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National Security Archive Board Member General William Y. Smith Dies at 90

National Security Archive

Posted - January 26, 2016

Contact: 202-994-7000 or


2011 Tribute to Gen. Smith:
"William Y. Smith is an inspiration
of perseverance through adversity..."
Gathering of Eagles Foundation

"William Y. Smith Award for Excellence"
Institute for Defense Analyses

Interview with Gen. Smith
CNN 24-part series Cold War

Operation Anadyr: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis
By General Anatoli I. Gribkov and
General William Y. Smith
(Edition Q, 1993)



U.S. Air Force promotion ceremony (undated)


Gen. Smith (third from left) and Robert McNamara (dark blue shirt) relive the Cuban Missile Crisis with Fidel Castro (not pictured) and others, Havana, October 2002


Making a point to Cuban VP José Ramón Fernández, Havana, October 2002


Deriving lessons from the Cold War, with former Soviet counterparts in Stockholm, April 2006

Gen. William Y. Smith in 1981. (United States Air Force)


Washington, D.C., January 26, 2016 - The National Security Archive mourns the passing of Gen. William Y. Smith, one of the Archive's original board members and longest supporters, on January 19, 2016.  Gen. Smith helped form the original advisory board of the Archive in the 1980s, served on the audit committee of the Archive's Board of Directors from 1999 to 2016, and played an instrumental role in multiple Archive projects, including conferences in Havana and Hanoi that dramatically re-wrote the histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.  As a young military aide, Gen. Smith personally authored some of the key documents from inside the Kennedy and Johnson White Houses on turning points of history, and devoted extraordinary energy in his retirement to opening the documentation that would educate the public and future students of history.  Gen. Smith was especially a pioneer in dialogue with former enemies, from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, that illuminated perceptions and misperceptions on all sides.  To all of us at the Archive, Bill Smith remains an American hero.


Gen. Smith’s memo for the record from a White House meeting on the Tonkin Gulf incident, August 5, 1964


 , 2016

(link to the article)

William Y. Smith, a four-star Air Force general who flew combat missions in Korea, wrote a book about the Cuban Missile Crisis and retired as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, died Jan. 19 at his home in Falls Church, Va. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Maria Smith.

In retirement, Gen. Smith was a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and for five years was president of Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research center.

What may have been the defining moment of his career occurred in February 1952 over North Korea when his F-84 fighter jet was hit by antiaircraft fire, smashing his right foot and ankle and setting his airplane on fire.

He landed on North Korean mudflats and was rescued by a U.S. helicopter. He spent the next nine months in military hospitals, and his right foot would be amputated just above the ankle. He was fitted with a prosthetic foot and ankle.

The future general had flown 97 combat missions but would never fly another, he was told. He could have taken a combat disability retirement. Or he could remain in the Air Force in non-flying assignments, but that would impair his opportunities for promotion. He chose to stay and retired in 1983 as deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command.

William Young Smith was born in Hot Springs, Ark., on Aug. 13, 1925. He graduated in 1948 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Only in 1947 did the Air Force become a separate service, and he was among the first group of West Point graduates to pick an Air Force career.

From 1954 to 1958, he taught government, economics and international relations at West Point. He received a doctorate in political economy and government at Harvard University in 1961, then came to Washington as a junior staff member with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council.

Memo from Gen. Smith to JFK’s Military Representative, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, during the Berlin Crisis, September 7, 1961

He participated in negotiations that led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. His experiences during that time became germinating agents of a 1994 book about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, co-written with a Soviet general, Anatoli I. Gribkov, former chief of staff of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact.

The book was “Operation Anadyr,” which was the Russian-language name for the Soviet stratagem of placing ballistic missiles in Cuba. Among the points the authors argued was that both sides often relied on erroneous information in making decisions.

Gen. Smith, according to his wife, often told a story of the United States receiving two simultaneous messages from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one positive and one negative. The United States chose to respond to the positive message, Gen. Smith told his family.

In 1979 Gen. Smith was posted in Europe as chief of staff for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and remained in that job until becoming deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command.



Four-star Air Force General William Young Smith, passed away on January 19 in Falls Church, Virginia. His storied military career took a seminal turn in February 1952, when North Korean flak penetrated his F-84 fighter jet on his 97th combat mission, destroying his right foot and ankle and setting the plane on fire. His voice so calm no one realized he was wounded, he radioed that he was heading to the North Korean mudflats where he made a flawless wheels-up landing. His friends circled overhead until he was picked up by helicopter in an operation that he himself had saved from a budget cut just a few weeks earlier. 

His fighter pilot days over, Smith began a storied non-flying career in the Air Force, serving at the highest policy levels. As a major, he became the first military person to serve simultaneously on the staffs of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon and of the National Security Council at the White House.  As a result of his work in that dual capacity during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was asked to join the staff for the negotiations that led to the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the USSR in 1963. 

NSC memo summarizing a Policy Review Committee meeting on Pakistan in the White House Situation Room, May 23, 1979, at which Gen. Smith represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Smith eventually rose to four-star rank, serving as Chief of Staff of SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe), and as Deputy Commander in Chief of the US European  Command.  Upon retiring from the Air Force, he was selected a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and subsequently served for five years as President of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a federally funded research center.  Once in full retirement, he became President of the Air Force Historical Foundation and a board member of the National Security Archive. He also participated in a number of oral history projects on nuclear deterrence and arms control, and co-authored a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Operation Anadyr”, with General Anatoli I. Gribkov the former Chief of Staff of the Warsaw Pact Armed Forces.

General Smith was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas and was a 1948 graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point. He earned an MPA and PhD from Harvard University, and taught for four years in the Social Science Department at West Point. In 1957 he married Maria Petschek of New York City, who had been a fellow graduate student at Harvard.  He is survived by his wife, their three sons, Raymond, Mark and Derek and their families including nine grandchildren. He is also survived by his sister Bettie Mildred Pierce of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

General Smith's decorations included the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with four clusters, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart and five Distinguished Service awards. He was a voracious reader, and a knowledgeable collector of American prints


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