William Donovan is an authentic American hero, the man who single-handedly founded our country’s first unified intelligence service. Unfortunately, much of what was written about him in the past was clumsy hagiography, based on information that Donovan and aides hand-fed to writers; one book was even vetted by his law firm. A major exception was the credible “Donovan and the CIA” by the late CIA historian Thomas Troy, an in-house effort made public in 1981.
In postwar years, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the U.S. Marine Corps were ridiculed for their self-aggrandizing PR machinery. Donovan was no slouch at the game. The major difference is that he truly deserved any praise that came his way.
Douglas Waller wisely started this work de novo, relying on his own research, poring through hundreds of thousands of pages of OSS records and Donovan papers. OSS veterans gave him the personal reminiscences that add life to a biography. “Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage” must be recognized as the defining work on Donovan.
Persons with a cursory interest in intelligence will find the outline of Donovan’s career familiar: the poor Irish Catholic boy from Buffalo, N.Y., who married into wealth; earned a Medal of Honor for heroism in World War I (he suffered shrapnel wounds and was gassed) and built a lucrative Wall Street law practice. In the late 1930s, he was alarmed by the turmoil sweeping Europe and the fact that the United States had no intelligence service of consequence.
Thus he turned to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he had had fierce political battles in New York. FDR gave his blessing to fact-finding missions and eventually created the euphemistically named Committee on Information, which morphed into the Office of Strategic Services.
Donovan’s troubles with the Washington bureaucracy commenced immediately. The State Department and the Army had their highly secret spy office, known as “the Pond,” and along with the FBI, they wanted no competition. Donovan frequently griped that he spent the war “fighting two enemies - the Axis and Washington.”
But Donovan was a man of enormous energies. Starting with one person - himself - he cobbled together an organization that numbered some 10,000 persons by war’s end: analysts, covert operators, saboteurs, paramilitary fighters. Given his Wall Street background, Donovan naturally drew so heavily from the talent pool he knew - lawyers, investors, executives - that snarky Washingtonians referred to the OSS as “Oh So Social. The slur was unfair. Donovan also brought in academicians, labor organizers and even a journalist or two. And he had the sense to hook up with the long-established British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), masters of spookdom dating back to the Victorian era.
As Mr. Waller documents, OSS had a mixed record. In hindsight, intelligence professionals now give OSS its highest marks for developing an all-source analytical ability that is the successor CIA’s strong suit. The boom-and-bang operations that drew postwar publicity kept the Nazis off-balance in occupied Europe, but the covert sources developed by the spymaster likes of Allen Dulles, based in Switzerland, were far more important.
And Donovan was a hands-on adventurer, even when common sense dictated otherwise. When the Army’s “Big Red One” division went ashore in Sicily in 1943, Donovan - aged 60 and suffering from a heart condition - insisted on being in the first wave. The division commander lent him a jeep and a driver. They soon came under fire from an Italian patrol. Donovan grabbed a light machine gun and fired back, his escort reporting, “He shot up the Italians single-handed. He was happy as a clam.”
One delicate issue that Mr. Waller addresses is Donovan’s philandering. He and wife Ruth essentially led separate lives for much of their marriage because of his serial affairs. His daughter-in-law, Mary Gradin Donovan - a close school friend of his daughter’s - became his de facto hostess, both in New York and Washington. Ruth was content to stay at her Chapel Hill farm near Berryville, Va. Hunt Country people are as gossipy as sophomores at an all-girls’ school, and there was much chatter about an “affair” between the two - which Mr. Waller dismisses as malicious nonsense. Nonetheless, the lie was among the derogatory items that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dragged in front of Truman in his campaign to discredit Donovan. Other charges of infidelity, however, were valid. Donovan graced many beds over the years.
By 1945, FDR had soured on Donovan, influenced by accumulated bureaucratic jealousies. Roosevelt-haters in the media called his postwar plans an “American Gestapo,” and President Truman killed the OSS in September 1945. But he soon realized that Donovan was correct, and the CIA was formally established in 1947 - along the lines Donovan had proposed years earlier.
Although I admire Mr. Waller’s book, especially his enormous archival work, a couple of factors bothered me. The work is disorganized, wandering from subject to subject in the same chapter, with no coherent narrative. An editor’s guidance was sorely needed. Also, he has a liking for “you are there” anecdotes of the sort I doubt that he could document - how the doorman of a Rome hotel greeted Donovan, for instance.
But these annoyances do not detract from the force of his narrative. At hand is a valuable, and objective, tribute to the man who created modern American intelligence.
A revised edition of Joseph C. Goulden’s Dictionary of Espionage: SpySpeak into English, will be published this fall.