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

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 of American Tomahawk fighters destined for New Zealand. Evatt failed when, after Cox had pleaded the case for the planes to stay with New Zealand, Churchill confronted the Australian at the top table with: 'Have you been trying to take this young man's aircraft from him?' Churchill had regularly read Cox's Daily Express war reportage.

Keith Sinclair, in his 1976 Nash biography, writes of some of the work Cox accomplished, adding that Cox 'resisted Nash and refused to write speeches for him'. (7) Cox had met Nash in London pre-war, but had had no experience of a boss such as Nash proved to be in Washington. Having left Freyberg, 'the best boss I ever had', to go to Washington, Cox felt it even more. (8)

Cox's despair of his 21 months in Washington has never been made public by him. The story has sat in Cox's and Sir Alister McIntosh's papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library, with some pertinent correspondence in Dan Davin's and Dick Campbell's material there. The semi-official Cox-Nash correspondence for those 21 months is in the Nash Papers at Archives New Zealand.

Within months of reaching Washington in July 1942 Cox was sending McIntosh elegant missives--to get himself out of Washington. (9) Cox in his 1942 Christmas letter to General Freyberg sought his help to get back to the division. (10) He upped the ante by his 19 July 1943 letter to the prime minister, telling him of his 'desire to return to the New Zealand Division in October or thereabouts'. On 2 September 1943 McIntosh replied, under instruction from the prime minister, oozing supportiveness but making no commitment to Cox beyond that the government would cover the fares of Cox's family to London, once he had ended his time in Washington. (11)

In his last letter from Washington to McIntosh, Cox whacked himself for his appalling misjudgment in turning up at the New Zealand Legation to be Nash's deputy:
   I am of the opinion that this was one of those runs of
   bad luck which one gets, and that one has other runs of
   equally good luck. I knew the matter was a gamble when
   I first calculated that I might do a bit more to hurry on
   the war by being a publicist or diplomat in Washington
   than by garrisoning Baelbeck in Syria. I made a misjudgement
   for which I hold myself entirely responsible.
   Things could have been much worse. I have had some
   invaluable experience. I have had a longer spell with my
   family than I've ever had before. I've had the pleasure
   of working with you ... a thing which has frankly been
   a pleasure. And we have the show properly on its feet
   here, and it's efficient. So there we are. (12)

In Washington

Immediately after a two-week journey from Cairo, when Cox stepped off the plane in Washington he was in his desert shorts. Nash took him straight to the White House for President Roosevelt to pepper him with detailed military questions about the Desert War, including the impact of the new Sherman tanks Roosevelt had sent there. Cox's renown travelled ahead of him for he was known to the president, and his advisors; his five years as a British foreign and war correspondent, with numerous scoops to his reputation and the books--Defence of Madrid and The Red Army Moves --had the 32-year-old Cox well regarded for insights that the president would appreciate. In the run-up to the war, and until he enlisted in July 1940, Cox had reported for Newsweek: he was the magazine's first correspondent in Europe (albeit on a part-time 'stringer' arrangement). As well, he had broadcast regularly on BBC World Service, even after he had enlisted.

Cox acknowledged that Nash's publicist talent on behalf of New Zealand was unrivalled and that Nash had a strong friendship with President Roosevelt. Cox, too, was a skilled publicist, but did not have Nash's speaking ability to exude comforting authority. Cox essentially came apart with Nash's disposition to dither and not delegate--Sinclair's Nash biography amply demonstrates this side of him, while the McIntosh Papers are well peppered with McIntosh's despair of Nash, most particularly when prime minister (1957-60).

In his 1942 Christmas letter to General Freyberg, Cox informed him that he had been lecturing the American military on the division's experiences on Crete and in the Desert War. (13) Freyberg's Christmas treat for Cox was to despatch him a copy of his classified report on the previous year's battles in Libya. (14) Among Cox's successes was a Freyberg profile that featured in the Atlantic Monthly

The die was cast in Cox's first eight months in Washington. Nash was present throughout. Cox accomplished much more for Wellington in the eleven months that Nash was absent from Washington, but he went largely unrewarded financially for being the charge d'affaires. McIntosh was unable to secure Nash's approval, in his role as finance minister, for Cox to receive the usual higher duties and representational allowances--several thousand dollars in this instance. As McIntosh explained to Cox, 'Nash is at his most unpleasant when it comes to money matters and it was clear to anyone but him that you were being placed in an impossible position'. (16) On another occasion, McIntosh noted that 'if there is one thing that Nash dislikes doing more than another it is obliging an official. Indeed it is his second nature to keep such menials on the rack.' (17)

Cox's unquenchable fretting about his circumstances ate away at his personal well-being--his litany of woe to McIntosh is still heart-rending to read. McIntosh was at his most guileful to retain Cox's confidence. He did so, with Cox writing to him as his departure from Washington neared:
   Believe me having you on the other end of the wire has
   been the greatest factor in this job at very many turns
   of the wheel, and I appreciate more than I can say your
   sane and friendly approach to the tangles of these past
   18 months. (18)

McIntosh's stroking of Cox had been consummate: 'sorry that we are so persistent in our endeavours to hold you, but having laid hands on a good man we are reluctant to take them off his throat.' (19) And later, 'I might add that Peter [Fraser] has hopes that you yourself will accept the job, but that course is only one of ten jobs he would like you to carry out simultaneously.' (20)

Cox's departure back to 2 New Zealand Division was a protracted affair and not solely because of Nash's reluctance to let him go. McIntosh was desperate to keep him in Washington (and longer-term to have him stay with External Affairs). McIntosh in early 1944 requested Cox to switch to Moscow. Cox was sufficiently quick-witted to propose Paddy Costello as the better prospect for the Soviet capital.

In late March 1943 Nash left Washington to get back to Wellington ahead of the impending general election; when he left it was unclear if he would return to Washington again as the head at the legation. He did return nine months later in early January 1944; within a month he was in London for two months, attending Churchill's War Cabinet. While in London it was announced that Nash was to be replaced in Washington by Berendsen. At that point, all determined that Cox was free to go back to Freyberg. But, first, Cox was allowed only to make it to London.


Cox reached London late in April 1944 and was there for a month. He joined the New Zealand delegation that Fraser was taking to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference. (Cox handled the press.) The delegation, which included McIntosh, was quartered at the Savoy. Cox was able to socialise with many of his pre-war best friends, who included Alan Moorehead, Robert Capa, David Low and Michael Foot. He caught up with Paddy Costello, who was being looked over by Fraser for clearance to go to Moscow. Cox was invited to 10 Downing Street for the Churchills' 'At Home' on 4 May and received an invitation to a formal party at Buckingham Palace eleven days later. (21) He did several BBC talks for the 'Questions of the Hour' programme. Before Cox left London the prime minister had a 'quiet word' with him about his post-war career, enjoining him to return to New Zealand to continue in the diplomatic team and to assist in the editing of the official war histories. (22)

Cox, still in London, signed back on with 2 New Zealand Division on 21 May. Only then did he set out for Italy and was back in time for the prime minister's visit to the division. His first task, hand-picked by General Freyberg, was to get to Vatican City and bring back the general's son, Paul, who had secured sanctuary there after escaping the Germans. Cox then replaced Dan Davin in his old role as the division's senior intelligence officer. To make room for Cox, Freyberg sent Davin to the War Office in London to be the New Zealand representative on the German Control Commission. Davin was able to settle his personal affairs and to write his war novel For the Rest of Our Lives.

Cox remained with Freyberg until June 1945, after the war in Europe's end. He returned to journalism in London, with a decade at the liberal News Chronicle, until he switched to Independent Television News (ITN), which was at the forefront of the emerging phenomenon of non-BBC broadcasting. He was there for the next twelve years.

Cox never left being a New Zealander. He crafted a novel centred on 2 New Zealand Division's war: three chapters are at the Turnbull Library and it is likely that what happened to the other chapters will remain a mystery. The three chapters indicate a different novel to Davin's For the Rest of Our Lives--one that may have become a more substantial statement on these New Zealanders than Davin's novel has.

McIntosh made several unsuccessful bids to get Cox back on board External Affairs, usually for short assignments, including joining the delegation for the 1946 Paris Peace Conference. After his retirement from the department McIntosh did not ever forget Cox. His last attempt to secure his services was in 1976, writing to him to urge that he return home to take charge of broadcasting in New Zealand --that is, to replace McIntosh himself, recruited by Norman Kirk. By 1976, Kirk was dead, and McIntosh was acutely tired (and nearing his death). Muldoon was prime minister, but Hugh Templeton, another Rhodes Scholar and former External Affairs staffer, was the broadcasting minister: he reckoned Cox was the right choice. However, Cox, then 66, was unwilling, as he was five years later when Gerald Hensley approached him again at the prime minister's instruction (Muldoon had been with Cox at Trieste in May 1945). (23)

McIntosh had read Cox well, when he had him, giving him an early stunning reference, endorsed by the prime minister:

As a good New Zealander, whether you are serving in Washington or as a newspaper man in Europe, I am quite sure, and so is Mr Fraser, you will repay in intangible ways infinitely more than we could ever give you in money. (24)

Newly-appointed Secretary of External Affairs Alister McIntosh's initial challenge in securing a high-flyer for New Zealand diplomacy became Geoffrey Cox, who for 21 months in the middle of the Second World War left the battlefield to be Walter Nash's deputy at the New Zealand Legation in Washington. He had been serving in General Freyberg's intelligence section. At the end of his Washington stint, he went back to war determined that his future peace-time career would not be as a New Zealand diplomat. Nash had seen to that. Cox found him to be an intolerable boss while coming to respect Alister McIntosh highly.


(1.) NZ Parliamentary Debates, vol 262, p. 585. Fraser speaking during debate on the External Affairs Bill on 4 June 1943.

(2.) The Editor (Arthur Christiansen), 'Writing men make good fighting men', Daily Express (London), sometime late in 1941.

(3.) Philip Purser, 'Sir Geoffrey Cox', Guardian, 4 Apr 2008.

(4.) Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL), PAColl-7675-5, has numerous media items on the circumstances surrounding the three articles that appeared in the Daily Express on 4, 5 and 6 June 1941 and subsequently in several New Zealand newspapers. Cox wrote the articles in the Cairo apartment of Alan Moorehead, his former Daily Express colleague in the paper's Paris bureau.

(5.) Geoffrey Cox, A Tale of Two Battles: a personal memoir of Crete and the Western Desert 1941 (London, 1987), p. 118.

(6.) Gerald Hensley, Beyond the Battlefield: New Zealand and its Allies 1939-1945 (Auckland, 2009), pp. 191-3, 243-4.

(7.) Keith Sinclair, Walter Nash (Auckland, 1976), p. 223. Sinclair's relevant end-note is number 55 on page 397. The correspondence is at Archives New Zealand (ANZ), R22849540.

(8.) Cox, p. 43.

(9.) ATL, MS-Papers-6759-261, which is Cox's folder in the McIntosh Papers.

(10.) ANZ, R16700607, Cox to Freyberg, 18 Dec 1942.

(11.) ATL, MS-Papers-9573-09.

(12.) ATL, MS-Papers-6759-261, 16 Mar 1944.

(13.) ANZ, R16700607, 18 Dec 1942.

(14.) ATL, MS-Papers-8715-1, has this document, 'The New Zealand Division in Egypt and Libya: Operations Lightfoot and Supercharge'. Freyberg's covering letter of 12 December 1942 is in ATL, 2003-005-5/10.

(15.) Geoffrey Cox, 'General Freyberg, V.C.: An Atlantic Portrait', Atlantic Monthly, Apr 1943, pp. 57-61.

(16.) ATL, MS-Papers-6759-261, 28 Feb 1944.

(17.) Ibid., 20 Aug 1943.

(18.) Ibid., 6 Mar 1944.

(19.) Ibid., 16 Feb 1944.

(20.) Ibid., 22 Jul 1944. The role was as the archivist in the 2 NZEF.

(21.) ATL, MSY-5579. The invitations are in this folder.

(22.) ATL, 2003-005-4/14. Cox wrote to his wife, who was in Washington describing these encounters. The letter is dated 30 April 1944. Fraser's 'quiet moment' with Cox was in the latter's room; the prime minister called on him unexpectedly, while Cox had taken a call from Lord Beaverbrook, who had been Cox's employer at the Daily Express and had been in Churchill's Cabinet for much of the war.

(23.) Hugh Templeton, All Honourable Men: Inside the Muldoon Cabinet 1975-1984 (Auckland, 1995), p. 58, has Templeton phoning Cox in London for advice. Personal communication from Gerald Hensley, Oct 2019.

(24.) ATL, MS-Papers-6759-261, 20 Aug 1943.

Ken Ross was an analyst with the External Assessments Bureau, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet from 1976 until 2012. He has been a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Canberra.

Caption: Geoffrey Cox at his desk in Washington in December 1943 (Geoffrey Cox Collection, ATL, PAColl-9801-16)

Caption: A meeting of the Pacific War Council on 1 April 1943, with Geoffrey Cox at left

Caption: H.V. Evatt

Caption: Bernard Freyberg

Caption: Walter Nash

Caption: Dan Davin

Caption: Geoffrey Cox had a stellar career in British media following the war
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Author:Ross, Ken
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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