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George Charles Ivan Smith (1915–1995)

by Matthew Jordan

This article was published:

George Charles Ivan Smith (1915–1995), radio broadcaster and diplomat, was born on 11 July 1915 at Rose Bay, Sydney, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents George Franklin Smith, prison governor, and his second wife May, née Sullivan. His father, a strident critic of the penal system in Australia, was responsible for introducing new methods that favoured the humane treatment of prisoners. His leading role in penal reform profoundly affected his son, fuelling a lifelong crusade against institutional oppression, as well as instilling sympathy for the underprivileged. Although frequently shortened to Smith, George’s surname, as he later explained, stemmed from his maternal grandmother’s ‘Gaelic belief that a dynasty of “Ivan Smiths” sounded more like future kings of Ireland than “Sullivan Smiths”’ (Bodleian Library MS Eng.C.6497, 216). Educated at Goulburn and Bathurst High schools, he spent a year as a jackaroo before joining the Sydney Truth as a cadet reporter. He attended Workers’ Educational Association night classes at the University of Sydney (1933–34). On 6 November 1936 at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood, he married Madeleine Claire Oakes, a kindergarten teacher.

Ivan Smith joined the Australian Broadcasting Commission in the following year, where he developed a series of youth programs. Promoted to editor of talks for New South Wales in 1939, he produced Australia Calling—soon renamed Radio Australia. Seconded to the British Broadcasting Corporation, he moved to London as director of Pacific services (1941–46) and was also responsible for a series of broadcasts devoted to Australian literary achievements. On 1 July 1946, having divorced his first wife, he married Mary Stephanie Conner, a divorcee, at the register office, Marylebone, London.

As adviser to the J. Arthur Rank Organisation (1946–48), Ivan Smith produced cinematic newsreels titled This Modern Age, with a focus on Commonwealth affairs. In 1948 he joined the United Nations (UN) Organization secretariat, New York, as chief of English-language radio, and from 1949 directed the UN information centre, London. When Dag Hammarskjöld became UN secretary-general (1953), he took Ivan Smith as an aide on a tour of the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. On other important missions, Ivan Smith became familiar with the problems and peoples of newly emerging countries in Asia and Africa. During the Suez crisis of 1956 he helped draft reports on the UN peacekeeping force, and when it was deployed to Israel, was political advisor to its UN commander. Hammarskjöld appointed him director of a new external affairs division (1958–61), giving him responsibility for all UN information centres.

In 1961 Ivan Smith was sent on a one-man mission to Africa to negotiate the establishment of UN development offices. In October he travelled to the Republic of the Congo to ease tensions between Katangese and UN forces. Kidnapped by mercenaries and savagely beaten, he would have been assassinated but for the intervention of an American diplomat. Appointed personal representative in south-eastern and central Africa (1963­–66) to U Thant, Hammarskjöld’s successor as UN secretary-general, he was responsible for the organisation’s technical assistance board and special funds programs. Based in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika (Tanzania), and later Lusaka, Zambia, he travelled extensively, setting up major development projects and representing the UN at the independence celebrations of nine African countries.

Ivan Smith was deeply critical of the white minority regimes in southern Africa but, consistent with his long-held beliefs about structural abuse, he eschewed the role of race and nationality and instead emphasised the ‘hideous evil linked to power and corruption that wrongly based power brings’ (Bodleian Library MS. Eng.C.6465, 87). A year later he was forced to admit that the whites were ‘outright racist’ and that the ‘whole Southern African question is now so chronic that you can be sure it won’t be settled by resolutions or limited sanctions of any kind’ (Bodleian Library MS. Eng.C.6497, 260). When several African countries nominated him to be the first secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies withheld Australian support.

After a sabbatical as visiting professor in international relations at Princeton (1964) and Harvard (1965) universities, Ivan Smith returned to London in 1966 to study the problems of nuclear proliferation. In 1967 he became U Thant’s representative covering Britain, Ireland, and parts of Western Europe, before again assuming the role of director of the UN information centre (1968–75). Retiring in 1980, he continued to work for the UN in an advisory capacity. A regular contributor to international journals, he also published Ghosts of Kampala: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1980). Some of his earlier optimism for African nationalism had waned, but he interpreted the Ugandan tragedy as yet another example of a vicious system that became self-perpetuating because its leaders and foot-soldiers ‘grew to depend on the system and on the privileged life-style it gave them’ (Smith 1980, 25). He was appointed AO in 1992.

A self-described ‘international diplomat,’ Ivan Smith was committed to the concept of world community and throughout his UN career promoted the development and participation of peoples who had historically been excluded from it. The former UN diplomat and close friend Conor Cruise O’Brien said that Ivan Smith loved ‘poetry both good and bad,’ had ‘an exuberant sense of humour,’ and was ‘tough and wily with a face like a sunset over a sheep farm’ (O’Brien 1962, 306). In retirement he moved to the Cotswolds. He died on 21 November 1995 at Gloucester, survived by his wife, their adopted Tanzanian daughter, his stepdaughter, and the two children of his first marriage.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Radio Australia’s Creator Became UN Troubleshooter.’ 27 November 1995, 16
  • Bodleian Library, Oxford. MSS Eng.C.6454-534. Papers of George Ivan Smith
  • Curnow, Ross. ‘Newsman and Envoy.’ Herald Sun (Melbourne), 28 November 1995, 61
  • Ford, John. ‘Father of Radio Found Voice in UN.’ Australian, 27 November 1995, 12
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 899/5/2
  • O’Brien, Conor Cruise. To Katanga and Back: A UN Case Study. London: Hutchinson Ltd, 1962
  • Smith, George Ivan. Along the Edge of Peace: Reflections of an International Civil Servant. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1964
  • Smith, George Ivan. Ghosts of Kampala: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1980
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Menzies Denies Bid to Block Australian for New Post.’ 16 June 1965, 3

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Citation details

Matthew Jordan, 'Ivan Smith, George Charles (1915–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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