First U.N. Secretary-General Is Selected

Norwegian diplomat Trygve Lie was selected the first proper secretary-general of the United Nations. His tenure was both rocky and diplomatically successful. His most enduring contributions include a ten-point program for lasting peace and his work in building U.N. headquarters in New York City.

Summary of Event

Norwegian diplomat Trygve Lie was forty-nine years old when he was selected unanimously by the eleven-member U.N. Security Council and General Assembly as the first secretary-general of the United Nations. A Norwegian candidate was to everyone’s liking, given that Norway was a neutral country and not powerful enough militarily to be a threat to any global superpower. American representatives had not supported Lie’s candidacy, however, preferring instead Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Lester B. Pearson Pearson, Lester B. . In turn, the Soviet Union openly opposed Pearson as a candidate, because Canada was a close ally of both the United Kingdom and the United States. United Nations;secretariat
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Lie, Trygve
Gromyko, Andrei Andreyevich
Spaak, Paul-Henri

Lie, who was experienced in Norwegian politics but not well known in world political circles, was accepted by all sides as a compromise candidate. He was also a war hero. During World War II he served as Norway’s foreign minister in London and is credited with bringing the Norwegian merchant fleet to England in 1940, away from Nazi control and into active resistance for the Allies. Active in the Norwegian Labor Party for years, Lie had a range of experience in Norwegian political life that served as a prelude to work at the United Nations. He served as minister of justice (1935-1939), minister of trade and industries (July-September, 1939), and, with the outbreak of World War II, as minister of supply and shipping.

Lie’s selection as secretary-general placed him in the spotlight of global politics and it established the five-year term as the standard period of service for the position. He had originally been interested in the presidency of the General Assembly, which had held its election two weeks earlier, and was disappointed with his selection as secretary-general. In the last days of 1945 he was led to believe that he had solid American support and that he would be approved universally as the assembly president. Adlai E. Stevenson Stevenson, Adlai E. , acting head of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, had a telegram delivered to Lie on Christmas Day, 1945. The telegram asked Lie if he intended to run for the assembly presidency, to which Lie responded affirmatively. Stevenson made clear to Lie that the Americans were supportive and, in fact, that the United States would present his name to the United Nations for consideration.

At the General Assembly meeting in London a few weeks later, however, the U.S. contingent did not express solid support for Lie and was unclear in its position. To complicate things, Great Britain and Belgium promoted Belgian foreign minister Paul-Henri Spaak for the assembly presidency and encouraged the Americans to support their choice. The British and the Americans did not plan nominating speeches and anticipated a vote by secret ballot. Soviet ambassador Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko, however, surprised the participants by speaking to the issue, first to laud Norway’s wartime performance and, second, formally to nominate Lie for the presidency. The head of the U.S. delegation, Secretary of State James Francis Byrnes Byrnes, James Francis , did not speak openly in support of Lie, making it appear that Lie was the candidate of the Soviet Union only. The Ukrainian representatives called for approval by acclamation, but the effort failed. The General Assembly proceeded with a secret ballot election as planned. The vote was 28 for Spaak and 23 for Lie, with U.S. support reportedly for Lie.

Article 99 of the U.N. charter accords the secretary-general power to bring matters to the attention of the Security Council that may threaten the peace and security of the world. Lie did not intend to follow in the footsteps of James Eric Drummond, first secretary-general of the League of Nations. Drummond had been characterized as a quiet, invisible leader. Lie preferred to express his views publicly, engage the opposition in debate, and stay at the forefront of U.N. affairs by making regular statements on political and substantive matters. As secretary-general, he struggled with the question of the proper power and procedure of the position, that is, he was not clear how far his position could reach into the realm of global politics. In essence, Lie believed that the office of secretary-general should evolve slowly. He was not a prolific speechwriter, nor did he issue an extraordinary number of memoranda.


Lie led the United Nations during the difficult first years of the Cold War Cold War;United Nations
United Nations;Cold War , a time when tensions were heightened by the paranoia of McCarthyism. He was opposed to the employment of American communists at the United Nations and cooperated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) looking into the lives of American citizens working at the United Nations during the McCarthy years.

Shortly after Lie’s election as secretary-general, Joseph Stalin set forth a new five-year plan for the Soviet Union and announced that military preparedness would have priority over consumer production. The Cold War became even more tense. Acrimony between the United States and the Soviet Union took the spotlight in discussions at the United Nations. Throughout his tenure there, Lie was criticized both by the Americans, who accused him of communist sympathies, and by the Soviets, who regarded him as a puppet of the Americans.

His most ambitious and enduring contribution was the preparation of a program for lasting peace, a ten-point program that was carried to the capital cities of the chief member states and subsequently considered by the General Assembly. By many accounts, Lie built a reputation as a pragmatic and capable diplomat, who was outspoken and temperamental; at times he misjudged situations. His intervention in the Iranian case, insisting on the evacuation of Soviet troops, was not well received by the United States or by Britain. The U.S. government strongly opposed his belief that communist China should be seated in the United Nations. He opposed North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, a position that drew the wrath of the Soviet Union and ultimately led to his downfall as the Soviets became intent on blocking his reelection as secretary-general.

The Cold War was manifest in these reelection proceedings, with the United States staunchly supporting him and the Soviets leading the charge to oust him. By U.N. charter, the Security Council is required to recommend a candidate to the General Assembly for final approval. The assembly voted 46-5 (8 abstentions) to extend Lie’s tenure as secretary-general. The Soviets refused to work with him, however, and set in place an uncompromising political and social boycott. This circumstance greatly reduced Lie’s political authority with the global community. Lie realized his political position, and so, to the delight of Moscow, resigned in November, 1952. The Lie era at the United Nations was a tense, uncertain time that set the stage for many more years of Cold War acrimony. His tenure also helped foster a dangerous perspective among Americans that the United Nations was strongest when the United States was in the lead.

Largely because of Lie’s initiative, the United Nations found a new home in New York City. Lie had approached New York mayor William O’Dwyer and city planner Robert Moses about using New York land as the site for a new U.N. headquarters. After John D. Rockefeller, Jr., offered to buy land in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of midtown Manhattan, the General Assembly accepted the New York plan. The United Nations opened its new headquarters on the site in 1952. United Nations;secretariat
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Further Reading

  • Barrows, James. Trygve Lie and the Cold War: The U.N. Secretary-General Pursues Peace, 1946-1953. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989. An analysis of Lie’s strengths and shortcomings in presiding over the United Nations.
  • Browne, Marjorie Ann. United Nations Secretary-General: The Appointment Process. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 1996. A brief twelve-page document covering the selection and appointment of the secretary-general of the United Nations.
  • Gaglione, Anthony. The United Nations Under Trygve Lie, 1945-1953. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. Discusses the events and personalities associated with the creation of the United Nations during Lie’s tenure.
  • Gordenker, Leon. The U.N. Secretary-General and Secretariat. New York: Routledge, 2005. Outlines the roles and responsibilities of secretary-general and secretariat of the United Nations. Part of the Global Institutions series.
  • Meisler, Stanley. United Nations: The First Fifty Years. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995. Includes a chapter on Lie’s efforts to evacuate Soviet forces from Iran in the early stages of his career as secretary-general.
  • Thakur, Ramesh. “The Political Role of the United Nations Secretary-General.” In The United Nations, Peace, and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Examines the secretary-general’s responsibilities in the theater of world politics.

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