negotiating with village chiefs. They persuaded them to sign contracts promising all rights to all lands, for all time, and offered bales of cloth, crates of gin, livery uniforms, coral necklaces, caps, or military coats in exchange. Many agents signed dozens of these treaties a month.
With every agreement, the white men put up a flag—a blue field, with a yellow star. It represented the darkness in which the Congolese had wandered, and the light of civilization that Leopold had bestowed on them.5 In 1885, he was recognized by Germany, Britain, and the United States as the official ruler of the Congo Free State.
In London and New York, bicycles and cars had begun to fill the streets. Passengers marveled at the wonder of riding on rubber tires instead of hard wood and metal wheels. The demand for rubber spiked. And the value of the rubber vines and trees that grew wild in the Congo spiked with it.
Leopold spied an opportunity. He tasked every Congolese village with gathering rubber—three or four pounds, tapped painstakingly and cleaned, every two weeks, to be presented to Belgian officials and soldiers who now made up an army called the Force Publique. They passed it on to private companies that had signed generous export deals.
- "THE GOLDEN THREAD is as exciting as the best spy novels, with the enormous advantage of being completely true. Ravi Somaiya masterfully teases out the tangled strands of a Cold War mystery in a place where nothing and no one are quite what they seem. The result is a gripping book by a gifted writer and a dogged investigator."—Mitchell Zuckoff, #1 New York Times bestselling author of 13 Hours and Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11
- "THE GOLDEN THREAD is one of the most gripping nonfiction books I've read in a very long time, a real-life thriller about the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the UN, in 1961. Somaiya is one of the country's best journalists, and he's used his prodigious reporting and researching skills to dig up some truly startling new information about the plane crash in the Congo that killed Hammarskjold and spawned an almost never-ending series of conspiracy theories. Somaiya does a masterful job sifting the evidence and building a case of murder. This is a fabulous page turner. I highly recommend it."—Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author of The Monster of Florence
- "Ravi Somaiya's brilliant unwrapping of the mystery surrounding Hammarskjold's death will convert the reader into an avid investigator the moment they pick up this book! A compelling read -- filled with revelations and written in a style that's clean and fast-paced, THE GOLDEN THREAD also raises key questions before governments who still act suspiciously: Why? What are you hiding exactly? At its heart, the book lays bare not only Hammarskjold's undoubted heroism and the sad realities of the Congo in the 1960s (many features of which regrettably persist to this day), but also the stark dilemmas that beset the UN, when principle falls neatly into the cross-hairs of power."—Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, UN Human Rights Chief (2014-2018) and UN peacekeeper (1994-1996)
- "[An] impressive debut...This is an eye-opening account that could lead to renewed public interest in this tragedy."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
- "Fans of novelists such as Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum, as well as military history and true crime enthusiasts, will find much to enjoy about this riveting read."—Library Journal
- "[A] gripping account of Hammarskjöld's death and the ensuing search for the truth about what happened to him."—InsideHook
- "One of the mysteries I've long been fascinated by, and am so grateful that Ravi Somaiya has cracked it open so brilliantly."—David Grann
- "This taut investigative history...all but proves the role of foul play."—The New Yorker
- "...an adroitly written, compelling book. If Mr. Somaiya doesn’t deliver a final solution to the mystery—who could?—he leads the reader through the tangled brush to the most likely explanation. It’s unlikely that a definitive answer to the mystery will ever materialize. Mr. Somaiya’s fascinating book is the best proxy we can expect."—Wall Street Journal
- "A tour de force of a real-life murder mystery."—Christian Science Monitor
- On Sale
- Jul 6, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages