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How the first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie was (s)elected

After watching yesterday’s first round of public hearings of candidates for Secretary-General of the United Nations – see my blog post – I was wondering how the first Secretary-General was (s)elected. As it happens, I currently have the memoirs of all former UN Secretaries-General in my office (see picture) as we are going through them for our research project, so I took a look.


The first UN Secretary General was Trygve Lie from Norway. The first chapter of his memoirs, “In the Cause of Peace” (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1954),  is, conveniently, titled “How I became Secretary-General“, so that’s an easy catch.

The chapter starts explaining how Lie lost the election to become the first president of the General Assembly (to Henry Spaak), which was actually the basis for Lie to become one of the potential candidates for UN Secretary-General. And here is how it started back then – clearly not a public hearing:

“During the days that followed the opening of the Assembly session, the consultations  about the post of Secretary-General became increasingly active. My name continued to crop up in newspaper speculation, but the first approach to me occurred at an American Delegation reception. Two Australian Delegates … Colonel W.R.Hodgson, then Australian minister to France, and Norman J.O. Makin, the Minister for Navy, intimated that the Australian Minister for External Affairs, Herbert V. Evatt, had instructed them to put forward my name.” (pp. 13-14)

The story continues with Trie’s reflections on the offer, further approaches from other countries such as India, New Zealand, and, via intermediaries, also from the United Nations. According to the memoir, the US had Trie as their number two preference after the Canadian Lester B. Pearson (who however would not get the support from the Soviet Union).

The semi-official list of candidates was known to the Norwegian Delegation by 25 January 1946, just days before the official nomination:

“[T]he names of Messrs. Pearson and [Stanoje] Simic [of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union candidate, RP], Foreign Ministers Eelco van Kleffens of the Netherlands and Wincenty Rzymowski of Poland, Henri Bonnet of France and Trygve Lie were under consideration in the negotiations among the eleven members of the Security Council.” (pp. 15-16)

As all other candidates were eliminated due to political considerations (such as no candidate from one of the permanent Security Council members and other geopolitical considerations), Trie emerged as the only viable candidate. Formally proposed on 28 January at a meeting of the “Big Five”, it took one day until all were on board, with the British resisting the longest (p. 16).

“I received a cable in Oslo asking if I would accept the nomination and requesting a reply to the Council president, Mr. Makin, at my earliest convenience. Under the circumstance I could hardly refuse. On February 1 the General Assembly met and appointed me, by a vote of 46 to 3, as the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. I was sworn in the following day.” (p. 17)

That’s it. Pretty much 70 years ago, this is how the first Secretary-General was (s)elected, at least this is how he perceived and got to know the story.

The ongoing process with public hearings looks pretty different from that procedure, but I guess the final choice of a viable candidate will be not less opaque, although probably more complex as the Big Five and the majority in the General Assembly will fight out the game over who actually (s)elects the UN’s Secretary-General and whether the transparent process or the opaque power game will win.

Read also the follow-up post: (S)electing the next Secretary-General of the United Nation: similar to the EU’s Spitzenkandidaten-process?

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