Trygve Lie had not yet been in office three months when he took the initiative of advising the Security Council on the Secretariat's interpretation of the Charter. The Council was considering its first case, the Iranian complaint against the USSR. The secretary-general delivered a legal opinion that differed sharply from that of the Security Council. The Council did not accept his interpretation, but it upheld his right to present his views. After setting this precedent, Lie submitted legal opinions on other matters.
During Lie's first term as secretary-general, East-West tension charged the UN atmosphere. As the world situation became increasingly threatening, the political role of the secretary-general expanded. Lie took definite stands on three issues, each of which earned him the dislike of some permanent members of the Security Council. The issues were Chinese representation, a plan for the general settlement of the cold war, and UN military action in the Korean War.
Chinese Representation. By the end of 1949, a number of states, including the USSR and the United Kingdom—permanent members of the Security Council—had recognized the mainland government, the People's Republic of China. In January 1950, the USSR representatives, having failed to obtain the seating of the representatives of the People's Republic, began boycotting UN meetings at which China was represented by delegates of the Republic of China, based on Taiwan. In private meetings with delegations, Lie tried to solve the impasse. He adduced various reasons, including a ruling of the International Court of Justice, for the thesis that nonrecognition of a government by other governments should not determine its representation in the UN.
Trygve Lie's Twenty-Year Peace Plan. Lie developed an extraordinary initiative during the first half of 1950. In a letter to the Security Council dated 6 June 1950, approximately two weeks before the outbreak of the Korean War, he said: "I felt it my duty to suggest a fresh start to be made towards eventual peaceful solution of outstanding problems." In his Twenty-Year Program for Achieving Peace Through the United Nations, Lie proposed new international machinery to control atomic energy and check the competitive production of armaments and also proposed the establishment of a UN force to prevent or stop localized outbreaks of violence.
Armed with these proposals and other memoranda, including the one on Chinese representation, Lie journeyed first to Washington, then to London, to Paris, and finally to Moscow. He held conversations not only with foreign ministers and high-ranking diplomats but also with US President Harry S Truman, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, French President Vincent Auriol, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Lie's reception was cordial in Moscow, warm in Paris, and friendly in London, but cool in Washington.
The international picture changed abruptly, however, with the outbreak of the Korean War. The attitude of a number of governments toward Lie changed dramatically as well.
The Korean War. An outstanding example of a secretary-general taking a stand on an issue was Lie's intervention in the emergency meeting of the Security Council on 24 June 1950. He unequivocally labeled the North Korean forces aggressors because they had crossed the 38th parallel, declared that the conflict constituted a threat to international peace, and urged that the Security Council had a "clear duty" to act. After the Council (in the absence of the Soviet delegate) had set in motion military sanctions against North Korea, Lie endorsed this course of action and rallied support from member governments for UN military action in Korea. These moves brought him into sharp conflict with the USSR, which accused him of "slavish obedience to Western imperialism" and to the "aggression" that, in the Soviet view, the US had committed in Korea.
As the Korean conflict grew more ominous with the intervention of the People's Republic of China, Lie played an active role in getting cease-fire negotiations underway in the field. At the same time, he fully identified himself with military intervention in Korea on behalf of the UN.
Extension of Lie's Term as Secretary-General. Lie's first term as secretary-general was to expire on 31 January 1951. In the Security Council, the USSR vetoed a resolution recommending him for a second term and subsequently announced that it would accept anyone other than Lie who was acceptable to the other members of the Council. The US announced that it would veto anyone but Lie. The Council was unable to recommend a candidate for the office of secretary-general to the General Assembly, a situation unforeseen in the Charter. A resolution in the Assembly to extend Lie's term by three years, beginning on 1 February 1951, was carried by 46 votes to 5, with 8 abstentions. The negative votes were cast by the Soviet bloc.
The USSR maintained normal relations with Lie until the expiration of his original term on 31 January 1951. Thereafter, it stood by its previous announcement that the extension of the term was illegal and that it would "not consider him as secretary-general." By the fall of 1951, however, its nonrecognition policy toward Lie subsided. However, other complications were facing Lie, and on 10 November 1952, he tendered his resignation to the General Assembly.