The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan
Donovan: America's Master Spy
Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency
The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA
On the eve of World War II, the United States was the world’s only great power without an intelligence service. Many agencies collected information of one kind or another, some of it secretly, but no one was in overall charge of knowing what was what. This made the country something of an innocent on the international scene. One characteristic of a nation without an intelligence service is that its officials, all jealous of their own responsibilities, have a hard time seeing why it might need one. The British, probably hoping it would help the United States to see why it ought to join the war, urged President Roosevelt to create such an organization.
Roosevelt liked the idea but took his time. When he finally signed an executive order creating the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in June 1942, following a year of heavy bureaucratic resistance, the man he chose to run the nation’s first centralized intelligence agency was William J. Donovan, a hero of World War I and a well-connected lawyer who had botched a once-promising political career mainly by saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. The four new books on him make it clear that running the OSS was the only really important public job Donovan ever had. It lasted just over three years—four if you include the preliminaries. At the end he was abruptly kicked out and his organization scattered with tepid thanks from Harry Truman by way of farewell.
But Donovan’s work survived him. One of his agents, Allen Dulles, who ran the OSS in Bern, Switzerland, during the war, wrote to a friend in 1951 that where intelligence is concerned, “once one gets a taste for it, it’s hard to drop.” So it proved in Washington, where the collection of intelligence and the performance “of such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct”—the great loophole of the charter of the CIA which Donovan did so much to create—are now taken as among the assumptions of government, like collecting taxes and maintaining a standing army.
Donovan was a simple man of sturdy character, intelligent without being clever, a good boss and a bad husband, whose only ambition was to be one of the men who ran the country. The shape of his life already has an antique air. He was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1883, a poor boy with a passion to excel. He was an altar boy, a declaimer of patriotic poems with an Irish flavor, dogged at his studies, good with his fists. His mother hoped he would become a priest. He chose law. From a local college he transferred to Columbia University where he played football, ran cross-country, made influential friends, and won a public-speaking award for an oration on “The Awakening of Japan.”
After receiving a law degree from Columbia, he returned to Buffalo. By 1911 he was a partner…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.