Soldier, Spy

by Phillip Knightley
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage
By Douglas Waller
Free Press, 480 pages, $30
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Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas WallerWhen the U.S. intelligence community celebrated the CIA’s role in the successful May 1 mission to kill Bin Laden, did any of its officers raise a toast to “Wild Bill” Donovan the father of modern-American covert action and head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II?

The mission was exactly the sort of operation Donovan would have planned: daring, dangerous, and with an unpredictable outcome. It exemplified his belief, one that is a quintessential part of the American psyche, that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it, and that a few determined men — a band of brothers, if you like — using improvised methods can achieve better results than any orthodox hierarchy.

William Joseph Donovan, the son of Irish immigrants, was born in Buffalo in 1883. He graduated from Columbia College in 1905 and from the law school in 1908. (Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a classmate.) He then married money: His wife, Ruth, was the daughter of a Buffalo real-estate millionaire.

In 1917 he joined the 69th “Irish” Regiment of New York City and fought as part of the American Expeditionary Force in France, where he won the admiration of his men. They nicknamed him Wild Bill because he never asked them to do anything he would not do himself.

Donovan traveled extensively during the interwar period, working covertly for the U.S. Military Intelligence Service. Although Donovan was a Republican, Roosevelt sent him to London in 1940 to assess Britain’s chances of surviving the war against Germany. There he fell under the influence of the head of Britain’s secret intelligence service, Stewart Menzies, who tried to use him in the campaign to bring the United States into the war.

In July 1941, Roosevelt appointed Donovan coordinator of information, a euphemism for chief of a service charged with spying, spy catching, and sabotage. Renamed the OSS and financed initially from the president’s secret funds, it grew exponentially; soon Donovan had 600 people working for him. Building a bureaucratic empire like this made him enemies, most significantly the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who had wanted Donovan’s job for himself. As a result, Donovan spent almost as much time fighting ferocious battles with other departments in Washington as he did with the enemy.

Donovan’s life has been covered extensively in earlier biographies, but Douglas Waller, author of Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, warns us that they have to be read with caution. One was commissioned by Donovan’s family; another relied too heavily on the reminiscences of friends and colleagues; and a third was written by British author Anthony Cave Brown, who was subsidized by Donovan’s own law firm and, more significantly, had a tendency to make things up. So it is important to say early on that Waller can be praised for his exhaustive research, meticulous accuracy, painstaking interviews, and an admirable scholarly attitude toward his subject. As far as the facts about Donovan’s life are concerned, this is the definitive biography. But having achieved this difficult task, Waller does not seem too sure what to make of the man.

He decides that Donovan was a terrible judge of human beings, that the OSS made horrible mistakes and had disastrous operations, that Donovan’s vision of covert warfare replacing conventional operations was illusory, that the OSS was not the key to winning the war and that it did not even shorten the war appreciably, and that the intelligence the OSS produced never matched the value of Ultra signal intercepts in Europe and Magic in the Pacific.

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