The Golden Thread: The Cold War and the Mysterious Death of Dag Hammarskjöld

Written by Ravi Somaiya
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Dag Hammarskjöld, second Secretary-General of the United Nations, boards the DC-6B aircraft known as Albertina in Leopoldville, Congo, on the evening of September 17, 1961. Shortly after midnight, the plane crashes on its approach to the Ndola airport in Northern Rhodesia. Although official investigations conclude that the crash is an accident, questions remain: What about witnesses on the ground who say they saw flashes of light just before the plane went down? Why did rescue parties take more than 15 hours to mobilize? What happened to voice recordings of the Albertina’s pilot? What did the only immediate survivor mean when he asked about the “book” as he lay dying?

The Golden Thread grabs readers from the outset, with Harry Truman’s outspoken charge, “they killed him”; the Congolese Prime Minister’s assertion of “an ignoble assassination”; protest signs outside the UN, asking “Who Shot Down Dag’s Plane?” and answering “Dial K [for Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev] for Murder.” It presents a vivid portrait of underlying geopolitical conflicts: the Black independence movement in Africa versus powerful colonial and international business interests; western powers fearful of the growing Soviet presence on the continent. It also shows how Hammarskjöld’s peace-keeping efforts place him directly in the crosshairs of opposing groups.

The narrative is vivid and dramatic. Fine details flesh out and personalize major historical figures as well as minor players. The pace is heart-pounding, drawing readers along by layering the immediacy of brisk dialogue and description over ominous undercurrents. Far from forgotten, Hammarskjöld’s death is still the subject of speculation, with an investigation as recent as 2019. This book is evidence why.