Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

The first three United Nations Secretaries General played important roles in Israel’s history, the repercussions of which continue to this day, particularly with respect to the new Jewish State’s first three wars: Trygve Lie (1946-1952) in the War of Independence; Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961) in the Sinai Campaign; and U Thant (1961-1971) in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Original May 8, 1947, newspaper photograph of Lie’s meeting with Abba Hillel Silver.
Five days later, the UN created UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine.

As the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie (1896-1968) worked for the withdrawal of Soviet forces in Iran and a ceasefire in Kashmir. He attracted the ire of the Soviet Union when he helped gather support for the defense of South Korea after it was invaded (1950), and he later worked to end the Soviet boycott of UN meetings. While he opposed Spain’s entry into the UN because of his opposition to the Franco government, he sought UN recognition of Red China after the Nationalist government was exiled to Taiwan. He has been criticized for his failures to facilitate negotiation in the Berlin Blockade, as well as his failure to bring about a swifter end to the Korean War. Over Soviet objection, and with great American support, the UN General Assembly extended his term of office, but he resigned in November 1952 due to accusations by Joseph McCarthy of hiring “disloyal” Americans.

Letter to Lie from a Jew in a Displaced Persons Camp.

Lie led the Norwegian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco (1945) and was chairman of the commission drafting the Security Council provisions of the Charter before being elected as the first UN Secretary-General in February 1946. At that time, one of the leading issues before the UN was the “Palestine problem” and whether to establish a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael where Holocaust survivors could found their own state.

In the April 15, 1947, emotional correspondence exhibited here, a Jewish inmate in the Windshein Displacement Camp in the U.S. Occupied Zone in Germany asks Lie to transmit his request regarding Eretz Yisrael to the UN:

During the World War II I have had suffered in the German Nazi camps. There the Nazis killed before my eyes all of my dearest and nearest. The victory over Nazi Germany brought the liberation of all oppressed nations but for the Jewish people. 21 months after the victory I still am in a camp in Germany, among the murderers of my family.

The only refuge where I will be able to carry a normal and free life – is my old native country – Palestine.

From the deepness of my grievous and tortured soul I am applying to you, United Nations of the World, which has the task to bring freedom in the spirit of the Atlantic Charter as a result of the victory over the greatest tyranny in history:

Take me away from the camp, let me join my brothers and sisters in Palestine, give me the possibility to begin a peaceable and normal life in my own country.

Deeply affected by the Holocaust, Lie championed Eretz Yisrael as a place where Jewish survivors could go to create their national homeland, becoming even more dedicated to the establishment of Israel in the wake of the Exodus disaster. His passionate support for Israel was such that he passed secret military and diplomatic information to Israeli officials and held private meetings with the Jewish Agency. He went on to play an important role in the establishment of the State of Israel, and Zionist leaders affectionately referred to him as “Israel’s Godfather.”

Lie was bitterly criticized by Israel’s enemies for campaigning in favor of Israel’s position in the two seminal Middle Eastern issues before the UN during his tenure: the Partition Plan and Israel’s admission as a member state to the UN. In taking the lead on these issues, Lie elevated the role of the Secretary-General from “the chief administrative officer of the Organization,” as described in the original UN Charter, to that of an influential leader with the political authority to act autonomously in furtherance of the Charter and with respect to promoting the principles and goals of the world organization.

Lie’s passionate commitment to the Partition Plan recommended by UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) and the “two-state solution” offended the Middle Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, but he remained undeterred and, with his support and encouragement, the Partition Plan was adopted by the UN General Assembly (November 1947). When he received notice from the Egyptian Government on May 15, 1947, that Egyptian armed forces had entered Eretz Yisrael and that it has engaged in “armed intervention” there, he immediately wrote a powerful letter to the foreign secretaries of the Big Powers severely criticizing the hostilities as “illegal aggression”:

I consider it my duty, however, to emphasise [sic] to you that this is the first time since the adoption of the Charter that Member States have openly declared that they have engaged in armed intervention outside their own territory . . . A failure of the Security Council to act under these circumstances can only result in the most serious injury to the prestige of the United Nations and the hopes for its future effectiveness in keeping the peace elsewhere in the world. Moreover, it may undermine the progress already made by the Council in other security problems with which it is now dealing.

Later, in 1949, Lie did everything he could to facilitate Israel’s admission to the UN as a member state, including calling Ralph Bunche, the acting UN mediator, to urge him to make a public statement in favor of Israel’s admission, and attempting to leverage his Norwegian contacts to vote in Israel’s favor. This was a radically different approach from that of his successors, who believed that the admission of new member states to the world body was a question for the member states only; thus, for example, the UN Secretariat has adopted a “hands off” policy with respect to the question of whether “Palestine” should be admitted as a member state.

Lie considered the establishment of the State of Israel as perhaps his greatest achievement as Secretary-General, calling it “my child” and, even after his UN resignation in November 1952, he continued his interest in Israel’s welfare and his support for the Jewish state. He became the Governor of Oslo, and he held several prominent ministerial portfolios in Norway. One of his post-UN achievements was the establishment of United Nations headquarters in Turtle Bay overlooking the East River.

In the April 5, 1961, correspondence on his personal letterhead to Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Lie writes:

Lie’s correspondence to Jacob Baal-Teshuva regarding In the Cause of Peace.

In answer to your letter of March 31 I would refer you to my book “In the Cause of Peace”, which contains two chapters on the Palestine Crisis. If you could use any of these chapters, I am willing to let you have them.

I have not written anything else on Israel than what you can find in the above mentioned book.

Jacob Baal-Teshuva (b. 1929), a noted authority on Marc Chagall and one of the most distinguished international editors, appraisers, and critics of modern and contemporary art, served as the editor of The Mission of Israel, essentially a “bar mitzvah” homage to the State of Israel (1961) that included essays contributed by various well-known public figures across a broad spectrum of disciplines, including five heads of state, four prime ministers, and other distinguished figures, including Jonas Salk, Robert Oppenheimer, Arnold Toynbee and Martin Buber.

Some critics maintain – erroneously in my opinion – that Lie’s interests lay less in promoting Zionist ambitions than in demonstrating the UN’s potential in a conflict that, although seemingly intractable, was essentially a minor regional conflict that did not involve a conflict between the United States and Russia and where both great powers favored the Partition Plan.



Hammarskjöld stamps. (Top) Redonda; (Middle) U.S. 4-cent stamp; (Bottom) Congo.

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) was a Swedish economist – among other things, he is credited with coining the term “planned economy” – and diplomat before serving as the second UN Secretary-General beginning in April 1953 until his suspicious death in a plane crash in September 1961. Beyond dispute one of the most proactive Secretaries-General in history, his tenure was characterized by efforts to strengthen the UN and to expand the institution’s responsiveness to global developments.

Highlights of his UN term include involvement in the difficult birth of the new Republic of Congo when, in the face of fierce opposition by the Soviet Union, he sent UN peacekeeping forces to support the new republic against separatist forces and controversially exercised initiatives independent of the Security Council or the General Assembly; personally negotiating the release of 15 American soldiers captured by China (not then a UN member) during the Korean War; directing the establishment of the UN Observation Group in Lebanon and the UN Office in Jordan and negotiating the 1958 withdrawal of American and British troops from those countries; and working against white minority rule and apartheid in South Africa and generally to protect newly-born nations from the predatory aims of the Great Powers. His efforts in undertaking various major global diplomatic initiatives – most of which, ironically, failed – earned him the only posthumous Nobel Peace Prize.

Original January 29, 1956, newspaper photo of Hammarskjöld greeting Ben Gurion.

However, Hammarskjöld is viewed more favorably by history than he was in his own time, particularly with respect to his handling of the 1956 Israel-Egypt Sinai crisis, when he was justifiably denounced by many critics as being pro-Egyptian. When Israel invaded Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company, took over Sharm el Sheikh, and blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping to Eilat, Hammarskjöld quietly acknowledged that Egypt’s actions had precipitated the crisis, but he nonetheless blamed Israel for the situation. Following the utter failure of the UN to act – or even to condemn – the Arab attack against Israel on May 15, 1948, Hammarskjöld, rather than focusing on Egypt’s clear act of war, expended his every effort to nullify the defensive use of force by Israel, France and Great Britain. Worse, he condemned the Jewish State’s “disproportionate military responses” and its “intransigency,” which has remained, even to date, the UN’s standard bogus mischaracterization of Israel’s attempts to defend itself against terrorism and military aggression.

When the UN asked Hammarskjöld to take action to restore the Israel-Egypt armistice, he innovated the practice of “shuttle diplomacy” as he traveled back and forth between various Middle East capitals in an attempt to mediate the dispute and reduce the tensions. Although he generally considered proposals for an outside military response to be wrong in principle and folly in practice and rejected the very idea that the UN should attempt to impose solutions, he ultimately established and set in place UNEF, the United Nations Emergency Force, which became the foundation for all future UN peacekeeping operations. Ironically, although UNEF helped to resolve the Sinai crisis, both the Western powers and the Soviet Union criticized him at the time for overstepping the bounds of his office.

When the UNEF was created pursuant to the Good Faith Accord in mid-November 1956 after the Sinai War, Hammarskjöld met for several hours with Nasser, after which he prepared a Memorandum explicitly designed to serve as a reflection of the Egyptian president’s agreement and which would constitute the authoritative interpretation of the covenant underscoring the deployment of UNEF forces in the Sinai, which included language that:

The fact that Egypt has spontaneously endorsed the General Resolution of 5 November (1956) and by endorsing that resolution had consented to the presence of UNEF for certain tasks. They could not ask the UNEF to withdraw before the completion of the tasks without running up against their own acceptance of the resolution of the Force and its tasks.

Original December 3, 1957, newspaper photo of Hammarskjöld, on a peace mission to Jordan, Israel, and Syria, greeting Israeli officials at the Mandelbaum Gate. To the right is Walter Eytan, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Hammarskjöld had followed this up with a meeting with the Egyptian foreign minister, during which he made it unambiguously clear that “obviously, very few would find it reasonable that recognition of your freedom of action would mean that you, after having permitted the Force to come, might ask it to withdraw at a time when the very reasons which had previously prompted you to accept were still obviously valid.”

After Israel withdrew troops from the Sinai in reliance upon the UN’s promise that the UNEF would prevent Egypt from entering the Sinai Peninsula, Hammarskjöld (and UNEF commander-in-chief Maj. Gen. E.L.M. Burns) advised Israeli authorities in December 1956 that there was no way to prevent Egyptian forces from entering the Sinai, but he nonetheless continued to pressure Israel to withdraw its troops from additional territories – and, as discussed below, the UNEF would later run at the first breach of the Sinai border by the Egyptian army.



Original newspaper photograph of Thant meeting with Nasser in June 1967.

Born in Burma and a dedicated Buddhist, U Thant (1909-1974) was the first non-European UN Secretary-General, and his elevation in November 1961 to the highest UN executive position after Hammarskjöld’s death was one of the key indicators of the rising importance of Asian nations. Though he failed to bring peace to the Middle East – and, as described below, he played a singular role in actually causing war there – he was moderately successful at various times in restraining rival combatants elsewhere. For example, he is widely credited for his role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and for ending the civil war in the Congo.

A rare and interesting combination of original signatures: Thant as UN Secretary-General and Arthur Goldberg as American Ambassador to the United Nations.

During his time in office, Thant oversaw the entry into the UN of dozens of new Asian and African states, and he was a steadfast opponent of South African apartheid. He also established many of the UN’s development and environmental agencies, funds and programs, including the UN Development Program (UNDP), the UN University, UNCTAD, UNITAR, and the UN Environmental Program.

Thant’s once good relationship with the American government deteriorated rapidly when he publicly criticized its conduct of the Vietnam War. His secret attempts at direct peace talks between Washington and Hanoi in 1968 were eventually rejected by the Johnson Administration, but his diplomatic activity was a factor leading up to the president’s partial bombing halt and the subsequent start of the Paris Peace Talks.

United Nations cover franked by the UN Chagall windows stamp and commemorating Golda Meir’s meeting with Thant.

Thant’s feckless betrayal of Israel played a major role in its decision to undertake the military offensive that launched the Six-Day War. In May 1967, though Israeli military intelligence had only a few hours advance warning of the Soviet-inspired Egyptian move into Sinai, Israel expected that Nasser would, as in the past, order his army and tanks to withdraw after a show of force had “put Israel in its place.” Israel’s confidence changed, however, when, on May 13, 1967, Nasser demanded that Thant withdraw UNEF forces from the Sinai.

Pursuant to the conditions under which Israel had returned control of the Sinai to Egypt after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, UN forces were required to safeguard Israel against Egypt’s re-closing the Straits of Tiran or launching terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, Thant unilaterally and quickly complied with Nasser’s demand, although he did first fly to Cairo in a failed effort to dissuade the Egyptian president from blockading Israel. He refused all suggestions that he call an emergency meeting of the Security Council, on the grounds that the situation posed a threat to international peace and security – and, as a result of his unilateral action, no international forces remained between Egypt’s army in Sinai and Israel’s borders. Israel’s UN representative, Abba Eban, pithily referred to UN peacekeeping forces in Sinai as “a fire brigade which vanishes from the scene as soon as the first smoke and flames appear.”

In fact, the speed at which Thant complied with Nasser’s demand may have surprised even Nasser who, according to Nabil Elaraby, the first secretary of the UAR Mission to the UN, never actually demanded a full withdrawal but rather only sought, for political reasons, the redeployment of UN troops. The result was that even if Egypt had intended only its usual bluff, Nasser, having gone this far, could not lose face by pulling back from the brink. Immediately after Thant withdrew the 3,400 UN peacekeeping troops, Nasser increased Egyptian forces in the Sinai from 35,000 to 80,000.

Thant summarily rejected the agreement that had been negotiated by Hammarskjöld, pursuant to which Egypt could not ask the UNEF to withdraw before the completion of the tasks. He characterized it as “unofficial and lacking standing,” thereby placing at issue the viability of any UN agreement before or since – and he made sure to blame the fiasco on Israel for its refusal to permit UN troops on its side of the border with Egypt. The June 6, 1967, headline of London’s Spectator appropriately characterized the 1967 Israel-Egypt war as “U Thant’s War” and, with good reason, Israel could never again rely on UN guarantees – although, sadly, it often has, invariably to its detriment – and most critics view the UNEF withdrawal and Thant’s cowardice as one of the UN’s greatest disasters.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].