Page 1: Biography
Wilson, Joseph Vivian
Public servant, diplomat
This biography, written by Malcolm Templeton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Joseph Vivian Wilson – JV to his colleagues, Vivian to his family – was a man of many parts. He was a brilliant classical scholar who might well have had a distinguished academic career. But it is as one of the founding fathers of the New Zealand foreign service that he most deserves to be remembered.
Wilson was the son of schoolteachers Joseph Harris Wilson and his wife, Emma Frances Gooder, both of English stock. Born at Greendale, Canterbury, on 14 July 1894, he attended Christchurch Normal School, Christchurch Boys’ High School (1907–10) and Canterbury College, graduating MA with first-class honours in Latin and Greek in 1915. He was immediately appointed as an assistant Classics lecturer at Auckland University College.
After enlisting in the army in December 1915, Wilson was commissioned second lieutenant in the Canterbury Infantry Regiment. He joined the New Zealand Division in France in January 1917, was promoted lieutenant in November, and appointed assistant adjutant in the 2nd Battalion of the regiment in March 1918. He fought in successive battles at Messines (Mesen), Bapaume and Passchendaele (Passendale), twice sustaining wounds of sufficient severity to require a period of convalescence in England.
Wilson returned to New Zealand in December 1918, was discharged in February 1919, and returned to England in August; with the assistance of a government scholarship, he continued his classical studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. He again graduated with first-class honours, winning the Craven Scholarship and the Porson Prize in the process. In 1921 he was appointed, by competitive examination, to the secretariat of the newly established International Labour Organisation in Geneva. Two years later he transferred to the League of Nations, rising to a senior position as chief of the central section of its secretariat. On 4 July 1929, at Geneva, he married Valentine Adèle Juliette van Muyden, a Swiss citizen of Dutch descent; they were to have two sons. In 1941 he returned through Vichy France and Portugal to England, where he served for several years as assistant director of research at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).
In 1944 Wilson was invited to join the recently founded New Zealand Department of External Affairs by Prime Minister Peter Fraser and the department’s head, Alister McIntosh. Wilson brought a range of experience that the department’s other senior officers could not provide: he was considerably older than they; he had seen active service in the First World War, acquired unique expertise as an international civil servant, and lived for nearly 20 years in a foreign milieu; and, unlike almost all of his new colleagues, he was fluent in a foreign language.
But he had more to offer. Short, round and diffident in manner, Wilson commanded the respect (and in due course affection) of the department’s new recruits, not through an imposing presence but by the unostentatious display of a first-class mind, an unselfconscious integrity, and an unwillingness to accept anything less than the highest standard of work. His own contributions to foreign policy-making were distinguished by penetrating analysis and, above all, farsightedness.
JV’s old-fashioned courtesy and dignity were balanced by a capacity to laugh and to tell stories against himself. He was a generous host and an accomplished cook. A devout Anglican, he took an especial interest in the history and liturgy of the church.
As a member of the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization in 1945, Wilson made a significant contribution to the drafting of the United Nations Charter. Drawing on his experience in the League of Nations, he insisted that the secretary general and his staff should not seek or receive instructions from any external authority, that the international character of their responsibilities should be respected by member governments, and that appointments to the secretariat should be based on merit. All these points were embodied in the charter. Later, as a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, when McCarthyism was at its height in the United States, he spoke out effectively against American attempts to interfere with the secretary general’s prerogatives in the appointment of his staff.
Wilson was appointed in 1956 as New Zealand minister to France; from 1957 until 1959 he served as New Zealand’s first ambassador there. In 1958 he was offered a CMG, but turned it down. At the time of his retirement in 1959 the government declined, in accordance with a general policy on foreign decorations, to agree to his receiving the Légion d’honneur. Inconsistently, he was allowed to accept the Grand Cross of the Order of St Sylvester from Pope John XXIII.
Wilson died in hospital in Lower Hutt on 29 December 1977; he was survived by his wife and children.