In Vorster's younger years, he attracted notoriety by refusing military service, opposing South Africa's intervention on the side of the Allies in World War II, and speaking favourably of the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler, whose dictatorial government he regarded as a better model for South Africa than the Westminster parliamentary (cabinet) system. For his antiwar activities, he was imprisoned.
Following his release, Vorster became active in the National Party, which began implementing the policy of Apartheid in 1948. Although racial discrimination in favour of whites had long been a central fact of South African politics and society, the National Party institutionalized it. In 1953, Vorster was elected to parliament. The then Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd appointed him Minister of Justice in 1961. Vorster's past as a draft-dodger and Nazi sympathizer came back to haunt him. Vorster answered his critics by saying that he had now "come to believe in" the parliamentary system.
When Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated in 1966, Vorster was chosen by the National Party to replace him. He continued Verweord's implementation of apartheid legislation, and in 1968 abolished the last four parliamentary seats that had been reserved for (white) representatives of Coloured (mixed race) voters.
Vorster was somewhat more pragmatic than his predecessors when it came to foreign policy, however. He alienated an extremist faction of his National Party by pursuing diplomatic relations with African countries, and by agreeing to let Black African diplomats live in White areas. He unofficially supported, but refused to recognize officially, the neighbouring state of Rhodesia, which was ruled by a white minority government that had rebelled against British rule. Vorster followed White public opinion in South Africa by supporting Rhodesia publicly, but was unwilling to alienate important political allies in the United States by extending diplomatic recognition to Rhodesia. In 1974, he forced the Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith, to accept in principle that white minority rule could not continue there indefinitely. Many considered Vorster a traitor. His domestic policy did not match his foreign policy, however; he was ruthless in suppressing anti-apartheid dissent.
Vorster retired as Prime Minister in 1978, after twelve years in office, and was succeeded by P.W. Botha, a hardliner who nevertheless began the first reforms to moderate the apartheid system. Following his retirement as Prime Minister, Vorster was elected to the largely honorary position of President. His tenure in that office, however, was short-lived. In what came to be known as the Muldergate Scandal, so-named after Dr Connie Mulder, the Cabinet minister at the centre of it, Vorster was implicated in the use of a secret slush-fund to buy the loyalty of The Citizen, the only major English language newspaper that was favourable to the National Party. A commission of inquiry concluded in mid-1979 that Vorster "knew everything" about the corruption and had tolerated it. He resigned from the presidency in disgrace. He died a broken man in 1983, aged 66 years.