Smith, Ian Douglas

Smith, Ian Douglas
Apr. 8, 1919-Nov. 20, 2007
Rhodesian prime minister


On November 11, 1965 Rhodesia (formerly the self-governing Colony of Southern Rhodesia) unilaterally declared its independence from Great Britain-the first time a colony has bolted British rule since 1776, when the original thirteen American colonies rebelled. The leader of the revolt was Prime Minister Ian Douglas Smith, who took his nation of 220,000 white and 4,000,000 African inhabitants out of the British Commonwealth of Nations rather than promise eventually to give the African majority a larger voice in the white-dominated government. Smith, a former Royal Air Force fighter pilot and Rhodesia's first native-born Prime Minister, has vowed to forestall "African rule" in his lifetime. "The white man is the master of Rhodesia. He has built it and intends to keep it," Smith has said.

The youngest of three children and an only son, Ian Douglas Smith was born on April 8, 1919 in Seluwke, Southern Rhodesia, a small farming and mining town 180 miles southwest of the capital city of Salisbury. His father, Douglas Smith, had emigrated to Southern Rhodesia from Hamilton, Scotland in 1898 and settled in the frontier settlement of Selukwe to try cattle farming and gold mining. Locally, he is still remembered as an excellent butcher who made outstanding sausages.

According to Time magazine (November 26, 1965), Smith likes to recall that his father rubbed shoulders with Cecil Rhodes, the British-South African statesman who was responsible for the British colonization of Rhodesia. "My father," Smith said, "was one of the fairest men I have ever met, and that is the way he brought me up. He always told me that we're entitled to our half of the country and the blacks are entitled to theirs." Smith's father was active in local politics and served as chairman of the town management board. He established a school for the mulatto children of the town. "No family in our part of the country has had better relations with the Africans," Smith has said.

Ian Smith grew up in Selukwe, attending Chaplin School in nearby Gwelo and Seluwke High School. Although he was not an outstanding student, he distinguished himself on the playing fields. He was captain of the cricket, rugby, and tennis teams and set a series of sprinting records at the school that were only recently broken. The school magazine noted at the time: "Good on attack, but does not always time his passes well." He enrolled at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, but interrupted his education to join the Royal Air Force in 1939. A fighter pilot, he was serving with the 237th (Rhodesia) Squadron when he was shot down while on a strafing mission over North Africa. Seriously injured, suffering a broken leg and a badly mutilated face, Smith spent several months in a hospital in Cairo where plastic surgeons literally remade his face. Smith was left with new features, a drooping right eyelid, and a rigid expression that made it almost impossible for him to smile.

Returned to duty with his unit, Smith was on a mission over the Po Valley in Italy when his Spitfire was again shot down. He was found by Italian partisans, who took him in, and for the next five months Smith, who had been given the rank of major by the partisans, fought behind the German lines. Then, dressed like a peasant, he worked his way north, crossed the Alps on foot in five days and was finally able to reach the Allied line. At the time of his discharge in 1945, Smith was serving with the 130th RAF Squadron in Germany.

At war's end Smith returned to his studies at Rhodes University, where he was active in student affairs and served as chairman of the students' representative council, and received his bachelor of commerce degree. He returned to the family farm in Selukwe and in 1948 decided to try his hand at politics, running on the Rhodesia Liberal party ticket which, despite its name, was really the right-wing opposition to Sir Godfrey Huggins, then Prime Minister. Winning the election, he served in the Southern Rhodesian Legislative Assembly for the next five years.

In 1953, upon the formation of the Central African Federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Smith switched parties. He was elected to the first Federal Parliament as a member of the governing United Federal party, which was under the leadership of his old adversary, Sir Godfrey Huggins. By 1958 Smith had become chief government whip for Prime Minister Sir Roy Welensky, but as a parliamentarian he made little impression on his fellow lawmakers, and he was not a popular speaker. Smith left Parliament and broke with the United Federal party in 1961 over its acceptance of a proposed new constitution for Southern Rhodesia that gave black Africans representation in Parliament for the first time. With several other insurgents he established the Rhodesian Front party, composed of anti-black extremists, including Douglas C. ("Boss") Lilford, an archconservative tobacco tycoon. The new party, with Lilford paying most of the bills, vowed to preserve "Rhodesia for the Rhodesians," and it attracted rightist fringe and white supremacist groups. At first the party had a small following and was disdained by most Rhodesians. "They used to look at us … as if we came out of bad cheese," Lilford has recalled, as quoted in Time (November 5, 1965). "They called us everything-cowboys, Nazis, the lot."

To give the Rhodesian Front party its needed stature, Smith chose Winston Field, a respected and prosperous tobacco farmer, to lead it in the December 1962 elections. Campaigning on a promise to win independence for Southern Rhodesia from Britain and to preserve its white minority government, the Rhodesian Front party scored a surprise victory over the ruling United Federal party. Field was named Prime Minister, and Smith became deputy Prime Minister and minister of the treasury.

Only a few months later, in April 1963, Field demanded immediate independence for Southern Rhodesia on the grounds that Southern Rhodesia had been a self-governing colony since 1923 and that Great Britain had already promised independence to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the other two members of the Federation, whose governments were controlled by black majorities. British official spokesmen replied that the white minority government would first have to agree to give more political and social equality to the African majority.

Just a year later, on April 13, 1964, Ian Smith became Prime Minister when Field was forced to resign after a right-wing revolt in his Cabinet. He thus became Southern Rhodesia's first native-born Prime Minister and the fourth man to hold the post in seven years. It was reported that the party's extremists had forced Field out because he had been too moderate in his talks with Great Britain and refused to set a time limit for negotiating independence, but Smith denied that the independence issue caused Field's resignation. He said, however, that Southern Rhodesia would continue to strive for a negotiated independence, although he could visualize circumstances that might drive Southern Rhodesians to do something else.

The change of leadership induced apprehension and misgivings in many in Southern Rhodesia and in other nations. Joshua Nkomo, president of the People's Caretaker Council, the principal African nationalist movement in Southern Rhodesia, called the new leaders a "suicide squad," explaining that they "were not interested in all of the people but only their own and will eventually destroy themselves." "The big fear is that they may damage the country at the same time," Nkomo said. Most of the press at home and abroad condemned the revolt against Prime Minister Field.

The first official act of the new government was the arrest of Nkomo and three other African nationalists for "dragging the country from crisis to crisis." They were banished to a remote part of the country where they were to be held in restriction for a year. The news of the arrests caused an outbreak of demonstrations and riots, but the mobs were soon dispersed by police using tear gas, armored cars, and clubs. During a press conference held at the time, as reported by the Guardian (April 17, 1964), Smith noted that internal security had been "improved tremendously," and said that he did not expect to see Africans ruling Southern Rhodesia in his lifetime.

In July 1964 Smith rejected a suggestion by the Commonwealth Prime Ministers that there should be a new constitutional conference on the future of Southern Rhodesia. He said his country would continue to press for independence based on the 1961 constitution, under which there are two voting rolls, though there are no electoral restrictions because of race. Under the "A" roll, which requires high education, income, and property qualifications, the Europeans qualify and elect fifty members of Parliament. Under the "B" roll, which has lower educational and income qualifications, the black Africans qualify and elect the remaining fifteen members of the sixty-five-member Parliament. According to the constitution, the black Africans could eventually compete for the fifty white seats if they met the higher qualifications. It was this constitution that made Smith bolt the United Federal party because, he said, it favored the black African majority.

In September 1964 Smith flew to London to discuss the independence issue, and he returned to Salisbury with a pledge from the then British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home that he would grant Southern Rhodesia independence under the 1961 constitution if Britain was satisfied the majority of Southern Rhodesians, both black and white, wanted it. Declaring that a unilateral declaration of independence had been set aside "for all time," Smith said that a national referendum on November 5 of all registered voters (89,594 whites and 12,664 blacks) and consultation with black Africans "within the tribal structure" would decide the issue. Smith called for an Indaba-a meeting of the African village chiefs and headmen, who represented about 2,000,000 people in the tribal areas-to decide whether independence would be desirable under the 1961 constitution. The African tribal leaders, bitter foes of the black nationalists, are subsidized by the colonial government. At about the same time, the government raised the financial qualifications for voters.

Britain refused to send observers to the Indaba. Instead, the new Labor Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, expressing deep concern over a possible unilateral declaration of independence by Southern Rhodesia, invited Smith to London for more talks. Smith refused and, according to the Guardian (November 28, 1964), accused the British Prime Minister of "blackmail" and "intimidation." On October 26, 1964 the African chiefs voted unanimously in favor of independence for Rhodesia under white rule. (The colony had shortened its name when Northern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zambia.) In the referendum held on November 5, the white electorate overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence. Most of the black African voters boycotted the referendum. Smith, who had said he would not interpret a "yes" vote as a mandate for proclaiming independence, urged more talks on the issue with Britain.

On March 30, 1965, however, Smith dissolved the Rhodesian Parliament and called for general elections on May 7. He said he called for the elections so that he could change the 1961 constitution and strengthen his hand in independence negotiations. Smith's Rhodesian Front party won all fifty parliamentary seats on the "A" roll. No candidates had been entered for the fifteen "B" roll seats. After the victory Smith said that his intention was not to keep Rhodesia in the hands of whites, but in the hands of Rhodesians. But, he added, he thought Africans were still a long way off from being ready for political responsibility.

Throughout the spring, summer, and early autumn of 1965 negotiations continued between Britain and Rhodesia over the question of independence. Smith hinted that his government was on the verge of a unilateral declaration of independence, and Wilson warned of the "grave consequences" of such an act. Britain offered five points as essential for granting independence to Rhodesia: a guarantee of unimpeded progress toward the majority rule envisaged in the 1961 constitution; a guarantee of no retrogressive amendments of the 1961 constitution; an immediate improvement in the political status of the African population; progress towards the elimination of racial discrimination; and reasonable assurance that any proposed basis for independence would be acceptable to the Rhodesian population as a whole. On October 8, 1965 the negotiations, which had been going on in London, broke down completely.

Smith returned to Rhodesia with a warning from Wilson that any unilateral declaration of independence would be looked on by Britain as an act of rebellion. Shrugging off Wilson's warning, Smith told the Rhodesian people upon his return that he did not think there was a better time "for our independence than now," but he left the door open for further discussions, with an eleventh-hour appeal to Britain to grant Rhodesia independence and to "put us on trust."

On October 22 Wilson announced that he would fly to Salisbury to try "to avert the tragic consequences" of a unilateral declaration of independence. After a week of talks it was announced that a royal commission would be set up to determine the independence issue. However, the dispute flared up again, and on November 6 Smith charged that Britain had finally closed the door to negotiations by imposing unfair conditions on the royal commission. The day before his announcement Smith had proclaimed a nationwide state of emergency.

Echoing phrases of the United States Declaration of Independence, on November 11, 1965 Smith declared Rhodesia's independence from Britain. Britain immediately denounced the seizure of independence as treason. Although he ruled out the use of arms, Wilson expelled Rhodesia from the sterling area, suspended preferential tariff treatment, imposed controls on all trade and currency, and banned purchases of tobacco and sugar, the main Rhodesian crops. The United States, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, and India also announced they would not recognize the rebel government.

The following week Smith announced he had set up an organization to counter Britain's economic sanctions. He also reported that he had stripped the "trappings of office" from Governor Sir Humphrey Gibbs, the representative of Queen Elizabeth in Rhodesia. Although the Rhodesian Cabinet had previously pledged its loyalty to the crown no matter what happened, Smith swore in one of his own deputies to take over Sir Humphrey's functions. Sir Humphrey, however, refused to acknowledge the new regime and remained in his official government residence.

On December 18, 1965 Britain imposed an oil embargo on Rhodesia, and the United States and other nations dealing with the Central African country followed suit. Smith retaliated by cutting off oil supplies to Zambia, which normally received all its oil from a Rhodesian refinery. Rhodesia, however, continued to receive a substantial amount of oil from South Africa, where the white population was sympathetic to Smith's cause. On February 28, 1966 Smith announced: "It is now generally conceded that we have our political independence. At the present time, our war is an economic war." After a year of crises, a settlement seemed hopeful as Wilson and Smith personally conferred in early December 1966, but Smith rejected Britain's proposals to ease Rhodesia into a constitutional government acceptable to the majority of her people.

Ian Douglas Smith married Janet Watt, a South African schoolteacher, in 1948. They have three children, two boys and a girl. The rawboned and strong-jawed Rhodesian Prime Minister, whose nickname is "Iron Man Ian," is of medium height and weight, and his brown hair is touched with gray. He speaks with cultured but unemotional tones; his expression, because of the war injury, seldom changes. The Smiths live in the official residence of the Prime Minister, a Dutch-gabled house in Salisbury. Smith also owns a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in Selukwe. He is a member of the Salisbury Club and the Salisbury Sports Club. Although he has been called the world's foremost white supremacist, he has said that Rhodesians would be willing to live in a country governed by Africans. According to Smith, "What the Rhodesian has always said in the past is that, as long as the government is a civilized government, he is prepared to accept it."

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