Book Review: Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage


by Douglas Waller

New York: The Free Press, 2011. Pp. x, 470. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 978-1416567448

At the beginning of the Second World War, the United States had begun to re-arm, but had almost no assets for strategic intelligence or the emerging domain of covert and irregular military operations.  To organize and lead America’s secret war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to a Republican lawyer, a hero of the First World War and a fellow New Yorker, William Joseph Donovan (1883-1959).  Douglas Waller’s new book is the first truly objective biography of this key figure.  It belongs on the reading list for any course in the history of US Intelligence, and will be of great interest to professionals as well as military history geeks and spy-craft fanboys and fangirls.  Waller, the author, among others, of A Question of Loyalty : Gen. Billy Mitchell and the Court-Martial That Gripped the Nation, is a gifted storyteller and a skilled researcher who was given unprecedented access to the personal papers of Donovan’s relatives and associates.

Born to immigrant parents in a tough Irish neighborhood of Buffalo, Donovan played quarterback in football at Columbia University, graduating in 1905 and going on to Columbia Law School.  As a young attorney, he organized a cavalry troop of the New York militia in 1912 recruited from wealthy young men of Buffalo, which served in the 1916 campaign against Pancho Villa on the Mexican Border.  Promoted to the rank of major, he led the first battalion of New York’s famous Irish-American 69th Regiment (which fought in France as the 165th Regiment of the 42nd “Rainbow” Division).  Donovan was awarded the Medal of Honor for combat near the village of Landres-et-St. Georges during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October, 1918.  He married a wealthy and attractive heiress, but his family life would be marked by tragic accidents, including the death of a daughter, a beloved daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter.

Between the wars, Donovan built a successful law practice, was active in Republican politics (defeated in his 1932 campaign for Governor of New York), and traveled around the world, developing a network of influential contacts.  Like many conservatives, he initially admired the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, but unlike some he quickly realized the inherent evil of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Roosevelt was fascinated by the “tradecraft” of intelligence – stealing enemy codebooks, disguising lethal weapons as ordinary objects, running double-agents and all the “dirty tricks” disdained by the diplomat-generals and aristocratic cavalry officers of the Regular Army.  Donovan fed this fascination with a steady stream of cloak-and-dagger reports for the President’s eyes.

The Office of Strategic Services was organized on 13 June 1942, and officially disbanded by an Executive Order of President Truman on 20 September 1945.  Initially, it was strongly influenced by the British Secret Intelligence Service (“MI 6”) and Special Operations Executive – indeed many Anglophobic politicians in Washington regarded it as a tool for Churchill’s manipulation of US policy.  Because Donovan favored Ivy League graduates, insiders joked that OSS stood for “Oh, So Social.”  There was an intense mutual hatred between Donovan and J. Edgar Hoover, so that it sometimes seemed the FBI and OSS spent as much effort fighting each other as they did fighting the Axis.

On 26 July 1947 Truman signed the National Security Act, which created the Central Intelligence Agency, America’s first peacetime intelligence organization.  OSS veterans filled the ranks of the CIA for decades.  Allen W. Dulles, who ran OSS operations in Switzerland during the war, became the longest serving Director of Central Intelligence (1953-1961).  As a young naval officer, Richard Helms (DCI, 1966-73) organized OSS teams to infiltrate Germany.  As an OSS officer, William Colby (DCI, 1973-1976) parachuted into Nazi-occupied Norway with a ski team to blow up a key railroad bridge.  William J. Casey (DCI, 1981-1987), Donovan’s “troubleshooter for European operations,” became head of the OSS Secret Intelligence Branch.  The names of OSS personnel and their personnel files were a closely guarded secret until August 2008, when the National Archives declassified some 750 thousand pages of records.  But OSS veterans shaped the history of the postwar world in countless ways: TV chef Julia Child, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., film director John Ford, to name just a few.

In 1943 Donovan had an OSS insignia designed: a gold embroidered spearhead on a black oval.  It was never approved by the Army, and only a handful were made, but when US Special Operations Command was activated in 1987, it adopted Donovan’s insignia, in recognition of the OSS heritage.

Donovan was portrayed by George Brent in the 1940 hit movie, The Fighting 69th, set during World War I.  General William Sullivan, the character played by Robert De Niro in the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, is based on Donovan.

By 21st Century standards of political correctness, Donovan was a shameless self-promoter, a bad manager, a terrible judge of people, reckless with money, a Machiavellian manipulator and a serial adulterer.  But when he was told that Donovan had died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in February, 1959 after a long illness, President Eisenhower remarked: "What a man!  We have lost the last hero."


Mike Markowitz, who has previously reviewed The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire and To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 for StrategyPage, is a D.C. area defense analyst, game designer, and numismatist.  He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1and Supermarina 2, both  from Clash of Arms.
Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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