(October 5, 1895–August 9, 1961)
Army General, CIA Director
Hardworking Walter Bedell Smith, whose nickname was “Beetle,” was a high-ranking staff officer who performed useful service throughout World War II. In an army dominated by West Point graduates, this former National Guardsman rose through the ranks on account of his skills as an organizer and administrator. During the postwar period, he served capably as ambassador to the Soviet Union, second director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and undersecretary of state.
Smith was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on October 5, 1895, and in 1911 he joined the Indiana National Guard at the age of 16. In 1917, he completed an army reserve officers course and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 39th U.S. Infantry. In this capacity Smith shipped to France to fight in World War I, where he was wounded. By September 1918, he was functioning with the Bureau of Military Intelligence, and two years later he accepted a regular army commission. For the next two decades, Smith endured the tedium of a career infantry officer. After a variety of staff assignments overseas, he attended the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1931 and the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1935. After graduating from the Army War College in 1937, Smith returned to teach at the Infantry School, where he met and impressed Col. George C. Marshall, an officer who played a major role in his subsequent career. Promoted to major in 1939, Smith next reported for duty in Washington, D.C., as part of the General Staff. In August 1941, Marshall, now army chief of staff, lifted Smith out of obscurity by appointing him as his secretary with the temporary rank of colonel.
After American entry in World War II, Smith rose to temporary brigadier general and served as secretary of the U.S.-British Joint Combined Chiefs of Staff. Here he played a crucial role in helping to formulate and adopt a joint strategy to win the war. Smith’s military fortunes advanced again in September 1942, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower appropriated him to serve as his own chief of staff. For his successful planning of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, he gained temporary promotion to major general. On September 3, 1943, Smith signed the instrument of Italy’s surrender on Eisenhower’s behalf before transferring to England as a temporary lieutenant general. Smith then functioned as Eisenhower’s chief of staff at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, and assisted in drawing up Operation Overlord, the cross-channel invasion of France in June 1944. Smith served as chief planner and executive officer of the entire European theater, an impossibly demanding position, but his brilliance as an administrator overcame most obstacles. From a staff standpoint, the enormous and complex Allied effort functioned smoothly. On May 7, 1945, Smith signed the documents of Germany’s unconditional surrender on Eisenhower’s behalf.
Smith, a permanent major general since August 1945, seemed an unlikely candidate for an ambassadorship, but in February 1946 President Harry Truman nominated him to represent the United States in Moscow. His strident anticommunism, no-nonsense approach to problem solving, and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb details were undoubtedly factors in Truman’s decision. Furthermore, a special act of Congress enabled Smith to retain his military rank, thereby underscoring America’s resolve to confront Stalin with force, if necessary. He held the ambassadorship for the next three years, a period characterized by rapid escalation of tensions with the Soviet Union, but Smith also managed to sign peace treaties with Bulgaria, Romania, Finland, and Hungary. Returning home in March 1949, Smith then briefly took command of the First Army in New York and the following year he published his memoirs. In them, he expressed his belief that the Communists were unalterably determined to subvert the free world, but they also respected force and would not attack if the West maintained its defenses.
In September 1950, Smith was chosen to succeed Adm. Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter as head of the CIA. The agency had been founded the previous year to gather intelligence during the cold war, but Hillenkoetter was unable to function effectively in the politically charged atmosphere of Washington, D.C. Furthermore, he failed to assert his independence from the State Department and Defense Department. As a result, the CIA was floundering and it came under severe congressional criticism for failing to predict the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950. Smith, however, had no such qualms about tackling bureaucrats. By the time his tenure finished in 1953, he completely overhauled the CIA, eliminated control of covert operations by the State Department, and instituted organizational changes that remain in effect today. Much of the agency’s success originated with Smith’s reform efforts and many CIA officers still consider him their finest director.
In February 1953, Smith fulfilled his third and final nonmilitary appointment, that of undersecretary of state. The now President Eisenhower appreciated his sense of order and talent for administration in this era of political uncertainty. True to his hard-line approach to communism, Smith helped Secretary of State John Foster Dulles craft the policy of containment, which remained in place for nearly 40 years. In 1954, when the French were losing their grip on Indochina, he strongly recommended American involvement in the fighting, preferably in concert with Britain. When this cooperation was not forthcoming, Smith then proved instrumental in laying the groundwork for a regional, mutual-defense treaty, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu to the Viet Minh in May 1954, Smith next ventured to Geneva and represented the United States during talks that partitioned Vietnam into the Communist North and independent South. He then resigned from the government in October 1954 to retire and pursue business interests, although he occasionally served as a high-level governmental adviser. This accomplished military bureaucrat died in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 1961.
Crosswell, Daniel K., The Chief of Staff: The Military Career of General Walter Bedell Smith, 1991; Hersh, Burton, The Old Boys: The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA, 1992; Montague, Ludwell L., General Walter Bedell Smith as Director of Central Intelligence, October, 1950-February, 1953, 1992; Ranelagh, John, The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA, 1987; Smith, Walter B., Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions, 1944–1945, 1956; Smith, Walter B., My Three Years in Moscow, 1951; Snyder, William P., “Walter Bedell Smith: Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff,” Military Affairs 48 (1984): 6–14; Zullas, Michael F., “Walter Bedell Smith: Cold War Diplomat,” unpublished master’s thesis, 1986.