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Challenging Zeus

Titan at the Foreign Office: Gladwyn Jebb and the Shaping of the Modern World, by Sean Greenwood

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

28 January 2009

12:00 AM

Titan at the Foreign Office: Gladwyn Jebb and the Shaping of the Modern World Sean Greenwood

Martinus Nijhoff Publishing, pp.442, Euros 129

Senior civil servants are generally expected to be shadowy figures, influential rather than powerful, discreet rather than flamboyant, probably — in Gladwyn’s generation at any rate — educated at Winchester. To describe such a being as a Titan might seem an oxymoron. The Titans, it will be remembered, were a family of giants who had the temerity to challenge Zeus and duly got their comeuppance. In this well-researched and thoughtful book Sean Greenwood convinces one that in the case of Lord Gladwyn — not least in the ill-judged challenge to the superiority of Zeus — this far-fetched analogy is amply justified.

Greenwood identifies three fields in which Gladwyn’s contribution was of signal importance: the setting up of the United Nations, the evolution of Nato and the development of Britain’s policy towards Europe. The temptation for a biographer must always be to confuse post hoc and propter hoc — because Gladwyn took a particular view about a certain subject and that view became the official policy of the British government, Gladwyn must therefore have been responsible. Greenwood resists the temptation nobly. So far as Nato was concerned, for instance, though Gladwyn’s role in its establishment was certainly most significant, ‘political ideas are scarcely ever the property of one individual: they are as often as not part of the climate in which a reasonably sensitive political animal lives and moves’.


Greenwood has no qualms in pointing out when Gladwyn’s judgment was faulty. He was surprisingly slow in abandoning the cause of appeasement, was for a long time an ardent admirer of Mussolini and favoured concessions to Hitler that might have bought him off and diverted his aggressive tendencies towards the East. During the Suez Crisis Gladwyn seems to have been offended more by the fact that he was excluded from the negotiations than by the policy of covert collusion with the Israelis. Like Eden, he viewed Nasser as a dangerous threat to Western interests who could not be allowed to pursue his activities unchecked; if the Israelis could conveniently be fitted into a scheme for his destruction, then well and good.

But he was right far more often than he was wrong, and whatever he advocated was advanced with powerful intellectual rigour and complete fearlessness. His most important work was probably done in 1945 and 1946 when as, in effect, Acting Secretary General of the United Nations, he set that organisation on its way to play a significant role in world affairs. It was, said his private secretary, Brian Urquhart, a 24-hour-a-day free-for-all, totally improvised, where everybody did everything he, or she, had to do and it worked beautifully. Gladwyn presided over all as ‘an extremely cool, extremely funny professional who never showed the smallest sign of emotion in any situation’. A few years later it was in the same forum that he was to enjoy what was, in terms of public acclaim, his most successful role. He found himself pitted as the most articulate and forceful representative of the West against the uncouth and obdurate Soviet ambassador, Jacob Malik, and again and again savaged his adversary in debate, to the immense satisfaction of the American people, who followed him avidly on television.

His fame was bought at a cost. Partly from jealousy at his celebrity, partly from a not wholly unmerited belief that he was playing to the gallery in furtherance of his own career, his success caused some irritation in the Foreign Office. This was nothing new. Gladwyn did not suffer fools gladly and put a strikingly large number of his colleagues — including many far senior to him — into that category. The ‘jibbering jabbering Jebb’, as Churchill once described him, was determined that his voice should be heard, and often at inordinate length. He made many enemies, among the more dangerous of whom was Anthony Eden. If he had been a little more emollient and less arrogant, he would have achieved the post which he most passionately desired, that of Permanent Under-Secretary of State. As it was, he saw it occupied by a man who was capable enough but, in terms of intellect and vision, was several leagues below.

This is a biography designed for those with a serious interest in diplomatic history. Professor Greenwood says little about Gladwyn’s personal life and offers only a tenuous sketch of his personality. Hugh Thomas to some extent remedies this in an elegant and entertaining foreword, but Greenwood’s approach, together with shoddy production and exorbitant cost, means that his book will have only limited appeal. Yet the story is an important one and ably told. Titan or not, Gladwyn played a critically important part in the shaping of the world since 1945. He deserves to be remembered and Greenwood, professionally at least, has done him proud.

Philip Ziegler is the biographer of Lord Mountbatten, Edward VIII and Harold Wilson.


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