The Daring Diplomat Who Proved One Person Can Thwart an Empire

A whistleblower puts his life on the line to defy Soviet aggression. Sixty years later, this forgotten story of subterfuge, smears and suspicious death has never felt more timely.

On October 23, 1956, waves of demonstrations rolled through the streets of the Hungarian capital. The citizens of Budapest converged on government buildings, protesting the influence of the Soviet Union on their elected officials and economy, and the presence of Soviet troops in their cities. What began with a few thousand university students swelled to include workers, soldiers, and men and women of all ages. Someone pulled down a Hungarian flag, emblazoned with the Communist sickle and hammer. They tore out the insignia, leaving a gaping hole in the middle. It became a symbol of the revolution.

The demonstrations escalated. Neighborhoods organized into militias. Overturned armored cars caught fire and buildings collapsed onto their first floors. The small country standing up to its Communist interlopers enraptured the Western world. Time magazine recognized “the Hungarian Freedom Fighter” as Man of the Year.

But it was a short-lived fight. On November 4, as tins were passed around to collect coins and jewelry to help with relief, and Budapest started to clear away broken glass and rubble, Soviet tanks trundled into the city. Miklos Toth, who was a boy at the time, remembers brutal street-to-street fighting, and World War II veterans firing out of their living rooms as plaster rained from the ceiling. The uprising was crushed. It would be more than three decades before an eastern bloc state revolted against Communism again.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Hungarian flags flew with holes cut out to remove the Soviet emblem. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

Thousands of Hungarians were brought to trial by the new Soviet-backed government for their role in the uprising. Even more streamed out of Hungary as refugees. The United Nations launched an investigation into Soviet troops’ intervention in the Hungarian Revolution. A special committee interviewed 111 witnesses: diplomats, government officials, soldiers, journalists, and lawyers. An artist testified. So did an actress and several high school students. Fearing retaliation against friends and family back in Hungary, where the Soviet-backed government was carrying out executions, 81 of those witnesses appeared anonymously. On United Nations lists, they were marked as “AAA,” “BBB” and so on down the alphabet. Only one man knew their names. Soon, the name of Danish diplomat Povl Bang-Jensen, chief of logistics for the Hungarian testimony, would become embroiled in one of the most bewildering scandals in U.N. history.

* * *

Bang-Jensen had been a part of the U.N. since its early days. A dapper man whose widow’s peak and sweater vests called to mind Hollywood star James Mason, he acted on behalf of the anti-Nazi Danish underground in New York during World War II, negotiating treaties with the Allies on behalf of Scandinavia. He was well-rounded, self-confident, and stubborn. According to a Judiciary Report to the United States Congress, he had a “wide range of knowledge, and robust sense of humor and a warm heart that endeared him to his friends and … to the many Hungarian refugees who testified before the United Nations Commission on Hungary.”

Due to his meticulous focus on details, Bang-Jensen was charged with arranging the hotels and food per diems of the refugees in New York, Vienna, and Rome where the committee heard their testimony. When the committee asked him to make sure they didn’t hear repetitive testimony, he pre-interviewed refugees one-on-one, listening to their stories of the Soviet invasion.

“They took me to a prison, chained my right hand to my left foot, and left me,” ran a typical piece of testimony. “This was in the middle of the winter. … I could not move because, if I did so, my wrists and ankles bled.” The U.N. considered many of the stories Bang-Jensen heard unprintable. “The verbatim records of the Committee’s meetings contain appalling descriptions,” stated the final report, which “the Committee would have hesitated to publish in their entirety, even if the necessity of protecting the families of the witnesses had not been an obstacle.”

In a dark stone building at 6A Wallnerstrasse in Vienna where testimony was carried out, Bang-Jensen began to notice irregularities in procedure. He and his boss, William M. Jordan, argued over the translation of the testimony. Errors crept into the official record. A Russian U.N. staffer, according to Bang-Jensen’s later testimony, attempted to bribe one of his colleagues to let him take the transcripts of the hearings home overnight. In an era of global espionage, when the F.B.I. had just caught a U.N. staffer attempting to leak official documents to the Soviets, Bang-Jensen believed he saw clear evidence that the Russians were attempting to influence the committee’s findings and get access to the names of those who testified.

In June 1957, Bang-Jensen blew the whistle. In going over the final copy of the Hungarian Report, days before it was due to be presented, he found 40 errors and 20 omissions of key information. Many were minute, but others were crucial to the central point of the investigation: whether Russia had illegally violated Hungarian sovereignty. For example, an unreported date hid the fact that János Kádár, new head of the Soviet-backed Hungarian government, had invited Soviet intervention before he became Prime Minister, an action that some would call treasonous and was at odds with the Soviet Union’s claim to legal intervention. He wanted to bring the information to the ranking members of the committee, but Jordan warned him not to — telling him that the errors were not meaningful. So Bang-Jensen went over his head, arranging a meeting with the committee leaders in the Diplomats Lounge at U.N. headquarters.

Left: United Nations General Assembly representatives voting in favor of the resolution on the situation in Hungarian on Nov. 5, 1956. Right: U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld (left) Assembly President, Dr. Charles Malik (Lebanon), and Andrew W. Cordier, Executive Assistant to the Secretary General. (Photos courtesy the United Nations)

In a room heavy with cigarette smoke and decorated with ferns, Bang-Jensen made his case. Even if the details might not alter the Hungarian Report’s findings, the errors and omissions ran the risk of reducing public trust in the validity of the entire report. At stake was not just this document, but any future humanitarian investigation the U.N. carried out. Bang-Jensen was a powerful believer in accuracy and truth, and when he felt the committee wasn’t listening to him, according to members’ testimony, he grabbed one of them by his lapels and shook him to make the point heard.

The results were not as he had hoped. Bang-Jensen was told not to attend future committee meetings. He went anyway. As the final drafts of the report were handed out, Bang-Jensen asked to see a copy. Jordan told him all copies were in use. So, he went straight to the top, writing a letter to Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

The situation, he wrote, “is a methodical attempt to suppress certain essential facts and to insert erroneous facts and contradictions in the report.” It was, he believed, “sabotage.”

He appealed to Hammarskjold as a fellow Scandinavian, and reminded him of Bang-Jensen’s experience spotting duplicity in his own fight against the Nazis. He even offered to resign, if it would help the U.N. handle the situation more discreetly.

“I am at your disposal beyond, but not contrary to, my duties as an officer of the United Nations to straighten out everything,” he wrote. “My only condition … is honesty.”

“Since the person in question [Jordan] probably will realize that he hardly can make many believe I am a liar,” Bang-Jensen concluded, “he will no doubt insist that I am imagining things on account of overwork.”

He was correct.

“He was acting improperly, hysterically, and foolishly,” Jordan wrote to Hammarskjold’s executive secretary, Andrew Cordier, a future president of Columbia University. Jordan also disclosed that he didn’t believe Bang-Jensen was “quite himself,” and that the man’s allegations were “largely childish and without foundation.” “He should be required forthwith to take sick leave, since I have no doubt that Mr. Bang-Jensen is a very sick man,” Jordan added.

After several weeks of unanswered letters, Bang-Jensen finally got the call he’d been waiting for, but he had already left the office to catch the boat to Denmark for two months of home leave. The connection was bad and Bang-Jensen and Hammarskjold couldn’t hear each other. They would write, they promised. Bang-Jensen wondered why Hammarskjold had not asked him to cancel his home leave and return to the U.N.

Bang-Jensen spent the next several weeks in the little fishing town of Espergaerde, just south of Elsinore, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was accused of madness after discovering an act of treason. Returning to New York, he was summarily removed from the Hungarian Committee.

Again, Bang-Jensen wrote to Hammarskjold.

“Sabotage has been carried out,” he wrote. “Allegedly, on your instructions … Am I now expected to forget this matter?”

Again, he was ignored.

* * *

In October 1957, a Hungarian refugee, facing deportation from the U.S. back to Hungary, asked for asylum on the grounds that he was one of the anonymous witnesses who had testified before the Hungarian Committee. When U.N. authorities went to check his name against the list of witnesses, they found they had no copy. Only one person had the complete list of names: Povl Bang-Jensen.

Asked to provide a copy of the list, Bang-Jensen refused. Since his desk at the U.N. had been broken into, he said, he had been keeping it off U.N. property, and he did not think the U.N. could be trusted to safeguard the list against a leak that would put the names of witnesses who had accused the Soviets of war crimes in the Kremlin’s hands. It did not help that the request came from Undersecretary Dr. Dragoslav Protitch, a Yugoslav national whose government had approved of the Soviet incursion during the revolution. A United States Senate investigation would later question the security wisdom of the decision to allow Protitch to access to the Hungarian investigation at all.

A destroyed tank at the Zsigmond Móricz circle in Budapest, Hungary, during the 1956 revolution. (Photo courtesy Fortepan)

“I would be grossly derelict in my duties as an international official and thoroughly dishonest if I agreed,” he wrote. It wasn’t just a matter of principle. Back in Hungary — according to a 1960 Senate Judiciary Report on the affair — if a refugee had committed treason, upon escaping his next relative could be executed in his place. Give up the names, and dozens might die.

Despite continued orders, Bang-Jensen refused to hand over the list. On December 4, the Director of Personnel called Bang-Jensen into his office and suspended him. In an unprecedented move, Bang-Jensen was escorted out by two U.N. guards, who were too embarrassed to tail him and instead walked beside him to his car.

Word of the menace to the 81 witnesses spread. Bang-Jensen was hailed as a modern-day Good Samaritan. Letters from international organizations, questions from the press, and pleas from Hungarian groups poured into the U.N. Only a month prior, President John F. Kennedy had called the Hungarian Revolution, “a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations — a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph” and had rebuked the western world for not coming to revolutionaries’ aid. The world had failed to take decisive action during the uprising, but now at least, they could take a stand for these 81 witnesses.

Some within the U.N. advocated simply burning the list, but to do so would be tantamount to admitting that the names would not be secure in U.N. files, jeopardizing the reputation of the body and its ability to carry out future anonymous hearings like the one for the Hungarian Report. And even if the names could be kept safe, what if the next Secretary-General was a Soviet, able to report the names to the Kremlin himself? How could an organization founded on globalism keep its staff from prioritizing national interests? They were questions that the United Nations, barely a decade old, had never faced.

Ernest Gross, chair of the investigation into the affair, suggested a solution.

At a few minutes before three p.m. on Friday, January 24, 1958, Bang-Jensen marched up the steps of the U.N. with his lawyer and a bank messenger who carried a sealed yellow envelope. The U.N. did not, Bang-Jensen later noted, offer him a security escort to bring the papers to headquarters. He made his way, first to an administrative office to meet several colleagues and security. The bank messenger handed over the envelope. Bundled in overcoats, they all climbed the stairs to the U.N. rooftop, where the temperature was just over freezing. A portable incinerator was blazing. Bang-Jensen fed the yellow envelope into it. Then, he removed another envelope from his briefcase and a third from his jacket pocket. The four men watched as the envelopes and their contents turned to ashes, then signed statements confirming their destruction.

Statement written and signed by Povl Bang-Jensen after he burned the papers relating to witnesses that testified in front of the Special Committee on the Problem with Hungary. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

But the affair was far from over. Hoping to end the case once and for all, Gross released his report on Bang-Jensen’s conduct, painting a picture of a paranoid, overly sensitive man. Gross claimed that Bang-Jensen had been negligent in safeguarding the papers, and suggested that he might have altered them himself. In a clunky solution to the question of the U.N.’s ability to safeguard documents, the report argued that, in Bang-Jensen’s keeping, the papers had been so insecure as to be rendered worthless — therefore the U.N. did not want them back. The report closed by recommending that Bang-Jensen seek medical help. The question of sabotage that Bang-Jensen had originally raised was largely glossed over.

“I think image of Bang-Jensen as heroic protector of papers will have been exploded,” Andrew Cordier wrote in a telegram to the Australian delegate, Sir Keith Charles Owen Shann, in Manila.

This portrait of Bang-Jensen as unstable and incompetent was a surprise, even to members who had contributed to the report. Alsing Andersen, who had recalled the incident of Bang-Jensen shaking a delegate by the lapels in the Diplomats Lounge to the Committee, asked that a new press release around the report be issued. Bang-Jensen launched into a judicial review process, aimed at reinstating his position and clearing his name. Meticulous as ever, he testified that the Gross Report contained 126 incorrect statements, including 76 that were simply misleading and 31 that were outright slanderous.

He never had a chance.

The judicial review board was stacked with the same men who had suggested Bang-Jensen was unstable. Bang-Jensen’s requests for key letters and memos, for the right to be represented by an outside attorney instead of a fellow staffer, were all denied. Unable to afford a secretary, he typed out his trial correspondence himself using two fingers, only to be told that the tribunal would only review evidence sent in triplicate. When he claimed that the labyrinthine procedures were a violation of due process and his human rights, U.N. officials grew exasperated.

“If there has been any violation of human rights,” wrote one, “it is most certainly not Bang-Jensen’s but those of many senior officials of the Secretariat, especially Andrew Cordier, who have spent the equivalent of many days — even weeks — of valuable time leaning over backwards to be fair to this impossible man!”

At the same time, according to Bang-Jensen, a smear campaign spread through the halls of the U.N. Stories reportedly circulated that Bang-Jensen was an alcoholic, a psychopath, that he was gay, or sexually deviant, that he was a McCarthyite. Meanwhile, newspaper articles told the heroic story of the man who dared to stand up to the Soviet Union and the corrupt U.N. Letters with stamps bearing the profiles of Lincoln and Washington poured in to Cordier and Hammarskjold’s office.

“Please excuse my handwriting, because I have a broken wrist and I have a cast on,” wrote Mary Alice Karl from Williston Park, New York, “I just had to write and tell you how I want to protest the dismissal of the Danish official, Povl Bang-Jensen. I think that this action was highly unfair and unreasonable.”

“Dear Sirs,” wrote Miss Marita Kane, from Long Island, “I have never before written a letter to the U.N., but this is justified because I never have been so upset by one of its actions … If you do this ostensibly unjust act of firing a hero, every patriotic American will sigh and say, ‘Oh well, it was a good idea — but the U.N. was just an idea, and can’t and didn’t work out in practice.’”

High schooler Judy Soles whipped her classmates into a fervor after learning about the case in her history class, and started a campaign to reinstate Bang-Jensen. The International League of the Rights of Man wrote in support of Bang-Jensen, citing the previous decade’s Nuremberg Trials of Nazi collaborators.

“Whenever there is a conflict between obedience or adherence to administrative rules or orders of superior officers,” the League wrote, “and a moral responsibility to safeguard life or liberty, the issue must be resolved in favor of the higher moral obligation.”

A predominantly American audience saw him as an anti-Communist hero — the tenacious and upstanding champion they had been looking for in the Cold War. Many saw the difficulties Bang-Jensen was experiencing as proof that Soviets were controlling the U.N. In response to every letter, Andrew Cordier sent a copy of the Gross Report — a clear message that their supposed hero was, in fact, deranged.

* * *

On July 3, 1958, Bang-Jensen was fired for insubordination. He was given three months’ pay in lieu of notice. Ever tenacious, he claimed right of appeal. Once again, he lost. Up until this point, Bang-Jensen had, in his own words, “made every effort to have the case dealt with in as quiet and as orderly a manner as possible in order not to hurt the United Nations which, in the final analysis, is more important than any of the individuals involved.” He deeply loved the U.N., and was committed to both its systems and its mission. That he pled his case within its existing structures, and that he rarely spoke to the press, indicates a commitment to the institution that ran deep.

“I shall never regret that I kept my promise to the Hungarian witnesses that I should be the only person in the Secretariat to know their names,” he said in a rare public statement after his firing. “Either inside or outside the United Nations—I shall continue my efforts to obtain justice.”

The affair went quiet for a year. After his dismissal, Bang-Jensen got a job at CARE, the humanitarian relief agency, where his yearly salary dropped from $17,000 to $7,500. He attended PTA meetings for his five children, took them to Sunday school, and went to the movies with his wife, Helen. “North By Northwest” was one of the most popular films of 1959, but perhaps that story of subterfuge at the U.N. felt too close to home for a weekend date.

On the morning of Monday, November 21, 1959, Bang-Jensen kissed his wife goodbye and walked out the front door of their home in Long Island. He ran into a neighbor, Mr. Wetzler, who gave him a ride to the bus stop. Mr. Wetzler reported to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bang-Jensen “behaved in a perfectly normal manner.” Then he hopped out at the corner of Northern Boulevard and Morgan Street and was never seen alive again.

He was found, two days later on the morning of Thanksgiving, laid out on a bridle path in Alley Pond Park, a seven-minute drive from his house. Two locals, walking their dogs through the gray fallen leaves, discovered the body. A bullet had gone through his right temple. In his right hand was a pearl-handled revolver. Even after his two-day disappearance, his face, under a mat of blood, was clean-shaven. The police found a note in Bang-Jensen’s handwriting. “Whatever faults I have,” it read, “I have been honest and wanted to do good, but I underestimated the forces I was up against.” The N.Y.P.D. ruled the death a suicide, and cremated the body, as the note requested.

“You and your family have our profound sympathy and sincere condolence on the passing of your husband,” wrote Hammarskjold to Helen.

“Please accept our heartfelt sympathy in your sorrow,” wrote Cordier.

“You have driven to his death a noble man, Mr. Bang-Jensen, for doing what was right,” wrote Mrs. A.G. Hunter to the United Nations. “Your conscience should hurt you all the rest of your life — if you have a conscience.”

Almost immediately, the question of foul play arose. Who were the hidden forces mentioned in the suicide note, people wondered? Where had Bang-Jensen been for the two days of his disappearance? If the diplomat was left-handed, why was the gun found in his right hand? Had Bang-Jensen really killed himself in a fit of depression over his ousting from the U.N. or were other and more malevolent forces at play? “Many persons and many forces, not exclusively Soviet, had reason to breathe easier at his passing,” hinted the National Review. “The strange circumstances of the case seem to warrant continued investigation,” the Washington Post wrote.

Letter written by Mrs. A.G. Hunter, a Bang-Jesen supporter, to the United Nations after the ex-diplomat was found dead. (Image courtesy the U.N.)

Congress thought so too. In 1960, they launched an investigation in the Bang-Jensen case, questioning both U.N. security procedures and the pipeline of information about Communist infiltration in the State Department and the C.I.A. The committee did not comment on the judicial procedures at the U.N. that led to Bang-Jensen’s termination, since that was inside the jurisdiction of the United Nations. But the committee was very interested in whether a political assassination had occurred on American soil. The investigation created as many mysteries as it solved.

The Senate report uncovered that Bang-Jensen had spoken of suicide as a way to get his family funds from his U.N. insurance policy — but that policy had run out by the time he died. Friends and family reported depression after his dismissal from the U.N., adding that it had increased to the point where they encouraged him to consult a psychiatrist. He visited Dr. Frederick Friedenborg six times. The doctor declared him “anti-suicidal” and in the weeks leading up to his death, Bang-Jensen had been markedly more active and cheerful. Dr. Friedenborg had prescribed Bang-Jensen sleeping pills, which Bang-Jensen did not make a practice of using. The pharmacist who filled the prescription testified that it was never refilled. Nonetheless, the coroner reported that Bang-Jensen was sedated at the time of his death.

Regarding his mental state, the Senate Committee surfaced another shocking document, a 1957 memo from Bang-Jensen to Helen discovered and published by the far-right, anti-Communist Alice Widener. Though incredible, none on the committee questioned that it might be real. It read:

“[My wife] fears, now that it is clear that I will not retreat, that the circle outside the Secretariat, ultimately responsible for the sabotage, might have decided that it is necessary to risk having me disappear out a window, or similarly in a fit of depression … My wife has, nevertheless, insisted that I should inform a few of my friends, that under no circumstances would I commit suicide … this would be contrary to my whole nature and to my religious convictions. If any note was found to the opposite effect in my hand-writing, it would be fake.”

The letter was dated November 30, 1957. It was the habit of the meticulous Bang-Jensen to date all his correspondence to the day. The only exception the Senate committee could find in all Bang-Jensen’s writing was the suicide note.

The committee did not come to a conclusion on the Bang-Jensen mystery. But it did publish a report on the facts of the case, including facts that pointed to suicide and others that pointed to murder. Inserted in the report was a list of corrections to factual errors that were discovered after the report was bound and printed. Bang-Jensen would, no doubt, have found more.

* * *

On the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the Hungarian Mission to the U.N. celebrated the sacrifice of Bang-Jensen. The event included a generation who had lived through revolution themselves, the children of refugees who had built new lives, and Bang-Jensen’s own children, now grown. They accepted a statue in token of their father’s heroism in safeguarding the names of the 81 anonymous witnesses — a sculpture of the Hungarian uprising flag, with a hole where the Soviet hammer and sickle had been torn out.

Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of Hungary’s Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, which published A Cry for Freedom: Reflections on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution at the UN and Beyond, likens Bang-Jensen’s story to the Hungarian uprising itself.

“Sometimes relatively insignificant players,” he says, “could make a big difference in a real way in peculiar moments in history.”

Ultimately, he argues, far from jeopardizing the long-term legitimacy of the United Nations, Bang Jensen safeguarded it. In his rebellion, he had carried on U.N. values.

Bang-Jensen in Copenhagen to discuss his situation with the Danish government and Parliament. (Photo courtesy Scanpix Denmark/Sipa USA)

“Bang-Jensen saved the reputation of the United Nations,” Miszlivetz says, “We have institutions based on values and those are sometime not realized. But unexpected individuals can realize them.”

Even when the arc of progress swings ethical institutions into being, individuals must continue to carry those ethics forward in their individual actions, particularly when those institutions falter.

The Bang-Jensen case may be a story of a man experiencing post-war stress, tormenting his colleagues with paranoia, depression and ultimately suicide. Or, it may be the tale of a coordinated campaign to silence a whistleblower. Ultimately, it is a story of a man who believed entirely in the importance of truth and facts, in promises, and in resisting the very institutions we love when they fall short of their moral mandate.

Bang-Jensen’s wife eventually moved upstate to Chappaqua, New York. She worked as a guide at the local Union Church, leading tour groups through the history and stories of the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows that a Rockefeller had commissioned for the church. The prized centerpiece of the luminous collection, the one Helen must have often paused at during her tours to relate the story of its subject, was the Good Samaritan.

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