The peacemaker meets his match

The little-known connection between UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and trailblazing journalist Pauline Frederick.

History tells of great battles and illustrious kings and queens, but history is also the story of ordinary people. Some of us though, we must admit, are a little less ordinary than others, and Dag Hammarskjöld and Pauline Frederick are a clear case in point.

Dag Hammarskjöld one may assume you know from your presence here, but Pauline Frederick may be less familiar to you. Frederick was in fact the first American woman to report from the United Nations and who in 1959 became the first woman elected president of the UN Correspondents Association.

Her story may well have gone unwritten were it not for Marilyn S. Greenwald’s recent biography of Frederick that documents the commitment of ‘the stealth idealist who masqueraded as the objective reporter’. The meticulously researched life of Frederick also discloses a previously little-known personal story linking her with Dag Hammarskjöld.

A common dream

Dedicated to UN affairs until the late 1960s, Frederick’s history is that of a pioneering journalist aware of the antagonism imposed by the Cold War politics in the midst of Africa’s decolonisation. Part of that history is Dag Hammarskjöld who whilst serving as UN Secretary-General actively promoted the organisation’s role in the decolonisation of Africa, but as a diplomat from Ghana once told Fredrick: ‘When two small nations have a problem, the problem disappears. When a small nation and a large nation have a problem, the small nation disappears. But when two large nations have a problem, the United Nations disappears.’

Frederick diligently and candidly covered Hammarskjöld during his terms in office (1953-1961) and witnessed the limitations of Hammarskjöld’s personal engagement when confronting the geostrategic interests of the two powers leading the Eastern and the Western blocs. As Fredrick recalled in an interview with the UN Oral History project, Hammarskjöld confided in her that ‘…he  knew that in getting out in front, it was possible that he would become a target. But he said, if you don’t attempt something, you never get anything done.’

Frederick’s commitment and ethically guided engagement reveals a strong bond to the then UN Secretary-General. His appointment concurred with her new assignment as the first female journalist reporting from the UN. Frederick would for the rest of her life maintain, ‘that she admired Hammarskjöld more than any of the presidents, politicians, diplomats or other government officials she had covered’.

While the biography remains largely factual, the concluding assumption offered at the beginning is revealing: ‘although she never stated it in words, she probably loved him, in part because the two of them were so similar. Both were idealists who believed one person can make a difference in the world, and both believed, against all evidence, that human beings could live together peacefully.’ As a close relative of Frederick explained: ‘They shared a common dream… That was at the heart of her relationship with Dag Hammarskjöld.’

The admiration seemingly had been mutual. A photo included in the biography pictures the two sitting next to each other at a formal UN dinner in 1959 or 1960. It was taken at a moment when they seem to discretely share something only between themselves, outside of and remote from the official setting. Judging from the relaxed, almost intimate body language, they were obviously very comfortable around each other.

Predicting and reporting on tragedy

On 17th September 1961, a NBC special television feature was aired, in which Frederick stressed: ‘Salvation in the nuclear age lied on the conference table, not on the battlefield; that this is the first resort of man of reason, not the last, as it is now; that in conciliation, mediation and arbitration there is common strength, not individual weakness.’ But she also ‘predicted that Hammarskjöld would be ousted from his job, saying, metaphorically, that the ‘peacemaker’, as she labeled him, would be ‘sacrificed’’.

As she underscored afterwards she did not want to suggest that he would be assassinated. But almost at the same hour of the broadcasting and not yet known, Hammarskjöld and 15 others were on board of a plane which crashed upon approaching Ndola in then Northern Rhodesia under hitherto still not clarified circumstances. The news was devastating for her: ‘the death of the man she so admired personally and professionally seemed to sadden Frederick for the rest of her life’.

Five weeks later, on UN Day, she told an audience in Chicago: ‘I cannot tell you whether the United Nations died in a flaming crash in Africa on the dark night of September 17, but I am afraid I must tell you that the United Nations we Americans have so comfortably accepted did die that night’. Recalling her speech at a similar event in the same city 13 years later, she remained a disciple of the Hammarskjöld spirit and faith,  despite her disillusions, when putting her hope in the UN as ‘the conscience of mankind and the instrument through which all people may find hope of a decent life’.

Frederick commemorated Hammarskjöld’s death by visiting his grave in Uppsala a year later, reporting: ‘There are always flowers on the grave, frequently a single rose, sometimes a yellow rose, sometimes three yellow ones, tied together’. She died 82 years of age in 1990. At her funeral, her niece read excerpts from the writings of Dag Hammarskjöld, forever linking the words of a pioneering peacemaker with the life of a groundbreaking journalist.

Photo: Pauline Fredericks, as President of the UN Correspondents Association, on the podium in the UN Assembly Hall in April 1959 with Dr. Castro, Premier of Cuba (2nd from left); Ambassador Manuel Bisbe, Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (left); and Missand Mr. Roberto M. Heurtematte, UN Commissioner for Technical Assistance (right). UN Photo/MB 


Henning Melber By Henning Melber

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus. He has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. He directed the Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies. In 2017 he was elected President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).