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Story: McIntosh, Alister Donald Miles

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McIntosh, Alister Donald Miles


Librarian, senior public servant, diplomat

This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Alister Donald Miles McIntosh was born at Picton on 29 November 1906, the eldest of four children of Henry Hobson McIntosh, a telegraphist, and his wife, Caroline Margaret Cowles Miles. From 1920 to 1924 he was educated at Marlborough College, Blenheim, where he took the first section of a BA degree. He later completed his degree part time at Victoria University College and, after preparing a thesis on Marlborough’s political history, was awarded an MA with second-class honours in 1930.

In March 1925 McIntosh entered the public service as a cadet in the Department of Labour’s head office, where he was employed in the library. In July 1926 he joined the Legislative Department as an assistant librarian in the General Assembly Library. His work brought him into contact with politicians as well as the small coterie of parliamentary journalists, establishing networks that would serve him well later.

Awarded a fellowship by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, McIntosh was granted a year’s leave of absence in 1932 to study library development and archive procedure in the United States and Canada. As well as visiting the Library of Congress and various state and university libraries, he attended the University of Michigan’s library school at Ann Arbor. On his way home he spent several months in the United Kingdom visiting libraries and archives. After his return in July 1933, he wrote a far-seeing report on library requirements in New Zealand, suggesting the need for a rural library service, inter-library lending and a national bibliographical centre. He also proposed the establishment of a national library by amalgamating the General Assembly Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library, the national archives and the New Zealand Institute Library. Although the report received little attention at the time, he had the satisfaction of later seeing many of his ideas brought to fruition. He was offered the post of Dunedin city librarian in 1933, but declined.

McIntosh’s private life was complicated by his homosexuality – ‘that glorious indiscretion’, as he once described it. McIntosh grew to maturity in an era when even the suspicion of homosexuality could destroy a career. So, like many similarly situated individuals, he chose concealment and discretion. On 20 September 1934 he married Doris Hutchinson Pow, also a history graduate and librarian, in Wellington. During a close and successful partnership over more than four decades they would have one son. For McIntosh the commitments of marriage – and later the obligations of his employment – reinforced the repression of his inclinations.

McIntosh was secretary of the New Zealand branch of the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1934–35, and was founding secretary–treasurer of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs in 1934. He was also active in the intellectual life of the capital, and in 1937 was a member of the National Centennial Historical Committee, established to oversee the production of a series of centennial historical surveys. A member of the Marlborough Provincial Historical Sub-committee, he was invited to edit the centennial history of the province in 1938. With his wife’s assistance he wrote most of the book, which was published in 1940. He was a member of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society, which imported leftist literature.

In February 1935 the new head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Carl Berendsen, instigated McIntosh’s secondment to his department as reference officer. McIntosh organised an information and statistical section, as well as, prior to December 1935, writing speeches for ministers. In February 1936 he formally transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department. He became in effect deputy to Berendsen, who described him as an ‘outstanding officer’. After the outbreak of war McIntosh sat on the war publicity committee, and was also a member of an ad hoc committee of officials which censored books and periodicals entering the country, mainly for their political content. In 1940 he was secretary of the Economic Stabilisation Committee. Although called up for the Territorial Force in January 1942, his service was deferred because of his important public duties. Later in the year he accompanied the prime minister, Peter Fraser, to the United States and Canada.

When Berendsen departed for Canberra as high commissioner for New Zealand in March 1943, he successfully recommended that McIntosh succeed him as secretary of the War Cabinet. McIntosh also became secretary of the new Department of External Affairs, and in October 1945 added the permanent headship of the Prime Minister’s Department to his responsibilities. Although complaining later that he was used more as a ‘glorified Private Secretary’ than as the departmental head Berendsen had been, he established a relationship of ‘absolute confidence’ with Fraser, whom he accompanied to the Australia – New Zealand meeting in January 1944 and the Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference in London some months afterwards. From April to June 1945 McIntosh was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the San Francisco Conference, from which eventually emerged the United Nations Organisation. He spent several months in Paris attending the peace conference in 1946, took part in Commonwealth talks in Canberra on the Japanese peace settlement in 1947, and was a member of the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Once the war ended McIntosh set about creating a diplomatic service in the face of often unsympathetic political masters. Wresting resources from reluctant governments to increase the number of posts was just one aspect of the problem; he sought to establish a certain style of diplomatic service which reflected New Zealand’s view of itself and its place in the world. With typical modesty, he would suggest in 1965 that the building up of the department had been his ‘main usefulness’, and he took pride in the fact that it had by then at last ‘come of age’.

McIntosh never sought a high public profile, and he professed to being ‘allergic to public speaking’. He had a clear conception of his role and responsibilities as a public servant, and firmly adhered to ‘the old-fashioned rule of anonymity in the Public Service’. He operated best at a personal level, nowhere more clearly illustrated than in his often exceedingly frank private correspondence with Carl Berendsen and other senior officials. Personally cautious, even pessimistic in outlook, he engendered immense respect and affection from his staff, to whom he was known as ‘Mac’. His sensitivity to others’ problems and needs, his lack of bigotry and self-righteousness and his non-judgemental approach were endearing qualities. McIntosh was so encouraging of an intellectual approach among his staff that the atmosphere of the department was likened to ‘that of a good university’. At the same time, he remained alive to political realities: he was renowned for ‘his caution, his political intuition, his instinct for what was practical, what would “run” ’.

With the advent of the National administration led by Sidney Holland in December 1949, McIntosh found himself serving two ministers, as the External Affairs portfolio was taken by Frederick Doidge. Although McIntosh’s role as permanent head of the Prime Minister’s Department greatly lessened, Holland would not allow him to resign from the position in favour of his deputy Foss Shanahan. McIntosh thought Holland compared poorly with his predecessor, and would later describe him privately as ‘that ass’.

Despite increasing disenchantment with travel, not least because of the physical discomfort he experienced when flying, McIntosh was obliged to make several overseas trips with ministers each year. In January 1950 he went with Doidge to the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ Conference in Colombo. He attended the Geneva Conference in 1954, which considered Korea and Indo-China, and all but two of the Commonwealth prime ministers’ meetings that took place during his tenure of the secretaryship. In 1960 he made an extensive tour with Walter Nash, which included a visit to the Soviet Union.

In his approach to international affairs McIntosh was essentially a realist and pragmatist. To be sure he promoted, and perhaps even shared, the idealistic visions of Peter Fraser in relation to the United Nations, but he remained pessimistic, sceptical, even cynical, about the motivations of states. After the Second World War he was reluctant to accept the notion that the Soviet Union had embarked upon an aggressive course. More sympathetic to the Russian position and more suspicious of American policy than Berendsen (now New Zealand’s representative in Washington), he abhorred the onset of the Cold War with its division of the world into two hostile camps. The events of 1948 at last convinced him of the need for the Western democracies to stand up firmly to the Soviet Union, an approach that would underlie New Zealand policy throughout the rest of his career. During the 1950s he was regarded favourably in Washington, officials there describing him as keenly ‘pro-New Zealand and pro-British, although disposed to be a caustic critic of the latter’.

McIntosh recognised the need for New Zealand to face up to the implications of Britain’s default in the Pacific in 1941–42, and to maintain close relations with the region’s dominant power, the United States; this stance was not always easy to sustain with a still British-oriented government and public in the 1950s. He was very mistrustful of Japan. Although not a strong advocate of the ANZUS treaty of 1951, he grew to accept its central importance to New Zealand foreign policy. In 1965, perhaps against his own inclination, he advised the prime minister to deploy a token combat force to assist the Americans in preserving the Republic of Vietnam, largely on the grounds that not to do so would bring the alliance into question.

McIntosh’s working life was dominated by his need to be available to politicians who were notoriously inconsiderate of officials. Fraser in particular was a difficult man to work for, and Walter Nash, prime minister from 1957 to 1960, could be exasperating in his unwillingness to make a decision. Late-night meetings were commonplace. McIntosh found it difficult to take annual leave. Each weekend he escaped to his riverside property at Te Marua, near Upper Hutt, where he found relaxation in creating an extensive garden.

McIntosh was appointed a CMG in 1957, and awarded an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Canterbury eight years later. In 1965 he was nominated by New Zealand as a candidate for the position of Commonwealth secretary general, but he withdrew before the ballot, ostensibly on health (he had become deaf in one ear) and tactical grounds; evident British reluctance to see him appointed, probably on security grounds, was a more likely reason. During the following year he persuaded the government to appoint him New Zealand’s first ambassador to Italy, a post he took up after leaving the public service in November 1966. During his 3½-year term he strove to improve access for New Zealand meat to the Italian market. With his deep interest in history he delighted in residing in Rome, and he also indulged his interest in early maps and prints, helping to build up the Alexander Turnbull Library’s holdings as well as his personal collection.

McIntosh retained his early library interests. Even after he left the General Assembly Library he had continued to advise on library matters. In 1963 he was made a life member of the New Zealand Library Association, and in 1972 he became its patron. In April 1966 he joined the board of trustees of the National Library of New Zealand. He was appointed chairman of the board on 1 September 1970 (after his return from being on leave while in Italy) and of the Turnbull’s Trustees Committee in December. Apart from fighting for completion of the National Library building, he tried to advance his earlier ideas on developing a scientific and technical library service. He also chaired the Alexander Turnbull Library Endowment Trust. From September 1973 to June 1978 he was chairman of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. In addition, he presided over the New Zealand – United States Educational Foundation.

In ensuring his appointment as a KCMG in 1973, the Kirk government gave belated recognition to McIntosh’s services. On 18 December 1973 it also appointed him chairman of the Broadcasting Council of New Zealand. During his 18-month term – a limit he had insisted on – he presided over a period of upheaval and considerable financial commitment as colour television was introduced and a second channel opened.

During 1977 McIntosh’s health deteriorated, and several strokes limited the use of his right hand and arm. He died at Wellington on 30 November 1978 and was cremated at Karori; he was survived by his wife and son.

The practice of discretion which became integral to McIntosh’s private life served him well in the public world. Accustomed to confiding his own innermost feelings and emotions to only a few people, he was well suited to being the moulder of New Zealand’s diplomatic service and a confidential adviser to governments and prime ministers over a period of more than two decades.

How to cite this page:

Ian McGibbon. 'McIntosh, Alister Donald Miles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5m13/mcintosh-alister-donald-miles (accessed 19 June 2024)