Trygve Halvdan Lie: The First Secretary-General of the United Nations

Trygve Lie was the first person to serve as the UN Secretary-General. He held the post from 1946 to 1952

The United Nations Secretary-General role is often believed to be one of the most challenging positions in the world due to the level of dexterity and dedication needed to properly execute the United Nations’ agenda in an environment that is rife with unprecedented global challenges. One such individual was Trygve Halvdan Lie, who proved people wrong as he lit the path and made history as the first Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In the article below, we’ll take an in-depth look at the life and accomplishments of one of Trygve Halvdan Lie, one of the finest Norwegian politicians in history.

How it all started

Although it might have been written in the stars that young Halvdan Lie would have a beautiful future, his childhood wasn’t as smooth sailing. He was born to Kristiania and Martin Lie on 16 July 1896. Unfortunately, young Lie had to be raised by his mother and sister since his father chose to abandon the family to seek greener pastures in the United States in 1902. Luckily, they gained some financial traction as his mother was able to set up a café and a boarding house.

Against all odds, Lie’s surged on to make his life worth living. He developed an interest in politics and quickly joined the Labour Party in 1911. Little did he know that that would set the precedent of an amazing career. He took some time off to attend the University of Oslo and graduated with a law degree in 1919. The Labour Party, impressed by Lie’s passion towards achieving the goals of the party, made Halvdan Lie its national secretary.

Aside from his role as national secretary, Halvdan Lie was also the editor-in-chief of ‘Det 20de Aarhundre’, a communiqué published by the Norwegian Labour Party. He held this role from 1919 to 1921. He also took on the role of a legal consultant for the Workers’ National Trade Union 1922 to 1935.

Halvdan Lie was also fortunate to chair the Norwegian Workers’ Confederation of Sports from 1931 to 1935. His reputation as an adept communicator and a strong leader paved the way for a successful career in international diplomacy.

Halvdan Lie’s journey in politics

Lie’s political career was never a shock to many as they witnessed his very promising journey. His first step on the road to a successful political career was when he became the legal advisor for the Workers’ National Trade Union from 1922 to 1935. During that time, he simultaneously held the position as a member of the executive committee of Aker municipality council, a position he held until 1931.

With the support of the Norwegians, the Labour Party came to power and Halvdan Lie was tapped to serve as the Minister of Justice in Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold’s government from 1935 to 1939.

Two years later, he won the election from Akershus to become a member of the Norwegian Parliament. He continued his political ascent, becoming the Minister of Trade in 1939 and served for 4 months. Later that year, he was appointed to the position of Minister of Provisioning and Reconstruction, where he served for about two years.

Lie was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1940 to 1946 and the Minister of Industry from 1963 to 1964

The invasion of Norway and Lie’s time in exile

Following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Norway, Halvdan Lie, as a member of the cabinet, fled to England with the King and other ministers. Lie was appointed acting foreign minister of the government while in exile and later became foreign minister. He was instrumental in ensuring that Norwegian ships and sailors continued to provide essential support to the Allied forces.

READ MORE: Timeline of Major Events during World War II

A new career in the United States

In April 1945, Halvdan Lie led the Norwegian delegation to San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization. He was the chairman of the commission that dealt with the draft articles of the United Nations Charter pertaining to the Security Council. The United Nations General Assembly met in London that winter, when Lie lost in a race for Assembly president to Paul-Henri Spaak of Belgium.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union considered Halvdan Lie as their second option for Secretary-General. On the United States’ suggestion, which was enthusiastically supported by the Soviets, Lie was approved by the Security Council and elected Secretary-General by the General Assembly in 1946.

Halvdan Lie was a slow-speaking and a clever politician with ideas for worldwide peace and respect among nations. The Norwegian diplomat had been propelled to the center of the world political scene. Despite his lack of sophistication in education and style, he brought to his job important administrative and labor-negotiating experience, as well as tenacity and a vision of what the United Nations could become.

Lie, a powerful politician rather than a skilled diplomat, imprinted his personality on the newly constituted office of Secretary-General. He held this position from 1946 to 1952.

Contributions of Halvdan Lie as Secretary-General

The United Nations was filled with East-West tension during Lie’s first term as secretary-general. As the world’s situation got even more dangerous, the secretary-general’s responsibilities grew. Therefore, Lie took firm positions on three subjects, each of which earned him the wrath of several permanent members of the Security Council. The issues were Chinese representation, a proposal for the general resolution of the Cold War, and UN military engagement in the Korean War.

The Chinese Representation

Quite a number of countries, including the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom (both permanent members of the Security Council), had acknowledged the People’s Republic of China by the year’s end in 1949. After the Soviet Union’s delegates to the United Nations failed in January 1950 to get a seat for People’s Republic delegates, they began boycotting UN meetings at which China was represented.

Lie attempted to break the stalemate by meeting secretly with negotiating delegations. He presented several pieces of evidence, including a decision by the International Court of Justice, to support the claim that a government’s lack of recognition by other states should not affect its ability to be represented at the United Nations.

Lie’s Extensive Peace Plan

It was during the first part of 1950 that Lie formed his astonishing initiative. He did this by writing to the UN Security Council on June 6, 1950, roughly two weeks before the start of the Korean War. Lie proposed new international infrastructure to manage atomic energy and check competitive manufacturing of lethal weapons and arms in his “Twenty-Year Program for Achieving Peace” through the United Nations. He also advocated for the creation of a UN force to prevent or suppress isolated outbursts of violence throughout the world.

The United Nations and the Korean War

Lie’s speech at the emergency meeting of the Security Council in 1950, was a great example of the Secretary-General speaking out and taking a stand on an issue. He called the North Korean forces clear aggressors because they had breached the peace enjoyed by all Koreans. He also said that the conflict was a threat to international peace and urged the Security Council to take action.

After the Council (without the Soviet delegate) imposed military sanctions on North Korea, Lie got member governments to support UN military interventions in Korea. These actions put him in direct conflict with the USSR, which accused him of blindly following Western imperialism and US aggression in Korea.

As the Korean conflict got worse after the People’s Republic of China got involved, Lie worked his socks off to get both sides to begin cease-fire talks. At the same time, he was fully behind the UN’s military intervention in Korea since he believed that Korea was under UN’s protection.

Trygve Halvdan Lie


The harassment of accused Communists of US nationality employed by the UN Secretariat in America caused Lie and his staff much distress. Disappointed by this, as well as the Soviet boycott, Lie concluded that leaving was in the best interests of the UN. In April 1953, he announced his resignation.

Lie returned to Norway, completed his memoirs, and resumed cabinet and diplomatic duties in the Norwegian government.

Trygve Lie announces his decision to step down from the top UN job in November 1952

Personal Life and Death

In 1921, he tied the knot with a woman called Hjørdis Jørgensen. He died from a heart attack in 1968. The 72-year-old top diplomat was survived by his three daughters: Mette, Guri, and Sissel.

Other Interesting Trygve Halvdan Lie Facts

  • During the Iran crisis of 1946, he campaigned for the evacuation of Soviet forces from Iran and a cease-fire in Kashmir.
  • During the Berlin Blockade (1948-1949), Lie was active in mediation efforts between Russia and the West. This was one of the Cold War’s first significant international crises.
  • His attempts to admit China to the UN and his opposition to the Soviet Union’s objection to Taiwan’s membership in the UN made him highly unpopular.
  • In 1966, Trygve Lie received Norway’s highest civilian honor, the ‘Medal for Outstanding Civic Service’.

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