Skip to main content

Walter Bedell Smith

Walter Bedell Smith

General Walter Bedell Smith (1895-1961) distinguished himself during World War II as chief of staff to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Immediately after the war, he was the ambassador to the Soviet Union and, from 1950-53, he directed the Central Intelligence Agency.

Bedell Smith's military career began in 1911 when he joined the Indiana National Guard and ended almost 40 years later when he retired as a four-star general in the U.S. Army. Initially, he envisioned himself fighting battles on the front lines but because of his impressive organizational skills, he ended up working for General George C. Marshall, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the head of America's military forces after the president. By 1942, Bedell Smith was sent to Europe to be the chief of staff to General Eisenhower. As the allies fought in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, Bedell Smith was known by top military and political leaders as an effective and efficient manager. After the war, however, he was comparatively less successful as ambassador to the Soviet Union, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, briefly, undersecretary of state. Finally, Bedell Smith left the military to make a fortune working with corporations that manufactured and supplied war materiel.

Middle-Class Upbringing

Walter Bedell Smith was born in Indianapolis of a family Bedell Smith himself described as "normal, substantial middle class." His childhood consisted mostly of household chores and outside activities such as fishing, baseball, and roller skating, while his father worked as a silk buyer for a dry goods company. He did not show much interest in studying, however, and, since his grades were not high, he was unable to attend the nearby Catholic high school. Instead, he went to the Emmerich Manual Training High School-a vocational school where he learned to be a machinist. He found employment at a local automobile manufacturer. He also worked as a soda jerk and a mechanic for a company that supplied equipment to the railroads.

Yet young Bedell Smith's dream was to become a soldier. A member of his family had served in every American war going back to the Revolution. Therefore, when he turned 16 years old, Bedell Smith joined the Indiana National Guard. The monthly mustering of his unit became the center of his life. Bedell Smith was first called away from home when his National Guard unit was needed in the spring of 1913 to help during a time of serious flooding. A few months later, his unit was needed again to restore order when the streetcar operators went on strike. Bedell Smith's exemplary service during this time came to the attention of his commanding officers, and he was promoted to corporal and, shortly afterwards, company sergeant. A few years later, military trouble in Mexico spilled over into the United States, forcing President Woodrow Wilson to federalize National Guard units and use them to secure the American-Mexican border. But Bedell Smith was now the primary supporter of his family, due to his father's ill health, and he had to stay behind in Indiana while his unit went south. However, back in Indiana, he gained his first experience doing military staff work.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Bedell Smith was recommended by his company commander to attend officer training school. At the end of training school, he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and, just before Christmas of 1917, was sent to Camp Greene, NC, to become part of the Fourth Infantry. Approximately four months later, Bedell Smith was on a ship headed for France. After quick training by British and French forces, he saw action when his unit became part of a combined Franco-American counteroffensive against German positions. Bedell Smith was wounded during the fighting and after recovering from his wounds, he was assigned to the reorganized and expanded War Department General Staff in Washington, D.C., based primarily on the staff work he had done for the Indiana National Guard. He became part of the new Bureau of Military Intelligence and, when World War I ended, he was selected to remain on active duty.

Between the Wars

During the 1920s and 1930s, Bedell Smith's promotion through the military ranks seemed frustratingly slow. He served in various staff positions nationwide, as well as in the Philippine Islands. Army officials eventually decided that he was best suited as a teacher and assigned him to be a student instructor at a succession of military schools. He also attended the Leavenworth Command and General Staff Schools and the Army War College in Washington, D.C. By 1939, Bedell Smith was a major. Old military institutions and old officers had given way to the new reorganized military preparing for another possible war with Germany. Bedell Smith was promoted to the headquarters of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall in Washington, D.C. His work there earned him promotions to the rank of colonel and a position as secretary of the general staff. In this role, he helped formulate allied strategy and was considered part of Marshall's inner circle.

Shortly before World War II, Bedell Smith was known as a capable, efficient organizer. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war, Bedell Smith put in long hours in support of Marshall. His staff work came to the attention of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was to become the supreme commander of the allied forces. He wanted Bedell Smith as his chief of staff in Europe. Eisenhower valued Bedell Smith's abilities and the relationship Bedell Smith had developed with Marshall. Reluctantly, Marshall let Bedell Smith go to Europe in September 1942.

Eisenhower's Manager

During World War II, Bedell Smith was promoted to a brigadier-general in February of 1942, major-general in December of 1942, and lieutenant-general in January of 1943. He gained a reputation as quick-tempered, harsh, and arbitrary, but no one questioned his genius as Eisenhower's chief of staff. He became Eisenhower's gatekeeper. He decided who would see Eisenhower. He handled Eisenhower's diplomatic duties and frequently represented Eisenhower at meetings.

In addition, he was closely involved in the plans for allied forces to wrest control of North Africa and Sicily from Nazi Germany. He was also involved in the decisions leading up to the Normandy invasion and the subsequent operations in Europe. Allied military leaders and political leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, knew of Bedell Smith and admired his clear grasp of military strategy. His operation of Eisenhower's staff is believed to have contributed to allied successes in the war. Eisenhower himself recognized his chief of staff's contributions and asked him to arrange the surrender with Germany and sign the German surrender documents with German General Alfred Jodl at Eisenhower's headquarters in Belgium on May 7, 1945.

Assignments After the War

Bedell Smith was at the peak of his military career when the war ended. But the subsequent time of peace led to disappointment for him. He was passed over to assume command of American forces in Europe. As relations with Russia worsened, President Harry Truman desired an ambassador in Moscow whom the Soviets would not push around. He chose Bedell Smith. Although he retained his military rank as a major-general, Bedell Smith thus began his career as a diplomat. His first job was to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1946 as part of the American delegation. During his three years as ambassador, he carried out his duties in a soldier like manner. Unfortunately, this did not allay Soviet fears of American intentions. Soviet-American relations continued to deteriorate. Bedell Smith later wrote a book, entitled My Three Years in Moscow, in which he stated that the differences between the Soviets and Americans were irreconcilable. "We [the United States] are [being] forced into a continued struggle for a free way of life that might extend over a period of many years," he wrote.

In March 1949, Bedell Smith turned down an offer to serve as Truman's undersecretary of state for European affairs, hoping to advance his military career further. Instead, he was assigned command of the First Army on Governor's Island, NY. Although he attained the rank of a four-star general with the assignment, he considered this a dead-end job for officers on the verge of retirement. Three times, however, he was offered the position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), based on his experiences as ambassador in Moscow. He turned down the offer twice but told Eisenhower that since the intelligence organization had not foreseen the problems that had developed with the Communists in Korea, he could not refuse the third time.

The performance of the CIA shortly after World War II had been poor and did not improve with Bedell Smith as director. Bedell Smith had earned a reputation as an expert on Communist activities, but he endorsed the view that the Chinese would never intervene in the Korean War, based on intelligence he received from the military. When they did, United Nations forces in Korea were unprepared. Neither did the CIA accurately characterize problems in Iran, a revolution in Egypt, and coups in Latin America.

His problems in the CIA were made worse by his loathing of Communism. He hated the Soviets, and this made him intolerant of anyone seeming to accommodate the Communists. He told a Senate committee that the State Department and the CIA had been infiltrated by Communists. His statements gave critics of Truman the ability to label his administration as soft on Communism.

When Eisenhower became president, he asked Bedell Smith to be the undersecretary of state. Bedell Smith accepted out of loyalty to Eisenhower. The president, however, was aware of Bedell Smith's liabilities during peacetime and distanced himself from his former chief of staff. In addition, secretary of state John Foster Dulles saw Bedell Smith as a threat. Consequently, Bedell Smith was never promoted within the Eisenhower administration. With his health deteriorating, he resigned on October 1, 1954.

Military-Industrial Leader

Once retired from politics, Bedell Smith decided to use his connections to make money. By the end of October 1954, he was the director of a fruit company that he had given preferential treatment to as undersecretary of state while managing a Guatemalan coup that, once resolved, increased the company's profits. By 1958, in another instance of seeming conflict of interest, Bedell Smith was appointed special advisor to the secretary of state on disarmament while serving as president and chairman of the board of two weapon-manufacturing companies with Pentagon contracts. He was also vice-chairman of the American Machine and Foundry Company and director of RCA and Corning Glass. As a result, Bedell Smith became one of the first major military-industrial leaders during the Cold War.

On August 6, 1961, Bedell Smith died of a heart attack in Washington, D.C. He had amassed $2.5 million. After a simple funeral, with military honors, his body was taken to Arlington National Cemetery where he was buried.

Further Reading

Ancell, R. Manning and Miller, Christine M., Biographical Dictionary of World War II Generals and Flag Officers: U.S. Armed Forces, Greenwood Press, 1996.

Crosswell, D.R.K., Chief of Staff: Military Career of General Walter Bedell Smith, Greenwood Press, 1991.

Leckie, Robert, Story of World War II, Random House, 1964.

Mason, David, Who's Who in World War II, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Oxford Companion to World War II, edited by I.C.B. Dear, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Who Was Who in World War II, Arms & Armour Press, 1990.

"Walter Bedell Smith," Office of the Director of Central Intelligence,http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/dci/dcis/smith.html (March 13, 1998).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Walter Bedell Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Walter Bedell Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walter-bedell-smith

"Walter Bedell Smith." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/walter-bedell-smith

Smith, Walter Bedell

Walter Bedell Smith, 1895–1961, U.S. general, b. Indianapolis, Ind. He enlisted (1910) in the Indiana National Guard, won a commission in the U.S. army (1918), and advanced to the rank of lieutenant general (1943). Secretary (1941–42) to the general staff, he became (1942) the U.S. secretary to the combined chiefs of staff, and as Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief of staff (1942–45) he signed the surrender terms with Italy (1943) and with Germany (1945). Smith served (1946–49) as ambassador to the USSR, director of the Central Intelligence Agency (1950–53), and undersecretary of state (1953–54). He wrote My Three Years in Moscow (1950) and Eisenhower's Six Great Decisions: Europe 1944–1945 (1956).

See biography by D. K. R. Crosswell (2010).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Smith, Walter Bedell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Smith, Walter Bedell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-walter-bedell

"Smith, Walter Bedell." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/smith-walter-bedell