Jan Smuts


THE cycles of history come closer together nowadays. It was less than two decades ago that General Smuts had to run for his life before British troops, and last year he was banqueted in London, with an old enemy as toastmaster. He could not forbear contrasting the present and the past. It was in the last days of the Boer War that General French had cornered him in a nasty block of mountains. By a dash through ‘Murderer’s Gap,’where he alone of his company escaped, the Boer leader got past the British ring fence. Two days later, with other forces, he reached the railway and halted to let a freight train pass, only to learn afterwards that French had been on the train. In the jests as to the hospitality which each missed giving the other, there was an implicit comment upon British policy and its consequences. Smuts’s whole career is, indeed, such a comment.

Jan Smuts comes of Cape Colony farming people; his father had been a member of the legislature of the Colony. From Stellenbosch College he went to Cambridge University, and spent three quiet years reading English law, graduating with a double first. He returned to South Africa, a thoughtful young man, who liked to look back to the Dutch origin of his country, and was hardly aware of the influence of Britain upon him. As a lawyer and writer on political subjects, he quickly gained Kruger’s notice, who made him State Attorney of the Transvaal when he was only twenty-eight.

With the outbreak of the war he at once became a leader of soldiers, and soon won fame for skillful and rapid movement. During the last months of the conflict he was able to elude the closing net of the British, and prolong the war. His conduct of warfare was as splendid as his strategy. ‘No Bayard ever behaved better to any enemy,’ testified an English officer who had been his prisoner.

One of the signers of the Peace of Vereeniging, he recognized that it was the part of wise men to accept the inevitable. Three years of rough out-ofdoor life had made over the asceticlooking student into a vigorous, active man, fit for the political wars ahead. He became Botha’s first lieutenant in the Het Volk, or People’s Party. When, in 1906, the Liberal Party came into power in Great Britain, Smuts journeyed to London, assured CampbellBannerman, of old the friend of the Boers and now Prime Minister, that the Boers could be trusted, and went back to Pretoria with the knowledge that the Transvaal was to be given selfgovernment.

When Botha became head of the government, Smuts took the place next him. The two men lived up to their promises to Britain. It was evidence of their loyalty that in 1907 they sent English soldiers against Boer strikers, some of them old companions in arms.

Already the movement for a union of the British states of South Africa had been started by Lord Selborne. To that project Botha and Smuts were, from the first, committed. As leaders of the Transvaal, the wealthiest of the four states and the one with most to lose by union, they were in a position of vantage to urge union. The Constitutional Convention at length agreed upon was Smuts’s opportunity. His whole life had been a preparation for it. No one in South Africa understood better the evolution and practice of responsible ministries. He took it upon himself to master all the colonial constitutions. It is said that, in the week before the Convention, when he was away on his farm reflecting on the plan, he made a test of proportional voting among his men. In the actual work of the Convention, he played one of the larger rôles. The result was a new state, — not a federation; Smuts had opposed the plan of a federation, — built on British models, with much adjustment to particular conditions.

Botha became Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa and gave Smuts three portfolios — Mines, Interior, and Defense. Could he have foreseen the rough seas and headwinds against which he was to steer the ship of state, he must have hesitated. The problems of South Africa were its own. The question of the negro, of his rights and the control exercised over him, the question of imported labor from India, — there were already more coolies in Natal than white men, — and the question of the Dutch and English language in the schools, were all of them charged with danger. No less serious was the continuous strife between capitalists of the Rand and miners who might precipitate anarchy at any time.

Most difficult was the question of the relations of the Dutch and English, a question always reappearing in new forms. Many of the Dutch hoped to use self-government to win back all that Kruger had kept in his most unreasonable days. Many of the English feared lest the ‘logic of the stricken field’ was to be reversed. But Botha and Smuts held on to the policy that the two peoples must work together. Otherwise, said Smuts, the white man would be driven from South Africa by the ‘overwhelming majority of prolific barbarism.’ There are already five negroes to one white man.

During the years from 1910 to 1913 Botha and Smuts piloted the new state through uncharted and perilous seas without wreck. Botha was the great popular figure, — but a statesman nevertheless, — and Smuts was the parliamentary leader. His brains, said an enemy, constituted the greatest danger to South Africa. If he lacks Lloyd George’s capacity for taking the centre of the stage, if he lacks his dynamic personality, he has his gift as a conciliator; if he lacks Asquith’s calmness and measured language, he has his ability to state issues clearly and to force measures through. He is, I am inclined to think, more thorough than either.

His main interest was defense. The Defense Act of 1912 was all that any National Security League could wish. From 1907, when Botha talked defense with Haldane, Smuts’s was a voice prophesying war. During a time when suave British statesmen were talking kindly of the German and discounting his intentions, Smuts was telling South Africa that war might be close at hand, and that they must arm. He could not indeed refrain from warning the British of their danger.

‘We have been going ahead very fast in South Africa,’ he once remarked: ‘it is not surprising that some of our people are unable to keep the pace.’ By 1913 it was evident that the reaction was setting in. General Hertzog broke with the Botha Cabinet on the question of imperial defense, and led away a part of the South African party. It was the overture to the jangled music of 1914. That rebellion broke out with the opening of the European War is not so surprising as that it was quelled. That several thousand Boers saw the chance to regain what they had lost in 1900 is easily understood. Only the prudence and swift action of Botha and Smuts, with the troops armed under the Defense Act, saved the situation.

Why did they choose to save it? Why did they not use the chance to set up an independent government? They could not have been stopped. It was a case where clearheadedness and a sense of honor determined them. They recognized the threat to their own country from German intrigues and ambitions; they knew that the protection afforded by the British Navy was not to be estimated slightly. Moreover, they had learned to trust Britain. Yet there was a more binding reason for loyalty. The promises made in 1906 could not be dismissed. ‘Out of the late great war,’ said Smuts, ‘the Boer public brought little except their good name. They are not going to allow any one to drag that good name in the dust.’

To prevent that contingency, however, meant fighting old comrades, meant the pursuit and capture of De Wet, and the execution of Fourie. It was a hard business even for the strong, and Smuts and Botha bore the brunt of it. South Africa knows, if Britain does not, the debt of the British Empire to two men.

The suppression of rebellion was followed by the easier, but by no means simple, task of conquering German Southwest Africa. Botha and Smuts had hardly returned from that to the turmoil of home politics,when the latter was called to East Africa. There is no space to describe that campaign. Smuts used his strategy of the Boer War, enveloping movements and long rapid marches that demanded almost more than men could give. East Africa had been nearly won when he was summoned to London to represent South Africa in the Imperial War Conference and the Imperial War Cabinet. In June of 1917 he was asked to attend the sessions of the British War Cabinet. On at least two occasions since then he has been the mouthpiece of the government. His several speeches have commanded attention throughout the world. And, though he is sorely needed in South Africa, where things are going far from well, England finds herself unable to spare him.

His interest in his own country has been no whit lessened by his new responsibilities. The story of that nation he has called ‘the one great and true romance of modern history.’ Nor does he believe its destiny yet accomplished. He has dreamed of a nation that would reach to the Zambesi or farther, and he has had a part in making real those dreams. He has that wide perspective to which German politicians aspire. He is given to comparing the South African state with the American Republic in its early days. He would see in a hundred years a great and powerful democracy such as ours. Yet, though proud of recent progress and hopeful of the immediate future, as pioneer statesmen are wont to be, he has an old-world pessimism about the far outcome. It is characteristic that he regards our nation as still in the experimental stage; characteristic, too, that he fears a South Africa all black again.

He is afraid that Germans will aid in making it black. In a recent address he has said that the aims of the Germans in Africa were really not colonial, but were dominated by far-reaching conceptions of world-politics. They planned a great Central African Empire which was to include British, French, and Portuguese possessions, with bases on both oceans. Toward this objective they were marching before the war. They would like to resume their march. They would make their territories great recruiting grounds for native armies, before which the untrained levies of the Union of South Africa would easily go down. The preservation of that Union makes necessary a new Monroe Doctrine.

Neither his dreams nor his care for South Africa have availed to make him a popular figure. He has more enemies than any other man in South Africa. He does not stand in the public estimate, as Botha does, on a high moral elevation. If the voters concede his ability, even his greatness, most of them do not love him. He is too much an intellectual, too sharp and quick in combat, too blunt-spoken. His efforts, in close elections, to be a good fellow have provoked only amused and derisive comment. Much of his success in politics he would be the first to ascribe to that superior to whom he has ever been loyal — Botha. His victories in Parliament, like Wilson’s with Congress, have been those of the man who had the best arguments. God is sometimes on the side of the strongest reasons.

‘Slim Jannie’ his enemies call him, and say that Machiavelli’s Prince is his textbook. ‘Of course Smuts is smooth,’ is the way Englishmen who return from South Africa put it. It is hard for one at a distance to determine just how much that means. He has, to be sure, been very adroit in handling legislatures; he knows the subtle ways in which conflicting forces are brought together. Like every politician who has kept his head above water, he has been something of an opportunist. Yet to an outsider he seems to have pursued certain policies with a consistency of purpose that is unusual, and he has not been too much concerned about the fate of his head.

If he were not wanted, he told his constituents, he would seek the shade of a large tree and read ‘some interesting book or other.’ The book might be Kant, or Grotius, or Joseph Conrad. And the tree would be on his own farm, where he could talk Bergson to his wife, and tell his boys of battles not far off or long ago.


To the British situation, he comes with peculiar advantages. He is the first man in the history of British politics who is of the government and yet detached from it. He is not identified with the Liberal party, although he will hardly forget what that party did for South Africa. He has not even the prejudices that a colonial is likely to have acquired. He has no predilections on the tariff. On labor questions it is true that his record will not commend him to the British Labor party, who will have more to say before they have less. Yet, when he declares that there must be less poverty and less luxury after the war, more economic freedom for all workers, and no idleness, he is not so far away from the programme of the committee of the Labor party, from the so-called ‘hand and brain’ movement — what hand and brain went ever paired? His outlook withal is so untouched by politics that Northcliffe organs and dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives can scarce forbear to praise, while the Webbs and Chestertons welcome it. That is, of course, much of his strength. He can examine British questions as an outsider, but he understands the ways in which British folk move forward better, than they themselves understand them.

He has advantages that few colonials possess. It is just possible that there might come from another colony a mind just as fertile, an intelligence just as thorough. But no other colony could offer one who has been twice a warrior, who has had to deal with strikers ready to shoot him, who has gone through the bitterest politics, — he has been hammered with brickbats and gone on his way to the next meeting, — and who has had to put down rebellion. If experience makes wise, he should be qualified for the most difficult tasks of empire. He has been compelled to be a man of action and wisdom. If he has not always been wise, he knows how to profit from mistakes. For he is, above all, a philosopher and has learned to unify philosophy and experience.

About the future of the British Empire he is not dogmatic. He is, however, clearly out of sympathy with those who wish a closer organization of the Empire. To him that Empire — he would like to drop the word — is a system of nations. In that system the colonies must no longer occupy inferior or subordinate places. He would have no parliament or common executive — the problems of the colonies are so different. ‘The British Commonwealth of Nations does not stand for standardization or assimilation, or denationalization but . . . for a more various life among all the nations that compose it.’

There must of course be common action. Foreign questions can no longer be left to Britain alone. There must be a joint policy, which means a much simpler policy than heretofore. This involves some sort of machinery, and it is characteristic of Smuts’s training that he proposed to take hold of that already in use since the war. Let the annual meeting of colonial premiers and representatives be made a permanent institution. This suggestion he had hardly thrown out when it was announced that an Imperial Cabinet had been determined upon. Such an organization of the Empire, he pointed out, need rouse no fears, since it could be no more a menace to the world. Such an organization could be set into the League of Nations; ‘the British Empire is the only League of Nations that has ever existed.’ It must furnish one of the bases of that League.

Will not this mean the dissolution of the British Empire? Smuts would probably answer that it is held together — and will continue to be held together — only by common traditions and common defense.

Because of his eagerness to see the conquered parts of Africa retained, he has been put down by some as an oldstyle Imperialist, with the familiar creed that all wars should end in the extension of British territory. That he has welcomed the project of the Capeto-Cairo railroad merely proves the point. Yet in those proposals he has chiefly been interested in the security of his own country, in its economic development, yes, and in its expansion. He wants a great free South Africa, great enough and strong enough to maintain the white man’s position. He is really a Nationalist. It is because of that, because he recognizes the selfinterest of the several states in the preservation of the Empire, that he is loyal to the Empire. He believes in the Empire, but not as Disraeli and Chamberlain believed in it. It is, indeed, from their disciples that he meets most opposition in England. He is sympathetic with the best aspects of British Imperialism — and he has known the worst.

He has not, indeed, forgotten the Boer War. There is hardly a speech in which he does not refer to it. He has dared to tell the English, when they are dining him, that they were ‘wrong, very wrong’ in South Africa, that they fought against liberty. And the English, save for murmurs from the Saturday Review, have continued to present him with the freedom of their cities, cities with monuments to the dead of the South African War. That could not happen in Germany. It could happen nowhere, except within the British Empire, and at no time but the present. The water goes under the bridge faster nowadays.

It is not so surprising that he should favor a league of nations. It is true that he has mingled with men of a practical sort who are likely to be more cynical than poets or pacificists about the federation of man. It is true that he has lived most of his life in a corner of one continent. Yet he thinks and speaks as a liberal-minded citizen of the world, who is not afraid to dip into the future. If he is afraid of machinery and paper leagues, if he places much dependence upon the progress of public opinion and a change in the hearts of men, he nevertheless yields his full adherence to a federation, one with force behind it. That force must be exercised to put nations that have got off the rails back upon them. About the details of the plan he refuses to dogmatize: it is hard, he admits, to frame a practicable scheme. In America, indeed, they have thought much upon this matter and have written a large literature upon it. America has ‘an ideal in the clouds, while Europe has labored in the trough of the sea.’ The League of Nations must be established, he insists, in the peace treaty at the end of the war. It must provide for gradual disarmament. But it must withal be flexible. We do not want another Holy Alliance, an institution wholly conservative. ‘There are sometimes interests more important than peace.’ There will arise ‘new creations more valuable than the preservation of the status quo.'

One cannot read what he has to say, without putting him down as one of the ablest public men of our day. He has indeed been chary of words. And he cannot be called an eloquent speaker. He has struck out, so far as I know, no phrases that have become the catchwords of politics — we have come to expect that much of our statesmen. He has little feeling of the rhythm of English sentences and no subtlety in fitting words together. But he is clear as the sunlight of his South Africa; he is downright, as we expect old warriors to be; and he phrases things in a way that is fresh, not only because he has come from a far land where even figures of speech are different, but because he has reflected much and reduced many things to their simplest terms.

It has recently come out rather accidentally, but in a way that seems trustworthy, that at Christmas-time he was sent to Switzerland by the British government, to talk with Count Mensdorff of Austria, doubtless with a view to detaching that nation from the Central Powers. The fact is indicative of his future tasks. He will certainly be one of the spokesmen of the Empire in the events that are ahead —whether Lloyd George and Milner rule, or Asquith, or Henderson.

In the reshaping of the world, his attitude is sure to be one acceptable to the idealist, American or British. He can be depended upon to stand by Belgium, Poland, Serbia, and Roumania. President Wilson will not be more insistent upon the security of the small nations. Smuts will stand for their rights, not only because he is one of the political idealists, — though more reticent than some in the expression of that idealism, — but because his whole life has been involved in the struggle for a small nation, and because he has fallen under the liberalizing influence of the British constitution. It is evident that he believes in a larger degree of self-government for India. And one who has had so large a part in bringing the states of South Africa together might conceivably understand better than Asquith or Lloyd George how to grasp that nettle, Ireland.

Like President Wilson, he is sympathetic with the Russian people. They have been called barbarians by the Germans, but they saved Europe from Napoleon, they have ‘ always gone for the Turks whenever they saw them.’ Their present plight is, of course, Germany’s opportunity. ‘ Russia is a woman laboring in childbirth, and Germany chooses this moment to strike her down. The spirit of history will never forgive her.’

His ‘war aims’ are simplicity itself. He demands lasting peace, the end of militarism and standing armies; national principles must be admitted, at least to the point of autonomy. The ruling classes of Germany must be broken. He has said nothing about a ‘negotiated peace’ or about a ‘diplomatic offensive.’ ‘What was brought about by blood and iron will have to be undone in the same way.’ Yet, ‘We could not be crusaders and fight on till Europe was in decay and we had got rid of the Kaiser and all the other evils.’ Has any one stated the aims of the war with more common sense?

It is as ‘a warrior for liberty’ that Smuts is most fitly characterized. Liberty and Freedom are words that have not lost their savor for him. History is the record of their progress. The struggles of Hampden and Pym, of Cromwell and Dutch William, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Boer War, and the present struggle are to him scenes in the same play. History and his own life have made him hopeful as to the outcome. ‘I have seen freedom go under, and I have seen freedom rise again.’

If freedom does rise again, his voice is sure to have weight in the councils of the new world of free nations.