Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Walter B. Smith II
The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
WALTER B. SMITH, II
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial interview date: May 17, 1993
Copyright 1998 ADST
JUNIOR YEARS: Rapid-Fire Multinational Exposure (1958-1969)Beginnings
Q: Today is May 17, 1993. This is an interview with Walter B. Smith II. I am Charles Stuart Kennedy. Starting with the beginning, could you give me an idea of your background—where and when you were born and a bit about your family, to provide an idea of who you are?
SMITH: I was born on December 10, 1929, in Providence, Rhode Island. I went to school in Providence until going away to boarding school at St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island, where I spent three years. I went to Princeton University, majored in modern European history with a minor in early European history and graduated in the Class of 1951. In my last year at Princeton I became interested in the Russian Orthodox Church. I suspect that this may have been because I met a fellow just out of college at that time named Ivan Obolensky, who seemed a rather charismatic individual who came from one of the oldest and, at one time, one of the most powerful families in the Russian Empire. This influenced me. I was interested in church matters, so that the interest in church matters and Russian affairs combined. I wrote my senior thesis during my last year at Princeton on the fate of the Russian Orthodox Church during the first decade of Soviet rule, though I did not know what I was talking about. It was not a good thesis, but it meant that I was genuinely interested in Soviet affairs.
Two weeks after I graduated [from Princeton] in June, 1951, I was whisked, as an ROTC Second Lieutenant, into the U.S. Army as an artillery officer. About eight months later I was assigned to a heavy artillery battalion in Germany. I applied, almost as a lark, for Russian language training on arrival in Germany in the spring of 1952. Within a month and a half I found myself at Oberammergau in a six-month, intensive Russian language course, run by the U. S. Army-Europe Intelligence School, where I managed to finish the course first in a class of 100 students. I fell in love with the Russian language. Really, more than any other, single event in my life, this affected what came after.