On 11 November 1965, Ian Smith, prime minister of the British colony of Rhodesia, signed his country’s unilateral declaration of independence, giving birth to a new nation that would, rather heroically, seek to maintain its way of life for the next fifteen years. That way of life was not — as critics will be quick to allege — based on racism, but on freedom, the freedom that was vouchsafed Rhodesia by the British Empire. It was the freedom that was lost by Rhodesia’s transformation into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It’s a transformation from which even we, as American, have something to learn.
The Rhodesians, in fact, based their declaration of independence on our own, though they charmingly reaffirmed their allegiance to the queen. Thinking themselves “more British than the British,” they announced their independence on Remembrance Day, marking the end of World War I (what we mark as Veterans’ Day), to remind Britain that when she fought at great cost to defend freedom, the rule of law, and the rights of small nations, Rhodesia had been at her side. In the Second World War, indeed, Ian Smith himself had flown Hawker Hurricanes and Spitfires for the RAF. A flight accident had smashed up his face (which required extensive plastic surgery) and left him with numerous serious injuries that took months to heal. He returned to duty, was shot down over Italy, and eventually made his escape back to Allied lines.
More than that, though, the Rhodesians had done what is the measure of a man — they had gone into the wilderness and been able to re-create their civilization. While they had a reputation as outdoorsy, beer-swilling hearties, the great Rhodesian writer (and liberal) Peter Godwin and Ian Hancock estimated in their classic study of Rhodesia, ‘Rhodesians Never Die,’ “that probably no other transplanted English-speakers had done more — with similar resources — to reproduce and practice the parent culture.”
It is a question worth asking ourselves: how many of us could hack our way into the jungle and re-create the United States? The more culturally pessimistic, or multiculturally inclined, might even wonder whether that would be a good thing anyway.
The Rhodesians had no doubts — or few. They were so confident in their civilization that they were willing to endure international ostracism. They were so certain they were on the right side of history, and certain of their martial valor, that they volunteered to send troops to Vietnam (an offer that the embarrassed Lyndon Johnson administration declined to accept). They were so certain that they stood athwart tyranny, that they sacrificed their sons and fortified their farms in an African bush war that thrilled the armchair adventurers among the readers of Soldier of Fortune magazine, which sold “Be A Man Among Men, Rhodesian Army” t-shirts, based on a Rhodesian recruiting poster.
Smith believed that one-man, one-vote in Africa meant free elections once. He was loath to submit his country to the chaos, socialism, violence, and dictatorship that he was certain would follow elections based on a universal franchise (which, as he pointed out, had difficulties that Western critics were not likely to consider: for instance, how to accurately register voters when most rural-born black Africans had no birth certificates). Smith was careful to gain the support of the country’s tribal chiefs, he stated that his goal was evolution not revolution on the way to expanding the franchise (which was tied to income and property qualifications), and he affirmed that he would not risk Rhodesia’s multi-party elections, free press, independent judiciary, and free economy with a mass electorate that might be inclined to do away with them.
In the end, of course, the British brokered a deal. Lord Carrington and almost all the other delegates to the so-called Lancaster House Agreement of 1979 were convinced that Robert Mugabe, regarded as the most radical of the Communist-backed insurgents, would be defeated in the elections arranged for 1980. Ian Smith thought otherwise. He was certain Mugabe would win because he belonged to the Shona tribe, which represented eighty percent of Rhodesia’s population, and because Mugabe would be the most effective at voter intimidation. Smith was proved right, as he usually was — though he got no credit for it.
Smith lived to see all his worst predictions come true; had he been able to read his obituaries he would have seen that liberal opinion blamed him for it. Smith’s solace in his declining years was the popularity he had among black Zimbabweans who saw him as a symbol of unbreakable resistance to Mugabe. If you want to see the Rhodesia Smith defended, you can watch a video or two on YouTube and see black soldiers (most of the Rhodesian army was black) marching on parade past mostly white civilians, including an official dressed like an 18th-century town crier; you can see the sons of productive farmers and businessmen, who made Rhodesia an economic success, shouldering rifles to defend their homes and their liberties.
And if you want to see the tribute that vice pays to virtue — or that Zimbabwe pays to Rhodesia and the British Empire — just note how Zimbabwe’s judges still wear white wigs, how Mugabe’s henchmen make a show of owning farms (taken from white farmers who once produced plenty, and whose fields now lie barren while Zimbabweans starve), and how Mugabe still goes thorough the formality of having elections (as long as his goons ensure that he wins). Zimbabweans think of British institutions as having legitimacy, even if they are deployed as part of Robert Mugabe’s charades.
So what can America learn from gallant Rhodesia? For one thing, we can learn to judge nations by the values they uphold, not the electoral processes they observe. We can see why Western “colonialism” was oftentimes better than the alternative. And most of all, perhaps, we might learn not to take our own liberties for granted. In every generation, they are only a demagogue away from being taken from us.