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.
In the spring of 1940, Donovan arranged a meeting in Washington between Stephenson and high American officials, including the secretaries of war and state. It was not then clear that Britain could survive alone against Hitler. The US ambassador, Joseph Kennedy, thought Britain was licked. Stephenson proposed that Donovan go to London for a second opinion. Several well-placed friends of Donovan urged Roosevelt to agree. In July Donovan went. His years of poking about in foreign countries, if not in foreign intelligence matters, paid off. This was his chance, and he made the most of it. At this point Donovan’s personal life—so far, it amounted mainly to a footnote to the Great War, along with a sheaf of press clippings of the sort that grow yellow in the attics of forgetful children—more or less comes to an end, and the history of American intelligence in the twentieth century begins.
The Office of Strategic Services that Donovan built during the Second World War, and hoped to make permanent later, was a curious hodgepodge of an organization, with a hand in everything from which Donovan had not been absolutely barred. No one welcomed him or the OSS into the intelligence business. General George V. Strong of the Army did everything in his power to strangle the agency at birth, and, at least once, nearly succeeded. Donovan’s old enemy J. Edgar Hoover along with Nelson Rockefeller kept the OSS from working in Latin America. General Douglas MacArthur refused to admit the OSS into the Pacific theater. The British SIS, cooperative in some endeavors such as counterintelligence, worked hard to subordinate the OSS in the field.
Having so many enemies meant that the OSS grew misshapenly; it was strong and active in some regions of the war, barely present in others. Its largest military undertaking, for example, was Detachment 101 which fought the Japanese in Burma, hardly the center of the war. Donovan simply found an empty spot on the map and charged into it. Elsewhere he had to sneak in. The large OSS group in Britain, engaged mainly in liaison, was forbidden to mount its own operations in Europe until D-Day. To gain access to the Continent, Donovan established a base in Algiers, inconvenient for over-the-beach operations or parachute drops into France but the best he could get. Spy nets in Europe were run from stations in Turkey, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, where Dulles in Bern made the reputation and developed the taste that was to keep him in, or as close as he could get to, intelligence for the rest of his life.
The OSS tried something everywhere—Donovan even established regular liaison with the NKVD in Moscow—but its achievements were erratic and its history has a curious fragmentary quality. Donovan built quickly (from scratch to 10,000 men and women by D-Day), and for the most part he built well, but at war’s end he and his organization were only just beginning to get a firm notion of what intelligence was about.
Intelligence is as old as war, but it has never been accorded the honor of the military profession. The ancient Chinese military writer Sun-tzu, an illusionless man, wrote in the sixth century BC:
Of all those in the army close to the commander none is more intimate than the secret agent; of all the rewards none more liberal than those given to secret agents; of all matters none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations. He who is not sage and wise, humane and just, cannot use secret agents. And he who is not delicate and subtle cannot get the truth out of them.
Sun-tzu had many other sensible things to say about the conduct of secret operations and the handling of agents, whom he called “the treasure of a sovereign.” But as late as 1949 a Western commentator, otherwise respectful, charged Sun-tzu with advocating “the dirtiest form of statecraft with its unspeakable depths of duplicity….[His] section on spies is truly abominable and revolting….”
Donovan was not encumbered by such moral considerations. The British tutored him on their approach and he used many of their methods, but the large organization he set up was different from theirs. Stripped to its essentials, intelligence can be defined as the systematic attempt to gain advantage through secret means. It involves four types of related undertakings: collecting information, some of it secretly; conducting hidden operations; protecting the parent agency from compromise; analyzing what has been learned. There are good reasons for putting all four activities under a single roof, but their practitioners tend to bicker and instinctively seek autonomy. During World War II the British maintained separate organizations for espionage, counterintelligence, and secret operations. Donovan took the opposite approach, and gathered as many elements of intelligence business into the OSS as he was able. The only pieces to elude him were domestic counterintelligence, jealously protected by the FBI (as it still is), and cryptoanalysis, conducted by the predecessor of the National Security Agency.
Four basic themes recur in the accounts of various OSS operations in the four books under review: clandestine contacts with Germans willing to kill or overthrow Hitler in return for a separate peace with the West which might save Germany from Russia; the attempt to establish contact with partisan undergrounds (especially in Yugoslavia, France, and Italy) and to gain political influence over them by providing munitions; the friction—sometimes with rival services, sometimes with jealous bureaucracies (and their allies in the press) at home, sometimes with the sheer cussedness of weather, machines, and “things”—which made it so difficult to do anything; and a low, ominous undertone of trouble with or about the Russians which in retrospect seems to have pointed unmistakably toward the cold war. The rest is stories, some of derringdo, and some of spies. Very few are told about the work of the OSS’s research and analysis branch where such academics as Herbert Marcuse, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William L. Langer, and H. Stuart Hughes interpreted the evidence that came to them. Indifference toward the finished product is still the chief nemesis of analysts. Many of the stories from the field are thrilling, some are sad, and a few remain puzzling and incomplete. Taken together, they offer evidence in plenty for a study of the nature of intelligence.
None of the four books reviewed here makes any attempt at such a study. They are all simply accumulations—quite large accumulations, at that—of raw material. Bradley Smith’s The Shadow Warriors contains many useful bits from the numerous archives that he consulted, but it is dull to read. His final chapter, however, identifies the many ways in which the CIA, especially in its early years, learned the wrong lessons from the experience of the OSS. Troy’s book, Donovan and the CIA, is a plodding institutional history, apparently written with the cooperation of the CIA; but Troy is an intelligent writer, and his book unveils much about territorial wars between bureaucracies.
Richard Dunlop was in the OSS during the war, knew Donovan well and admired him enormously, and he provides the best account of Donovan’s life before the OSS. Unfortunately his footnotes are identified by page and line number, making them laborious to consult, and he attributes many statements to Donovan without making it clear when he stated them, or to whom. To give only one example, Dunlop describes Donovan’s trip to the Pacific in the summer of 1940 during which he took off from the aircraft carrier Enterprise and landed at Pearl Harbor. “If we can do this,” Donovan said, “the Japs can do it too.” If this was really said at the time it was a prescient remark. Later, anyone could have figured it out. So when did Donovan say it? Dunlop wasn’t there, and he cites no source. After a while the reader grows angry at Dunlop for continually blunting the effect of his book through such elementary errors.
Scholars will make use of all three of these books, but most readers will get all they need to know, and much pleasure as well, from Anthony Cave Brown’s The Last Hero, a huge archive, somewhat haphazardly organized, of detailed cases from all the usual sources plus Donovan’s own voluminous files, to which Brown was given exclusive access. Brown shows no interest in what all this means; he simply crams in the stories. The last chapter dealing with the OSS is devoted mainly to a highly detailed account of the murder of an OSS officer in Italy—an interesting story, but Brown might have given more space to the still vexing question of what the OSS did to help win the war.
Harry Truman’s abrupt dismissal of Donovan and dispersal of the OSS at the end of the war that suggest he thought it a failure. Perhaps he did; he never said in so many words. This conclusion would have been wrong, although the OSS did not equal the dramatic British achievement of reading German radio traffic, referred to as Ultra. Trying to identify the OSS operations that helped to win the war is like trying to decide which tank won a great tank battle: The OSS’s accomplishments seem to have been of two sorts. In the first place it helped to spread German forces thin by financing and supporting (as did the British) resistance groups all over Europe. Dozens, perhaps scores, of divisions were busy chasing partisans when they were desperately needed in France and Russia. Military historians cite in particular the long delay of the Second Panzer Division on its way to Normandy at a time when the beachhead was still insecure.
German intelligence efforts were also spread thin, and for the same reason: the OSS and the SIS were everywhere. The breadth of this clandestine engagement of spies was the OSS’s second major contribution to the Allied war effort. When operations are conducted on the scale of a large industry it is the gross effort that counts. The OSS got information about the Germans and made them feel watched at many points—in neutral capitals like Stockholm, Madrid, Lisbon, Istanbul, and Bern; through German periodicals and broadcast intercepts; through spy nets inside the occupied countries; and through agents inside Germany itself, many in high places, and possibly even including Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, one of the main German intelligence services. The Germans, in short, were observed in too many places to hide their growing exhaustion, confusion, and weakness. In these ways the OSS contributed to the dispersion of German fighting strength, and to the kinetic sense of a faltering opponent that did as much to inspire confidence in the Allies as occasional, more explicit intelligence coups which revealed what the enemy was going to do when. Ultra was the big thing, but the OSS had much to be proud of on its own despite its inevitable blunders and failures.
If the great strength of the OSS was its freedom to try anything, its great weakness was the fact that it was doing everything for the first time. Britain had many files, based in part on Ultra intercepts, and it agreed to share them with OSS early in the war. With their aid, Brown says, James Angleton uncovered scores of Axis agents in Italy. But some operations were badly conceived or ran out of luck, and some missions were simply outwitted by the enemy. In June 1944, for example, it was discovered that an entire net of agents sent into Central Europe and Germany from Istanbul had been compromised—but compromised by whom? It is still not quite clear. The suspected agent vanished at the end of the war. Some think he was actually working for the Russians.
According to Edward Jay Epstein, in a review of Brown’s book in The New York Times Book Review (January 16), a British liaison officer with the OSS, Colonel Charles Ellis, had been working for both the Germans and the Russians throughout the war. If this is true, it might explain why many OSS operations unraveled without apparent reason. There were many dark warnings of Russian penetration at the time, but they centered on Americans active in the Communist Party before the war. Donovan insisted he would hire anyone willing to fight Hitler. At the same time he expected a postwar struggle for Europe with the Russians, and throughout the war the OSS, like the government it served, remained of two minds where the Soviets were concerned—loyal to the embattled ally, suspicious of the future rival.
It is difficult to read the diplomatic history of the Second World War without being impressed by the sincerity of FDR and Churchill in their attempt to reassure Stalin that the West hoped to continue East-West understanding and cooperation at war’s end. Stalin had two dark suspicions—that the West dawdled in mounting an invasion of Europe in the hope that Germany and Russia would finish each other off; and that the West, in the final year of the war, would strike a separate deal with Germany denying Russia the fruits of victory. Wartime diplomatic messages are filled with reassurances to Stalin that neither suspicion was true. Dulles in Bern (among others) had many opportunities to reach such separate agreements but was blocked by Washington at almost every turn, although he did manage to secure the surrender of German forces in Italy a couple of days before the formal end of the war. There is no evidence that Churchill, Roosevelt, and their principal advisers lied about these matters.
This cannot quite be said of the OSS. Intelligence services, like police departments, tend to think they know what their superiors really want. The OSS remained preternaturally alert where the Russians were concerned; it was quick to spot and trumpet the political implications of the domination of resistance movements by communist underground organizations, and on several occasions it simply could not resist the temptation to squirrel away information about the Soviets that more or less fell into its lap. Happy accidents of this sort occurred in Sweden and Rumania.
In November 1944, the OSS mission in Stockholm was approached by Finnish intelligence officers with an offer to sell some 1,500 pages of material relating to Soviet codes. Donovan reported the offer to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius but was told to reject it on the grounds that Russia was an ally. Donovan could not bear to let the opportunity pass. One of the codes was used by the NKVD. In December, OSS purchased the material and forwarded it to Washington, where Donovan told the president he had acquired four military and diplomatic codes, but without identifying them as Russian. The State Department got wind of the purchase and persuaded FDR to order Donovan to hand the material over to the Soviets forthwith. Donovan cabled General P.N. Fitin of the NKVD in Moscow that the codes had been captured in Italy, that the OSS had not studied them, and that they could be picked up in Washington. When the NKVD failed to act promptly, the material was delivered to Andrei Gromyko, then the Soviet ambassador to the United States.
Anthony Cave Brown and Bradley Smith both provide brief accounts of this episode, and they suggest one of the difficulties of writing about intelligence operations. Brown apparently had access to the OSS report to the Russians and to some accompanying documents, and accepts them at face value. He has, in effect, been gulled by what amounts to a memorandum for the record. Smith did not see the OSS material available to Brown, but searched many other archives and learned about Donovan’s purchase of the documents against orders. What neither writer knows, as I found from my own inquiries, is that this material was copied before it was turned over to Gromyko, that it provided the means of decoding Russian diplomatic traffic collected by the NSA’s predecessor, the Signal Intelligence Service, beginning about 1938, and that this traffic, read in bits and pieces after the war, provided counterintelligence officials with an important source of evidence on the spying activities of both Donald Maclean and the industrial espionage ring that included Julius Rosenberg. Referred to in code-breaking and counterintelligence circles as the Venona material, this accumulated traffic (which stops about 1949, when the Soviets changed their encryption methods) is still being worked on by the NSA and the CIA. I am told that a dozen or more code names of Soviet agents in the United States have still never been identified.
An episode in some respects similar took place in Rumania, where an OSS team established itself in September 1944, under Frank Wisner, a rich Wall Street lawyer before the war who went on later to run secret operations for the CIA during the height of the cold war, from 1948 until he had a physical and mental breakdown in 1958. As Cave Brown describes it, the immediate goal of the OSS mission in Bucharest was to rescue nearly 2,000 Allied airmen held as prisoners of war in Rumania and Bulgaria. But the OSS group stayed on after the rescue for nearly a year, the only substantial OSS mission to separate in territory controlled by the Russians. Soon Wisner began to send messages about a concerted Soviet effort to dominate the country through the Rumanian Communist Party. One of Wisner’s officers, Major Robert Bishop, a counter-intelligence expert in the OSS’s X-2 division, made contact with a secret branch of the Rumanian security service.
This branch was wholly unknown to the Russians. Since 1917 its job had been to penetrate the Rumanian CP. The reports of its agents, passed on to Bishop and Wisner, and then forwarded to OSS in Washington, provided a detailed view of the secret Russian program to obtain control of the government. Another OSS source provided access to traffic between Moscow and the Soviet commander in Bucharest, Marshal Rodion Malinovsky. Beginning in late 1944, then, the OSS was actively spying on the Russians, just as the Russians were actively spying on us. The cold war was a fact long before it was a policy.
Throughout the war one of Donovan’s abiding goals was to establish a permanent American intelligence service. In October 1944 he submitted a formal proposal to the president which was met by vicious bureaucratic resistance. In February 1945 The Chicago Tribune reporter Walter J. Trohan published accounts of Donovan’s plans and of high-level charges that the new agency would amount to an “American Gestapo.” Once or twice Donovan almost got approval from Roosevelt, but his chances died with the president in April. Despite many requests for a meeting with Truman, he was granted only one, on May 14, 1945, which lasted fifteen minutes. By this time Donovan had so many enemies it is hard to say who delivered the coup de grâce. On September 20, 1945, Truman signed an executive order abolishing the OSS and parceling out its assets to the departments of State and War, both of which saw the OSS as an upstart competitor. Donovan himself, by now a major general, was dismissed from active service on January 12, 1946. His wife Ruth learned what had happened when he came down to dinner, for the first time in years, in civilian clothes. During the next few years the OSS was reconstituted as the CIA to pursue the cold war in much the same way that Donovan had worked against the Germans and Italians.
After Dulles took over the agency in 1953 he honored his old chief elaborately, but did not give him anything to do. Eisenhower made him ambassador to Thailand during the last year of the French war in Indochina but Donovan quickly exhausted his private means trying to perform the job in the large way he thought appropriate, and he resigned. He collected books on espionage, a poor substitute for the real thing. In 1957 he suffered a stroke which left him mentally impaired. During his last two years he was forgetful, often depressed, silent, subject to delusions. From his apartment window he imagined he could see Russian tanks approaching across the Queensboro Bridge. His death in 1959 released a torrent of admiring eulogies.
Donovan was a kind of entrepreneur of big intelligence who dealt in global politics rather than in oil or steel. The delicacies of espionage were all very well but he wanted to do things. In 1953 he told an aide that Dulles had “ruined” the CIA by turning it into a reporting agency. Even though he had been cast aside, he probably knew better. Dulles’s CIA was as aggressive as it could be without actually becoming a military force, and it was following the pattern Donovan himself had established. In his final chapter, Bradley Smith accurately describes the OSS’s principal legacy to the CIA—a wartime spirit which stressed operations and neglected espionage and other forms of secret intelligence collection. After a period of restraint during the 1970s, the CIA now appears to have revived its cowboy methods in Central America with ambitious paramilitary programs aimed at the government of Nicaragua.
Some of the OSS officers in charge of paramilitary operations came out of the Second World War with a deep distrust of behind-the-lines derring-do—which often accomplished little except to provoke brutal retaliation—but their cautions were ignored. Many high CIA officials during the 1950s tended to remember only D-Day, when European resistance movements, augmented by OSS Jedburgh teams that parachuted into France in the critical period just before the invasion of Normandy, did much to help defeat the Germans, but only at terrible cost—a cost paid mainly by the local citizens. Sufferings of this sort may be justified when a big army is on the way, but in peacetime—however tense the peace—they are futile. This point was lost on the CIA. It fought the cold war as if invasion were imminent.
One of the warriors was Frank Wisner, who was too wound up to return to the dull routines of Wall Street. Wisner ran the Office of Policy Coordination from 1948 until 1952 with only the lightest sort of supervision from the director of Central Intelligence. He was not much more restrained during the years between 1952 and 1958 when he was the CIA’s deputy director for plans. Wisner opened his postwar career with clandestine political campaigns against the Communist parties of France and Italy. He built a huge propaganda apparatus which he called his “mighty Wurlitzer,” and he established secret contact with European labor unions, peace groups, and anticommunist intellectuals. The Russians were doing the same sort of thing; Wisner never seems to have considered the possibility that the US might have conducted some of its own efforts openly without involving intellectuals in an expanding apparatus of deception. More troubling still was Wisner’s support for underground organizations throughout Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe and even in Russia itself. In the Ukraine and along the Baltic coast he backed actual shooting wars against the Russians which did not end until the early 1950s.
In his memoirs Khrushchev reports, “Later, after the war, we lost thousands of men in a bitter struggle” against the groups backed by the CIA. According to John Loftus’s recent book The Belarus Secret, Wisner’s allies in this enterprise included active collaborators with the Nazis. Many had been personally involved in the killing of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. Hundreds of outright war criminals were spirited secretly into the United States at Wisner’s contrivance. Later he supported a plan to invade Albania which was not abandoned until many men had died.*
Other enterprises of an equally doubtful sort took place during the 1950s. They seemed like a good idea at the time because war with Russia seemed imminent. Former Nazis and Nazi collaborators were considered allies of convenience, just as Stalin himself had been during the war, when Churchill had said he would accept as an ally the devil himself, if it would help to win. Wisner was short on steadiness of temperament, but otherwise he seems rather like Donovan—aggressive, confident, fascinated with the wonderful tool he was lucky enough to direct, and so enthusiastic that he often missed the point where bright ideas crossed over into lunacy. Some of his plans blew up in his face, and he became a deeply troubled man. Nothing of the sort happened to Donovan. He was the right man for the fight against Hitler and his luck was never better than when it sent him back to private life at the end of the war.
May 12, 1983
On the CIA’s secret paramilitary operations during this period, see Loftus’s book (Knopf, 1982) and also Harry Rositzke’s CIA’s Secret Operations (Reader’s Digest Press, 1977) and my own The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA (Knopf, 1979). ↩