James Hopkins Smith Jr., 72, an assistant secretary of the Navy and director of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) during the Eisenhower administration, died Nov. 24 at a hospital in La Jolla, Calif. He had cancer.

After leaving government, Mr. Smith lived in La Jolla and Aspen, Colo. He was a rancher in Colorado and a vice chairman and trustee of the Aspen Institute, a privately funded public policy organization.

Mr. Smith was the assistant secretary of the Navy for air from 1953 to 1956. A widely reported event of his tenure grew out of his firing of a civilian employe of the Navy as a security risk. He called a press conference to announce that the action had been a "grave injustice." He publicly apologized to the employe, reinstated him and took full responsibility for the original mistake.

His action was all the more notable given the unreasoning anticommunism that had been generated in those years by the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.).

The ICA was the forerunner of the Agency for International Development. As its director from 1957 to 1959, Mr. Smith was head of the nation's foreign aid program. He helped wipe out the political job clearance system that plagued it and directed that further appointments be made purely on the basis of merit. When he resigned, The Washington Post said he had given "to his demanding assignment imagination, decisiveness and enthusiasm."

In the 1948 Olympic Games at Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Smith won a gold medal in sailing.

Mr. Smith was a native of New York City. He graduated from Harvard College and earned a law degree at Columbia University. Before World War II, he became a pilot in the Navy Reserves and was manager of African operations for Pan American Airways.

During the war, he flew combat missions from the carriers Belleau Wood and Yorktown in the Pacific and also served on the staff of Adm. Arthur W. Radford. He earned a Bronze Star and three Air Medals. He retired from the Reserves in 1953 with the rank of captain.

He was a special assistant to the secretary of the Navy and a vice president of Pan American before becoming assistant Navy secretary.

His marriage to the former Nancy Morgan ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Diane H., and their daughter, Joy, both of Aspen and La Jolla; three children by his first marriage, Morgan, of Denver, Dinah, of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Sandra, of Carbondale, Colo., and three grandchildren.