"Wild Bill" Donovan created and led the Office of Stategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
"Wild Bill" Donovan created and led the Office of Stategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
In his new book Wild Bill Donovan (Free Press, 2011) former Newsweek and Time journalist-turned-military historian Douglas Waller takes an in-depth look at the life, times and legacy of the man who created and led the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II. Although Donovan was a bona fide military hero—he won the Medal of Honor in World War I while leading an infantry battalion of the 42nd Division—his selection by President Franklin Roosevelt to be America’s first modern-day spymaster was hugely controversial. Charismatic and driven, Donovan was revered by his agents, analysts and covert operatives—who numbered more than 10,000 by war’s end—yet was mistrusted and undermined by many in the nation’s military and political hierarchy. Waller’s portrait of Donovan is comprehensive and compelling and reveals the secrets of the man who almost single-handedly created modern American espionage.


What intrigued you about Donovan?
I’ve always been attracted to controversial figures. Donovan’s OSS agents revered him, and people in the Pentagon thought he was as evil as Hitler.

Why did Roosevelt choose him to head the OSS?
He was extremely energetic and vibrant. He had a very creative mind and was open to all kinds of ideas. If you’re setting up an unconventional organization that was going to do unusual things, Donovan was your type of guy.

Did he prepare for intelligence work?
His professional background prepared him considerably to be a spymaster. After he set up his law firm in New York, he became an international lawyer who worked deals overseas—and collected information that was valuable to clients and to the U.S. government.

Did the U.S. have an intelligence apparatus at the outset of World War II?
The Army and Navy had small foreign intelligence units, with some attachés overseas. This really worried Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1940–41 had to make major foreign-policy decisions largely blind. Even before the OSS was set up, FDR sent Donovan on two very important diplomatic missions.

How did the Roosevelt-Donovan relationship start?
They were early political enemies. In 1932 Donovan—a conservative Republican who thought that Roosevelt’s New Deal was a communist plot to take over America—ran for governor of New York. Donovan said all kinds of mean things about Roosevelt, who had surrogates go after Donovan. Fast forward to 1940–41: Roosevelt was preparing America for war, and Donovan was an internationalist. These two canny politicians saw value in each other and set aside their political differences to work together.

How did Donovan recruit people for the OSS?
Initially he recruited peers, friends on Wall Street [and people] from prominent families. He wanted to recruit {people] with upstanding character and said he “could teach them the dark arts of espionage when they came in.” He also recruited people who already knew the dark arts—people from seamier backgrounds.

What did America’s military leaders think of the OSS?
It was a mixed reaction. General George Marshall originally thought Donovan was plotting to take over Army and Navy intelligence but came to appreciate the OSS after the 1942 Torch invasion. But senior military intelligence officers fought the agency throughout the war. Army intelligence even formed a secret unit, nicknamed “The Pond,” to spy on Donovan. General Dwight Eisenhower, however, had nothing but praise for the OSS, and General George Patton and Donovan got along well.

Where were OSS agents most effective?
In the Balkans, China, Burma and France. In Yugoslavia and Greece the OSS was a pain for Hitler but did not represent a strategic threat. In France they had more effect, at Normandy and on the invasion in southern France. Donovan infiltrated a lot of agents into southern France and collected reams of good intelligence.

Did some OSS operatives later head up the CIA?
Allen Dulles was Donovan’s station chief in Berne, Switzerland; William Casey ran a lot of operations into Germany; and William Colby parachuted into France. James Jesus Angleton, one of Donovan’s counterespionage officers in Rome, later became a controversial head of CIA counterintelligence.

Did other OSS agents go on to fame and influence?
Oh, yes. Historian Arthur Schlesinger was an OSS research analyst in London. John Ford, the Oscar-winning Hollywood director, worked for the OSS. A lot of prominent bankers and university professors and presidents worked for the OSS. Sterling Hayden, the actor. Julia Child, of course, worked as a propagandist in Asia for the OSS.

How would you characterize the relationship between the OSS and British intelligence?
Complicated. Donovan could not have formed the OSS without the British, who provided intelligence, trainers, organizational charts and advice—all with the idea of making OSS an adjunct to British intelligence. But Donovan wanted to mount his own operations and had fierce turf battles with the British in Europe and in Asia. It got pretty bitter.

Was Donovan able to insert agents into Nazi Germany?
Toward the end of the war, but they didn’t accomplish much. By the time the OSS mounted operations against the Germans in 1945, the rapidly advancing American army often overran the agents before they could collect any intelligence.

Were foreign agents able to penetrate the OSS?
Initially there were Nazi sympathizers in the OSS, but they got weeded out fairly quickly. And Donovan knew he had communists working in the OSS. There may have been a half-dozen NKGB moles working in OSS headquarters and some in OSS stations around the world. Intelligence historians have analyzed the effects of the NKGB penetration of the OSS and concluded that it didn’t really have much effect.

Did the OSS have problems with double agents?
Not many. A lot less than the problems the Germans had with their agents being doubled by the OSS. There were some instances of that and of OSS agents and documents being captured and even a few OSS codes broken during the war. But in the post-mortems after the war it was clear the Axis did not really make good use of what they got.

What would you consider the major strategic achievements of the OSS?
First, that it survived. Did the OSS win the war for the Allies? No. Did it shorten the war to any appreciable extent? No. Did the OSS contribute to the victory? Yes.

What was the influence of the OSS on the future CIA?
The CIA’s culture, élan and esprit de corps—for better or worse—reflect Donovan’s organization and vision for a postwar intelligence service. He was thinking about a postwar central intelligence service while the war was winding down and wanted to lead it, but there were forces working against him. President Harry Truman knew he needed a foreign intelligence agency but didn’t want Donovan to be any part of it; there was bad chemistry between them.

Is that why Truman shut down the OSS after the war?
I think what killed the OSS was a report drafted by The Pond. It accused the OSS of misdeeds, malfeasance, blown operations and corruption. Truman read the report and, at the end of September 1945, he closed down the OSS and parceled out its functions to the Pentagon and the State Department. In 1947 Truman set up the CIA and, ironically, it was patterned after Donovan’s vision.

What did Donovan do after the war?
He went back to his law firm in New York. In 1953, when Eisenhower became president, Donovan thought that was his best chance to become CIA director and lobbied Ike through intermediaries. Ike instead appointed Allen Dulles, which left Donovan deeply bitter. As a consolation prize, Ike appointed Donovan ambassador to Thailand, where he served from 1953 to 1954. Donovan took the Thailand post and became the de facto envoy to Asia, flying around on his law firm’s expense account. Toward the end of his ambassadorship he was spending more time in Vietnam than in Thailand, meddling in that country’s affairs.