Thoughts on reading Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller

Have you ever heard of Tiglath-Pileser? Unless you’re a student of ancient history, chances are slim that you’re familiar with the man’s name or have so much as a clue about who he was or what he did. Yet in the grand panorama of human history, this Middle Eastern despot, who ruled the Assyrian Empire nearly 4,000 years ago, was one of the most significant figures of the ancient world. Like the Sumerian and Egyptian kings who preceded him, and the many who followed, his name, and his many conquests, have been lost in the fog of history.

Greatness is a matter of context. No name endures for all time. For example, in the context of U.S. history, a handful of American Presidents have been considered “great.” Washington, for sure. Lincoln. FDR. These are the exceptional figures whose brilliant response to the monumental challenges facing the nation during their time in office lifted them out of the ranks of the ordinary. Even in the context of world history during the past two centuries, all three might qualify — Washington, for winning the Revolutionary War and stabilizing the new republic; Lincoln, for prosecuting and winning the Civil War, ending slavery, and thus making possible the emergence of the USA as a great power; and FDR, for “saving capitalism,” as many writers have described his efforts in the New Deal, and for leading the country into World War II and helping defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

However, cast the net wider — to assess the last two millennia, for example — and ask yourself which, if any, of those three U.S. Presidents would rise to the level the few truly Great Men whose actions have changed the course of history (where for good or for ill)? Does any of them merit comparison with Jesus, Mohammed, Genghis Khan, Isaac Newton, Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein,  Josef Stalin, Mohandas Gandhi, Mao Tse Tung, Deng Xiaoping, or the few truly consequential Chinese emperors whose names escape me? I’m not even sure Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, or Nelson Mandela belong in their company, and I can’t think of a single European monarch or pope who does, either.

Now, you might be wondering how my reading of a biography of Wild Bill Donovan would occasion such far-flung thoughts. Even if you’re not, I’ll tell you.

In the context of his time, William J. Donovan was assuredly a Great Man. Through the extraordinary force of his personality and his bottomless energy, “Wild Bill” forced the USA into the business of professional espionage, successfully fending off vicious attacks from J. Edgar Hoover (his most determined enemy), the Secretary of State, the Pentagon, and the likes of General Douglas MacArthur. I’ll review the biography shortly. At the moment, though, I can only marvel that this brilliant and forceful man, deemed so important in his prime, is barely remembered today except by the fast-dwindling number of his contemporaries, by the employees of the CIA, and by historians of the Second World War. In that era, he was an icon to the public, the subject of headline news in the major papers of the day, and a participant in so many of the most significant events of the War, including the amphibious landings at Sicily, Anzio, and Normandy. Today he is virtually forgotten.

And if you find that thought sobering, just think of all those Sumerian kings who ruled the world’s first great empire for many hundreds of years and today are known, if at all, only to a handful of archaeologists.

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