Cadogan, Sir Alexander George Montagu 1884-1968, diplomatist, was born in London 24 November 1884, the seventh son of the fifth Earl Cadogan [qv.] and the youngest of nine children by his first wife, Lady Beatrix Jane, daughter of the second Earl of Craven. Cadogan grew up in surroundings of what can only be called grandeur. Life alternated between Chelsea House at the corner of Cadogan Square, a residence termed by Harold Macmillan a kind of baronial castle, and a family estate of 11,000 acres near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk. As was not unusual, however, the grandeur was tempered by a strict routine and the cultivation of a high sense of obligation. Cadogan went, as seemed natural, to Eton, to the house of A. C. Benson [qv.], an outstanding and versatile master in an outstanding Eton period. His all-round ability brought him to be captain of the Oppidans, president of the Eton Society (Pop), and an editor of the Eton College Chronicle. He also showed at Eton early signs of that satirical sense of humour which never left him nor ever descended into wounding sarcasm or bad taste. A. F. Scholfield, librarian of Cambridge University (1923-49), a contemporary of Cadogan, used to recall the pleasure with which the back row of sixth form awaited the next cartoon or caricature to be handed down from Cadogan further in front.
Like his next brother Edward, Cadogan went on to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read history, gaining, to his and other people's disappointment, second class honours (1906). The result was perhaps not surprising. The life led by undergraduates of Cadogan's background and attainments had the intellectually distinguished gaiety of that distinguished generation, so many of whom went bravely to their death in the war of 1914-18. The solitary grind required by scholarship was hardly to be expected.
Cadogan spent 1906 to 1908 studying languages for the competitive examinations for the Diplomatic Service. He headed the list in October 1908. In January 1909 he was posted as attaché to Constantinople. There he was granted an allowance for knowledge of Turkish which he is unlikely to have used later. In the summer of 1912, coinciding with a transfer back to London, he married Lady Theodosia Louisa Augusta Acheson (died 1977), daughter of the fourth earl of Gosford. She was a lady of highly individual character who exercised great influence in family matters without intrusion into official business, and the marriage was extremely happy. They had one son and three daughters.
In April 1913, less than a year after his marriage, Cadogan was transferred to Vienna. He left again on 14 August 1914, two days after the British declaration of war on Austria-Hungary. There followed a period of nearly twenty years in the Foreign Office. During this period Cadogan went steadily up the promotion ladder, obtaining some experience of nearness to political life while private secretary in 1919-20 to Cecil (later Lord) Harmsworth, parliamentary secretary of state for foreign affairs. But his most important assignment was head of the League of Nations section for which the head of the Office, Sir Eyre Crowe [qv.], recommended him as the best man in the Office. He discharged this task not only with the great technical competence which was by now taken for granted, but with something more than a hope that the League itself and, above all, the pursuit of disarmament could lead to real and permanent results.
In this uphill, pioneering work there were periods of progress under Sir Austen Chamberlain [qv.] (1924-9), and Arthur Henderson (1929-31) [qv.]. But the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1930, in response to which the League proved powerless, was an irretrievable setback. Cadogan derived renewed hope from the fresh approach initiated by Anthony Eden (later the Earl of Avon) who, as parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office and with experience of work with Austen Chamberlain, gave new life to British presentation of policy. But once Hitler had assumed power in Germany in 1933, there was no further hope of reconciling German claims and French insistence on security (and Cadogan attached much weight to security). The task now seemed hopeless. Cadogan was appointed minister in Peking in January 1934 and confided to his diary his pleasure at going 11,000 miles away.
The two years in China were pleasant, and he established a good relationship with Chiang Kai-Shek. But beneath this surface he experienced, as did his successors, the British Far Eastern dilemma of the time—how to preserve friendship with China and protect British interests there while keeping relationships with Japan as friendly as possible in the hope that Japanese military and political ambitions might have limits.
In 1936 Eden, now foreign secretary, appointed Cadogan a deputy under-secretary of state in the Foreign Office. On 1 January 1938 he succeeded Sir Robert (later Lord) Vansittart [qv.] as permanent under-secretary, a position which he held until 1946. His position was rendered difficult by the retention of his predecessor as chief diplomatic adviser, a position which carried no authority but was not interpreted by Vansittart as a sinecure. The two men were totally different in temperament, Vansittart seeing the worsening European situation with intellectual clarity, Cadogan seeing it without illusions but with a sensitive eye to what the country and its leaders would in fact be prepared to do.
In the trauma of Munich in September 1938 Cadogan took a characteristically middle position. Knowing the Anglo-French weakness in defence (notably the weakness of the French Air Force), he felt that nearly but not absolutely every effort should be made to reach a compromise with Hitler. But when at one moment it appeared that the British Government might positively encourage Hitler to march into Czechoslovakia, he wrote a strong minute urging the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax [qv.], to try to dissuade Neville Chamberlain from going as far as that; Halifax was persuaded—and successful.
By the time war broke out in 1939 Cadogan enjoyed the complete confidence of Halifax, with whom he shared background and, to a great degree, views. When Eden returned to the Foreign Office in 1940, this confidence was continued, if in a somewhat different mode, and he soon acquired that of Churchill. There is little more to be said of Cadogan's wartime experiences in administration, policies, and performance in London or at inter-Allied conferences than to quote Professor Dilks: No one else occupied a position in the British Government comparable with Cadogan's in the years 1938 to 1950. From July 1945 Cadogan received from Ernest Bevin [qv.] and Attlee the same confidence accorded to him by Churchill. But in that year the Labour Government, after debating whether to appoint a politician or a diplomat as the first United Kingdom resident representative at United Nations headquarters in New York, appointed Cadogan. He seems himself to have wanted the embassy in Washington, but, given his unique knowledge of world affairs as a whole in contrast to his lack of specialized knowledge of the United States, the Government chose rightly. This was his final post. In it he displayed an authority, in all senses of the word, which maintained at a precarious time the standing of the United Kingdom in the world organization, and so proved a worthy culmination to his career.
Cadogan's diplomatic career had been remarkable in its parallelism. He was in the Foreign Office for the duration of two world wars, and he took a direct part after each of these wars in the efforts to make international organization work. For all his quietly ironic humour, he was never a cynic and he believed that, despite human frailties and incompetences, it was better to strive after workable international institutions than to do nothing.
One cannot sum up Cadogan's professional quality better than in the words of Sir Llewellyn Woodward in his preface to British Foreign Policy in the Second World War (vol. i, 1970): Sir Alexander Cadogan had remarkable powers of judgement and lucid expression. His minutes on paper after paper deal with almost every aspect of foreign affairs. They stood out at the time, and are likely to stand out in retrospect, as models of open-mindedness and sound conclusion. They bear no signs of haste or half-finished reasoning even when the writer gives a warning that he needs more time for reflection. They often have a certain irony, never any rancour or prejudice. Only their modesty is delusive; the reader of these short notes written (they are very rarely typed) in a firm, quiet hand may not realize at once how great a mastery they show.
This description of Cadogan's style does not cover one other side of his professional talent, his instinct for consulting or informing the right person in the right way at the right time. He was discriminatingly discreet rather than self-importantly secretive and this was invaluable to the diplomatic machine as a whole. In his relations with ministers he did not officiously push advice, but everybody knew that it was indispensable. In an age requiring innovation, change of style, and the concept of planning he might have been less happy; the period in which wartime diplomacy had to do its best with what it had rendered his techniques ideal.
Two years after Cadogan's retirement in 1950 Churchill appointed him chairman of the BBC. This was in one way surprising; he had no liking for radio and television and took a poor view of the journalistic profession. But he interpreted his job as that of presiding over policy and not interfering in daily administration. This suited his director-general, Sir Ian Jacob. During the long Suez crisis of 1956, several proposals were made for limiting the independence of the BBC, which was widely listened to in the Middle East. Cadogan aligned himself firmly with the BBC in resisting all such pressures. At the end of his term with the BBC in 1957 Cadogan retired completely from public life.
The record shows Cadogan as a man of outstanding professional skill and standards, of consistent calm, reticent about personal and family matters, and eschewing conventional affability. His naturally grave face, long in proportion to his height, made him at first sight a little forbidding unless one knew about the humorous corner to his mouth or provoked a sudden smile, reminiscent perhaps of young and gayer days. When younger he had been skilful at woodwork and oil painting; in later life he returned to the latter and added keenness for gardening and the open air. Throughout his life he played golf regularly, vehemently, and rather badly.
What was only known to very few was that he kept a diary. The publication of this diary in 1971 revealed a side of Cadogan which surprised the world. It showed him to have had sudden reactions of fury about the conduct of individuals and groups with whom he had to deal. He was careful not to give voice to these reactions or to let them develop into feuds (he maintained a magnanimous peace with Sir Horace Wilson, Neville Chamberlain's special adviser). But in the pre-war and wartime high-level tensions he had to let himself go somehow. The diary may have started as a convenience for reference; it undoubtedly became a safety valve.
Cadogan thus emerges as a man who, as part of his professional equipment, practised a truly prodigious self-control. Colleagues who worked close to him testified to a passion for work, in which some, but not all, found a trace of melancholy, alleviated in his last two years at the United Nations by an easing of the strains of recurring crisis. What all could agree is that he was, as one colleague put it, a most distinguished civil servant—provided that the emphasis is laid on the distinguished.
Cadogan died in London 9 July 1968. He had been appointed CB (1932), KCB (1941), CMG (1926), KCMG (1934), GCMG (1939); he was sworn of the Privy Council in 1946, admitted to the Order of Merit in 1951; and elected an honorary fellow of Balliol in 1950. Portraits by Duncan Grant and Frank Eastman are in the possession of the family.
The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938-45, ed. David Dilks, 1971
Harman Grisewood, One Thing at a Time, 1968