Best Defense

Six facts about Col. Truman Smith that should interest all Best Defense readers

By Col. Henry Gole, U.S. Army (Ret.) Best Defense guest author Who the hell is Truman Smith? But for the diagnosis of diabetes in 1939, Smith’s name would probably be as familiar to the public today as, for example, Bradley, Clark, Stilwell, Collins, Wedemeyer, perhaps, according to one of them, even Eisenhower. He was a ...


By Col. Henry Gole, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest author

  • Who the hell is Truman Smith?

But for the diagnosis of diabetes in 1939, Smith’s name would probably be as familiar to the public today as, for example, Bradley, Clark, Stilwell, Collins, Wedemeyer, perhaps, according to one of them, even Eisenhower. He was a good soldier, a very good writer, and one of the last of the "establishment" families, in the Cabot, Roosevelt, Acheson tradition.

When the ink was still drying on my biography of General William E. DePuy, the historians and archivists at MHI (the Military History Institute, Carlisle, PA) encouraged me to read the papers of Truman Smith and the unpublished memoir of his wife, Katharine Alling Hollister Smith, My Life. I did. I was hooked. His writings — personal, academic, and official — are the very model of lucidity. The U.S. Army encourages its writers to be clear, concise, and complete. He is.

Kay Smith is expansive, colorful, often wrong, but always fun to read. Here is a sample of how her admiration for all things French turned to venom. The French "are the most immoral and dirty-minded lot I ever saw." (She is just warming up.) "Her dress up to her knees belied her face, which clearly not that of a young woman…. Her brilliantly painted face beamed coquettishly at the tiny French officer who was nobly dancing with her. And dancing under difficulties, for that expansive bosom completely eclipsed his view of the ballroom." That’s as irresistible as a second martini — about which she also has something to say.

Other sources, few as deliciously presented as Kay’s, also fell in my lap. Perhaps that’s why it took me four years to write a book I told my wife would take a year or a year and a half.

  • In 1919, Truman Smith saw the future.

In 1919, Smith conducted negotiations with German civil authorities on behalf of the Office of Civil Affairs of the Army in Coblenz under Colonel I.L. Hunt. On one occasion he had a long talk with Konrad Adenauer, mayor of Cologne and future chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Smith enjoyed working with the Germans, but he became increasingly critical of French vindictiveness in the occupation of Germany. In a May 8, 1919 letter to his wife Kay, he said of treaty-making: "Evidently some would-be humorist at Paris thought this war wasn’t enough and decided we should enjoy another trip to Europe in fifteen years or so to help poor embattled France again…. France, that pure savior of civilization, is certainly a sorry spectacle today." And, in a letter of May 11, after studying the treaty terms: "If Wilson could have prevailed, it would have been far different…. We have no place here amongst these racial hatreds. Let us go home…. Certainly Germany will bide her time until the first dissension appears in the Entente, and then…"

  • He was the first American official ever to interview Hitler.

Smith served in the American Embassy in Berlin from 1920 to 1924. Ambassador Alanson B. Houghton sent him to Munich to talk to Prince Ruprecht to determine the strength of the separatist movement in Bavaria; to Erich von Ludendorff to determine his political ambitions; and to Adolf Hitler to get a sense of his National Socialist Labor Party. On November 20, 1922, Smith became the first American official to interview Hitler. He met Hitler in a house at Georgen Strasse 42, Munich, a shabby place. Smith wrote, "A marvelous demagogue. I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man. His power over the mob must be immense." Smith said Hitler’s party was the Bavarian counterpart to the Italian Fascisti. Among the major points Smith reported were: anti-Semitism, parliament must go, overthrow socialists and communists, win labor to nationalistic ideals, monarchy is dead, establish national dictatorship.

  • He used Lindbergh to gather intelligence on the Luftwaffe.

Smith used Charles Lindbergh to penetrate the Luftwaffe in 1936 and reported detailed findings to G-2, War Department General Staff. Smith was thoroughly familiar with the German army but keenly aware of his ignorance regarding the rapidly improving German air force. Knowing that the Nazis wanted to show the world the progress made since their assumption of power in 1933, Smith made a deal. Lindbergh would make an appearance at the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936; in return, Smith and his assistant attaché for air would accompany Lindbergh on visits to aviation research, production, test, and operational facilities. Lindbergh sat in the cockpits or flew all of the aircraft with which Germany entered WW II. This great intel coup was entirely the result of Smith’s initiative.

  • Gen. Marshall stored Smith’s medical file in his own office in order to keep Smith in the Army.

A routine physical before Smith’s promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1939 revealed diabetes. By Army regulation he should have been medically retired. But Chief of Staff Marshall retained the officer best informed about Germany — and a first-rate strategist — in his G-2 shop. Marshall kept Smith’s medical file in a cabinet in his office. In 1941, when Marshall was clearing leadership of those who could not keep up in mobile warfare, a general complained that Marshall was favoring regulars over reservists and National Guard officers, using Smith as an example. Smith was retired in the autumn of 1941, but Marshall personally called Smith, then residing in Connecticut, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, asking him to return to active duty in the G-2 shop. Smith said he never wanted to leave. Smith enjoyed the high opinion of his peers. General Albert Wedemeyer expressed his gratitude for Smith’s assistance in developing the Victory Plan and said: "Had [diabetes] not intervened, Smith might have played a role equal in influence to Eisenhower’s in WW II."

  • He played an important role in the creation of the post-war Germany army.

Smith fought and respected the German Army of King and Kaiser in 1918. From 1919 to 1924, he served in Germany where he observed the Reichswehr, the German Army of 100,000 well-trained volunteers. While at Fort Benning as one of Marshall’s men, he monitored the German Army and became a close and lifelong friend of Adolf von Schell, the first German exchange officer after WW I. Schell later served as a major general in the Wehrmacht. Marshall and Schell also became friends. As military attaché in Berlin from 1935 to 1939, Smith enjoyed excellent relations with Wehrmacht officers, some he had known for years, some in key posts, and some close friends. In Washington from 1939 to 1945, he was a German specialist and the ETO briefer during WW II. He knew Germany, Germans, and the German Army very well. In April of 1945, even before the war in Europe ended, General Hans Speidel sent Smith a letter. The Smith-Speidel correspondence continued until two weeks before Smith died in 1970. Smith at first sent food packages to his old friends and reconnected with them. Because he was so well wired to Germans (among them: Schell, Warlimont, Pappenheim, Reichenau, Horst Mellenthin) and to Americans in key positions (among them: H. Hoover, Acheson, Marshall, Wedemeyer, O. Bradley, Joe Collins, both Dulles brothers, Hanson Baldwin) Smith played an important role as German rearmament was considered. It can be said that he was midwife at the birth of the Bundeswehr in 1955. However, in his "Estimate of the German Army," December 15, 1963, he says that army "is unworthy to stand comparison with any German army of the past two centuries." The reason: "psychological isolation from the nation."

Henry G. Gole is a retired Special Forces colonel who began his military career as a BAR man in the Korean War. Among his four tours in Germany were assignments in infantry, special forces, and as an attaché, the last in Bonn from 1973 to 1977. Among his three tours in Asia were 5th Special Forces Group and MACVSOG in Vietnam. He has taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point and at the Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA. He earned a Ph.D. in history and has written four books: The Road to Rainbow: Army Planning for Global War, 1934-1940 (2003); Soldiering: Observations from Korea, Vietnam, and Safe Places (2005); General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War (2008); his most recent book (2013) is Exposing the Third Reich: Colonel Truman Smith in Hitler’s Germany. He resides with his trophy wife in Mechanicsburg, PA.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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