Imagine: the daring Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart survived the Civil War, joined the Republican Party of the hated Yankees and then became its leader, guided America through two world wars, and retired to lead a great university. Imagine that, and then you can begin to appreciate who Jan Christian Smuts once was in South Africa.
At the time of his death in 1950 Smuts was the face of South Africa before the rest of the world. His was a reassuring, intelligent, rational, English-speaking, and white face that almost convinced the West that South Africa was in the process of becoming a progressive daughter of the Commonwealth, another Australia or Canada in the making.
Like Stuart in the American South, Smuts became a hero among his own people by leading a bold raid deep inside British lines, tweaking John Bull just as the English thought they had finally put down the troublesome Boers. Unlike Stuart, Smuts’s derring-do became the subject of a best seller throughout the English-speaking world that made him a hero among the very same people who defeated him in battle.1
In the First World War, he led the capture of German colonies in Southwest Africa and Tanganyika. Elected South African prime minister, he went to the Versailles peace conference where he tested his mettle with the world’s best and beat them at their own game by drafting the foundation of the League of Nations and then winning the fight for its approval. A grateful Westminster briefly flirted with the idea of re-naming Tanganyika Smutsland. Defeated electorally at home in 1924, as sometimes happens to politicians who strut a global stage at the expense of the voters back home, he turned to scholarly passions.
Gone and Forgotten
He represents the wrong Africa for today’s world. It’s not because he was white. Livingstone has survived the wiles of Father Time to stay in the textbooks as a compelling figure on the nineteenth century landscape. Cecil Rhodes no longer towers over the region as the colossus he once was, but no self-respecting history of Africa can ignore his shadow, even as his beloved Rhodesia mutated into Zimbabwe. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Rhodes had the prescience to ensure that his legacy would fall on the side of the angels, thanks to the prestigious scholarships that bear his name. Who has ever challenged Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton to apologize for partaking of the bequest of the great imperialist and white supremacist who built the economic foundation of Apartheid South Africa?
Smuts is the wrong Africa because he doesn’t easily belong to anyone or any group. Simply put, he has no constituency in the politics of Clio, history’s muse. He fought for the losing side in the Boer War. He went from hero to traitor among his own Afrikaans-speaking people, rejected as an unreliable collaborator who toadied up to the British and relied on English-speakers to keep him in office. His opponents called him “Slim Jannie,” or loosely translated, “Clever Johnny”—not a completely endearing moniker in the anti-intellectual culture of the Afrikaner.4
A Triple Loser
Almost Churchillian in his reputation globally in 1948, he emulated the Englishman also by losing the prime ministership for the second time at the height of his fame. He lost it to his own people, the rabid white supremacist National Party. Smuts surrendered office to Nationalist leader and fellow Cape Dutchman Daniel Malan, a peculiar man whose dour mien and humorlessness made even the Field Marshall seem vivacious.
As winners primed to remake South Africa in their own image, Malan and his political heirs relegated Smuts to the trash bin of history as a symbol of the end of John Bull’s dominance. One writer encapsulated their attitude as the title of a book, “At last we have our country back.”5 Even the Nationalists, however, allowed English-speaking Johannesburg to attach the old man’s name to its world-class airport. The joke was on the English; the great English hero, as all Afrikaners knew, was an Afrikaner, too.
In death Smuts has had his devotees. His son wrote a biography that might well have served as Smuts’s own memoirs had he lived a few years longer.6 Australian historian W.K. Hancock’s magisterial biography first came out in the 1960s and still serves as the standard work, though its publication at the high-water mark of white rule has dated and deflated some of its assumptions.7
Interest in Smuts evaporated as the Apartheid state finally petered out in the face of hostility abroad and spiraling violence at home.8 With Mandela looming as the face of the New South Africa, Smuts had no place to go. Those who had remembered him in life were aging or already gone. Those who cared were sidelined or had become irrelevant.
Despite the uplifting rhetoric of an inclusive New South Africa, majority rule plainly meant another set of political winners and losers. Once again, Smuts was on the wrong side. His refusal to challenge the racial status quo branded him as the lead-up to Apartheid, a white man who knew what was right and had the power to do good, but didn’t. Long rejected by the Nationalists, the New South Africa now lumped him in with them as the past, a white-ruled, Afrikaans-speaking Old South Africa never again to see the light of day. This final, quiet defeat came more than four decades after his death. It wasn’t even noticed.
Tactician, Not a Strategist
Still, his own parochial blinders obscured the application of those universal values to South Africa. He never questioned (publicly at least) the assumption of white supremacy, and instead concentrated on healing the chasm between the two white communities while fending off protests from the non-white majority. As an instinctive tactician, he knew when not to push a constituency too far, whether it was wealthy mine owners on a labor issue or his own English base in Natal on questions of Indian rights. He managed to maintain his narrow coalition by not offending key constituencies too much or too often.
He succeeded in committing his country to two world wars on the side of Britain by appealing to national pride and a sense of duty as a regional power. With more than a few sleights of hand, he adroitly sidelined lingering Afrikaner demands for neutrality flowing from anti-British sentiment and in the second war, substantial pro-Nazi sympathies. At best, he delayed the inevitable that most whites chose to ignore, the surrender of the race-based state, while presenting a civilized front to the outside world that softened criticism from abroad. At worst, he was a self-absorbed intellectual who preferred the glories of the world stage to the pettiness of local politics. In either case as a political leader, he never displayed the stuff of heroism that befits a nationalist narrative, now or then.
Should Americans Bother?
Smuts pales before a Mandela and Tutu who have set the standard for stiff moral fiber tempered by astute political judgment. He falls far short of the handful of brave, influential whites that fought gallantly against the Apartheid line. The world heard the gallant eloquence of such English-speakers as Helen Suzman and Alan Paton during the darkest days. Afrikanerdom wasn’t a monolith, either. It produced such heroic figures as the dissident Dutch Reformed churchman Beyers Naudé, the Communist Bram Fischer, and the poet Breyten Breytenbach, all of whom broke with the deepest of family ties and history.
Poor Smuts simply doesn’t have anywhere to turn one way or the other, the odd man out of the history in which he once starred.
The progenitors of modern Democratic Party liberalism, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, erected their careers on a foundation of Southern white supremacy. Though tainted, all three have survived Clio’s assault on their reputations for reasons other than race. The prevailing American narrative sacrifices much of Bryan’s career for the sake of the Scopes Trial at the end of his life, where the once exhilarating orator appears foolish in his attack on evolution. Wilson suffers for a self-destructive obsession with the League of Nations (on which he worked closely with Smuts9). FDR has long paid the price for allegedly failing to stare down Joe Stalin at Yalta. For all that, there’s hardly a word about their leadership (or lack thereof) that for three generations confirmed the American version of Apartheid, Jim Crow. The ghost of Smuts must be jealous of the American tolerance for imperfection in its heroes.
Fulbright and Smuts
Indeed, Fulbright’s biography bears more than a passing resemblance to Smuts’. Both were born into impoverished provincial small towns, marked by white poverty and racial segregation, and inherited the communal scars of military defeat and a humiliating occupation. Both rose fast by dint of education into England’s finest institutions, Smuts at Cambridge, Fulbright at Oxford. Both launched their careers as lawyers, and built their influence with powerful intellects and often-superb political instincts. Both headed universities, Fulbright early in life at the University of Arkansas, and Smuts late in his at Cambridge.
They both were dedicated internationalists, convinced that the best interests of their respective countries lay in strong global institutions wedded by a common European heritage. Coming from defeated peoples, they were sensitized to the costs of force and the centrality of human dignity. In order to win support for what they viewed as the greater end of tying their countries into multilateral relationships, they both unapologetically compromised on the great moral and legal question of white supremacy back home. In the end both suffered career-ending humiliation at the polls from the perception that they cared too much about elsewhere and too little about home.
Political expediency thus dictated the course of both careers. In 1988, deep into a forced retirement, Fulbright mused about mandated racial integration:
This was the well of Southern racial neurosis11 spilling out of the aging Fulbright, the child of the racially cleansed Ozarks12 who knew how to speak the florid language of the Delta cotton and rice country. It was a gift he shared with all the great Southern politicians of the era, from Byrnes (a one-time Secretary of State) and Thurmond in South Carolina to Vardaman, Eastland, and Barnett in Mississippi, Wallace in Alabama, the Talmadges in Georgia, and his own fellow Arkansan and author of the Little Rock crisis of 1956, Governor Orval Faubus. Of this motley crew, only Fulbright has withstood the wrath of Clio.
Although Fulbright adamantly opposed black and white students mixing at home in Arkansas, he built his image on essentially the same idea internationally. Compare the words above with the senator’s language enshrined for public consumption:
Americans thus could aspire to mutual understanding with “foreign people,” but forget about black and white children sharing a classroom or even a town in the land of Jim Crow. Many non-white foreigners learned fast that this pietistic strain of American idealism translated into do as I say, not as I do.
As was often said in defense of the South’s better (re: not prone to public race baiting) elected officials, he did what he could under the circumstances. In Fulbright’s case, what he wanted to do had nothing to do with ameliorating his region’s racial nightmare and the nation’s great shame (that also severely tarnished its image abroad14). It entailed accepting the status quo back home so he could move on to other, more interesting subjects. Cecil Rhodes would have been pleased at his scholar’s decision.
And like Rhodes, Fulbright has become a hallowed name in the twenty-first century, or to use that currently fashionable term borrowed from advertising, a brand. The flagship program of American cultural diplomacy, Fulbright claims 300,000 alumni around the world. To extend the popular branding metaphor, if Rhodes is the Coca-Cola of international education, then Fulbright is the Pepsi, a name that needs no further explanation among its fiercest defenders and chief beneficiaries, the world of academia.
A Mislaid Narrative
The silence goes well beyond the uncritical public relations activities of commissions and embassies to intellectuals who have circled the proverbial wagons to uphold the myth. Richard Arndt’s The First Resort of Kings is the finest history of American cultural diplomacy, a detailed and at times lyrical labor of love by a retired scholar-diplomat. He devotes seven full pages to Fulbright’s biography and many more to his contributions, yet not once mentions the senator’s great moral compromise.15 The late John Hope Franklin, the dean of black American historians, was a Fulbright alumnus and valuable member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships and U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. As a prolific and influential scholar of Southern and black history, he certainly was aware of the Fulbright contradiction, yet he, too, was mute.16
Can Smuts be Fulbrightized, or Vice-Versa?
Why did Smuts choose this issue at this time to make a stand on a racial question? Inspired by Rhodes, Smuts envisioned South Africa as a regional cultural power in which the universities would draw future black leaders in its finest universities, introducing at the same time elite whites to talented Africans and thus mitigating (however modestly) prevalent racial attitudes. Mondlane was a convenient test case (he went on to be the first black Mozambican to obtain a university degree, ultimately from Oberlin College in Ohio, followed by a Ph.D. from Northwestern). He was exactly the future leader Smuts sought to educate, the founder and leader Mozambique’s liberation movement, FRELIMO.
The grateful memory of Smuts’s unsuccessful intervention stuck with Mondlane. Several years later, participating on a Chicago radio program about South Africa, he spoke warmly of the South African’s racial moderation. He argued that Smuts let his relatively liberal colleague, Jan Hofmeyr,18 “pursue long-term integration” and Christian trusteeship of Africans. Smuts, Mondlane continued, never voiced this direction publicly, but nor did he block it.
Embracing the possibility of change in South Africa, the Mozambican went on to applaud the efforts of an American mine owner who bucked prevailing practice to encourage families to live with employees, a policy at odds with the preference for all-male compounds. Noted a pragmatic Mondlane: “They must work with what they have.”19 These were the words of a black African who clearly sensed the subtle nuances of South African politics and the parameters in which Smuts operated. He was also sending a conciliatory message of empathy to his presumably liberal American audience who nervously were looking for alternatives in that era before Brown vs. Board of Education ushered in the modern civil rights movement.
Still, his passing stirred millions around the English-speaking world to mourn him precisely because they remembered him. For many South Africans and their sympathizers abroad, he had become the symbol of a South Africa that might have been, that might have saved itself from the self-destructive quagmire of the Apartheid decades. So powerful was his image that in 1947 a book titled When Smuts Goes predicted the decline of white South Africa once he left politics.20
What He Can Teach Us
The moral choices of Smuts and Fulbright are the very ones that most of their contemporaries made. The manner by which they came to live their lives was not extraordinary at all; by examining them, we examine the multitude of non-heroes who try to carve out normal lives in often-abnormal conditions. These two men pursued within limits their own ideals, which they vigorously believed represented the best futures of their respective peoples. As did Washington and Lincoln, they accepted the racial hierarchy as a given that could not and ought not to be changed.
At the same time, they left to posterity remarkable legacies as architects of the modern international system—all the more remarkable considering their provincial origins. They both sincerely believed that a commonality of experience of the world’s most talented would forestall the inhumane elements of their societies. Their imaginations fell short only in their utter inability to imagine a world where white men did not dominate.
Smuts’ ghost must be cracking a heavenly smile touched by irony. The English-speaking leadership of the African National Congress bought hook, line, and sinker into his globalist vision, though his name is nowhere to be found in the party literature. They reversed four decades of Nationalist isolationist policies that alienated the country from the U.N., forced it out of the British Commonwealth, and gradually cut it off from the community of Western economic, social, and cultural contacts. South African universities today are beacons to ambitious students from neighboring countries, the Mondlanes of our time. They attract curious young people from Europe, India, and North America. A parallel flow of South Africans outward to Great Britain, North America, India, Australia, and increasingly throughout Africa has sculpted a complex web of relationships that enriches the home country in more ways than just financially. It is just as Smuts aspired and more, because these South Africans come in all colors.
The highest tribute the twenty-first century can pay to Slim Jannie is to try to understand the brilliant mind that accomplished much, aspired to more, and compromised constantly. He exemplified the man who takes his world as he sees it, just as Fulbright did in Arkansas. It is this very process of calculation within the bounds of the perceived possible that determines political life anywhere.
Looking back, his great flaw in our eyes was the racism ingrained in his people and the Western world. Moreover, looking back from a time when questioning the value of the U.N. is cheap political fodder in the U.S., we undervalue the remarkable accomplishments of perhaps the most effective internationalist ever. By contrast, we give a pass to one of America’s own great internationalists, Fulbright, and extol the legacy of Rhodes.
Let us open the book on Smuts again, not just to know the man better, but to know ourselves; our own blind spots in the never-ending struggle to steer our own American narrative away from deceptive pieties and nearer to an untidy truth.
1. Deneys Reitz, Commando (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1998). First published in Britain in 1929, the book is Reitz’s journal of a Smuts-led commando raid. Smuts is not the central character, but as the courtly commander of the daring incursion behind British lines, the book cemented his renaissance man reputation overseas.
2. Michael Green, Around and About, Memoirs of a South African Newspaperman (Claremont, South Africa: David Phillip Publishers, 2004), p. 28. A long-time journalist in the English-speaking stronghold of Natal, Green edited the Durban Daily News for fifteen years and the Sunday Tribune for three years before his retirement in 1992.
3. See, inter alia, the evolution of the treatment of Smuts in South African school textbooks. A Standard 10 text published originally in 1987 was ambivalent: “...a man of brilliant intellectual gifts, but he did not inspire love and loyalty.” Describing his return to politics in World War II, “Smuts smiled in his beard, his mind far away on the battlefields of the world.” A.P.J. van Rensburg and F.S.G. Oosthuizen, Active History , Standard 10 (Cape Town: ABC Press, 1997). A private examination preparation guide concentrates on Smuts’s of 1924 and 1948 electoral defeats to more extreme white supremacists, emphasizing in the latter case his disputes with black and Indian leadership, the U.N, and the rising tide of Afrikaner nationalism, even citing sympathetically his “personal hurt”: …To think…that I have been beaten by the Broederbond!...”my old comrades have turned against me.” Patrick McMahan and Eleanor Schulman, X-kit, History HG and SG (Cape Town: Creda Communications, 2005), pp. 5, 18-19, 26-27, 28-32.
9. For a telling of Smuts’s crucial role in working with Wilson in the creation of the League of Nations, see F.P. Walters, A History of the League of Nations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952), Vol. 1, p. 27.
12. “Sundown Towns,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas, http://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=3658; Elliot Jaspin, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America.(New York: Basic Books, 2007). Fulbright devotees like to point out the small black population of his home town and upland region (2 percent), suggesting that it made him less of a hard-bitten racist than other Jim Crow politicians. It would have been impossible for him, however, not to have known about the forced expulsions of the relatively small population of blacks from much of the Ozarks, including parts of his own Washington County, that occurred throughout his childhood. The fact that their numbers were never large made the racial cleansings possible, in contrast to the plantation districts and cities that depended on blacks for labor and where they were present in much larger numbers. The literature documenting these expulsions is recent; the collective denial of their occurrence for much of the twentieth century is part of the larger story of the world that molded Fulbright and determined his politics.
13. From the webpage of the Australian-American Fulbright Commission, http://www.fulbright.au.com/the-commission/program/history.html. Australia of course shares with the American South a notorious legacy of race relations not only domestically, but also in its “white Australia” immigration policy and its leadership (allied with Smuts’ South Africa) to block Japanese efforts to include language barring racial discrimination in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
14. The link between racial policies at home and American influence abroad has been the subject of a substantial literature. See, inter alia, Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line, American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Brenda Gayle Plummer, ed., Window on Freedom, Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs, 1945-1988 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); and Renee Romano, “No Diplomatic Immunity: African Diplomats, the State Department, and Civil Rights, 1961-1964,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 87, No. 2 (September, 2000), pp. 546-579.
15. Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings, American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2006), pp. 172-179 (“His Southern background may also explain his special gift for looking at the underside of a power relationship…and further shed light on his idea of economic—and cultural imperialism…”). Though Arndt does not reference any sources for this observation, it is the same argument made by the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward in his classic, “The Irony of Southern History” (The Journal of Southern History, Vol. XIX, 1953). Fulbright undoubtedly was familiar with fellow Arkansan Woodward’s essay. Woodward posited that the Southerner brought a badly needed perspective of humility to American global power, one that had undergone trial by defeat and occupation and thus stood to mitigate the hubris that Reinhold Niebuhr had warned about in The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952). The double irony was that Woodward (an outspoken liberal on civil rights) was speaking about Southern whites, not the Southern blacks who had themselves been subjected to humiliation for a much longer period than whites. Woodward’s (and Fulbright’s) failure to grasp the double irony betrayed a racial blind spot that stood out as a gaping contradiction overseas. In her Propaganda, Inc (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1998), Nancy Snow cites a definition for propaganda as “instruments of psychological warfare aimed at influencing the actions of human beings in ways that are compatible with the national-interest objectives of the purveying state.” (p. 32, quotation from Lawrence Ziring, Jack C. Plano, and Roy Olton, International Relations: A Political Dictionary, 5th Edition (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1995). Interestingly, she opens her text with the following quotation from Senator Fulbright: “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment.”
17. For a summary of the 1974 Democratic Senate primary campaign in Arkansas, see Alan I. Abramowitz and Jeffrey Allan Segal, Senate Elections, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), pp. 56-60.
18. Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr (1894-1948), Afrikaans-speaking intellectual and politician who was widely viewed at Smuts’ successor before his untimely death six months after the defeat of their United Party in 1948. A Rhodes scholar, he was known as a liberal on race matters who had taught and served as administrator of the English-medium Witwatersrand University, the link that undoubtedly informed him about the Mondlane case and led him to bring it to Smuts’s attention.
19. “NBC Radio Discussion, University of Chicago Roundtable with Melville J. Herskovits, Eduardo Mondlane, and Edwin S. Munger,” January 6, 1952, Herbert Shore Collection, Oberlin College Archives. SC 30/337, Box No. 4.
20. Arthur Keppel-Jones: When Smuts goes: a history of South Africa from 1952 to 2010: first published in 2015. (London: Victor Gollanz Ltd., 1947). A dystopic look at the country’s future released in what turned out to be the last year of Smuts’ final government, the book predicted a Nazi-like fascist Nationalist regime that would increasingly isolate itself from the West, prompting harsh crackdowns on black rebellions that would lead to British and American military intervention. Keppel-Jones was wrong about the Nationalists’ capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, such its embrace of Israel and (later) its own white English-speakers, as well as the willingness of the West to use force. What he got right, however, was the country’s race-driven isolationism that would lead the West to apply non-violent pressure for change. His scenario of violent revolt arguably played out in the case of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, ironically ruled by the same brand of English-speakers Keppel-Jones saw as South Africa’s hope. White South Africans eventually were sobered by the example of Rhodesia’s disastrous choice to use force to quell a well-armed insurgency. In the case of Angola, the twin interventions of Cuba and South Africa led to costly losses for the South African Defense Force that shattered the myth (already damaged by Rhodesia) of automatic white superiority on the battlefield.