Cover image of this biography of Wild Bill Donovan

It’s said that spying is the second oldest profession. Whether prostitution is older is a matter of conjecture. It hardly matters. Both pursuits have typically been regarded as unsavory. In later years, however, this profession of indeterminate age has been dignified with the French term, espionage. That way it sounds more civilized. But in the modern era, espionage has been anything but civilized. And in its American incarnation, we owe a good part of its distasteful reputation to the imagination of Wild Bill Donovan, the larger-than-life subject of Douglas Waller’s comprehensive 2011 biography.

A law unto himself

Donovan was what is sometimes termed a force of nature. He won a Medal of Honor in World War I for his indisputable courage on the battlefield, and he proved himself brave—sometimes to the point of recklessness—over and over again in his repeated excursions onto the front lines in the Second World War. Donovan was a law unto himself both in his (very public) private life and in his extended role during World War II as the founding director of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. He was a conservative Republican who somehow managed to survive for years in a Democratic Administration.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller (2011) 482 pages ★★★★★

Image of the man himself, the subject of this biography of Wild Bill Donovan
William J. Donovan. Image: Office of Strategic Services Society via Buffalo News

A favorite target of Nazi propaganda—and of J. Edgar Hoover

Bill Donovan went head-to-head with many of the most powerful, stubbornest, and most manipulative figures of the age, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Douglas MacArthur, Chiang Kai-Shek, and J. Edgar Hoover—and, more often than not, came out the winner. He personally landed with the first waves of troops in virtually every major amphibious invasion by Allied forces in the European and North African theater, usually against explicit orders. He was a favorite target of Nazi propaganda. J. Edgar Hoover, his bitterest enemy, despised him so bitterly that he even went to the extreme of arresting OSS agents to embarrass Donovan.

Under Donovan’s forceful leadership, the upstart American agency horned into the storied operations of MI6, the British Secret Service, and forced one Allied commanding general after another to shelter his agents in their armies. Against the prevailing wisdom in military circles, and often the determined opposition of his superiors, he mounted extensive operations to organize partisans in North Africa, in France, in the Balkans and Central Europe, and ultimately in Germany itself.

In short, William J. Donovan, raised hell in World War II. He truly deserved the nickname he acquired from an enlisted man in awe of his seemingly crazy orders on the field in the Argonne Forest.

He never achieved his ultimate goal: Director of the CIA

Ultimately, Donovan came to covet the position as the founding director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an entity he conceived and began lobbying for in 1943, well before the end of the war. However, his unrestrained antics soured Roosevelt and Truman alike, and he was denied the post, to his everlasting disappointment. But it’s a mark of his impact on the new agency that several of the signature directors of the CIA had worked directly for him in the OSS: Allen Dulles, Bill Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby.

About the author

Photo of Douglas Waller, author of this biography of Wild Bill Donovan

Douglas Waller (1949-) is a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek. Wild Bill Donovan is one of his six books of American military history. He has also written several books about the U.S. military. Waller holds a B.A. in English from Wake Forest University, as well as an M.A. in Urban Administration from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

I’ve reviewed another excellent book that places William Donovan’s work and that of the OSS in context: Need to Know: World War II and the Rise of American Intelligence by Nicholas Reynolds (The rise of American intelligence in World War II). And here’s another book about the OSS that I enjoyed immensely: The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare by John Lisle (How the OSS waged secret warfare in World War II).

You’ll find this book listed on my post, 10 top nonfiction books about World War II. You might also be interested in seeing 20 good nonfiction books about espionage.

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If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels and The 10 best novels about World War II.

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