The Doorbell

Alex McHaddad, 1/7/2018

“I’m going to give it to you straight, Dag: the buck stops with you this time.” Harry poured himself a second glass of scotch as he continued speaking with his worried visitor, hoping that he would not give away his apprehension about the topic at hand.

“This burden is too great for any one man to bear-” Dag objected.

“Every generation, man finds something that hasn’t ever been done before, and it always comes down to one guy who has to make a decision that will change the world,” Harry interrupted. “Look, you’re an honest guy without a stake in the game, other than the greatest good for mankind. That’s why I told Ike and Niki to put you where you are now. But you’ve got to step up and be the man around here now that it’s more than just democracy fighting communism.”

“How can I be certain that I’m making the right choice?” Dag inquired. “I’m supposed to be neutral, and I’ve kept us all on that same neutral path as best as I can so far.”

“You don’t always know. In fact, you may never know,” Harry declared. “When Columbus sailed West, the Spanish didn’t know if he’d actually usher in domination of trade with India, but then he found two whole untapped continents that held more gold than Europe could imagine. And when I dropped the bombs on Japan, it was no more than a gambit - I didn’t think it would bring on the Atomic Age. But the American voters asked me to make the decision, and now the nations of the world are looking to you to make yours. We both know you’ve got a lot to prove for a lot of people.”

The former President’s remark about one of Dag’s more personal secrets made him uncomfortable, but he made no comment.

“If you go to these people and say yes, you’ve opened the door to the Space Age, and we can all say good riddance to the bleeding heart nonsense of the Atomic Age and the Cold War before it gets much further,” Harry continued. “We don’t need another Korea, and we don’t need to become someone else’s Korea, either. The world needs time to unite around something other than war. Maybe that’s art, maybe that’s space travel, and maybe that’s opening up our borders to outsiders. The point is that the world elected you to be their guide.”

“Why wasn’t this decision made years ago? Your own Defense Department informed me that you knew as early as 1947, the Soviets as early as 1908… Somebody should have had a plan in place by now,” Dag complained.

“In a way we’ve been planning all along,” Harry explained, taking another sip of his scotch. “Refill? You’re gonna need one.”

Dag shook his head.

“Bobby, pour the man another shot,” Harry asked an attendant anyway.

As the liquid poured, Harry went on, “Vladimir Lenin lived in the place where the Russians had their first confirmed sighting. Took them several years to figure out what happened, but Vladimir almost took it as a divine prophecy, and he wanted his country to be prepared. He shared that vision with Joe, and he spent thirty years building up the military infrastructure necessary to fight a power that the world had never seen before. Of course the Nazis got in the way for a while, but Joe probably would’ve made the bomb a lot sooner if the war hadn’t happened.

“Then I had the shock of my life learning about both nuclear weapons and the existence of alien life during my first term alone. We said that a weather balloon crashed in the desert, but the Defense Department found a damaged flying saucer that’s still being dissected by our scientists. The technology in there will get us to the moon in my lifetime, believe you me.

“All this to say that two competing world powers are fighting for domination, and the decision they make about whether to stay silent or welcome our visitors with open arms is going to be about what benefits them, not what benefits mankind. The CIA and KGB would rather overthrow their own governments rather than let them kowtow to the UN’s definition of human welfare. And that’s why it’s your decision, Mr. Secretary-General. Now finish your scotch, get on that plane, and show everybody that the United Nations is the force for peace and unity that we all envisioned!”

Dag drank the whole shot of whiskey in front of him and sat back, barely able to comprehend President Truman’s words. The 20th Century had seen remarkable human progress in the fields of medicine, art, and technology that few could have predicted, and all of it was a lie, predicated on the threat of alien invasion. Communism had amassed its power as a shield against otherworldly powers, while the Western world’s greatest weapons had been developed just in time to face the very real possibility of interstellar conquest. Sinking under the revelation of this secret history, Dag struggled to clear his mind enough to make a decision.

Thinking back to the public service of his father at the Swedish Academy, Dag recalled how the house of Hammarskjöld had served the crown of Sweden since the 1600’s. The king was the embodiment of the country, just as the United Nations was intended to be the manifestation of man’s will and power. Just like his forefathers, he was called to serve in the best interest of his people, and they had never needed a leader as much as they did now.

Standing up, Dag bent over to shake Harry’s hand, saying, “Thanks for your valuable perspective, Mr. President. Your counsel his helped me make a decision.”

“Hopefully not your decision.”

“No, you took care to be neutral enough,” Dag assured. “I think the reality that we are not alone in the universe should convince everybody that we need to work together. When I come back from Africa, expect to see me on stage welcoming our friends from beyond the stars.”

***

James and Leo had been betting against each other all day about whether they would have to assassinate the Secretary-General of the United Nations. James was sure that an increasingly bellicose military industrial complex would want nothing more than to eliminate any roadblocks to building up an American presence in Southeast Asia, winning him a box of cuban cigars. Leo, for all the dissidents he had personally escorted to the last stop for Siberia, was not so sure that his superiors would be quick to oppose peace; after all, the Russians were strategic thinkers, and ending the Cold War on Soviet terms placed his country in a better position to influence the world that was reborn out of first contact. He would also receive a pack of Camels.

While the two spies would follow orders to kill each other without hesitation, the pair had formed a cordial bond after several years of serving as bodyguards for their respective national intelligence heads at security meetings. Though James would always fear the damn dirty reds he had fought in Korea, he respected Leo’s acumen as a spy. Besides, he was the only man in New York who could provide the one treat to cut through the chilly Manhattan air.

“Gentlemen, I have called this meeting of the Military Staff Committee in secret to inform you of my decision regarding extraterrestrial contact.”

James smiled as Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld began the meeting, still under the impression that his word had any authority over Allen Dulles, whose presence in the room would not be accompanied with speech. One word from the Central Intelligence Agency Director and he would have blown Hammarskjöld’s head off without a second thought. A quick glance at Leo’s stoic face could not hide the Soviet spy’s commitment to his own attending leader, KGB Chair Alexander Shelepin.

“Your military doctrine teaches you that any force more powerful than your own constitutes a threat, thus the need to build ever more powerful nuclear weapons,” Dag continued. “No doubt the White House and the Kremlin both feel vindicated in their pursuit of the ultimate weapon now that we have been visited by a civilization that, for all of its advances, has not overcome the destructive power of the atom. We cannot stop them from raining fire into our atmosphere, but the moment one of their ships enters the stratosphere it will be obliterated.

“But why start a war, gentlemen? The visitors bring an offer of peace at a time when one of their own enemies looms on the horizon seeking the enslavement of every known world. It was only together that the Allies defeated the Nazis, and that same unity allowed the United Nations to preserve the sovereignty of the Republic of Korea. It has become clear that the earth is threatened, and if the spirit of man is to overcome this danger, it must be done as one unified world. Thus, I have decided to inform the General Assembly of the presence of extraterrestrial visitors once I have returned to New York from the Congo.”

Several of the military commanders in the room gasped, but the delegations from the United States and the Soviet Union made no such display of surprise. Instead, as the room quieted down, American Chief of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer held up his hand to speak, while Allen Dulles eyed his Soviet counterpart with a sly smirk.

“Mr. Secretary-General, the United States will veto any motion made in the Security Council to open up relations with extraterrestrial civilizations,” Lemnitzer announced. “The presence of alien visitors with untold power presents an unmitigated threat to the security of the United States, and I will instruct President Kennedy to take necessary steps to protect my citizens. It should be known that I have it on good authority that we will not be the only veto.” The American delegation nodded in agreement with the Director’s words, joined by glances of approval from the Soviets.

“Pardonnes moi!” exclaimed French Chief of Staff Andre Martin. “You cannot be the only one to make this decision for the world. The General Assembly must have the real vote, and the Security Council’s decision should reflect the will of the Ambassadors!”

“I say, this certainly will not bode well at Number 10,” agreed British commander Mountbatten. “Understand here and now that the Commonwealth will surely be unified in support of Secretary-General Hammarskjöld!”

James was thankful for the years of training that allowed him to maintain his composure in light of the circus displayed before him. If the world had united under one banner of free enterprise and human rights with the Secretary-General as its leader, this conversation would merely be a formality. But Hammarskjöld was simply a mediator in a time of war, asking both sides to lay down their arms to address a problem that could not possibly be resolved without a clear and dominant victor.

“There was no doubt in my mind of discord earlier today as I prepared my remarks for this meeting, gentlemen,” Hammarskjöld said. “My friends in America and Russia must both come to their senses over their endless series of provocations. Your bitterness enjoins allies only because you offer more money than the other, and the third world is left to suffer for your warfare. We like to think of man as civilized, but if we cannot come together as one now that we know we are not alone in the universe, we will prove that only our tools, not our souls, evolved beyond the Stone Age.

“The visitors have offered us time to become better organized before joining the ranks of other civilized worlds, though their patience will surely have an expiration date. I imagine that a newly empowered General Assembly will require the Cold War to end sooner than later. We can expect to face an enemy worse than the Nazis, and our bombs will need to be pointed toward the stars rather than each other. Neither capitalism nor communism will survive if everybody is dead.”

The delegations from Britain, France, and Taiwan clapped in approval, medals jingling about as they swayed, but their mood quickly turned dour when they realized that the Americans and Soviets were unmoved by the Secretary-General’s words. James new that the quickest end to the Cold War was by fire and fury, which, like an alien invasion, would also result in the death of humanity. But it was the CIA’s job to see that America pulled the trigger last, and he knew that Director Dulles would call upon his agents to ensure that his country won the struggle with the Soviets before any terms for global unity were decided.

“Thank you for that pretty speech, Dag,” Lemnitzer mocked, “but I think you underestimate the weight of the decision that the world has to face. Our friends in Britain and France saw firsthand the ferocity of the red menace on the battlefields of Korea. Taiwan is the last remaining free soil in all of China. Do you really think we can consent to sharing our sovereignty with a barbaric autocracy that disavows freedom of expression, of religion, of free enterprise? No, Mr. Secretary-General, we cannot unite the world unless it is under the banner of liberty, which will never arrive under Soviet leadership.”

“And I’m sure the Negro feels exactly the same as you do,” objected the Soviet commander, Matvei Zakharov. “You attack your own people with dogs and firehoses in the streets! You forbid them the same opportunities because of the color of their skin! They do not share your drinking fountains, your park benches, or the churches where your pastors preach freedom. When your humble workers rise up, they will be led in the streets by those who are denied equality in your ‘land of the free.’”

“Stop!” The Secretary-General was loud and forceful for the first time since his tenure in the office began. “Your pride and arrogance has only succeeded in killing millions, and I’m sure that only more will suffer if we do not end your petty squabbles now. It was Eleanor Roosevelt herself who tried to ensure that the proper balance between freedom and equality was reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but you cannot use a semblance of either as justification for a nuclear standoff! The General Assembly will be made aware of extraterrestrial contact, and I am certain that no matter what pressure you apply, the real decision of man’s destiny will be made by the Ambassadors of the nations gathered, no matter how many tin-pot dictators either of you will call to his side.”

Hammarskjöld’s fury took James aback, and both he and Leo joined their respective delegations in looking surprised. The representatives from the other nations gathered again noted their approval, while Dulles and his counterpart suddenly expressed genuine concern. If the normally neutral Secretary-General took to the floor of the General Assembly with such charismatic clarity, whatever hold America and Russia grasped on their respective client states would evaporate.

“Gentlemen, I suggest a smoke break,” requested the Taiwanese commander, Peng Meng-ji. “We must clear our heads before we continue this discussion.”

James breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that within the fifteen minutes or so that he would spend outside would include the kill order and the cigar that was coming to him. He escorted Director Dulles out of the meeting room down the halls of Secretariat Tower, where they met their Soviet counterparts. Leo joined James in blocking entrance to a bathroom, keeping their heads turned while their superiors stood in adjacent urinals.

“Dag is becoming troublesome and should be removed,” Director Dulles told Chairman Shelepin. “No other way to say it. We’ve got to let this play out just like we’ve planned it since the 40’s, capitalism vs. communism, and whoever makes it to the end without dropping the bomb takes it all. When that bright blue flag is hoisted in our squares and schools, it’s got to be by the stars and stripes or the hammer and sickle, not whoever the General Assembly thinks is best that day of the week.”

“The world is already tired of the games we’ve been playing, and they’ll call for the end of our experiments as soon as they realize that we’re not the most powerful players on the globe,” Shelepin reasoned. “If the truth is ever revealed, the world will strip us and our children of their armaments forever.”

“Then we can’t let them know,” Dulles declared. “Dag is flying to the Congo after this. We’ll pull some strings to thwart his mediation efforts and when he flies over land we’ll make sure it looks like his plane crashed.”

“Do you really think that will work?” the Soviet questioned. “Nobody else in the Warsaw Pact knows about this, but you’ve got two allies in the room who have enough influence in their former colonies to sway the General Assembly in their favor. Perhaps we should leak Dag’s personal preferences to your press so that he gets booed off the floor?”

“Europe has gotten used to these alternative lifestyles, and the French will use the power of the purse just the same even if they find discover Dag’s scarlet sin. But they will know we mean business when they see Hammarskjöld’s plane in flames in the jungle,” Dulles remarked. “And then we’ll give the keys to Sutton Place to some guy from a backwater rice paddy who’ll allow us a free hand.”

“You have my support,” Shelepin assured, as the pair walked to the sink. “And no one will ever have to know that we were involved.”

Turning to Leo, James said, “You owe me a cigar.”

“And you Americans call us ruthless,” Leo sighed in broken English. “I don’t know why you think you are so much better than us.”

“Freedom,” said James. “I better get that cigar soon, cause I’m going to go crazy in a minute without a good long drag.”

***

“Mr. President, do you have any comment on Secretary-General Hammarskjöld’s death?”

Harry had not expected a single reporter to seek his comment on the diplomat’s passing, let alone the trio from different newspapers who sat on the couch in his parlor. Now he had to scramble for answers at a time when no one had any to offer about the mysterious plane crash that had ended the life of a remarkable statesman even as he sought the end to a brutal war.

“Before I answer,” Harry said, “mind telling me why you’re asking? Off the record, of course. The only people who drag me out these days are Senate candidates and marketing executives.”

“I have a friend who works at the train station,” said a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. “Says he saw a big group of officials coming into town not too long ago. One of them had a notebook emblazoned with what he described as the seal of the UN. There’s only one man in Independence, Missouri, that the UN would care about, and that’s you, Mr. President. Unfortunately, I found myself talking to him at a payphone in Union Station and these two fellows from the Post caught me. So, instead of letting them steal the story, I thought we could ask you together.”

Sitting back in his armchair, Harry considered their response and believed it to be genuine; they were gussied up like city folk, and nothing about them stank of the CIA or KGB. Still, now that he had an audience the former President needed to be responsible with his words.

“Old Grand-Dad, anyone?” he asked, nodding to Bobby to pour him a shot of whiskey.

One of the reporters began to say yes, but he was quickly silenced by the man from the Tribune.

“Is everything alright, Mr. President?” inquired the Tribune reporter.

“I’m fine, just as shocked as any of you,” Harry admitted. “I wasn’t friends with Dag, as he was a little after my time, but I certainly admired him. His appointment would have been the first good decision by either Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson.”

“President Kennedy is certainly singing his praises,” remarked one of the younger reporters. “He’s publicly apologized for opposing the Secretary-General’s policy on Congo.”

“Hopefully it’s because he sees his own error,” Harry remarked. “I’m sure that even Richard Nixon would apologize for opposing the President if his term ended in tragedy. Now, what exactly do you want to hear from me, gentlemen?”

“Well, we’d like to know if he told you anything important,” said the Tribune reporter.

“Yeah, and your response to his death, in general,” said another reporter.

“Well, first of all - and we are only just now on the record - the world has lost a great statesman,” said Harry. “He’ll have his own place in the ranks of the greatest diplomats in our time. We should all be deeply saddened by his loss and make sure that we honor his memory by supporting peace, freedom, and human rights, just as he did.”

“And your conversation?”

Sitting back for a moment, Harry thought about the unique situation in which Dag had found himself, the only man with a claim to be the leader of mankind at a time when little green men had finally decided to knock on Earth’s door for the first time. Now that Allen Dulles had likely taken Dag’s life, the Earth would remain a solitary world, divided by two quarreling powers whose conflicts Harry had regretfully exacerbated. Dag had told him that the visitors would give humans time to work out any preexisting conflicts, but America and Russia seemed doomed to kick that can down the road to oblivion. Those few cultural artifacts that Dag had mentioned the UN providing to the visitors to learn human language and science would likely prove so boring that they would fly away forever.

Suddenly realizing his thirst, Harry remembered the glass in his hand and drank up an ounce of whiskey, hoping that what he said would arouse suspicion of Allen Dulles while ensuring that the reality of Dag’s choice stayed in the Secretary-General’s hands.

“Mr. President?”

“Boys,” Harry pronounced, “Dag was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”

Visibly shocked, the Tribune reporter asked, “Um… mind telling us who ‘they’ are?”

“Not today. No more comments on the record. Dag was making a decision, and it was taken from him - from all of us.” Harry felt guilty as looked down at his glass and realized how much the alcohol had influenced his words. “Bobby, please show these gentlemen outside.” Pouring himself another drink, Harry hoped that the next time visitors rang the doorbell, they would get a more welcome reception.