Tom Larkin: A special time and special people

Undiplomatic Dialogue: Letters between Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh, 1943-52
Ian McGibbon (ed),
Auckland University Press in Association with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, $29.95

When Sir Carl Berendsen died in 1973 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about him of striking inadequacy. So far as I remember it, it recorded well enough the salient details of his career, from his appointment as imperial affairs officer in the Prime Minister’s Department in 1926, his elevation to head of the department in 1935, his appointment as secretary to the War Cabinet in 1939 and his service abroad for a year as High Commissioner in Canberra and later for eight years as Minister and Ambassador in Washington. It paid routine tribute to his work in those capacities and as New Zealand’s representative at the United Nations. But it did not establish how significant, dominant and vibrant a figure he was.

In the thirties, at a time when New Zealand had no diplomatic service and no independent sources of information on international affairs, he did much, along lines admired then and since, to shape New Zealand’s response to the problems besetting the League of Nations as the democracies faltered before demands and aggression from dictatorships in Germany and Italy.

In the forties, following the creation of the Department of External Affairs in 1943, he was New Zealand’s principal representative abroad, offering clearcut advice on the great issues of the day and then, when New Zealand policy had been determined, articulating it in speeches that abounded with wit, rhetoric, scorn, persuasiveness and power.

Berendsen might well have regarded his pallid obituary as yet another of the slights that throughout his career abroad he came to feel were levelled against him by what he termed derisively ‘that amorphous thing, Wellington’. Berendsen knew as well as any that he himself had come from ‘Wellington’, that he had been appointed by ‘Wellington’ and that over the years he was well and loyally served, in Washington and New York, by a stream of able officers from ‘Wellington’. Yet as each year passed he came to see ‘Wellington’ as the source of forces hostile to him, as a centre of wrong thinking, as the architect of his grievances over superannuation and other matters (there were more than 50) and as the unresponsive and unfeeling recipient of his complaints.

Berendsen’s animadversions against Wellington were never fully assuaged. Shortly before leaving Washington he wrote that he and his wife were closing their service abroad ‘with a sense of bitter resentment and indignation at obvious and demonstrable injustices’. And in his retirement he complained to the end that no effort was made at home to consult him or to use his talents.

Since Berendsen’s death there have been a few efforts to assess his work, to pay tribute to his talents and to identify those aspects of his personality that made him so memorable. Within today’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade there is a rich store of anecdotes about him. There have been one or two essays in historical journals which illuminate accounts of his activities abroad with examples of his wit and wisdom. But the audience for these is small. Berendsen’s own autobiography, Reminiscences of an Ambassador, is flawed and has never been published. Undiplomatic Dialogue is the first publication which provides the public at large with the means of forming a wider understanding and appreciation of him.

It is likely to do the same for Alister McIntosh who in the thirties worked under Berendsen in the Prime Minister’s Department and in 1943 become the first head of the Department of External Affairs and therefore Berendsen’s boss.

The letters will also be without counterpart for the light they throw on little-known aspects of a crucial period in the formation of New Zealand foreign policy.

Undiplomatic Dialogue is a selection (less than a quarter) of correspondence between the two men, which began when Berendsen left for Canberra in 1943 and ended in January 1952 when he signed off in Washington. They constitute a long debate, continued year after year, over the great questions of the time.

How was international security to be organised in the postwar world? Could the United Nations, shackled by the requirement for unanimity among the permanent members of the Security Council, ever provide the system for collective action which New Zealand, under Berendsen’s urging, had pressed in the League of Nations and still sought? What was to be done in the face of Communist expansion and what were the true intentions of the Soviet Union in the world at large?

Policy decisions on these questions were basic to the alignment New Zealand chose for itself and to the role it sought to play. In addition, there was a host of problems affecting New Zealand more narrowly ‑ the organisation and staffing of the fledgling Department of External Affairs, representation abroad, the reshaping of relations with Britain in the light of the dominant influence and importance of the United States, the pursuit of closer ties with an erratic Australia, the Palestine issue, the Korean War, the peace treaty with Japan, security in the Pacific, trusteeship questions and so on and on.

On all these issues Berendsen had much to say. He was never short of a viewpoint, even on matters on which he would concede ‘it’s none of my business’ and he was full of disbelief in situations when, in the face of strongly argued recommendations for which he invoked the support of ‘everybody here’ and of ‘all right-thinking people’, McIntosh or Wellington might fail to agree.

In his assessment of Soviet intentions as directed to malign ends, including chaos abroad, he remained constant. He saw the world as confronted with a choice between the secret ballot and the secret police and he regarded American efforts to organise resistance through ‘infinite patience and complete firmness’ as the only prescription for the world’s ills.

Initially at least, McIntosh saw the situation in less stark terms and for a long time the difference of approach remained a sore spot between them.

It was not the only one. The correspondence is the work of men under pressure. Both were frequently ill and McIntosh complained often that not once since 1934 had he been able to take his entitlement of annual leave. McIntosh was also far less favourably placed than Berendsen for the sustained exchange of letters. He had the responsibility of setting the guidelines for his new and expanding department, of meeting the demands of a gifted but inconsiderate Prime Minister in Peter Fraser, of endeavouring to shape policy in contexts where often there were no precedents and, above all, of imparting a special New Zealand stamp and flavour to all the operations under his control.

Many of his letters to Berendsen were dictated hurriedly and late in the day but, for all that, they meet a high standard of clarity, candour, wit and grace. When he had time, he could recreate vividly the atmosphere of international gatherings and the interplay of personalities. He also had a capacity for brief and derisive judgments and occasionally for evocative description.

Berendsen had the same gifts. He also liked language that was racy and strong, he was given to comic exaggeration, he used slang effectively and occasionally (‘hullabaloney’, for instance) he coined some of his own. He wrote and dictated at great speed and a frequent feature of his style was a long sentence, full of dashes and brackets, in which some central and powerful assertion would be hedged around with qualifications and asides before leading on to an admission of the possibility of error, followed by a denial of the admission.

Few people could have been more different. Berendsen had trained as a lawyer and had a clear mind. He was not by instinct gregarious but he could generate a show of rather rowdy conviviality. He was a brilliant speaker off the cuff and he read prepared texts with a theatrical flourish, in a voice that seemed to issue from a throat lined with slate pencils. He was excitable and given to anger, but he could be kind.

Though born in Sydney, he had an enormous pride in being a New Zealander and he had a fierce concern that New Zealand acquit itself well and retain a good name on the international stage. ‘To do the right thing is the right thing to do,’ he used to say and he pressed always for New Zealand policy to place principle above expediency.

McIntosh yielded nothing to Berendsen in his pride in New Zealand and his concern for New Zealand’s good name. But there were many things in him that remained private and elusive. He was not flamboyant, he was an intermittent public speaker and he avoided the limelight. He had trained as an historian and had a splendid intelligence and a wide range of cultural interests. He admired versatility and he was able to encourage others in the development of their capacities. He had a melancholy but not despairing view of humankind, he looked on things and people with a sort of sad amusement and his judgments, personal and other, were candid and often all too true.

In all his tirades against Wellington, Berendsen was careful to emphasise that they did not include McIntosh. But he was often fiercely critical of decisions or attitudes with which he knew McIntosh was likely to have been associated. He spoke several times of resignation when he felt he had been unjustly criticised or inadequately supported. And he complained often of being left without instructions and, on another tack, he loved to recall the occasion when, he said, in the space of 24 hours, he was told to vote against a resolution, then to abstain, then to vote for.

McIntosh coped skilfully with these situations, sometimes with explanations of circumstances of which Berendsen was unaware, sometimes with apologies and sometimes with a robust rejection of the complaint in terms that had more than a hint of Berendsen’s own vigour.

On one occasion, feeling that he had gone too far, Berendsen wrote acknowledging that McIntosh must be angry with him and explaining that he was getting old and crochety and beset by his grievances against Wellington.

‘Never have I known anyone so prone to dramatise as you,’ McIntosh replied. ‘Of course, I am not angry but if you yourself can be so angry as to generate ulcers … surely I am permitted the minor luxury of temporary annoyance that one of my oldest friends should be such an ass.’

Undiplomatic Dialogue is a wonderful accident. Berendsen and McIntosh knew well that their letters to one another passed beyond the restraints of propriety and discretion. In the unguarded confines of their letters, they were often blisteringly critical of politicians. Fraser (though both greatly admired him), Walter Nash, Bill Jordan, Sir Sidney Holland and Fred Doidge are but some who were denounced for stubbornness, delay, muddlement, vanity, subterfuge or other things. There was an understanding between the two men that the letters should be destroyed. Berendsen did so but McIntosh did not.

And so to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Department of External Affairs, the book exists, neatly produced by the Auckland University Press. Ian McGibbon as editor has written a thorough and thoughtful survey of the events to which the letters relate. His footnotes are carefully done but too lean, I think, to satisfy all curiosity about the outcome of some events or about some people who have the misfortune to be slightingly mentioned or roughly handled in the correspondence. And there is a perceptive and sensitive foreword written by Frank Corner in which he draws a deft word picture of the two men and brilliantly identifies their qualities.

There are, in the opinions of politicians of the time, lessons and guidance in plenty for modern politicians. Perhaps the same applies to modern public servants. Berendsen fought desperately hard to change elements of policy he felt were wrong. But once a policy had been adopted, even if it still offended him, he was scrupulous in obeying instructions to proclaim and implement it.

‘I fully agree,’ he wrote to McIntosh when reproved for a statement on an issue on which he had no instructions, ‘that it is my duty while I hold office as the servant of the Government to do precisely what I am told by that Government (whether I agree with it or not) or, alternatively, to resign.’

Corner suggests Undiplomatic Dialogue warrants a wide audience, extending even to the novelist, the playwright or the poet. It may well be that in the remaining McIntosh papers there is correspondence with other officers that might provide the content of another book. If so, I doubt if it will come within a mile of the quality of this one. Undiplomatic Dialogue is the product of a special time and special people. It holds vital interest, stimulus and entertainment for anyone who loves words well used and is curious about some of the processes of government that have helped bring us to where we are.


Tom Larkin is a former Ambassador to Japan and a people’s representative on the Press Council.


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