John is Assistant Professor of History at Duquesne University. He is an historian of the British Empire, with a particular focus on settler colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His book, Race and Imperial Defence in the British World 1870-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), examined the cultural links between Britain and the self-governing Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and he is currently working on a new project on the origins of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. You can follow him on Twitter at @johncmitcham.
The past year placed considerable strain on the transatlantic security relationship. Donald Trump’s antagonism towards NATO and his dismissive comments towards British politicians makes him the most unpopular American president in Britain since James Madison. Meanwhile, Britain’s convulsion in the politics of Brexit has led some policymakers looking beyond NATO and the EU to a rapprochement with the old Commonwealth and the United States—what some romanticists term the “Anglosphere.”
In many ways this is old wine in new bottles. One hundred years ago, British delegates at the Paris Peace Conference pursued very similar diplomatic and security aims: the creation of an Anglo-American world order.
We often view the origins of the “special relationship” which grew up between Britain and America during the Second World War through the lens of elite British and American policymakers. This perspective overlooks the important role of powerful figures from the self-governing Dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa played in forging transatlantic ties in the aftermath of Versailles. These individuals, many of whom feared the gradual decline of Britain’s global power, became the most fervent supporters of an informal alliance between a more internationalist United States and a devolved British Commonwealth of co-equal partners.
One of the silent figures in this story was South African General Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950). An Afrikaner and former commando leader during the Boer War, Smuts became a prominent imperial statesman and provided a strong voice in articulating closer cooperation with the United States. His long career demonstrates the importance that colonial leaders played in shaping Anglo-American security relations in the first decades of the Twentieth Century
Smuts and the British War Effort
Smuts is one of the more enigmatic figures I’ve come across in the research for my new book project. He was a philosopher and liberal humanitarian yet white racial supremacist, a Boer nationalist and later an invited member of the British War Cabinet, a founder of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and yet an early engineer of Apartheid. His ODNB entry makes sense of him in this way: “He remains a curiously elusive if not evasive figure, as his frequent sobriquet, Slim (‘crafty’) Jannie, suggests.”
Smuts became a bulwark of the British Empire during the First World War. In 1914, he planned the invasion of German Southwest Africa and suppressed a rebellion from Afrikaner nationalists. In 1916, he assumed command of the fledgling British East Africa campaign. Though ultimately unsuccessful in capturing the elusive German commander in the area, von Lettow-Vorbeck, he became identified in some political circles as the kind of rugged, masculine leader needed to run the British war effort. The (increasingly unstable) former First Sea Lord, Sir Jackie Fisher, even suggested giving Smuts command of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, where he “would walk along the seashore to Antwerp covered the British Fleet, and would land a million Russians on the Pomeranian Coast . . .”
In 1917, Smuts travelled to London to represent the Union at the 1917 Imperial War Conference. Along with Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, Smuts demanded a new direction for the war effort, including solving the troublesome Irish Question, readdressing British military operations on the Western Front, and discussing postwar political reforms. The quiet South African so impressed his British hosts that David Lloyd George offered him military command of the Middle Eastern theatre. Smuts declined the position, though he remained in London as a member of the new War Cabinet. In this capacity, Smuts became the right-hand man and “fixer” for Lloyd George. Between July 1917 and February 1918, Smuts regularly visited the Western Front, helped plan the Palestine offensive, attended the Rapallo Conference, met with Austrian peace delegates in Switzerland, and chaired the air organization committee that established the Royal Air Force.
Smuts, the Commonwealth, and the United States
Smuts quickly emerged as one of the intellectual founders of the Commonwealth idea. In a much-celebrated speech before both houses of Parliament, he laid out a model for a devolved empire. His Commonwealth was a global community of co-equal, self-governing states that could uphold the dual pillars of liberalism and white-supremacy.
But Smuts also saw a place for the United States in this new global order. Like many Boers of his generation, Smuts admired America for its republicanism and racial segregation policies. He also recognized the growing power of the American republic and the central role it would play in the new century. From his position within Lloyd George’s inner circle, the colonial statesman quietly embarked on a personal campaign to improve cooperation with the United States.
The general recognized that he was immensely popular in America. During the South African War, US newspaper coverage often characterized the Boers as plucky freedom fighters not unlike American founding fathers. In 1917, a group of American academics sought to bring him over on a speaking tour. The Colonial Office and the British War Mission in Washington DC readily agreed, as he could explain the war from “a colonial view.”
Instead, Smuts approached Lloyd George with an unusual proposal: that he should command the newly formed American Expeditionary Force! “Pershing is very commonplace, without real war experience, and already overwhelmed by the initial difficulties of a job too big for him,” he confided in a June 1918 letter. Smuts pointed out that Americans would never agree to a British officer commanding their troops, but a colonial officer might pass muster, especially one with a history of fighting AGAINST the empire. One can imagine a Boer commando general in slouch hat leading Doughboys in the final offensives of the war. Not surprisingly, Lloyd George declined to take up his suggestion.
Smuts subsequently pursued other avenues. During the second half of 1918, Smuts turned his attention to the issue of postwar security and the inevitable peace conference. Of course Smuts, like other Dominion leaders, harbored territorial ambitions, including control of German Southwest Africa, German East Africa, as well as neighboring Portuguese territories. Wilson and his pesky “Fourteen Points” was a barrier to a grand design for a “Greater South Africa” from the Cape to the Zambezi River. But unlike the fiery Australian Premier Billy Hughes, who balked at American idealism, Smuts actively promoted collaboration with the United States.
This was partly idealistic; Smuts greatly respected Woodrow Wilson, a fellow philosopher, liberal, and racial segregationist. But he also recognized the need for the United States to play the part of a global power. In other words, Smuts’ vision of a new world order required a strong, internationalist United States to join the Commonwealth as co-equal partners. Shortly after the armistice, he hosted leading American newspaper editors where he encouraged greater American involvement in world affairs. Colonials like himself, he assured them, would embrace the new relationship “because we know that you are not only with us but of us.”
With his colleagues in the War Cabinet, Smuts was even blunter. In a secret memo, he urged behind the scenes collaboration with the American delegation at Versailles. “In doing so, we are only following the line of our true policy for the future which will no doubt link the two great democratic Commonwealths in a common destiny. Language, interest, and ideals alike mark them out for political comradeship in the great developments of the future. This is especially true of the Dominions. . . . All fundamental considerations of policy point to our having to cooperate with the USA in future world-politics.”
Smuts recognized that United States would never accede to a binding alliance with a European power. Instead, he sought to use the League of Nations as a vehicle for cementing an Anglo-American global system. In December 1918, he penned an immensely important memorandum calling for a world organization based on the evolving British Commonwealth, “which remains the only embryo league of nations because it is based on the true principles of national freedom and political decentralization.” The takeaway was clear: Wilson’s pet project for world peace could only be assured by an informal alliance between the United States and the Commonwealth. The Cabinet gave Wilson the memo during his visit to London, who allegedly found it quite inspiring.
Smuts and Wilson in Versailles
Which brings us to the frenzied months of the Paris Peace Conference. Smuts, so long a central character of the War Cabinet, found his role circumscribed by the presence of South African Premier Louis Botha. Lloyd George thus appointed him to the important committee tasked with drafting the League Covenant (personally chaired by Wilson). Smuts got on fabulously with the American president, who used many of the general’s ideas in framing the Covenant. This intellectual plagiarism greatly irritated Smuts, who consoled himself to one confidant “Who minds, so long as the work is done.”
Smuts also used his role on the committee to serve as a proxy between the British and American diplomats On many evenings he gathered in his hotel room with the British Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Robert Cecil, and Wilson’s personal confidant, Colonel Edward M. House, to smooth over differences between the two delegations.
The pragmatic Smuts even begrudgingly supported the mandate system as a way of placating the Americans. He viewed the mandates, under nominal League oversight, as putting a fine veneer of liberal internationalism on what he privately saw as pure colonial annexations. In making his case for South Africa to be named a mandatory power, he characterized the vast territories of German Southwest Africa as worthless deserts and its small population as primitive children in need of civilization—a thankless task that the Union would willingly shoulder. Privately, he admitted “It was like poor sinning girl’s plea that her baby was only a very little one! Not that I consider our claims to S.W. Africa sinful or wrong.”
Space constraints prevent a fuller discussion of Smuts’ time in Paris. Like Wilson, he ultimately left the peace conference deeply embittered at the Allied treatment of Germany (and American disinterest in world politics). But the former commando general would go on to a long career in international politics, twice serving as Prime Minister of South Africa (1919-1924, 1939-1948) and becoming a key confidant to Winston Churchill during the Second World War, where he encouraged the “Former Naval Person” in his dealings with the Americans. Churchill even tried to send him to the United States to parlay with Roosevelt, “as from one Dutchman to another.”
The case of Jan Smuts points to the need to view Anglo-American security relations through an imperial and global framework. The important role of Dominion personalities in forging the “special relationship” is often overshadowed by the binary focus on American and (metropolitan) British policymakers. At the same time, Smuts represents the Janus-faced nature of this emerging Anglo-American relationship. Though a philosopher and idealist, he was also an imperialist, ardent white supremacist, and practitioner of realpolitikwho promoted a quintessentially Victorian idea of international security relationship based on white, democratic, and English (or Afrikaans)-speaking nations. The language couldn’t be any more Churchillian.
Image: Winston Churchill with Field Marshal Smuts and behind, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder (left) and Sir Alan Brooke, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942 via wikimedia commons.