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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Nevertheless, Waller praises Donovan as a remarkable leader, one of creativity, personal courage, daring, vision, and unconventional thinking. He gives Donovan credit for his bravery not only on the battlefield, but also in facing a series of family tragedies. His much-loved elder daughter, Patricia, was killed in a car accident. His four-year-old granddaughter Sheilah accidentally drank silver polish and died almost immediately. Her mother, Mary, Donovan’s daughter-in-law, died from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.

But it is Donovan’s public legacy that concerns us here, and Waller concludes that even if the OSS did not survive after the war — President Truman disbanded it in September 1945, mainly for financial reasons — Donovan’s ideas survived in the policies of former OSS officers who later became directors of the CIA. So in deciding Donovan’s legacy, the crucial question becomes: Was this a good thing?

If we take a yardstick and measure how well the CIA performed in its principal task of predicting Soviet moves during the Cold War, we have to conclude it did no better than America’s many think tanks. It never succeeded in its main objective of penetrating the Kremlin. It failed to predict the first Soviet atom bombs. It failed to predict the North Korean and Chinese invasions of Korea. It failed to predict Fidel Castro’s victory and subsequent placing of Soviet missiles in Cuba. It never imagined that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait. Even though terrorists had attempted to blow up the World Trade Center once before, the CIA was caught by surprise on September 11, 2001. Above all, while ordinary Western tourists to Moscow could see that something strange was going on in the 1990s, the CIA failed to even imagine the collapse of Soviet communism and the end of the Cold War.

I would like Waller to have considered whether Donovan, like many a spy before and after him, was a fantasist. He saw himself, above all, as a man of action and had always longed to lead large bodies of men into mortal combat. Since that was not to be, he devoted his energies to the OSS, a miniature army of inspired amateurs, and offered them a chance to live out their fantasies.

Lots of adventurous young Americans found with Donovan a chance to develop those qualities that, unfortunately, seemed to be best stimulated by war: initiative, enterprise, daring, and self-reliance. Since many of these men went on to careers at universities, a link was established between academia and American intelligence that persists to this day.

The flaw in Donovan’s organization was that it did not limit itself to the collection of intelligence, but mounted covert operations as well. The British were careful to avoid this dual role, so when the war ended they were able to close down Special Operations Executive but leave their traditional intelligence-gathering service, MI6, intact. Because of the way Donovan had structured the OSS, Truman’s dissolution order in 1945 virtually wiped out both functions of the OSS.

Then followed the campaign that ran between 1945 and 1947 to create a peacetime intelligence agency using the OSS as a model. This made it inevitable that intelligence also included covert action, which meant intervention in the affairs of countries with which the United States was not at war.

This reach has endowed the CIA with enormous power. The influence of the CIA on presidential decision making has been such that it is sometimes difficult to see whether the president is running the CIA or the CIA is running the president. It is probably going too far to blame Donovan for this, but I feel he must share some responsibility.

Donovan’s final years were miserable. Although the new CIA closely resembled the proposal he initially brought to Roosevelt, Truman did not even consider him for the post of director. He was offered only the chairmanship of an inconsequential committee studying the nation’s firefighting departments. He took the job of U.S. ambassador to Thailand, but when his appointment ended he annoyed President Eisenhower by accepting a post as a lobbyist for the Thai government and collecting a $50,000 fee.

He was admitted to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in September 1957, suffering from arteriosclerotic atrophy of the brain, a form of dementia, and died in February 1959. Hoover, typically, started a rumor that the legendary “Father of American Intelligence” had died of syphilis.

Phillip Knightley is the author of The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century. He lives in London.

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