William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan was hand-picked by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
as his Coordinator of Information
on July 11, 1941. He was instrumental in creating the Office of Strategic Services
, America's precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency
Donovan was born in Buffalo, New York on January 1, 1883, and earned a law degree at Columbia Law School. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as a battalion commander during World War I when he led a charge against German lines and was wounded by machine gun fire.
After the war he served as assistant attorney general under Calvin Coolidge, supervising the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation, and then he practiced anti-trust law in New York City. He ran for governor of New York as a Republican in 1932 and lost to Herbert H. Lehman. Throughout his post-war years he continued to maintain close relationships with important men such as Frank Knox, David Bruce, and the brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles.
Donovan was introduced to President Roosevelt by Frank Knox, who had been appointed Secretary of the Navy, in 1940. FDR and Donovan had been classmates at Columbia, and though they were not close friends, Roosevelt asked Donovan to visit England and assess that nation's resolve against Hitler.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, anxious to gain Roosevelt's support in a war that Britain was losing badly, afforded Donovan extraordinary access to his government's defense strategies and intelligence data. Donovan was zealous and charismatic, and his subsequent reports to Roosevelt impressed upon the President the importance of intelligence-gathering in modern warfare. Roosevelt was particularly engaged by the idea of a civilian agency, one which functioned outside the ponderous machinery of the military, whose sole purpose would be strategic and tactical intelligence. With masterful political acumen however, Roosevelt combined the military and civilian services in 1941 as the Office of Information.
The Office of Information was Euro-centric, focussed as it was on the Nazi War with England. Its position and purpose were reconsidered, however, after Pearl Harbor, particularly since Donovan's brilliantly organized office had provoked hostility from both the military and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.
The newly-created Joint Chiefs of Staff were also openly hostile to Donovan, a civilian. They petitioned the President to place Donovan and the Office of Information under their control.
The President agreed to move Donovan's organization under the command of the Joint Chiefs, but he was anxious to keep the office's Foreign Information Service, which conducted radio broadcasts, OUT of military hands. In another brilliant tactical maneuver Roosevelt gave the FIS the "official" side of the information business along with half of Donovan's staff and created the new Office of War Information. The remainder of the office, however, and all further clandestine operations, were folded into another new organization: The Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was born on June 13, 1942 and its purpose and methods of operation were decidedly "dark."
As the first and only director of the OSS, Donovan was placed on active duty, recommissioned as a Brigadier General, and made ultimately responsible for "organizing research, intelligence, propaganda, subversion and commando operations as a unified and essential feature of modern warfare, a 'Fourth Arm' of the military services," according to historian Thomas F. Troy.
With unflagging energy, Donovan sent units to every part of the war, building a clandestine network that exists to this day. By 1944 the OSS employed nearly 13,000 workers and its total operating expenditures exceeded 135 million dollars (almost $1.1 billion in today's dollars).
Central to the concept of the OSS was the practice of utilizing "unvouchered funds" from the President's emergency fund. These monies were granted by Congress to be spent at the personal responsibility of the President, and as such were not audited. As Roosevelt's officer, William Donovan, using money that on some level didn't exist, planted the seeds of today's CIA.
Wild Bill Donovan's OSS trained Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey—all future Directors of the Central Intelligence Agency.
After the war, however, Congressional attitudes towards such "war agencies" as the OSS cooled. President Truman disliked Donovan and feared his operation was gaining too much power. Donovan was given ten days to dismantle his entire organization late in 1945, and he bid farewell to his troops on September 28th in a converted skating rink just down the hill from his headquarters.
Donovan's friends and associates kept the idea of the OSS alive however, and utilizing Donovan's hastily microfilmed files, and with the aid of sympathetic congressmen, they eventually instituted a new intelligence-gathering organization which we have come to know as the CIA.
After the war Donovan was an assistant to Robert Jackson, the Chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. He was United States Ambassador to Thailand in 1953.
He died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington on February 8, 1959.
William J. Donovan is the only American to have received our nation's four highest awards: The Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.
He was truly America's Spymaker.
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Intelligence and the War Against Japan: Britain, America and the Politics of Secret Service, Richard J. Aldrich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Sub Rosa: The OSS and American Espionage, Steward Alsop and Thomas Braden (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946)
Creating the Secret State: The Origins of the Central Intelligence Agency, 1943-1947, David F. Rudgers (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2000)
Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency, Thomas F. Troy (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1981)
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