The Secretary-Generals of the United Nations are seen as the driving force behind the organisation. The Secretary-Generals have invariably come from nations that are not seen as being dominant in the world.
Trygve Lie (1896 – 1968)
Trygve Lie was the United Nations first Secretary-General. He was born in Oslo, Norway, and started his professional career as a lawyer. He entered the Norwegian parliament and served in it from 1935 to 1946. During the war, he was in exile in Britain and served as Norway’s Foreign Minister.
In 1946, he was appointed Secretary-General. Lie was known to be an internationalist and this was in his favour when the UN came to appointing its first Secretary-General. Lie was an advocate of Communist China joining the UN in preference to the Republic of China (Taiwan). However, in this he was unsuccessful.
In 1950, Lie presented to the UN his plan for twenty years of peace in the world. Within weeks, the Korean war broke out which involved a major UN commitment. Russia accused Lie of being too hasty in gathering together a military force to remove North Korea from the South. As Russia was one of the ‘Big Five’ in the Security Council, this was a major blow to Lie and without Russia’s support as Secretary-General, he resigned from his position in 1953.
After leaving the UN, Lie returned to Norwegian politics.
Dag Hammerskjöld (1905 – 1961)
Dag Hammerskjöld was the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was born in Sweden and became a Professor of Economics at Stockholm University between 1933 and 1936. After this he entered politics and became Deputy Foreign Minister for Sweden in 1951. In April 1953, he succeeded Trygve Lie as Secretary-General of the United Nations. Hammerskjöld was re-elected to this position in 1957.
He had to take the UN through such problems as the Suez Crisis when two major UN powers (France and Britain) invaded the Suez thus breaking international law. It was not the UN that resolved the issue but American pressure.
The Congo crisis resulted in the UN being accused of taking sides and using force to impose its authority. The leadership of Hammerskjöld angered Russia led by Nikita Khrushchev; in fact, Khrushchev called on Hammerskjöld to be removed from office.
In an effort to bring long term peace to the Congo, Hammerskjöld went to Africa to meet the leading protagonists. He was killed in a plane crash near Ndola on the borders of Zambia. Hammerskjöld was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.
U Thant (1909 – 1974)
U Thant was the UN’s third Secretary-General. He started his professional career as a teacher and became a head teacher. In 1948, he entered the Burmese diplomatic service and joined the UN in 1957. When Hammerskjöld was killed in 1961, U Thant replaced him as acting Secretary-General. He was appointed full Secretary-General in November 1962. One of his first tasks was to deal with the Congo crisis and to influence the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis. U Thant introduced a UN peace keeping force for Cyprus in 1964 and he also had to assert some influence in the Middle East Crisis after the Six Days War of 1967. U Thant resigned in 1971 and was succeeded by Kurt Waldheim.