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Sir  Alexander George Montagu Cadogan (1884–1968), by Walter Stoneman, 1941Sir Alexander George Montagu Cadogan (1884–1968), by Walter Stoneman, 1941
Cadogan, Sir Alexander George Montagu (1884–1968), diplomatist, was born in London on 24 November 1884, the youngest child in the family of seven sons and two daughters of , a politician, and his first wife, Lady Beatrix Jane Craven (1844–1907), the fourth daughter of William Craven, second earl of Craven.

Education and early career

Alec 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 described by Harold Macmillan as ‘a kind of baronial castle’ (Macmillan, 30), and a family estate of 11,000 acres at Culford Hall, near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. However, the grandeur was tempered by strict routine and cultivation of a high sense of obligation. In 1897 Cadogan went to Eton College, to the house of A. C. Benson, 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, and an editor of the Eton College Chronicle. He also showed early signs of that satirical sense of humour that 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, later recalled 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. He proceeded in 1903 to Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a second-class degree in history in 1906.

In October 1908 Cadogan headed the list in the examinations for the diplomatic service, and in the following January was posted as attaché to the embassy in Constantinople. In September 1910 he was granted an allowance for knowledge of Turkish and almost immediately afterwards was promoted third secretary. On 3 August 1912, shortly after returning to London, he married Lady Theodosia Louisa Augusta Acheson (d. 1977), the third daughter of Archibald Brabazon Sparrow Acheson, fourth earl of Gosford. Theo Cadogan 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, Ambrose (b. 1914), and three daughters, Patricia (b. 1916), Cynthia (b. 1918), and Gillian (b. 1922).

In April 1913 Cadogan was transferred to another grand embassy, in Vienna, where high society was obsessed with the measurement of social rank. However, this was not a completely wasted opportunity for further diplomatic education because the Balkans remained volatile, and there was no reluctance to give him responsibility. He was temporarily in charge at the embassy when news of the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, came in from the consul at Sarajevo. The sequence of events that this precipitated led to Britain's declaration of war on Austria-Hungary on 12 August 1914, and two days later Cadogan returned to London.

The League of Nations, and China

There followed a period of nearly twenty years in the Foreign Office. During this time Cadogan went steadily up the promotion ladder, and as private secretary from January 1919 to March 1920 to Cecil Harmsworth, parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, he was in a position to observe political life closely. But his most important assignment, commencing in 1923, was as head of the small but influential League of Nations section, for which the permanent under-secretary, Sir Eyre Crowe, recommended him as ‘the best man in the Office’ (The Times, 17 July 1968). He accepted this task in the belief that the league itself and, above all, the pursuit of disarmament could lead to real and permanent results, and that, if it did not, nothing would prevent the rearmament of Germany. It meant long periods accompanying successive Foreign Office ministers to Geneva, but he thought their active involvement preferable to greater reliance on a permanent British representative. He was soon indispensable to them and was highly regarded by the league secretariat. He was made a CMG in June 1926 and promoted counsellor in December 1928.

In this uphill pioneering work at the League of Nations there were periods of progress under Sir Austen Chamberlain and Arthur Henderson. But the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, a little over four months before the world disarmament conference convened in Geneva, was an irretrievable set-back. Cadogan, who was secretary-general of the large British delegation to this conference, was temporarily buoyed up by the fresh presentation of British disarmament policy in early 1933 provided by Anthony Eden. But once Hitler had assumed power in Germany, 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. Thus it was that in the late summer of 1933 Cadogan, who had resisted suggestions that he might become secretary-general of the League of Nations or high commissioner at Danzig, accepted the suggestion of the permanent under-secretary, Sir Robert Vansittart, that he should become minister in Beijing. He had been made a CB in June 1932, and in January 1934 was knighted KCMG and formally appointed to the China legation. He confided to his diary his pleasure at ‘going 11,000 miles away’ (Diaries, ed. Dilks, 8).

Cadogan established a good relationship with Chiang Kai-shek but could not escape the British Far Eastern dilemma of the time. This was how to protect Britain's important interests in China while striving to limit the military and political ambitions of Japan by keeping relationships with it as friendly as possible. Cadogan was not happy with the guidance on or offers of practical assistance for China that he received from home, and was forced to support a policy of playing for time. This meant recommending to the Chinese direct negotiations with the Japanese invaders and to his own government protest at only their more outrageous actions. In June 1935 his legation was upgraded to embassy status, and he was accordingly promoted ambassador.

Permanent under-secretary

Early in 1936 Eden, now foreign secretary, invited Cadogan to return from China in order to become the senior deputy under-secretary in the Foreign Office. Surmising correctly ‘that this post might carry the succession to Vansittart’ (Diaries, ed. Dilks, 12), the colourful campaigner against Germany whom Eden was determined to oust, Cadogan accepted, taking up his post in October 1936. By now he was universally regarded as the perfect embodiment of the senior civil servant. He was not only intelligent, efficient, imperturbable, loyal, economical in language, and thoroughly conventional (to his detractors ‘cold’), he was also ‘sound’ in judgement, reserved but not without charm, and possessed of an instinct for contacting the right person in the right way at the right time. In short, he would be a first-class assistant rather than a dangerous rival, and on 1 January 1938 he duly succeeded as permanent under-secretary. However, Cadogan's situation was rendered difficult by the retention of his predecessor (until the summer of 1941) as chief diplomatic adviser, a title that signified no authority but was not interpreted by Vansittart as disguising a sinecure. The two men were as different in outlook as 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. As a result, when Eden resigned in February 1938 in protest at Chamberlain's attitude towards negotiations with Mussolini, Cadogan found himself more in agreement on this as on most other matters of foreign policy with the prime minister than with Eden.

In the trauma of Munich in September 1938 Cadogan took a characteristically middle position. He knew the Anglo-French weakness in defence, and, like the new foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, was reconciled to cutting Britain's losses in Europe's heartland in order to defend her interests more effectively around its perimeter. Thus he felt that great efforts should be made to reach a compromise with Hitler while concentrating on rearmament. 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 Halifax to try to dissuade Chamberlain from going as far as that; Halifax was persuaded—and successful. Cadogan was first and foremost of the realpolitik school of foreign policy, and had no illusions about the power of diplomacy unsupported by force. This sometimes brought him into conflict with younger colleagues in the Foreign Office, but he was not completely unsentimental.

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939 Cadogan (who was promoted GCMG in January that year) enjoyed the complete confidence of Halifax. 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. The pressures on Eden were huge even before he assumed leadership of the House of Commons in November 1942, and the chairmanship of the cabinet by the prime minister was notoriously—and increasingly—chaotic. It is thus hardly surprising that the dependence on Cadogan's advice and brisk execution of business was great, and that in April 1944 it was seriously rumoured that he was to be appointed foreign secretary. Throughout the war he was at the shoulders of both Churchill and Eden at the inter-allied conferences, and was frequently present at cabinet meetings after April 1940. Nor did he confine his non-deferential side entirely to his secret diary strewn with exclamation marks. At a critical moment in Moscow in August 1942, following an acerbic encounter between Churchill and Stalin, he told the prime minister flatly and repeatedly and with some effect that his attitude to the draft Soviet communiqué was wrong. ‘I had never’, observed Churchill's doctor, who was present at this encounter, ‘seen anyone talk to the P.M. like this’ (Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: the Struggle for Survival, 1966, 78). Cadogan was also required to devote considerable time in London to dealing with the representatives of exiled governments and difficult personalities such as de Gaulle. During the last years of the war he also had to cope with the amalgamation of the various branches of Britain's overseas representation and the Foreign Office in order to create the new combined foreign service, though he passionately hated discussion of administrative questions. The issue of reform in which he was most immediately interested was how to prevent the accumulation of mountains of red-labelled red boxes on his desk. It is as well that he had a robust constitution and that at the end of his impossibly long working day he was able, after having ‘refreshed himself’ (Butler, 37), to open his heart in his diary. He was promoted KCB in January 1941.

The United Nations

From July 1945 Cadogan received from Ernest Bevin and Clement 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 diplomatist as the first United Kingdom permanent representative at the headquarters of the United Nations (UN) in New York, appointed Cadogan. He would have preferred the Washington embassy. However, while he had a vast understanding of world affairs as a whole, he had little specialized knowledge of the United States. Moreover, he had extensive experience of the League of Nations, and in August–September 1944 had been the principal British delegate at the allied conference on world organization at Dumbarton Oaks, where his performance ‘won him golden opinions in the United States’ (Diaries, ed. Dilks, 669). Since he had also been prominent at the UN's charter-drafting conference at San Francisco in April–May 1945, he was clearly the safe choice, though some would have preferred a ‘younger and more original man’ (G. McDermott, The Eden Legacy and the Decline of British Diplomacy, 1969, 88). He left the Foreign Office in February 1946, and in the same year was sworn of the privy council. He had been permanent under-secretary for the unusually long period of eight years.

New York, to which Cadogan went when he was already sixty-two, and where he was allowed considerable latitude, was his final post. Despite his legendary antipathy to personal publicity, he adapted surprisingly well to conference diplomacy. He also displayed here an authority, in all senses of the word, which maintained at a time of relative material weakness the standing of the United Kingdom in the world organization, and so the post proved a worthy culmination to his diplomatic career. For all his quietly ironic humour, he was never a cynic, and continued to believe that, despite human frailty and incompetence, it was better to strive after workable international institutions than do nothing. His advice on the teething problems of the UN was often sought by other delegations and the secretariat. He remained in his post at New York until his retirement in June 1950. In the same year he was elected an honorary fellow of Balliol, and on 1 January 1951 he was given the Order of Merit, the first civil servant to receive this honour.

The BBC, and the Suez Canal Company

Shortly after his retirement in 1950 Cadogan joined the boards of the National Provincial Bank and the Phoenix Assurance Company. However, this did not signal the end of his involvement in public affairs—far from it. In 1951 he accepted nomination as one of the three government directors of the Suez Canal Company, and in the following year Churchill appointed him chairman of the board of governors of the BBC. He had no liking for radio and television and took a poor view of the journalistic profession, but this did not matter unduly since he did not believe that the job required interference in daily administration. This suited his director-general, Sir Ian Jacob, for whom Cadogan had both liking and respect. Cadogan refused to take the BBC into the political battle over whether it should retain a monopoly over television, from which emerged in 1954 the Television Act and the Independent Television Authority. Nevertheless, he was sometimes less reticent with regard to the content and timing of the BBC's own programmes. His position at the BBC presented him with a conflict of interests when the Suez crisis broke in 1956, because of his role in the Suez Canal Company and his long and close connections with Anthony Eden, though it is not clear whether he acknowledged this. In January of that year Cadogan was also appointed chairman of the Commonwealth-American Current Affairs Unit, an offshoot of the English-Speaking Union and important vehicle of British cultural diplomacy.

Though he had no part in its planning and marked reservations about its execution, Cadogan strongly supported government policy during the Suez crisis. He also firmly opposed broadcasting that might disturb an imminent diplomatic conference or unsettle British troops on the eve of battle. It is not surprising, therefore, that at certain intervals, especially in the earlier stages of the crisis, Eden was able to exploit his position and personal relationship with Cadogan in order to secure favourable treatment for the government by the BBC. This led to pronounced unease at the corporation. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to believe either that Cadogan was solely responsible for the BBC's behaviour during Suez or that he was Eden's entirely pliable agent at Bush House. It is notable in particular that he actively and successfully resisted the government's attempt late in October to force it into line by threatening a 20 per cent cut in the funding of the external services. At the end of his term with the BBC and the Suez Canal Company in 1957 Cadogan retired completely from public life.


Cadogan was 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. As part of his professional equipment, he 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’. 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. He died in London on 9 July 1968, survived by his wife and their four children.

Gore-Booth, rev. G. R. Berridge


The diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–1945, ed. D. Dilks (1971) · H. Grisewood, One thing at a time (1968) · T. Shaw, ‘Cadogan's last fling: Sir Alexander Cadogan, chairman of the board of governors of the BBC’, Whitehall and the Suez crisis, ed. S. Kelly and A. Gorst (2000) · Lord Gladwyn, The memoirs of Lord Gladwyn (1972) · N. Rose, Vansittart: study of a diplomat (1978) · A. C. Temperley, The whispering gallery of Europe (1938) · The Second World War diary of Hugh Dalton, 1940–1945, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · L. Woodward, British foreign policy in the Second World War, 1 (1970) · The diplomatic diaries of Oliver Harvey, 1937–1940, ed. J. Harvey (1970) · Lord Butler, The art of memory: friends in perspective (1982) · H. Macmillan, Winds of change, 1914–1939 (1966) · The Times (10 July 1968); (13 July 1968); (16–17 July 1968); (22 July 1968) · WWW · Burke, Peerage · FO List (–1951) · register, Eton · college register, Balliol Oxf. · personal knowledge (1981) · private information (1981)


CAC Cam., diaries, corresp., and papers · TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers relating to China and Turkey, FO800/293–4, 896 |  BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51089 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Lord Avon


W. Stoneman, three photographs, 1934–53, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, 1946, repro. in Diaries, ed. Dilks, facing p. 597 · F. Eastman, portrait, priv. coll. · D. Grant, portrait, priv. coll. · photograph, repro. in The Times (10 July 1968)

Wealth at death  

£124,958: probate, 27 Nov 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales