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The Underground Entrepreneur

The Last Hero: Wild Bill Donovan

by Anthony Cave Brown
Times Books, 891 pp., $24.95

Donovan: America’s Master Spy

by Richard Dunlop
Rand McNally, 562 pp., $19.95

Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency

by Thomas F. Troy
University Publications of America, 589 pp., $29.50

The Shadow Warriors: OSS and the Origins of the CIA

by Bradley F. Smith
Basic Books, 507 pp., $20.75


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 in a leading local firm. In 1912, although ignorant of horses, he joined a newly formed National Guard cavalry unit made up largely of rich young men from Buffalo’s best families. With his usual doggedness he taught himself to ride and was elected captain of the troop. In 1914 he married Ruth Rumsey, a Presbyterian society girl who bore his children and kept a diary whose terse entries recorded Donovan’s compulsive absence from home throughout a marriage that lasted forty-five years. Donovan cut their honeymoon short after the outbreak of the First World War. Photographs of her show a woman with a defeated expression.

Donovan had the qualities it takes to make a hero—courage, good looks, uncomplicated devotion to basic values, drive and reasonableness in equal measure, and luck. “He’s a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s a game one,” said one of his men after he reached France in November 1917 as a major commanding a combat battalion in the American Expeditionary Force. He trained his men hard and they thought up names for him—“Blue-eyed Billy,” “Donovan Galloping Bill,” “Hard-boiled Bill,” and finally “Wild Bill.”

On the Western front in 1917 and 1918, where for many the carnage called Western civilization itself into question, Donovan retained an uncomplicated faith in the importance of victory. In a letter home to Ruth he wrote, “Your soldier man is a sentimental person, and when he is happiest he is singing some lonesome melody of home or mother.” In battle he pressed forward, exposed himself to enemy fire, did more than he was required or asked to do. His year of war reminds one of the young Winston Churchill, who had a similar reckless passion to prove himself whatever the danger. “What’s the matter with you?” Donovan shouted to his men when they shrank back near St. Mihiel in September 1918. “Do you want to live forever?” Donovan himself was willing to die. “I don’t expect to come back,” he wrote Ruth, “and I believe that if I am killed it will be a most wonderful heritage to my family.”

Not only did he escape death, but he was honorably wounded as well. Even more important, he had the right comrades and audience. His parent unit was the famous “Fighting Sixty-ninth” regiment of New York City, 90 percent Irish. His adjutant was a popular poet, Joyce Kilmer, author of “Trees” and other uplifting verse, and he was killed practically at Donovan’s side. On that fact alone Donovan might have built a public career. The regimental chaplain was Father Francis P. Duffy, another sentimental hero of the Great War, whose diary was widely read after it was published in 1919. Donovan was a hero of the gallant, patriotic warrior type. General Douglas MacArthur, also heavily decorated for bravery during the war, is said never to have forgiven Donovan for winning more medals than he did. But the only medal Donovan wore in later life was the Medal of Honor, a thin blue stripe with thirteen stars, the nation’s highest award. Donovan won these medals on his own merit, but it was luck that made him famous for winning them.

Things thereafter did not run so smoothly. The years between the wars were about evenly divided between failure in politics and success at the law. Twice Donovan was a public prosecutor, as US district attorney for western New York in 1922, when he made abiding local enemies by raiding some of the leading private clubs of Buffalo for violations of the liquor laws, and again in the mid-1920s as chief of the criminal division of the Justice Department, where he made even more important enemies—J. Edgar Hoover, whom he opposed as the first director of the FBI, and Senator Burton K. Wheeler, whom Donovan insisted on prosecuting (unsuccessfully) on flimsy charges brought by his predecessor. Both men gave him much trouble in later years. In 1928, Donovan, a Republican, was the nation’s most prominent Catholic to support Herbert Hoover against Al Smith for the presidency. It was the only time he ever picked a winner. In return for Donovan’s aid, which was considerable, Hoover promised to make him attorney general, but after the election he weaseled out of it.

Twice, too, Donovan ran for public office on his own—in the fall of 1922 as candidate for lieutenant governor in New York, when the Democratic ticket headed by Smith won; and ten years later, against sound advice, for governor of New York, when Hoover’s crushing defeat by FDR doomed Donovan as well. Thereafter Donovan stuck to his own law firm, based in Washington and New York, which thrived on the big clients attracted by Donovan’s prominence. His fame never faded, he had many friends from his political adventures, and he was always good with reporters, who took his charm and his wink as a sign he was up to something big.

Perhaps he was. In the years between the wars, Donovan went to a great many places he had no business going, on errands no one asked him to perform. In July 1919, on a second honeymoon with Ruth in Japan, he abruptly abandoned her for a trip to Siberia with the American ambassador in Tokyo, Roland Morris, who had been asked to investigate the White regime of the czarist admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. Donovan spent nearly two months in Siberia, at a time when human life was held about as cheap as it has ever been. What was he doing there? The four long books recently published on Donovan’s life give no simple answer. Thomas Troy and Anthony Cave Brown simply say Morris invited him. Richard Dunlop says he was on a secret mission for John Lord O’Brian, a Donovan law partner who had gone to work for Woodrow Wilson as an intelligence adviser.

In December 1935, Donovan obtained an interview with Mussolini and wangled permission for an official trip to Ethiopia, where he immediately concluded the Italians were certain to defeat the barefoot troops of Haile Selassie. Dunlop’s account of this interview is clearly based on Donovan’s, in which he shamelessly gives himself all the best lines. The dictator all but swoons.

How are we to explain these mysterious trips which have such an official air but no official record? Dunlop, citing no source, and giving no further details, claims Donovan was a member of an “informal intelligence network.” Brown thinks Donovan may have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in London in 1916, when he was on a mission to Europe for the War Relief Commission of the Rockefeller Foundation. His evidence is remarkably thin. In May 1940, Churchill sent the Canadian businessman William Stephenson to New York to serve as British Security Coordinator and to drum up American support, especially in the form of war supplies. Stephenson carried a letter to Donovan from Admiral Blinker Hall, an acquaintance of Donovan’s. Dunlop writes, “Stephenson knew that Donovan had been one of the key figures in America’s clandestine intelligence net for a generation.” Again, Dunlop cites no source for this claim, but his book includes a foreword from Stephenson (now Sir William), who still survives and lives in Bermuda, so it may be that Stephenson told Dunlop this was the case.

But perhaps no explanation is necessary for Donovan’s quasi-secret travels to the wars of his time. War is the central preoccupation of men in government and Donovan wanted to have a part in government. Nothing else much mattered to him. He was good at his profession but dropped it whenever great events beckoned. He had no interest in money for its own sake; when he was on official business he spent his own money lavishly and his income from the law was barely sufficient to cover expenses. His net estate when he died in 1959 was $38,000. (It might also be recorded that Donovan had a tin ear when it came to investments. At the height of the stock crash in 1929 his broker barely restrained him from buying more First National City Bank stock near its high of $550 a share. Later it fell to $50.) Domestic life held no charm for Donovan. He is said to have loved children, but he grew restless in their company and was always eager to be off. After the United States entered the war in December 1941 he did not again dine alone with his wife until the night of the German surrender. Instinct seems to have drawn Donovan to Siberia, Manchuria, and Ethiopia. He wanted to be in the thick of things, and in the end he got his wish.

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