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Character Sketches: Trygve Lie by Brian Urquhart

Trygve Lie of Norway, the first elected Secretary-General of the United Nations.
UN Photo
Trygve Lie of Norway, the first elected Secretary-General of the United Nations.


"Welcome, Dag Hammarskjöld, to the most impossible job on this earth.” With these encouraging words, Trygve Lie, the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, greeted his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, at Idlewild airport in New York on April 9, 1953.

13 April 1953 - Some months after his service as Secretary-General, Trygve Lie meets with his successor, Dag Hammarskjöld, at UN Headquarters.

Lie had certainly had a difficult time since his appointment as Secretary-General in early 1946. “Why,” he asked in his memoirs, “has this awesome task fallen to a labor lawyer from Norway?” Lie had battled through endless frustrations and difficulties only to find himself in the end assailed by the Soviet Union on the left, and by the machinations of Senator Joseph McCarthy and others on the right. He resigned in November 1952.

Lie was the Minister of Justice in a Socialist government in Norway just before the Second World War. His chief claim to international fame up to that time had been granting Leon Trotsky asylum in Norway and rescinding it a year later on the grounds that Trotsky, by his public statements, had violated the conditions of asylum. Trotsky subsequently left Norway for Mexico, where he was assassinated. Lie’s enemies put it about that he had bowed to Soviet pressure, an allegation that stuck to him in his later career. When Germany invaded Norway in 1940, Lie was credited with ordering all Norwegian ships at sea to sail to British ports. He then escaped to London with King Haakon and served throughout the war as foreign minister of the government-in-exile. When the United Nations was being set up in London in late 1945, Lie, as the foreign minister of a fighting ally which was also well-regarded by the Soviet Union, was a useful candidate for high-level UN appointments that required Soviet approval.

The Secretary-General of the UN is nominated by the Security Council and appointed by all the member states in the General Assembly. Various glamorous candidates for the post had been mentioned in the press, including General Dwight Eisenhower, Lester Pearson of Canada, and Anthony Eden of Great Britain, but there was no possibility that the Soviets would agree to any of them. The Security Council nominated Lie as a compromise candidate in early 1946. During the process of Assembly approval, Edward Stettinius, the United States Secretary of State, rushed to my table in the Assembly hall and asked me to identify Lie, whose name he mispronounced to rhyme with ‘tie’ rather than ‘see.’ I pointed out the substantial figure of the Foreign Minister of Norway, and Stettinius then mounted the podium to acclaim Lie as an celebrated wartime leader, a household name, etc.

United Nations
Character Sketches: Trygve Lie

Some highlights from the career of Trygve Lie, the Norwegian politician and diplomat who served as the first elected Secretary-General of the United Nations.


Lie’s appointment as Secretary-General was an anti-climax – the first of many to be suffered by the new world organization. He was suited neither by temperament nor intellect to his very demanding new position, and from the beginning he seemed to be out of his depth in a complex and very public job. Lie relied more on what he called his ‘political nose’ than on intellectual effort or hard diplomatic work, and he was difficult to help or to work for. In public life at any rate, he was a suspicious and insecure man with a hair-trigger temper. He was sensitive about his new position without knowing quite what to make of it. He would leave a public event if he felt he had not been properly seated. At a dinner Gladwyn Jebb gave for Anthony Eden, Lie popped into the dining room before dinner and changed the place cards to give himself the place of honor.

1 January 1946 - Trygve Lie meets with Gladwyn Jebb, who was then the Executive Secretary of the United Nations. Prior to Lie becoming the first elected Secretary-General, Jebb served as Acting Secretary-General from October 1945 to February 1946.

In those early days, most governments were determined to keep the Secretary-General out of politics and to confine his work to administration. Lie did his best both to get the UN going and to work for political moderation and common sense, two qualities that were becoming increasingly rare among governments. Having put Lie in a new and extremely challenging job, the UN’s member governments did little or nothing to provide the qualified, top-level assistance that would have lightened his burden. The eight assistant secretaries-general were political appointees and, except for Arkady Sobolev of the Soviet Union, they were at best mediocre and at worst grotesque. Outstanding in the latter category was the US appointee ‘Potato Jack’ Hutson, whom the Department of Agriculture had evidently been delighted to get rid of. Lie, who met with this dismal crew once a week, was increasingly frustrated and disgusted, and he had every right to be.

Lie’s Secretary-Generalship was not without moments of farce, even of slapstick. In the summer of 1946, we went to Geneva for the final conferences of the League of Nations and the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the immense, American-led reconstruction operation that began to put the war-shattered world on its feet again. UNRRA was headed by Fiorello LaGuardia, the famously eccentric former mayor of New York City. In the ghastly Palais des Nations in Geneva, former home of the League of Nations, there is a small private elevator originally intended to take the president of the League of Nations Assembly to the podium of the Assembly Hall. On the way to the UNRRA meeting, Lie and LaGuardia, whose combined weight must have approached 500 pounds, both claimed this small and uncertain vehicle as their personal right. Neither would give way and, against all advice, they squeezed into it together. When the doors closed on the competitive statesmen, the elevator, instead of rising, descended slowly out of sight. In the stricken silence that followed, multilingual imprecations arose from the depths. Tweedledum and Tweedledee came to mind. A Swiss engineer was summoned, and the elevator was cranked up to its original position to release its disheveled cargo. The conference started late.

It was due to Lie and his good relations with New York Mayor William O’Dwyer, the Rockefeller family, and Robert Moses, the powerful New York City planner, that after wandering in the wilderness and being threatened with a number of totally unsuitable sites in the United States, the UN was finally settled in its magnificent permanent location on the East River in New York City. This was a major achievement, and Lie deserves all credit for it.

Lie and Herbert Evatt, the Australian foreign minister who was president of the UN General Assembly’s 1948 session, were intensely suspicious of each other. For the 1948 session in Paris, our offices were flimsy temporary structures erected for the occasion in the cavernous space of the Musée de l’Homme, looking across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. One day, after a shouting match in Evatt’s office, Lie emerged red in the face with rage and slammed Evatt’s door with all his strength. The walls of Evatt’s office then collapsed, leaving the two statesmen glaring at each other over the ruins. Bill Stoneman, a veteran war correspondent who had become Lie’s speechwriter, and I were overcome with laughter by this spectacle, which united Evatt and Lie in rebuking us for lack of respect.

By mutual consent, I left Lie’s office in 1950. I had strongly disagreed with his attitude to the Palestine problem, rightly or wrongly believing him to be seriously biased in favor of Israel. I also thought that some of the things he said and did at Headquarters were putting Ralph Bunche, who had become the UN Mediator in Palestine after Bernadotte’s assassination, at personal risk as well as undermining his work.

Since his resignation in 1952, Lie has often been judged and found wanting, but this is scarcely fair. He had been given one of the world’s most difficult jobs—a job to which he had neither aspired nor sought. He did not have all the qualifications or the charisma that would certainly have helped him, but then whom with such qualities could have been accepted by both East and West? The Soviets and the French, for example, as they would later demonstrate with Lie’s successor, Dag Hammarskjöld, had no wish to have a brilliant and charismatic leader in the Secretary-General’s chair.

Lie had political courage and conviction, and he certainly cared passionately about the United Nations. He fully backed the Security Council’s decision to fight the North Korean invasion of South Korea and thus earned excommunication by the Soviet Union. He got into difficulties in trying to deal with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt for American Communists in the UN secretariat, thereby earning the scorn of many of its members. Lie was not a good administrator—the ‘political nose’ did not function well in administration—but his major achievement was in the administrative field. It was due to Lie and his good relations with New York Mayor William O’Dwyer, the Rockefeller family, and Robert Moses, the powerful New York City planner, that after wandering in the wilderness and being threatened with a number of totally unsuitable sites in the United States, the UN was finally settled in its magnificent permanent location on the East River in New York City. This was a major achievement, and Lie deserves all credit for it.

Lie resigned in order, as he put it, to hand over to someone who had the support of all the member states. He was furious when that person turned out to be Dag Hammarskjöld, who was not only a Swede but also had gifts of intellect and character that Lie lacked. In his anger, Lie foolishly began to put it about that Hammarskjöld was homosexual. The only people who took this canard seriously were the FBI, prompted by Lie’s crony and UN security chief, Frank Begley. The FBI reported triumphantly to Washington that the new Secretary-General was living with his boyfriend in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria. The ‘boyfriend’ was Hammarskjöld’s chief assistant, Per Lind, a respected Swedish diplomat and father of four. When this report was referred to Walton Butterworth, the American ambassador in Stockholm, he commented that if the US government was capable of being taken in by such prurient nonsense, they didn’t deserve to get Hammarskjöld as Secretary-General. Lie’s performance outraged Lester Pearson, the foreign minister of Canada, and Gladwyn Jebb, the British ambassador, who told him that if he did not stop slandering his successor they would have to take public action. Lie’s malicious and baseless calumnies would dog Hammarskjöld at controversial points in his subsequent career.

This was an unworthy end to Lie’s time at the UN, and it tended to color subsequent estimates of his performance. He had done his best when the exigencies of the incipient Cold War placed him in an historic position at an historic time, but the UN lost much of its original spark through Lie’s haphazard appointment.

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