The remarkable spymaster who launched the US into espionage


It’s said the spying is the second oldest profession, though I suspect that peeping Toms, who are spies after all, predated prostitutes. But no matter.

In later years, 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 unsavory reputation to the imagination of Wild Bill Donovan, the larger-than-life subject of Douglas Waller’s comprehensive new biography.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller (2011) 482 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

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 (often-public) private life and in his extended role during World War II as the founding director of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. He was a conservative Republican who somehow managed to survive for years in a Democratic Administration. He went head-to-head with many of the most powerful, stubbornest, and most manipulative figures of the age, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevent, 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 much that he even went to the extreme of arresting OSS agents to embarrass Donovan.

Under Donovan’s forceful leadership, the upstart American agency horned itself in on 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.

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.

The author, Douglas Waller, is a former correspondent for Time magazine. He has also written several books about the U.S. military.

For further reading

You’ll find this book listed on my post, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up). You might also be interested in seeing my post, 20 good nonfiction books about espionage.

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