Jan Smuts and the Racial Origins of Five Eyes

Jan Smuts and the Racial Origins of Five Eyes

Scholars typically place the origins of “Five Eyes” in the high-level cooperation that took place between the United States and the British Commonwealth during the Second World War. Yet the intellectual genesis of this international security partnership can be traced to an earlier period. 


As far back as the late nineteenth century, prophets on both sides of the Atlantic spoke of a future super-state  comprised of the emerging white democracies of the English-speaking world.  Though more commonly associated with the British Empire, this romanticized and highly racialized “Greater Britain” included a place for the United States as well. 

One of the central personalities in this story was the South African general Jan Christian Smuts. Though largely forgotten by modern scholars, Smuts was one of the most enigmatic statesmen of the twentieth century. He was a proud Afrikaner who later became a British Field Marshal, a Cambridge-trained lawyer and philosopher who helped to found the League of Nations and the United Nations, and yet a staunch white supremacist who engineered South Africa’s early racial segregation laws. 

For our purposes, Smuts was the intellectual architect of a liberal imperialist world order that laid the foundation for Five Eyes. Smuts’ voluminous papers at the National Archives in Pretoria is full of anxious correspondence about the external threats facing white society and “Western Civilization.” Only a co-equal security relationship between Britain, the Dominions, and the United States, it seemed, could avert disaster. 


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Jan Smuts became a household name during the First World War. His suppression of a rebellion by Afrikaner nationalists earned him command of British and imperial forces in the German East Africa campaign. In 1917, he represented South Africa at the Imperial War Conference, co-authoring a resolution that acknowledged the Dominions as “autonomous nations of an Imperial Commonwealth.” Smuts spent the remainder of the war in London as an invited member of the British War Cabinet and David Lloyd George’s righthand man. 

Jan Smuts was a man who “transcended nationality,” as Churchill later eulogized, who crisscrossed the globe, earning the trust of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers.

Smuts aptly recognized that a rapprochement with the United States was key to the empire’s long-term survival. “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,” he explained to his colleagues on the War Cabinet. “All fundamental considerations of policy point to our having to cooperate with the USA in future world-politics.”

The British Government seemingly agreed and sought to employ the popular South African as an intermediary with the Americans. The Foreign Office suggested sending Smuts on a speaking tour to the United States. Instead, the general made a brazen offer: that he should command the inexperienced American Expeditionary Force! The suggestion went nowhere, but the incident illuminates how Smuts felt that his status as a “colonial” would allow him to assume a vital  linchpin role in the Anglo-American relationship.

Smuts subsequently turned to the League of Nations as an avenue for building closer ties with the United States. At the Paris Peace Conference, Smuts forged a strong bond with Woodrow Wilson (a fellow liberal, academic, and white supremacist). Together the two men drafted a League Covenant that Smuts hoped would guarantee world peace under a Pax Anglo-Americana. The ultimate failure of the United States to play the part of an interventionist Great Power would be one of his many disappointments with the Treaty of Versailles.

Space restraints allow only a cursory discussion of Smuts’ frenzied activities  during the Second World War. As the empire’s senior statesman, he commanded immense respect on the global stage. Smuts acted as a close confidant of Winston Churchill, who considered sending him to Washington to negotiate with Franklin Roosevelt “as from one Dutchman to another.”  King George VI even considered designating him as Churchill’s successor in the event of the British leader’s untimely death. Smuts finished the war by authoring the preamble to the United Nations Charter. Despite its platitudes about internationalism and common humanity, Smuts hoped that the organization would enable the United States and the Commonwealth to act (alongside the Soviets) as the world’s policemen.  

Photo by Yousuf Karash

I’ll conclude with a brief anecdote that illuminates how Smuts’ personal diplomacy presaged the intelligence-sharing networks of Five Eyes. In early 1944, Churchill tasked the South African premier with addressing suggestions that the atomic bomb project be shared with the Soviets. Though sympathetic to concerns about international safeguards, Smuts adamantly insisted that any decisions about the nuclear bomb should be based on mutual consent between the American President and the British Prime Minister. The Manhattan Project was the most closely guarded secret of the transatlantic alliance, he argued, and thus the basis of an enduring bond.

What does the case of Jan Smuts tell us about the “pre-History” of Five Eyes? On the one hand, a highly romanticized idea of racial unity forged in the legacy of empire was the cultural glue for this unique global community. Of course, South Africa was never a formal member of the Five Eyes arrangement, but the popular image of a “White Man’s World” propagated by Smuts and other Commonwealth elites was central to the postwar liberal order so cherished by policymakers in Washington, Canberra, London, Ottawa, and Wellington. 

On the other hand, this early-twentieth-century  relationship was built upon personal trust. It was an era when nation-state identities  were less fluid, allowing for a transnational cast of characters to work together in defence of a settler-colonial   worldview.  Jan Smuts was a man who “transcended nationality,” as Churchill later eulogized, who crisscrossed the globe, earning the trust of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers. This is a reminder that scholars must look beyond formal institutions and think critically about the key individuals that made them work. 


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Read another great blog in this series: The Anglosphere Mythscape in Australian Prime Ministers’ Speeches by Tania Zeissig
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