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Gen. Walter Bedell Smith

The coming of Eisenhower's hatchet-man

When Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower became commander of ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations United States Army) in June 1942 and began assembling his staff in London, the man he requested as his chief of staff was Brig. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, at the time the secretary of the War Department General Staff. But Eisenhower’s boss, Gen. George Marshall, balked. Smith had impressed Marshall with his ability to cut through red tape and perform necessary hatchet jobs – to get things done fast and well – and he didn’t want to let Smith go. But finally, on Aug. 5, Marshall relented. Smith arrived in London on Sept. 10. In his biography, Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, historian Carlo D’Este wrote, “Eisenhower once remarked that every commander needs a son of a bitch to protect him and that the stone-faced Bedell Smith was his.”

“I consider him exceptionally qualified for service as chief of staff for supreme commander. . . .”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall

Gustave Flaubert wrote, “You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies.” By that measure alone, Smith was not just a good chief of staff – he was a great one. Most people who came in contact with Smith hated and feared him – and with good reason. Smart, loyal to his bosses, articulate, incisive, and an excellent administrator, “Beetle” Smith was also intolerant, brusque, profane, rude, and ruthless. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. never trusted him. Ultimately Patton’s hatred of Smith became so great that it extended beyond the grave. Upon seeing Smith’s name in the list of high-ranking honorary pallbearers for Pattton’s funeral, his widow Beatrice Patton instructed not only that Smith’s name be struck from the list and replaced with that of Patton’s driver during most of the war, Master Sgt. William George Meeks, but that Smith be barred even from attending the funeral.

Bedell Smith and Ruth Briggs

Walter Bedell Smith and his wartime secretary, Ruth Briggs, 1943. Briggs remained in the U.S. Army after World War II and was Smith’s executive assistant when he was ambassador to the Soviet Union (1946-1949). U.S. Army photo courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

Smith was also famous for his quick temper. Whether the result of his personality, or pain from a duodenal ulcer that occasionally forced him to be hospitalized, its volatility caused some exasperated senior officers to violate military protocol, bypass the chief of staff, and meet directly with Eisenhower to request transfers. Tellingly, Eisenhower tolerated that breach.

The position of chief of staff is often thankless. But it’s necessary. As one of the members of Eisenhower’s staff, Air Marshal Sir James Robb, later wrote, “Ike always had to have . . . someone who’d do the dirty work for him. He always had to have someone else do the firing, or the reprimanding, or give any order which he knew people would find unpleasant.” That someone was Smith and, whether or not he actually enjoyed that duty, everyone acknowledged that he was damned good at it.

Eisenhower’s esteem of Smith ultimately became so great that he told Marshall that if anything happened to cause him to be unable to carry out his duties as head of SHAEF, Marshall should, “after [General Omar] Bradley, select Bedell to take my place.”

Interestingly enough, those who came in the most contact with him never viewed him as a villain. Eisenhower often entrusted Smith to represent him in high-level strategic meetings, which led some people to remark that the reason Eisenhower did so was that Smith had a better strategic mind than his boss. Eisenhower’s esteem of Smith ultimately became so great that he told Marshall that if anything happened to cause him to be unable to carry out his duties as head of SHAEF, Marshall should, “after [General Omar] Bradley, select Bedell to take my place.”

Though Smith’s bite was definitely worse than his bark, Smith had sophisticated diplomatic skills and constantly used them on those both high and low. It’s worth noting that of the 4,070 personnel that, by fall 1943, came to be a part of ETOUSA and SHAEF, very few actually left because of an inability to work with Smith.

Allied Commanders after Surrender

Senior Allied commanders at Rheims shortly after the German surrender. Present are (left to right): Maj. Gen. Ivan Susloparov, Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan, Lt. Gen. Bedell Smith, Capt. Kay Summersby (obscured), Capt. Harry C. Butcher, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder. National Archives photo

Expanding on Eisenhower’s orders to have an “allied” command, Smith freely, and with great effect, utilized the technique of layering the different sections. Thus if one section had a British commanding officer, his deputy was an American, and vice versa. Smith also was a master of promoting informal communication channels, and his relatively informal staff conferences freed Eisenhower to concentrate on the most important or critical command decisions. Though problems did occur, that Eisenhower’s staff worked as smoothly as it did was a testament to Smith’s success as chief of staff.

Though problems did occur, that Eisenhower’s staff worked as smoothly as it did was a testament to Smith’s success as chief of staff.

Smith eventually reached the rank of general and, following the end of the war, his ability to “grease the administrative gears of war” was rewarded in 1946 when he succeeded W. Averell Harriman as the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. He later became Director of Central Intelligence, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, in 1950.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...