Biography and History

The legacy of David Abner Morse, who died on December 1, 1990 at the age of 83, was global. As Director-General of the ILO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, for an unprecedented 22 years, he dedicated himself to improving the lot of workers throughout the world. A man of high ideals and exceptional acumen, he upheld the universality of workers' socioeconomic rights amid the conflicting claims of communist and noncommunist systems and have and have-not nations. In 1969 he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the ILO, a recognition of the organization's contribution to international harmony and prosperity under his leadership.

For Javier Perez de Cuellar, Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1982 to 1991, “Flair for leadership and diplomacy, dynamism, charm, dignity -- these were among his many radiant qualities. But above them all was the compassion and the care for the vulnerable of the earth, and the love of social justice which inspired all his endeavours.” For George Shultz, Secretary of Labor in the Nixon administration and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, Morse possessed an innate, instinctive understanding of the need for standards of behavior. “He saw the human side of enterprise…. He stood, it seemed to me, always for a blend of power and principle, not simply interest and power, but principle and power.”

Morse, the son of immigrants Morris Moscovitz and Sara Werblin, was born in New York on May 31, 1907. He grew up in Somerville, New Jersey and attended Rutgers University, graduating in 1929. Deciding on a legal career, he studied law at Harvard University and was admitted to the New Jersey Bar in 1933. In 1937 he married Mildred E. Hockstader, daughter of Leonard Hockstader and Aline Straus and granddaughter of Oscar Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor in Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet. The union, which spanned 53 years, could not have been happier.

Morse's interest in and commitment to the public welfare in general and labor concerns in particular were evidenced by his involvement in the New Deal of the Roosevelt administration. Between 1933 and 1939 he held a number of governmental posts, including Chief Counsel for the Petroleum Labor Policy Board of the Department of Interior, Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the United States, and Regional Attorney for the Second Region of the National Labor Relations Board. The objectivity he would be called on to exhibit as head of the ILO was apparent in his appointment in 1941 as Impartial Chairman of the milk industry of metropolitan New York. On leaving the public service, Morse became a named partner in the law firm of Coult, Satz, Tomlinson, and Morse. He also found time to lecture on labor relations, labor law, and administrative law at various educational institutions.

Shortly after the United States entered the Second World War, Morse joined the Army. From 1943 to 1944 he served as head of the Labor Division of the Allied Military Government in Sicily and Italy, where he formulated and implemented labor policies and programs for the American and British liberators. He filled a similar role from 1944 to 1945 as head of the Manpower Division of the United States Group Control Council for Germany. One of his tasks was to work with representatives of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States to harmonize their approach to labor matters in occupied Germany, an involvement which undoubtedly helped to prepare him for his work at the ILO. At the war's end, he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel and, in 1946, was awarded the Legion of Merit.

On his return to the United States, Morse re-entered civilian life as General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, a post he held from 1945 to 1946 when President Harry Truman named him Assistant Secretary of Labor. In this capacity, he focused his attention on the creation of the Department's Program of International Affairs. Named Under Secretary of Labor in 1947, he briefly filled the position of Acting Secretary on the death of Lewis Schwellenbach in 1948.

It was in this year, too, that Morse embarked on the most significant phase of his career, that of Director-General of the ILO. He was no stranger to this organization, having represented the government of the United States as a member of its Governing Body and as a delegate to its annual International Labor Conference. His election to the post of Director-General, which entailed a move to Geneva, brought with it many challenges. It is a measure of his success in facing them that the ILO changed the regulations which would have limited his tenure to a single ten-year term, renewable for three years, to allow for his re-election, which occurred in 1957, 1962, and 1967. (In 1961, he resigned but was persuaded to reconsider.)

Morse brought to his new position a broad and vigorous vision of the potentiality of his office and the ILO as a whole. He exercised a leadership which was at once impartial and engaged and which incorporated three fundamental principles: the need for socioeconomic reform, the importance of the rule of law, and integrity. Integrity was a quality he demanded of everyone who worked with him, and he was equally protective of the integrity of the ILO, deftly resisting political pressure, whether it stemmed from the rivalries of the superpowers or the process of decolonization. As an American, he was particularly vulnerable to the animus of McCarthyism, but he weathered this storm with firmness and dignity.

According to Gullmar Bergenstrom, Vice Chairman of the Governing Body from 1969 to 1979, “Morse was both Director and General. As Director [he was] a most skillful administrator. He appointed the right people to the various top posts in the Office, which was, of course, a policy decision of highest importance. As General he aggressively defended the ILO's sphere of competence against various young mushrooming and sometimes self-propelling agencies with ambitions to encroach on the ILO field.” There was a manifest need for each of these functions. The organization Morse inherited was a product of the Treaty of Versailles, and, amid the burgeoning international bodies of the time, its relevance was under threat. He immediately set out to revitalize the ILO along three lines.

First, Morse believed that the ILO could not be a static entity but, rather, would have to adapt to new circumstances if it was to be an effective force for good in the world. He therefore expanded its sights and its reach beyond its traditional role as a setter of international labor standards. Under his leadership, sweeping organizational changes took place. The membership of the ILO grew from 52 to 121 nations, giving it a universal character. Its staff increased fivefold, from some 600 to some 3000 men and women of diverse nationality. Its annual budget rose from about $4,000,000 to about $60,000,000. Morse laid the foundation for a new headquarters and established an extensive network of field offices. The educational activities of the ILO were given a new impetus with the establishment of the International Institute for Labour Studies in Geneva and the International Centre for Advanced Technical and Vocational Training in Turin.

Second, Morse believed that the ILO had a global commitment to build peace, and that orderly socioeconomic change within countries was a prerequisite for peace between countries. Whether the issue was a labor dispute in the ILO itself, the credibility of the labor movement in the Soviet Union, or apartheid in South Africa, Morse maintained that the best way to achieve change was to effect it through existing socioeconomic institutions within the rule of law. He insisted, too, that the ILO's contribution to peace building be truly tripartite, involving workers, governments, and employers in a common quest for a more just world. Morse's commitment to this principle was nowhere more evident than in his position on the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize, a personal tribute as much as an organizational one. Francis Wolf, Legal Advisor of the ILO from 1963 to 1987, was instructed to contact the Nobel Committee of the Norwegian Parliament to request that the award be given solely to the ILO lest individual accomplishments overshadow tripartite ones. Accordingly, on December 10, 1969, Morse accepted the Nobel Peace Prize “On behalf of all our constituents, governments as well as employers and workers of our 121 member States, on behalf of all my staff, and in tribute to all those who in the past have faithfully served our Organisation.”

Third, Morse believed that symbolism, however potent, was no substitute for action. He won a reputation as a “practical idealist” as he initiated new forms of technical assistance to enable countries to meet the standards and abide by the principles espoused by the ILO. Underdevelopment and the poverty which betokened it became a major preoccupation for him, though in focusing on the myriad needs of the developing world, he did not neglect the problems confronting industrialized societies. Among the issues Morse addressed through new programs and emphases were labor-management relations, workers' education, management development, supervisory training, manpower planning and employment creation, rural development, and promotion of small-scale industries. The World Employment Programme, launched in 1969, was one of Morse's principal legacies. It sought to raise the employment level and, thus, the quality of life of millions of marginalized men and women through such measures as stemming the migration of populations from rural to urban areas. When Morse relinquished his post as Director-General in 1970, the ILO, once a frail survivor of the discredited League of Nations, could take satisfaction in a new vitality and a new prominence.

Morse did not rest on his laurels upon his return to the United States. He took up the practice of international law in New York and Washington, D. C., assuming a leading role in his firm, which grew considerably in the years which followed. His concern for the welfare of the global community did not abate. He served as an advisor to the United Nations Development Programme, chairing its Advisory Panel on Programme Policy, and was active in such organizations as the World Rehabilitation Fund, the United Nations Association of the United States of America, and the Council on Foreign Relations. His contribution to these and other bodies was highly valued. As David Rockefeller, Honorary Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in 1994, “He was a man of extraordinary quality and distinction who devoted the major part of his life to public service…. David was an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations for some 30 years, and to many here and around the world, he was a staunch and trusted friend.”

Morse's life was crowned with many achievements, and the list of honors he acquired is long. In addition to holding a number of honorary doctorates, he was decorated by countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. France made him a Grand Officer of the French Legion of Honor, the highest decoration a foreign national can receive. He also received the Meritorious Public Service Award of the Sidney Hillman Foundation and the Human Rights Award of the International League for the Rights of Man.

What Morse did in life was very much a reflection of whom he was, and it is perhaps in the realm of intangibles that he left his most enduring mark. According to Francis Blanchard, Director-General of the ILO from 1974 to 1989, “David Morse was such a remarkably successful leader because he was such a remarkable human being. His warm personality and great personal charm had an almost magic effect on all with whom he came into contact…. Those of us who worked with him in the International Labour Office remember with admiration, respect and affection how deeply he influenced our work and our lives.”

Source: From the finding aid for MC097

  • David A. Morse Papers. 1895-2003 (inclusive), 1942-1990 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC097

    The David A. Morse Papers document the life and times of David Abner Morse (1907-1990), American lawyer, soldier, and public official. While he distinguished himself in legal, military, and governmental circles, the most fruitful years of his life were spent at the helm of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the oldest member of the United Nations' family of specialized agencies. As Director-General of the International Labour Office in Geneva from 1948 to 1970, Morse guided the increasingly complex activities of this tripartite organization, which unites in one body the representatives of workers, governments, and employers. No one has had a longer tenure as its head, and no one has presided over such far-reaching changes in its composition and orientation. Drawing on a variety of experiences in the field of domestic and international labor, including appointments as Assistant, Under, and Acting Secretary of Labor in the Truman administration, Morse gave practical meaning in a postwar context to the ILO's underlying philosophy, namely, that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice." The pursuit of this object won for the ILO the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. The David Morse Papers contain correspondence, reports, memoranda, photographs, and newspaper clippings that document this long, productive career.