The fascinating story of the United States Office of Strategic Services would not have been possible without the one man who was capable of creating it. Given all of its accomplishments within three years, we should not only remember William Joseph Donovan as the force behind the OSS but also as one of our country’s most interesting servants. This is a thumbnail summary of the Office of Strategic Services and the man who created and led it during a period of global calamity.
DONOVAN THE MAN
Bill Donovan was a second-generation Irish-American, born and raised in Buffalo, New York. Raised a Catholic, he attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and later graduated from Niagara University, where he majored in pre-law studies. Bill transferred to Columbia University, where he participated in football, competitive rowing, and oratory in addition to rigorous studies. He attended law school with Franklin D. Roosevelt. After graduating, he returned to Buffalo to practice law.
In 1912, Donovan helped form a cavalry troop within the New York National Guard. He married Ruth Rumsey in 1914, the daughter of a prominent Buffalo businessman. In 1916, the Rockefeller Foundation hired Donovan’s law firm to help persuade the Imperial German government to allow shipments of food and clothing into Belgium, Serbia, and Poland. In this role, he was an unofficial ambassador of the foundation. Later that year, the State Department requested that he return to the United States — apparently believing that his “meddling” was working against the interests of the United States.
Upon his return to the United States, his New York cavalry troop activated for service along the US-Mexico border. While serving under Brigadier General Pershing, the National Guard promoted Donovan to major. When he returned to New York, he transferred to the New York 69th Infantry Regiment (later redesignated as the U.S. 165th Infantry Regiment), which was training for service in World War I. The regiment became part of the U.S. 42nd Infantry Division (Rainbow Division) after transfer to France. Colonel Douglas MacArthur served as the division’s chief of staff at that time.
During World War I, Major Bill Donovan served as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, 165th. Early in the war, Donovan received a shrapnel wound to his leg, and at another time, he was nearly blinded by a German gas attack. Donovan continually exhibited valorous behavior on the field of battle. After taking part in rescuing fellow soldiers while under fire, military commanders sought to recognize his efforts by awarding him the Croix de Guerre. When Donovan learned that another soldier who participated in the rescue, a Jewish-American, was refused such recognition, Donovan declined to accept the award. He eventually accepted the award only after the French government similarly recognized the Jewish soldier.
In late May 1918, during the Aisne-Marne offensive, Major Donovan led his battalion in an assault in which hundreds of the regiment were killed, including Donovan’s adjutant, the poet Joyce Kilmer. In recognition of his leadership during this engagement, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. Donovan’s reputation for courage under fire rivaled his extraordinary physical and mental endurance. During this period in his life, people affectionately nicknamed him “Wild Bill” Donovan.
Later assigned to command the regiment, Donovan led the 165th in the Landres-et-Saint-Georges Campaign in October 1918. During this fight, Donovan ignored the custom of covering up his rank insignia to motivate his men. He not only wore his rank insignia, thus becoming a target for German snipers, but he also wore all his medals so that there could be no mistaking the fact that he was a regimental officer. In this fight, Donovan was wounded by a bullet in the knee, but he refused evacuation until all his men had been safely withdrawn. The Army later awarded Donovan his second DSC.
Lieutenant Colonel Donovan remained in Europe after the war as part of the occupation forces, returning home in April 1919. After returning home, he resumed his law practice. Recalling Donovan’s previous efforts on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation, several American corporations hired Donovan as their advisor on matters pertaining to post-war European powers. In this connection, Donovan and his wife traveled to Japan, China, and Korea. He afterward traveled alone to Russia during its revolution, gathering information about the international communist movement.
Between 1922-24, Donovan served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York. He quickly earned a reputation as a crime fighter, particularly in prohibition-related matters. He received several assassination threats and warnings about his family’s safety, but he never relented in his pursuit of law-breakers. Donovan may have become a prohibition zealot, but if not that, he certainly did lose a lot of “society” friends when he decided to raid his own country club for violating prohibition laws — and he ended up losing his law partner, as well.
In 1924, Donovan received a presidential appointment to serve as Assistant Attorney General of the United States under his old law school professor, Harlan Stone. Throughout his government service, Donovan continued to direct his Buffalo law firm. Today, we credit Donovan as the first Assistant Attorney General to prioritize the hiring of women. In this capacity, however, Donovan was highly critical of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Donovan’s friction with Hoover lasted throughout his life. In 1925, when Stone took a seat on the Supreme Court, Donovan became the de facto Attorney General of the United States.
In 1929, Donovan resigned from the Justice Department and moved his family to New York City, where he started a new law firm, which despite the stock market crash, became a successful business handling mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies. Donovan ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor to succeed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
Between 1920-1940, Donovan was part of an informal network of businessmen and lawyers who carefully collected and analyzed “foreign intelligence.” It was an activity that prompted Donovan to take frequent trips to Europe and Asia. His business success and political connections enabled him to meet with foreign leaders of both Italy and Germany. His analysis of events in Europe and Asia made him no friend of fascists or communist dictators, but his meetings with them did help him to better advise his clients, notably Jewish clients with business interests in Germany. He was convinced that another war was inevitable.
As previously noted, Donovan had known Franklin Roosevelt since law school — but while he respected Roosevelt for his political savvy and manipulative ability, he shared none of Roosevelt’s ideas about social policy. Roosevelt, in return, respected Donovan for his experience, war record, and realism. What helped to make Donovan politically popular in 1940 was actor George Brent’s portrayal of him in the Cagney film, The Fighting 69th. It occurred to Roosevelt that Donovan might be useful to him as an ally and policy advisor — particularly after Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 1939.
Donovan predicted the evolution of warring nations in Europe and was able to explain why. On this basis, Roosevelt began giving Donovan various assignments. In 1940, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, during which time Donovan offered his assessment of Britain’s ability to withstand German aggression. He met with Winston Churchill, the directors of the British Intelligence Services, and lunched with King George VI. Churchill liked Donovan personally and granted him unfettered access to classified information. For his part, Donovan was impressed by the way the British organized their intelligence agencies. Donovan was so well-liked by the British that the foreign minister requested that the State Department consider him a replacement for U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.
Donovan also evaluated U.S. Naval bases and installations in the Pacific (none of which impressed him) and served as an unofficial envoy of both Roosevelt and Churchill in the Mediterranean and Middle East. He frequently met with British MI-6 operative William Stephenson, code name “Intrepid,” with whom he shared his analyses. Stephenson would later become vital to Donovan as he began to organize the OSS.
U.S. INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES
Before the 1880s, intelligence activities were devoted almost exclusively to the support of military operations, either to support deployed forces or to obtain information on enemy-nation intentions. In March 1882, however, the U.S. Navy established the nation’s first permanent intelligence organization — the Office of Naval Intelligence — whose mission was to collect intelligence on foreign navies in peacetime and war. Three years later, a similar organization — the Military Intelligence Division, U.S. Army — began collecting foreign and domestic information for the War Department.
Military intelligence operations were somewhat monotonous until Theodore Roosevelt became president. Under Roosevelt, military and naval intelligence operatives incited a revolution in Panama and then used that excitement as an excuse to annex the Panama Canal. Military intelligence also monitored Japan’s military and naval buildup, inspiring Roosevelt’s launch of the “Great White Fleet.”
In the early part of the twentieth century, U.S. Intelligence was notable for its expansion of domestic spying. In 1908, the Justice Department created its Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) out of concern that members of the Secret Service were engaged in spying on members of Congress. Within ten years, the BOI grew from 34 to 300 agents, expanding their interests from banking to internal security, Mexican border smuggling, and unrest in Central America. After the start of the First World War, the BOI turned its attention to the activities of German and British nationals within U.S. borders.
Still, when the U.S. entered the world war, there was no coordinated intelligence effort. Woodrow Wilson detested the use of spies; he tended not to believe “intelligence information” until he developed a close association with the British Intelligence Chief in Washington.
Did President Wilson become a willing dupe to British foreign policy? In fact, British intelligence played a significant role in bringing the United States into World War I. The American people had little interest in the European war until after British Intelligence (and Wilson) made public Germany’s attempt to disrupt U.S. industry and the financial sector. Moreover, British Intelligence revealed Germany’s efforts to entice the Mexican government into joining the war against the United States. When the American people learned of these efforts, there were fewer objections to Wilson’s declaration of war.
America’s first “signals intelligence” agency was formed within the Military Intelligence Division, the eighth directorate (MI-8). This agency was responsible for decoding military communication and managing codes for use by the U.S. military. At the end of the war, the War Department transferred MI-8 to the Department of State, where it was known as the “black chamber.” The black chamber focused more on diplomatic rather than military traffic. In 1921, the black chamber decrypted Japanese diplomatic traffic revealing their positions at the Washington Conference on Naval Disarmament. It was an “intelligence coup” — but one in which American President Coolidge failed to act. During the Hoover administration, the state department transferred signals intelligence back to the War Department and assigned it to the Army Signal Corps.
Other intelligence entities remained in existence after the end of the world war, but their parent agencies cut funds and diminished their capabilities. One exception was the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, which expanded its intelligence gathering activities. In 1924, BOI was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with J. Edgar Hoover appointed its first director. In the years leading up to World War II, the FBI investigated espionage, counter-espionage, sabotage, and violations of neutrality laws.
It was also during the 1920s that efforts were made to coordinate the activities of various intelligence agencies. An Interdepartmental Intelligence Coordinating Committee took on this task, with its chair rotating among the multiple agencies. Without a permanent chairperson and a mandate to share information, U.S. intelligence efforts were inefficient and, worse, criminally malfeasant. The Department of State, Treasury, War, and Navy had their intelligence operations. There was no coordination or central direction, and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army maintained their own code-breaking centers. The State Department, under Henry Stimpson, shut down the State Department’s intelligence gathering apparatus because … “gentlemen shouldn’t read other people’s mail.”
Roosevelt, pleased with Bill Donovan’s contribution to his understanding of global intelligence concerns, appointed him as the Coordinator of Information in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In 1942, no one had any idea what the OSS was, and no one was quite certain what a Coordinator of Information did for a living. It was the perfect cover for Roosevelt’s spy network.
Typical of Roosevelt, however — at least initially, he handed Bill Donovan the responsibility for a massive undertaking without giving him any authority over it. Donovan was constantly traveling back and forth between his office and the White House to obtain Roosevelt’s permission to proceed with the next step. Eventually, this problem worked itself out — no doubt at Donovan’s insistence.
Meanwhile, as the heads of the various U. S. intelligence agencies became more aware of Donovan’s activities, they began to resent his “interference” in their internal intelligence operations. They not only resisted cooperating with Donovan, but they also tried to turn Roosevelt against him. Nothing amused Roosevelt more than watching his subordinates flay each other.
Lacking any cooperation from the intelligence agencies, Donovan organized the OSS with the principal assistance of experienced British intelligence officers. Most of the early information “collected” by Donovan originated with and was provided by MI-6.
Initially, British intelligence experts trained OSS operatives in Canada — until Donovan could establish sufficient training facilities in the United States. The British also introduced Americans to their short-wave broadcasting system (with capabilities in Europe, Africa, and the Far East).
On 13 June 1942, President Roosevelt officially created the OSS by executive order. The mission assigned to OSS was to collect and analyze the information required by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, when needed, conduct special (intelligence) operations not assigned to other agencies. As an agency subordinate to the OJCS, OSS never had the overall authority of U. S. intelligence collection activities or functions, but they did provide policymakers with facts and estimates associated with enemy capabilities. The FBI retained its control over domestic intelligence-gathering operations and those in Latin America, and the Army and Navy continued to develop and rely on their sources of intelligence unique to their missions.
(Continued next week)
- Aldrich, R. J. Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America, and the Politics of Secret Service. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Bartholomew-Feis, D. R. The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War against Japan. University of Kansas Press, 2006.
- Brown, A. C. The Last American Hero: Wild Bill Donovan. New York Times Press, 1982.
- Chalou, G. C. The Secrets War: The Office of Strategic Services in World War II. National Archives and Records Administration, 1991.
- Dulles, A. The Secret Surrender. Harper & Row, 1966.
- Dunlop, R. Donovan: America’s Master Spy. Rand-McNally, 1982.
- Smith, B. F. The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA. Basic Press, 1983.
- Yu, M. OSS in China: Prelude to Cold War. Yale University Press, 1996
 Actor George Brent portrayed Donovan in a 1940 James Cagney film titled The Fighting 69th.
 Donovan experienced anti-Irish Catholic treatment at several junctions in his career, but most notably when Hoover promised Donovan the post of Attorney General and later recanted when Hoover’s southern backers balked at this nomination. Instead, Hoover offered him the governorship of the Philippines. Donovan turned down the appointment.
 One of Donovan’s political enemies was Douglas MacArthur, a former Army Chief of Staff who at one time was Donovan’s peer. Some say that MacArthur “craved” the Medal of Honor, so MacArthur may have resented Donovan who was the recipient of all three of the Army’s top medals for bravery: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, and Distinguished Service Medal. Donovan was subsequently awarded a second DSM, a Silver Star Medal, and three Purple Heart medals.