When World War I began, Smuts was defense minister under Prime Minister Botha and headed the southern offensive that took control of German Southwest Africa (the future Namibia) from the Germans. Made a British army general, Smuts then commanded British operations in East Africa. By the time World War I ended, he had joined the British Imperial War Cabinet as minister of air and helped to organize the Royal Air Force, the world's first independent air force. Smuts represented South Africa during the Paris Peace Conference, where he supported the League of Nations and helped to develop the mandate system.
On the death of Botha, Smuts became prime minister of South Africa in August 1919. He remained in that post until the Nationalists attained power in 1924. In 1933, he formed a coalition with Nationalist Party leader (James) Barry Hertzog and was deputy prime minister. On the outbreak of war with Germany, Hertzog favored South African neutrality. Smuts, who advocated war with Germany, narrowly defeated Hertzog in Parliament and became prime minister again on 6 September 1939. He was also minister of defense, and from June 1940, he commanded South African armed forces in the war. During the conflict, despite his unprecedented power, Smuts overcame significant opposition to his policies from Nazi sympathizers, although he refused to suppress his fascist opponents completely.
His longtime friend British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill frequently consulted Smuts on strategic matters. Smuts was a strong advocate of holding onto Egypt, no matter the cost; thus, South African forces, following their participation in the East Africa campaign, deployed to Egypt in late 1941. The next year, they helped to take the island of Madagascar. In 1941, Smuts was made an honorary British field marshal.
Smuts was also a staunch advocate of the formation of the United Nations (UN). He wrote its preamble and helped draft its charter. In April 1945, Smuts attended the San Francisco conference and was thus one of the UN's official founders. His internationalist outlook undoubtedly cost him political support at home, and in 1946 Smuts retired following his defeat in the general elections. Smuts died at his home near Pretoria on 11 September 1950.
Spencer C. Tucker
Hancock, W. K. Smuts. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1962, 1968.; Ingham, Kenneth. Jan Christian Smuts: The Conscience of a South African. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.; Kraus, René. Old Master: The Life of Jan Christian Smuts. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1944.