This Is Smuts

WILLIAM D. BAYLES December 15 1943

This Is Smuts

WILLIAM D. BAYLES December 15 1943

This Is Smuts


AMAN, later described as “The only peacemaker at Versailles,” prophesied in 1917: “We shall win this war but lose the peace, and all who are directing in this war will lose their reputation.”

The peace treaties were dishonored; the ideals for which millions bled became ashes in the mouths of a dead generation; the statesmen and peacemakers were written off as failures or fools, and in desperation the world returned to battle. Out of these cataclysmic years one figure emerges untouched by the iconoclastic fury of a frustrated age—Jan Christiaan Smuts, the author of that prophecy.

Since that day, 43 years ago, when an inflamed young Boer led the first commando, comprising 250 Dutch farmers, in a mad ride across South Africa and into the front page of world history, Jan Christiaan Smuts has stood in the vanguard of those who would turn world agitation into world betterment. In South Africa, where he is Prime Minister, Chief of the War Cabinet, Minister of Defense, Minister of the Exterior, Commander in Chief of the Defense Forces and Leader of the United Party in the House of Parliament, he is familiarly known as “Oubaas” (Old Boss), and his home is a ramshackle, old tin-roofed farmhouse near Pretoria, which he bought for $1,500. In the wider world that surrounds South Africa, he has attained renown as a military genius, statesman, philosopher and scientist, holding the rank of field marshal in the British Army and degrees from 21 universities.

Already a great leader when he introduced the exalted concept of a Society of Nations to the hate-racked world of 1918, General Smuts stands today a patriarch among leaders. His arrival in England on his first visit of this war was like the coming of some Old Testament prophet to bring comfort from the mountain to a troubled people. He described himself as “a

mythical figure from a bygone age,” but both houses of the Mother of Parliaments sat humbly at his feet to hear him confirm, from his vast store of knowledge and experience, the principles and realities which, after four years of war, we are at last beginning to understand.

I was fortunate in obtaining an interview with this great man and when I arrived at the rambling old Victorian hotel in Kensington that General Smuts had chosen for his residence, in preference to the fashionable Mayfair establishments, I slipped past five English journalists sitting in the lobby. I had learned, through experience, the unwisdom of framing a preconceived mental picture of any distinguished personage I was about to meet for the first time, but I nevertheless conjured up a kind of surrealist fantasy of field marshal’s insignia, military pomp and stiff formality surrounding a neatly cropped Vandyke beard. I was wrong.

The door of Suite 202 was opened by General Smuts himself. The Vandyke beard was there but that was all. He was wearing two hand-knit pull-over sweaters, one faded grey and the other frayed khaki, and a pair of well-worn, red leather house slippers. His khaki uniform trousers would never have passed the critical eye of an inspecting sergeant. They were decidedly baggy, and the knot of his tie had been slipped loose to give greater neck freedom. At one time during the next hour General Smuts shook a long forefinger under my nose and said, “True greatness, my young friend, breeds humbleness, and don’t you ever forget it. It’ll give you a good yardstick for measuring men.” We had just been speaking of Hitler and Mussolini.

General Smuts, who prefers not to use his field marshal title, meets his own qualifications for greatness. He greeted me with the neighborliness of a midwestern farmer. “Come in, come

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in,” he said, in a hearty voice, giving my hand a forceful grip and drawing me into an overfurnished Victorian living room. “I am glad we were both able to steal this time to meet.” He led me to a sofa, pulled up a straightback chair for himself and settled down to a “talk fest,” as one does in the country. Before long his feet were up on the arm of an adjacent chair. The soles of the slippers, I noticed, were well worn; one was through.

It soon became evident that, despite his 73 years, there is nothing senile or old about this great philosophersoldier-statesman. He has the vigor of a man of 50 and his stamina exceeds that of one half his age. His movements are quick and elastic, his robust, slightly stocky figure ramrod straight, his face well tanned by the South African sun and his blue-grey eyes clear and searching. I was surprised to find that he spoke with a slight accent, but then I remembered that his native language is not English but: Afrikaans.

On the progress and outcome of the war General Smuts was contagiously optimistic. “The tide has definitely turned,” he said. “We were undoubtedly well on the road to victory. Up to now we have witnessed the beginning of three phases of the war. One has already ended with a British triumph; t he second is on the way to completion in Russia; the third has just begun.

All are vital and all are in direct relationship to the others. Hitler launched his first assault against the British Isles. He had to do it. He could easily overrun the small countries of Europe, one after another, but he knew that unless he crushed Britain he had lost the war. He would merely be another Napoleon who had won most of Europe and then lost it because he was unable to subdue this island. His blitzkrieg through France was his approach to the British fortress, but unless you are able to storm the citadel, once you get to it, the approach itself is no victory. You know what happened. The young pilots of Britain, those youths they used to laugh at in Germany, blasted his vaunted Luftwaffe out of the English skies. They turned him back, and then, like an infuriated animal, he lunged in the other direction and attacked Russia. The first two phases were defensive. The third, in which the Allied armies move in to finish the job, has now begun. Hitler forfeited his only chance of victory when he lost the first phase, the Battle of Britain.”

As he talked, General Smuts illustrated certain points with his hands, much in the manner of a fighter pilot describing an aerial action.

When I mentioned the Axis he smiled, wryly, and shook his head as one does when a stale joke is told for the third time in a social gathering. “The Axis is on the scrapheap,” he said. “It’s odd how history sometimes repeats itself. Last time it was

Austria, and when she collapsed, Germany followed soon after.”

Britain Held the Breach

Britain’s role in the war, as the General pointed out, is essentially defensive. Hitler decided that for her when he became the aggressor and set out to conquer. Britain, standingalone. held the breach and stemmed the tide of the most fiendish onslaught in history. But for her stand a new Dark Age might have settled by now over a vast part of the world. In history the fact that she failed in Norway, Holland, Belgium and Greece will be written infinitesimally small beside the fact that in her own hour of greatest peril she stretched out a helping hand to her small neighbors and friends. By such deeds Britain, he said, is laying by the moral capital that will be necessary after the war for establishing peace and harmony in the world.

In requesting the interview, I had asked General Smuts to talk to me about the kind of world system that must be molded after the war if we are to avoid the pitfalls that became inevitable after Versailles. He turned, almost eagerly, to the task.

“Strong, fierce forces,” he said, “were on the move after the last war, forces that we didn’t understand. We had before our eyes the universal ideal of the human family and out of that ideal was born The League of Nations. We dealt then in unrealities, but we have learned many things since and now we must utilize our knowledge. We shall not go back to the universal ideal but shall aim at a partnership born out of suffering, mutual trust, work and similarity of outlook. We already have the basis for this partnership in the United Nations. In fact, under the pressure of war, our new world organization is already coming into being. The free countries are being forced irresistibly together into a great world organization.

“As I envisage it, there will be an inner and outer circle. The inner circle will undoubtedly comprise the British Commonwealth of Nations in close companionship with the United States. Our common language and similarity of democratic ideals afford strongnatural bonds to hold us together. The outer circle will be composed of the victims of totalitarian aggression throughout the world. Victory and the necessity of dealing together with problems of reform and future security will provide a further binding element, and out of our common efforts should emerge a new world community in which all nations interested in peace and ordered progress will find their natural place.”

Our policy of the future, he emphasized, must be positive and constructive. It must avoid dwelling on past wrongs or harsh penal action against old enemies. Only in this way can we hope that, in the course of time, old hatreds will be forgotten and the world will once again move along paths of peace.

When I mentioned that the victorious nations of the world would undoubtedly want some guarantee against further aggression by the guilty powers, General Smuts readily agreed. “Some countries,” he said, “must be put under a measure of control for such a time as is felt necessary for their readjustment. In this respect nations are not different from individuals. We are agreed that individuals who break the peace should be curbed. Is it not the same with nations?” He envisaged an international police force for keeping world order and suggested that one nation might supply the Air Force, another the Navy, and, perhaps, still a third the land forces.

It Won’t Be Easy

Regarding Germany, he felt that once the pistol and bomb had been pried loose from her homicidal fingers, a new start would have to be made and she would have to be drawn slowly back into the world community. “It won’t be easy, mind you,” he said. “Hate has been let loose in Europe which is appalling. Germany’s small neighbors were good neighbors, every one of them. No nation could have wished for better. Yet she fell upon them with ruthless inhumanity in a brutal attempt to exterminate them. An atmosphere of hate and distrust has been bred which only time can remove. But I am convinced that sufficient virtue is left in human nature to guarantee success if we but apply ourselves to peace in the same measure we are now applying ourselves to war.

In deciding Germany’s future, economy, he pointed out, must be given equal importance with political considerations. The Peace of Versailles was a political peace only and no economic arrangement was made for Germany to exist. “We mustn’t make the same mistake again,” he said. “We can’t have a suffering Germany and expect to have a peaceful world.” General Smuts was speaking as he had spoken 25 years before in Paris, when he bitterly opposed the harsh terms imposed on Germany and finally signed the Peace Treaty under protest.

We came to talk of the future of the small states of Europe, and General Smuts was emphatic in expressing his disagreement with those geopoliticians who would simply write off the little countries and reconstruct Europe in large units. “What a drab, colorless world it would be,” he exclaimed, “if we were to lose our small nations. To admit size and numbers as criteria for nationhood would be to accept the old Prussian idea of ‘Might is right.’ And that’s just what we are fighting against. We want no totalitarian standardization. We want the variegated pattern of the world to be preserved, and we want to see each state develop in itself, with its cultural independence intact.

“Look at the great cultural contributions that are the milestones of our civilization. Many of the greatest have come from small states. Our very civilization and democratic form of government was born in the small Greek City States. Our Christianity came from a single city—Jerusalem. And today little countries like Holland, Denmark and Sweden stand at the very top of highest culture. How much poorer we would all be without their contributions. No, my dear friend, let’s not talk such nonsense as scrapping the small countries of the world. We all know that being stronger than a neighbor doesn’t give us the right to hash him on the head and take his property.”

He agreed, though, that the small states of the future will no longer be able to go each their own way, but must fit into the larger picture and for the sake of their own security become members of the larger coalitions. The entente systems which grew out of the last war will undoubtedly be revived, though the motivating force drawing .

nations together will be economic rather than political.

Larger Groupings Coming

Our discussion of the grouping of nations led naturally to a reference to General Smuts’ philosophy of life, for he is one of the few philosophers living today who make sense His philosophy is based on evolution and he has given it the name “Holism,” from the Greek word holos meaning “The Whole.” The universe, he explained, is a process consisting of the creation of a rising series of wholes. The atom is a whole but contains an extra force which makes it tend to coalesce with other atoms to form a larger whole. These wholes then coalesce to form still larger wholes and the process continues through all evolution. General Smuts is convinced that this same process applies also to human associations and states. The British Commonwealth of Nations is an example, the United States another, and in the United Nations concept we see it working again under the pressure of war. “We are undoubtedly due for larger groupings in that process which fundamentally molds all life and history,” he said. “We have seen Australia and Canada turn naturally to the United States, and South Africa to her neighbors.”

When I mentioned the instinctive fear alive in many British breasts and asked whether he thought the British Empire would survive this regrouping, General Smuts became thoughtful for a moment. “Why not?” he then asked. “The larger whole is not antagonistic to the smaller; nor is there any reason why nations should not have multiple interests. The League of Nations did not weaken the British Empire.” Nationalism, he said, is a waning force in the world today, and with its decline the normal process of amalgamation will gain momentum.

The Victorian furniture was creeping into twilight shadows and early dusk was falling over the expanse of Hyde Park when General Smuts got up to stretch his legs. I suggested, reluctantly, that I was taking too much of his time. “No, no,” he said, turning briskly. “We haven’t talked this out yet.” He pulled his chair closer to my sofa; the slippered feet came down solidly on the opposite end of the table on which I was writing; his long fingers locked over a waistline at ease, and he was soon exploring a new crop of thoughts and ideas.

“What we must work for now,” he said, “is the riddance of old hates. Anti-Semitism, anti-Slavism, superraceism and all these other barbaric isms. We must strive for a code of decency and fair play. There is no inferiority or superiority in the world. It is all based on psychological illusion. Individuals become obsessed and their obsession is transplanted to nations. That is how such ideas grow, as that a particular nation should guide the world because its race is pure. And they think they are wise to have thought of it. What arrant nonsense! Wisdom doesn’t lie in the barbaric spirit that seeks to set the interests and culture of any particular group above all others, but in the free liberal spirit of tolerance and co-operation.

Postwar Role of U. S.

“This Herrenvolk idea,” he continued, “is a most malicious thing, and this isn’t the first time we have seen it in the world. The English once thought they were the Herrenvolk, but they got over it. Now the Germans are trying to convince us that they are. The United States may be the next. Be careful there, my young friend. Warn them against it.” General Smuts had become quite excited, he leaned close to me and his voice took on a ringing quality, as though I were a large political audience.

“What position must the United States seek to occupy in the postwar world?” I asked, recalling that General Smuts had accused the United States more than once of having shirked its duty after the last war.

He looked at me keenly for a second or two, as though trying to decide whether I. could take it, straight or would require some sugar-coating. Then he said: “The United States is

again at the centre of things, which is where it belongs as long as it is the world’s most powerful nation. It simply can’t separate itself from (lie rest of the world. Whenever (.here is trouble the United States will be in it.

“Let me speak frankly with you. America has a share of the responsibility for the plight of the world. Her secession from the League hamstrung it from the word go. And if was largely the failure of the League that led to the present war. So in abandoning the League to its fate, after taking a leading part in its formation, America helped to pave the road to our present disaster.

“Let us trust that America will now see the light. She has had two hard lessons—in the last war and in this one. Power in the world creates responsibility. In this respect nations are not different from individuals. And as the most powerful nation America holds

the greatest responsibility for the future of the world. Isolationalism, both political and economic, is dead. To think that in our closely knit world a nation can ever again isolate itself is to deal in unrealities. America’s participation in the war was inevitable from the very outset. The question was merely when, and the Japanese answered that for us. America’s participation was necessary not only for victory * but also for peace. How could we have formulated an effective, fruitful peace without America being in on it? And.I could not foresee America being in on the peace unless she had been our partner in arms and gone through the war with the rest of us.

“We shall have need of a sane, wholesome spirit to get the world back on its feet, and I look to the young nations for this. Outside influences must be brought in —from the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Those who are young and virile will have to assume an increased share of responsibility.

“We didn’t come out of the last war entirely empty - handed,” General Smuts continued. “The technical services of the League of Nations remain. Its social and economic work will continue. And out of the world’s vast suffering in that conflict we acquired a deeper sense of social realities. Now we must see to it that fliese gains are carried forward in a spirit of human solidarity.”

Dusk had fallen by the time we had “talked it out,” and the maid was pulling black-out curtains in an adjacent room. General Smuts accompanied me to the elevator. “You are young,” he said, as we shook hands, “and you will see many great things. I envy you.”