By Anand Raghuraman.
Our story begins in North Korea at the height of the Korean War. Fifteen U.S. airmen were shot down, taken prisoner by Chinese soldiers, and held in captivity for a year. According to the terms of the eventual Korean Armistice Agreement, all POWs were to be repatriated to their respective countries after the end of hostilities. Yet on November 24, 1954 Radio Peking made a startling announcement. Two of the fifteen airmen, John T. Downey and Richard Fecteau, are accused of being special agents of the CIA and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The other thirteen could only expect the same.
Needless to say, the Chinese announcement enraged American officials and citizens alike. Republican Senator William Knowland began drumming up support for a naval blockade of China. Even moderates in the Eisenhower Administration, like Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., declared that the Communist regime’s actions proved that it was unfit to hold a seat at the United Nations. Yet despite all its heated rhetoric, the United States was soundly trapped between a rock and a hard place. If it made concessions to free the airmen, the Eisenhower administration would be soundly criticized for being soft on Communism. But if he failed to save the airmen, Eisenhower would risk humiliation on the world stage. Furthermore there was a third element that added the greatest complications to American decision making: the ongoing negotiations over the Taiwan Straits Crisis. Within the context of this larger conflict, the issue of the fifteen airmen was viewed by many as being of little overall strategic consequence. Were the lives of fifteen American airmen, two of whom were very likely employed by the CIA, worth ceding much-valued leverage in the negotiations with China?
The answer, arguably, was no. But instead of abandoning all efforts to save the airmen, the Eisenhower Administration turned to the United Nations and the organization’s newly appointed Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold. The task was ground-breaking. Never before had the Secretary-General negotiated directly with a non-member state, as China was at the time. It was even unclear if the Secretary-General possessed the authority to conduct such negotiations. Hammarskjold would have to be creative; the lives of the fifteen airmen hinged on his ability to construct novel diplomatic frameworks.
Fortunately, this was a task that Hammarskjold relished. Looking to the UN Charter, the Secretary-General devised a formula that grounded the legal basis of his negotiations with China in the authority of his own office. In a sense, Hammarskjold fashioned himself as acting on his own behalf, not as agent of the United States—or any state for that matter. This novel diplomatic concept, dubbed the ‘Peking Formula,’ won over the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai. By risking his own reputation and prestige of his office, Dag Hammarskjold created a window of opportunity. It would now be his responsibility to make it count.
Flying to Peking, Hammarskjold met with Chou and immediately forged a strong relationship. He would draw on this personal connection throughout the negotiations, constantly praising Chou’s magnanimity, wisdom, and conviction. This wasn’t mere flattery; it was a sign of mutual respect. But most importantly, Hammarskjold began to understand Chou En-Lai as man. Over the course of his talks, he came to recognize that Chou had no desire to hold the airmen indefinitely. At the same time, Hammarskjold discerned that what mattered most to Chou was prestige—the Chinese premier d not been seen as bowing to US.
Even after the talks concluded without a deal, Hammarskjold persistently maintained pressure, desperately searching for an ‘out.’ He tried to arrange for the airmen’s families to visit China and create the pre-text for a release. When this failed, he urged the families of the airmen to write letters directly to Chou, pleading for their loved ones’ release. At the same time, Hammarskjold worked through backchannels. He tapped contacts in India and Thailand to add to the private political pressure. All throughout, Hammarskjold embodied a willingness to pragmatically push and pull the different levers of diplomatic power—and in some cases, to create new levers altogether. It was a complicated approach to be sure, but Hammarskjold managed the situation with a deft touch.
Though it remains unclear which combination of pressure caused the Chinese premier to change his mind, Hammarskjold’s approach eventually bore fruit. On May 30th, 1955 Chou En-Lai sent a direct telegram to Hammarskjold announcing his decision to release the airmen. In the message, the Chinese premier made two crucial points. First, he explained that the airmen had been released specifically to maintain the friendship with Hammarskjold, not because of US pressure. Second, Chou En-Lai wished Hammarskjold a happy 50th birthday. It seems ludicrous to be sure, but the fact remains that a major power crisis was resolved not because of a birthday present, but by means of a birthday present.
What should we make of this episode? What lessons should we draw? First and foremost, we must address the obvious: birthday presents are not policy solutions. Don’t bet on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolving itself when Ban Ki-Moon celebrates his special day. Instead, this instance of ‘birthday diplomacy’ provides a timely reminder: in diplomacy, the little things—even the semantics—really do matter. All throughout the episode, Dag Hammarskjold engaged himself in a creative process, exploiting the details and fashioning useful gimmicks. He created new frameworks and wielded unconventional sources of pressure—be it the letters, the backchannels, or even the Peking Formula itself. But all of these would have failed if not for Hammarskjold’s personal touch. When every option appeared exhausted, Hammarskjold turned friendship into leverage. The strategy he pursued should inspire modern diplomats. Seize on a smile and chip away at the status quo.