Geoffrey Cox--New Zealand diplomat: Ken Ross reflects on the brief diplomatic career of one of New Zealand's most distinguished expatriates.

AuthorRoss, Ken

When he saw that there was real work to be done in Washington, he accepted the offer of appointment of First Secretary and went there. I do not know of any better choice. (Peter Fraser, June 1943) (1)

When he became a fighting man he did not stop being a writing man. (Arthur Christiansen, 1941) (2)

Geoffrey Cox became a New Zealand diplomat ten months ahead of the Department of External Affairs' birth in June 1943. General Freyberg's senior intelligence officer in 2 New Zealand Division, he left North Africa to be the deputy in the new legation in Washington. He was unaware that he was a pawn in a Wellington power struggle: he had never worked in Wellington and likely had visited there only once, for his Rhodes Scholar interview in October 1931.

Walter Nash, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, was already in Washington as the resident head of the legation. Nash had wanted Carl Berendsen or Alister McIntosh to be his deputy at the legation. At the time, Berendsen wanted out of Wellington as his political master --Prime Minister Peter Fraser--was driving him crazy: in early 1943 he went to Canberra, establishing the New Zealand High Commission there. McIntosh bureaucratically swerved past Nash by securing him Cox.

Cox was tempted--bored with the then quiet battle front. He appreciated, too, that Freyberg was already showing signs he wanted Paddy Costello to take over the division's intelligence 'baton' from Cox. Moving to Washington enabled Cox to reunite with wife Cecily and their two sons. In their seven years of marriage the Coxes had had no settled period together while he dashed from war zone to war zone for the News Chronicle and then the Daily Express. The Cox family had eighteen months together in Washington; his family remained there until the war ended.

Cox's various memoirs describe his career in the British media over four decades and his deft footprint in Freyberg's war-time intelligence team. Reflections of his 21 months as a New Zealand diplomat are nowhere in these books, beyond a bland 150-word statement that he had served in Washington, representing New Zealand eight times at meetings of the Pacific War Council, which President Roosevelt chaired. The Guardian's obituarist for Cox had it right--his time in Washington was 'a curious episode'. (3)

Before Cox departed Freyberg for Washington he was already having second thoughts that he was about to do what others wanted of him and not what he had set out to do when he joined 2 New Zealand Division two years earlier--to fight the Nazis. In early June 1941, Cox had rebuffed Peter Fraser, when the prime minister was in Cairo in the days immediately after the division's evacuation from Crete. Fraser told Cox he wanted him to revamp the division's public relations effort so New Zealanders would be better informed that their military were up to the task of fighting Hitler. Fraser had been impressed by Cox's three articles that had appeared in the London Daily Express, in which Cox had described the just concluded Battle of Crete--his old editor, Arthur Christiansen, was to praise them as a 'perfect example of good craftsmanship', adding that 'more literary folk put it [the three articles] up in the Hemingway class'. (4) As Cox tells it, he pushed back to Fraser saying he had joined the war effort to fight, not write. Fraser meeting Cox for the first-time respected this perspective, but Berendsen, then Fraser's top official, was present and did not: Cox has Berendsen angry with him for disobeying a prime ministerial 'order'. (5) After cogitating for a fortnight, Cox handed over a report that became the basis for meeting Fraser's concern.

Gerald Hensley has best covered Cox's time in Washington when he laid out in Beyond the Battlefield (2009) the larger landscape there then. (6) He gives us a score-board of Cox's effectiveness, and personal enjoyment, when Nash was away--illustrated by Cox's blocking the Australian deputy prime minister, H.V. Evatt, from 'stealing' two squadrons...

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