Alister McIntosh and John Beaglehole: NZIIA pals: Ken Ross outlines the relationship of two giants in their field.

AuthorRoss, Ken
PositionNew Zealand Institute of International Affairs

John Beaglehole (1901-71) was a world-class scholar on Captain James Cook, the first English explorer of New Zealand. Alister McIntosh (1906-78) is most known for his 23 years establishing the high-quality foreign service that New Zealand had until about a decade ago.

Each contributed much more to public life in New Zealand --often they did so together. The New Zealand Institute of International Affairs was in the forefront of their habitats--they were present when the first New Zealand branch was set up in 1934 and they contributed much to its initial liveliness. In 1938 McIntosh, along with Guy Powles and Bill Sutch, largely wrote Contemporary New Zealand--the book-length NZIIA statement for the second Commonwealth Relations Conference held in Sydney that year. Beaglehole assisted.

In retirement McIntosh rarely forayed into public life, but when he did the NZIIA was his most often likely platform. His scene-setting chapter in the first of the institutes quartet of surveys has his shrewd insights. (1) His considerable Commonwealth engagement prior to the 1965 selection of the organisation's first secretary-general is covered in The Commonwealth: its past, present and future (1973), an NZIIA publication. (2) In 1978 he gave his only-ever radio talk. (3) The best understanding of Peter Fraser's prime ministership is McIntosh's 'Working with Peter Fraser in Wartime'. (4) But, all this was done without the joy of engaging with Beaglehole, who had died a year after McIntosh came home from his Rome ambassadorship in 1970.

The high peak of the pair marching together for the institute was enabling the NZIIA's most important event--the twelve-day Sixth Commonwealth Relations Conference in Palmerston North in January 1959. (5) Among the 56 attendees were two future prime ministers--Gough Whidam (Australia 1972-75) and James Callaghan (Britain 1976-79)--as well as a recent prime minister, Garfield Todd (Southern Rhodesia 1956-58).

Beaglehole, the institute's national president, chaired the conference. He had been heavily involved in the planning, with McIntosh, who secured the government's support to make the event a success. Walter Nash, who had been a founding member of the NZIIA a quarter-century earlier, had become prime minister in December 1957. He gave the conference's opening and closing addresses. McIntosh was responsible for crafting the former. (6) Gerald Hensley's initial task as a newcomer at External Affairs was to prepare the first draft. His account of the task is a wonderful insight into the world of diplomacy, speech-writing, and most of all knowing who is to speak one's words--he is saved by McIntosh, who when presented with Hensley's first effort, gathers up his stenographer and shows his newbie how Nash likes to speak and half-way through stops dictating, informing Hensley to complete the remainder. (7)

Deep friendship

The McIntosh papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library and Tim Beaglehole's two tributes to his father--A life of J. C. Beaglehole: New Zealand scholar (2006) and 'I think I am becoming a New Zealander': the letters of J.C. Beaglehole (2013)--are the principal resources for this introduction to the McIntosh-Beaglehole friendship. (8) Tim Beaglehole makes no reference to the McIntosh papers, where there is much valuable correspondence between John Beaglehole and McIntosh. That is not entirely Tim's fault --McIntosh's papers at the Turnbull have no folder labelled John Beaglehole. The pair's correspondence is spread around numerous folders, none of which have titles that trigger expectations of finding Beaglehole treasures within them. (9)

A more comprehensive appreciation of the pair's deep friendship is a couple of years away. Access to Janet Paul's papers at the Turnbull in 2020 will enable researchers to read the 'over 500 letters' John Beaglehole wrote to Paul, his confidant for three decades. (10) Expectations have to be high that there will be a bountiful McIntosh haul: there are 39 letters to Paul in Tim Beaglehole's 2013 edit of his father's correspondence but none mention McIntosh. But among the 39, such as Beaglehole's new snippets on John Mulgan's ANZAC Day 1945 suicide in Cairo, are indications that there is much to discover in Beaglehole's letters to Janet Paul that will illuminate McIntosh's personality and accomplishments." Paul knew McIntosh well from the war years--first meeting him when she worked with Beaglehole on the Centennial Publications project at the Department of Internal Affairs.

McIntosh and Beaglehole first met in 1925. McIntosh was in his first year as a part-time undergraduate at Victoria University College. Beaglehole was one of his history tutors but departed Wellington that August for his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics. He re-emerged in Wellington in the early 1930s seeking work. In November 1932, in his keenness to get a reasonable stint in Wellington, Beaglehole wrote to the General Assembly Library's chief librarian 'I suppose there is no likelihood of any humble situation being vacant in the Parliamentary Library, temporarily filling McIntosh's shoes or something like that?' Beaglehole explained that his employment at Auckland University was about to end, and he knew...

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