William Donovan

William Donovan

William Donovan, the son of Timothy P. Donovan and Anna Lennon Donovan, was born in Buffalo, United States, on 1st January, 1883. He attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University. It was his style of play that got him the nickname, "Wild Bill".

After graduating from Columbia Law School and became an influential Wall Street lawyer. In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia and served on the United States-Mexico border during the American government's campaign against Pancho Villa.

During the First World War Donovan organized and led the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division. He served on the Western Front and in October, 1918 he received the Medal of Honor. The citation read: "Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position." By the end of the war he had been promoted to the rank of colonel. In 1919 he visited Russia and spent time with Alexander Kolchak and the White Army.

Donovan was an active member of the Republican Party and after meeting Herbert Hoover he worked as his political adviser, speech writer and campaign manager. Donovan ran unsuccessfully as lieutenant governor in 1922 but was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge as his assistant attorney general. In 1928, Donovan had been acting attorney general in the Coolidge administration. When he became president in 1929, it was assumed that Hoover would appoint Donovan as attorney general. Hoover did not do so because, it was rumored, powerful Republicans did not want a Catholic in the cabinet.

By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 Donovan was a millionaire Wall Street lawyer. He was a strong opponent of Roosevelt's New Deal but became a close advisor to the administration. Ernest Cuneo, who also worked for Roosevelt, claimed that Donovan was the leader of "Franklin's brain trust". It appears that Donovan shared the president's concern about political developments in Nazi Germany.

During the First World War Donovan became friends with William Stephenson. When Winston Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 he appointed Stephenson as the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC) that was based in New York City. Churchill told Stephenson: "You know what you must do at once. We have discussed it most fully, and there is a complete fusion of minds between us. You are to be my personal representative in the United States. I will ensure that you have the full support of all the resources at my command. I know that you will have success, and the good Lord will guide your efforts as He will ours." Charles Howard Ellis said that he selected Stephenson because: "Firstly, he was Canadian. Secondly, he had very good American connections... he had a sort of fox terrier character, and if he undertook something, he would carry it through."

As William Boyd has pointed out: "The phrase (British Security Coordination) is bland, almost defiantly ordinary, depicting perhaps some sub-committee of a minor department in a lowly Whitehall ministry. In fact BSC, as it was generally known, represented one of the largest covert operations in British spying history... With the US alongside Britain, Hitler would be defeated - eventually. Without the US (Russia was neutral at the time), the future looked unbearably bleak... polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention." An office was opened in the Rockefeller Centre in Manhattan with the agreement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.

In July, 1940, Roosevelt appointed Frank Knox as Secretary of the Navy. The two men discussed the possibility of appointing Donovan as Secretary of War. Knox told Roosevelt: "Frankly, if your proposal contemplated Donovan for the War Department and myself for the Navy, I think the appointments could be put solely upon the basis of a nonpartisan nonpolitical measure of putting our national defense departments in such a state of preparedness as to protect the United States against any danger to our security." Roosevelt replied "Bill Donovan is also an old friend of mine - we were in law school together and frankly, I should like to have him in the Cabinet, not only for his own ability, but also to repair in a sense the very great injustice done him by President Hoover in the winter of 1929."

Eventually, Roosevelt decided to appoint fellow Republican, Henry Stimson, as Secretary of War. Jean Edward Smith, the author of FDR (2008) has argued that Roosevelt was determined to get the timing of the decision right: "It was important to stress the bipartisan nature of the defense effort, he told Knox. Even more important, if the GOP nominated an isolationist candidate, Knox and Stimson would be deemed guilty of bad sportsmanship in joining FDR's team afterward." Knox was allowed to bring in James V. Forrestal, an investment banker, as his undersecretary.

In the summer of 1940 Winston Churchill had a serious problem. Joseph P. Kennedy was the United States Ambassador to Britain. He soon came to the conclusion that the island was a lost cause and he considered aid to Britain fruitless. Kennedy, an isolationist, consistently warned Roosevelt "against holding the bag in a war in which the Allies expect to be beaten." Neville Chamberlain wrote in his diary in July 1940: "Saw Joe Kennedy who says everyone in the USA thinks we shall be beaten before the end of the month." Averell Harriman later explained the thinking of Kennedy and other isolationists: "After World War I, there was a surge of isolationism, a feeling there was no reason for getting involved in another war... We made a mistake and there were a lot of debts owed by European countries. The country went isolationist.

William Stephenson later commented: "The procurement of certain supplies for Britain was high on my priority list and it was the burning urgency of this requirement that made me instinctively concentrate on the single individual who could help me. I turned to Bill Donovan." Donovan arranged meetings with Henry Stimson (Secretary of War), Cordell Hull (Secretary of State) and Frank Knox (Secretary of the Navy). The main topic was Britain's lack of destroyers and the possibility of finding a formula for transfer of fifty "over-age" destroyers to the Royal Navy without a legal breach of U.S. neutrality legislation.

It was decided to send Donovan and Edgar Ansel Mowrer to Britain on a fact-finding mission. They left on 14th July, 1940. When he heard the news, Joseph P. Kennedy complained: "Our staff, I think is getting all the information that possibility can be gathered, and to send a new man here at this time is to me the height of nonsense and a definite blow to good organization." He added that the trip would "simply result in causing confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the British". Andrew Lycett has argued: "Nothing was held back from the big American. British planners had decided to take him completely into their confidence and share their most prized military secrets in the hope that he would return home even more convinced of their resourcefulness and determination to win the war."

William Donovan arrived back in the United States in early August, 1940. In his report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt he argued: "(1) That the British would fight to the last ditch. (2) They could not hope to hold to hold the last ditch unless they got supplies at least from America. (3) That supplies were of no avail unless they were delivered to the fighting front - in short, that protecting the lines of communication was a sine qua non. (4) That Fifth Column activity was an important factor." Donovan also urged that the government should sack Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who was predicting a German victory. Donovan also wrote a series of articles arguing that Nazi Germany posed a serious threat to the United States.

In July 1941, Roosevelt appointed Donovan as his Coordinator of Information. The following year Donovan became head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe. Donovan published a secret document where he outlined his objectives: "Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas, but our country is a nice thing and our independence is indispensable. We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him - or we will cease to exist."

Over the next few years William Stephenson worked closely with Donovan. Gill Bennett, the author of Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009), has argued: "Each is a figure about whom much myth has been woven, by themselves and others, and the full extent of their activities and contacts retains an element of mystery. Both were influential: Stephenson as head of British Security Coordination (BSC), the organisation he created in New York at Menzies's request and Donovan, working with Stephenson as intermediary between Roosevelt and Churchill, persuading the former to supply clandestine military supplies to the UK before the USA entered the war, and from June 1941 head of the COI and thus one of the architects of the US Intelligence establishment."

Ray S. Cline was one of Donovan's agents: "Wild Bill deserves his sobriquet mainly for two reasons. First, he permitted the wildest, loosest kind of administrative and procedural chaos to develop while he concentrated on recruiting talent wherever he could find it - in universities, businesses, law firms, in the armed services, at Georgetown cocktail parties, in fact, anywhere he happened to meet or hear about bright and eager men and women who wanted to help. His immediate lieutenants and their assistants were all at work on the same task, and it was a long time before any systematic method of structuring the polyglot staff complement was worked out. Donovan really did not care. He counted on some able young men from his law firm in New York to straighten out the worst administrative messes, arguing that the record would justify his agency if it was good and excuse all waste and confusion. If the agency was a failure, the United States would probably lose the war and the bookkeeping would not matter. In this approach he was probably right."

Donovan was given the rank of major general and during the war he built up a team of 16,000 agents working behind enemy lines. He later recalled: "Intelligence service that counts isn't the kind you read about in spy books. Women agents are less often the sultry blonde or the dazzling duchess than they are girls like the young American with an artificial leg who stayed on in France to operate a clandestine radio station; girls like the thirty-seven who worked for us in China, daughters of missionaries and of businessmen, who had grown up there. I hope that the story of the women in OSS will soon be written. Our men agents didn't fit the traditional types in spy stories any more than the women we used. Do you know that one of our most notable achievements was the extent to which we found we could use labor unions? Our informer in this war was less often a slick little man with a black moustache than a transport worker, a truck driver, or a freight train conductor."

Ray S. Cline admitted: "Donovan did manage during the war to create a legend about his work and that of OSS that conveyed overtones of glamour, innovation, and daring. This infuriated the regular bureaucrats but created a cult of romanticism about intelligence that persisted and helped win popular support for continuation of an intelligence organization." One of those who was "infuriated" with Donovan was John Edgar Hoover who saw the OSS as a rival to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Richard Deacon, the author of Spyclopaedia: The Comprehensive Handbook of Espionage (1987), has pointed out: "Hoover constantly worked against Donovan... and OSS activities had to be confined mainly to Europe and North Africa. Increasingly, towards the end of the war, Donovan felt that the Americans and the British were giving away too much intelligence to the Russians, and fearing that Russia would be the prime enemy afterwards, he pressed for the creation of a permanent Secret Service for the USA, based on the OSS."

As soon as the Second World War ended President Harry S. Truman ordered the OSS to be closed down. However, it provided a model for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established in September 1947. Others have suggested that it was the British Security Coordination (BSC) that was really the important organisation. According to Joseph C. Goulden several of the "old boys" who were around for the founding of the CIA like repeating a mantra, “The Brits taught us everything we know - but by no means did they teach us everything that they know.”

Donovan returned to his law practice but later set up the British-American-Canadian-Corporation (later called the World Commerce Corporation) with William Donovan. It was a secret service front company which specialized in trading goods with developing countries. William Torbitt has claimed that it was "originally designed to fill the void left by the break-up of the big German cartels which Stephenson himself had done much to destroy."

William Donovan died at the age of 76 from complications of vascular dementia on 8th February, 1959, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Primary Sources

(1) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

The Columbia Law School class of 1907 comprised only twenty-one members. Yet, for all FDR's avowal of friendship, Donovan always denied that he and Roosevelt had been close there. And despite his response to Knox, FDR evinced no further enthusiasm for Donovan as his secretary of war. "I fear that to put two Republicans in charge of the armed forces might be misunderstood in both parties," he explained. The only close personal exchange between himself and Donovan occurred on April 9, 1940, when Roosevelt sent a telegram of condolence on the death in an automobile accident of Donovan's adored twenty-two-year-old daughter, Patricia. Donovan wrote back the next day: "That you took the time from many and pressing duties makes me doubly grateful."

Soon after his conversation with Knox the President did exactly what he said he would not do. He named another Republican to a defense portfolio in his cabinet, Stimson, not Bill Donovan, as secretary of war. Still, Knox was not finished with promoting his friend. On July 9, at the White House, he agreed with what the President had been saying all along that the swift collapse of France, the Low Countries, and Norway could be explained only by fifth column subversives operating from within. The Navy secretary proposed having a correspondent from his Chicago Daily News, Edgar Mowrer, already in Britain, Study methods for detecting fifth columnists that the United States might adopt. And he wanted someone else to join Mowrer, Bill Donovan.

To the President, the possibility of internal subversion appeared only too credible. Over a quarter-million residents in America were, like Hermann Lang, who had stolen the Norden bombsight, German-born. In 1939 the FBI received sixteen hundred reports of alleged sabotage. But on a single day in May 1940, with Hitler's forces overrunning Europe and with Churchill rounding up suspected subversives in droves, the FBI received over twenty-nine hundred reports of suspected sabotage. FDR not only seized on Knox's idea, but took it a step further. Why not also have Donovan form a judgment of Britain's capacity to stand up to Germany? Could the British stop the Germans in the air? Could they withstand an invasion? There was no point in pouring aid down a rathole, the President believed.

The next day Knox asked Lord Lothian to smooth the path for Donovan in Britain. Nothing could have pleased Lothian more. He had earlier described to London the American mood as "a wave of pessimism passing over this country to the effect that Great Britain must inevitably be defeated, and that there is no use in the United States doing anything more to help it and thereby getting entangled in Europe.... There is some evidence that it is beginning to affect the President..." Donovan's findings might reverse that pessimism.

(2) William J. Donovan, Primary Blueprint memo (25th June, 1942)

Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas, but our country is a nice thing and our independence is indispensable. We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him - or we will cease to exist.

Espionage is mentioned in the Bible and was employed by the Greeks and Romans. In 1870 thirty thousand German spies operated in France and the machinations of the espion in the World War are well known. But the League of Nations hoped to diminish secret intelligence by the simple expedient of publishing the military and naval strength of the forces of all nations so that all people would know about each other. Here we fell into the traps by which the honest man usually is trapped. The League knew the strength and intentions of the decent powers; the others kept theirs hidden.

Today our unpreparedness, born of the evangelical idealist's desire to see things the way he wishes them to be, and encouraged by clever secret foreign agents, also abridged our secret gathering of essential intelligence. We are, then, faced with the almost impossible task in time of war of creating a system of secret intelligence that could only have been efficiently established by painstaking preparation over long years of peace. The task would be hopeless except that we have scores of thousands of willing helpers, who, not deceived, maintained their intelligence services.

The Eastern European theatre is at once one of the most promising of all the scenes of future military action but also is a disjointed empire peopled by 100,000,000 aggressive willing friends and corruptible Axis dupes. By employment of the one and the seduction of the other, by cross-checking with the professional operators of our Allies, we can and must make up for lost time, speedily obtain the fullest intelligence and encourage the 'silent peoples' whose courage gained for us time while losing their own freedom and their lives.

On the one hand we must freely use stratagem and on the other, we must be frugal in civilized scruple. We are in a nasty business, facing a nastier enemy.

(3) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

On August 9, FDR left the White House for a vacation in New England. He invited Donovan along, as he told reporters, "so he can tell me what he found on the other side when he went over." Donovan caught up with the presidential party at the Hyde Park railroad station, and accompanied FDR for a two-and-a-half-day swing through the New England countryside, their most intimate association thus far. Since his return, Donovan had run into increasing pessimism in the administration over Britain's fate. Joe Kennedy, he told friends, could take much credit for this defeatism. The President wanted to know, could England hold out against an invasion? Donovan described what British leaders had shown him well-organized air defenses, airfields wisely dispersed and cunningly camouflaged, and planes safely sheltered. He painted a picture of the English coast bristling with barbed wire and machine guns, just the first line of a deep defensive deployment. The British still stood in mortal peril, Donovan told the President, but with America's backing, they could make it. They needed immediately a hundred Flying Fortresses and a million rifles for the Home Guard to stave off an invasion.

During the two days that Donovan had the President's ear, they pursued FDR's favored pastimes, long drives through glorious foliage and frequent stops for roadside picnics. Donovan continued to tell the President what he wanted to hear, reversing the gloom and doom prophecies of Kennedy. He had a recommendation as well: that the United States start collaborating with British intelligence by creating its own centralized espionage service.

(4) William J. Donovan, speech in New York City (13th April, 1946)

Intelligence service that counts isn't the kind you read about in spy books. Women agents are less often the sultry blonde or the dazzling duchess than they are girls like the young American with an artificial leg who stayed on in France to operate a clandestine radio station; girls like the thirty-seven who worked for us in China, daughters of missionaries and of businessmen, who had grown up there. I hope that the story of the women in OSS will soon be written.

Our men agents didn't fit the traditional types in spy stories any more than the women we used. Do you know that one of our most notable achievements was the extent to which we found we could use labor unions? Our informer in this war was less often a slick little man with a black moustache than a transport worker, a truck driver, or a freight train conductor.

In war you've got to get two things - your long-range information and your immediate operational information. We did this kind of thing - from bases in Sweden, Spain, Turkey, and Switzerland, we sent agents into the interior of enemy and enemy-occupied territory. We got a man into the German Foreign Office. He had access to cables coming in from the commanding generals in the field and from German ambassadors all over the world. Then we had a man in the Gestapo itself, in a leading position. We even had one of our own men in a Gestapo training school. By such means we were able to get the first information on the V-l and V-2 weapons, and the use of the island of Peenemunde as a testing area.

We had to know about German tank production. How would you find out about it? Well, we sent some of our young scholar economists in the OSS out on patrols. They examined captured German tanks. Each tank had a factory serial number. We knew that these numbers were consecutive and didn't vary - because we already knew that was the German system. We did the same thing with airplanes. And when we had looked at a sufficient number, we could estimate what production was. When the war was over, we checked. And we found we were only about 4 percent off. How were German casualties running? That was important to know, not merely to tell us about the forces that could be put into the field but also about available manpower for their internal economy. The names of German dead weren't published in the press. But in every little town we found that the local paper carried obituaries of German officers who had been killed. By various means we got the local papers from all the little towns and villages in Germany. We read these obituaries. As in all armies, we knew that there was a rather fixed proportion of men to officers. We knew that there was also a certain ratio between enlisted men and officers killed. So, in that way, our research men skilled in such techniques were able to make an estimate of the strength of the German Army in 1943 that was found to be curiously exact.

Besides obtaining information this way, we also had to fight for it. We did this by sending in small units to seize radio stations or to work with resistance groups. As far as we were able, we went to the minority groups of different nationalities in this country and trained volunteers for hazardous work. Most of these were American citizens of the racial origin and of the language of the country which we were seeking to liberate. Thus we had units going to Greece, Yugoslavia, France, Italy, China, Indochina, and Siam.

(5) Ray S. Cline, Secrets, Spies and Scholars: Blueprint of the Essential CIA (1976)

In the prewar and early war period in Roosevelt's Washington, agencies were proliferating wildly in response to an awareness that the nation was appallingly unprepared for the challenges ahead. It was easy enough for Roosevelt to provide a charter and authorize Donovan to start an agency and spend several millions of largely unvouchered dollars. Still, it was not easy for Donovan to acquire the staff he needed, find office space for them, get them paid either as civil or military personnel, and impart some sense of specific duties to his fledgling outfit. Army and Navy intelligence, the FBI, and the State Department inevitably resisted what they viewed as encroachment on their domains, and the Bureau of the Budget watchdogs were reluctant to release funds under the rather vague description of duties in the Donovan charter.

"Wild Bill" deserves his sobriquet mainly for two reasons. First, he permitted the "wildest," loosest kind of administrative and procedural chaos to develop while he concentrated on recruiting talent wherever he could find it - in universities, businesses, law firms, in the armed services, at Georgetown cocktail parties, in fact, anywhere he happened to meet or hear about bright and eager men and women who wanted to help. His immediate lieutenants and their assistants were all at work on the same task, and it was a long time before any systematic method of structuring the polyglot staff complement was worked out. Donovan really did not care. He counted on some able young men from his law firm in New York to straighten out the worst administrative messes, arguing that the record would justify his agency if it was good and excuse all waste and confusion. If the agency was a failure, the United States would probably lose the war and the bookkeeping would not matter. In this approach he was probably right.

In any case, Donovan did manage during the war to create a legend about his work and that of OSS that conveyed overtones of glamour, innovation, and daring. This infuriated the regular bureaucrats but created a cult of romanticism about intelligence that persisted and helped win popular support for continuation of an intelligence organization. It also, of course, created the myths about intelligence-the cloak-and-dagger exploits-that have made it so hard to persuade the aficionados of spy fiction that the heart of intelligence work consists of properly evaluated information from all sources, however collected.

The second way in which Donovan deserved the term "Wild' was his own personal fascination with bravery and derring-do. He empathized most with the men behind enemy lines. He was constantly traveling to faraway theaters of war to be as near them as possible, and he left to his subordinates the more humdrum business of processing secret intelligence reports in Washington and preparing analytical studies for the President or the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

Fortunately Donovan had good sense about choosing subordinates. Some were undoubtedly freaks, but the quotient of talent was high and for the most part it rose to the top of the agency. One of Donovan's greatest achievements was setting in motion a train of events that drew to him and to intelligence work a host of able men and women who imparted to intellectual life in the foreign field some of the verve and drive that New Deal lawyers and political scientists had given to domestic affairs under Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Thomas G. (Tommy) Corcoran, Washington's durable political lawyer and an early New Deal "brain-truster" from Harvard Law School, says that his greatest contribution to government in his long career was helping infiltrate smart young Harvard Law School products into every agency of government. He felt the United States needed to develop a highly educated, highly motivated public service corps that had not existed before Roosevelt's time. Donovan did much the same for career experts in international affairs by collecting in one place a galaxy of experience and ability the likes of which even the State Department had never seen. Many of these later drifted away, but a core remained to create a tradition and eventually to take key jobs in a mature intelligence system of the kind the United States required for coping with twentieth century problems.

(6) Gill Bennett, Churchill's Man of Mystery (2009)

The story of the development of the Anglo-American Intelligence relationship, and in particular of British influence on the establishment in July 1941 of the US Coordinator of Information (COI), precursor of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) established in June 1942 and of the post-war Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), remains the subject of research and some speculation. At the centre of the story and of the literature are two men who in the view of many (especially themselves) came to symbolise the Anglo-American Intelligence relationship, "Little Bill", later Sir William Stephenson, and Major-General William "Wild Bill" Donovan. Each is a figure about whom much myth has been woven, by themselves and others, and the full extent of their activities and contacts retains an element of mystery. Both were influential: Stephenson as head of British Security Coordination (BSC), the organisation he created in New York at Menzies's request and Donovan, working with Stephenson as intermediary between Roosevelt and Churchill, persuading the former to supply clandestine military supplies to the UK before the USA entered the war, and from June 1941 head of the COI and thus one of the architects of the US Intelligence establishment.

(7) Joseph E. Persico, Roosevelt's Secret War (2001)

Bill Donovan, perhaps a managerial calamity, was, more importantly, a natural leader, a master of theater, a man who floated above the mundane, much like the President he served. He managed to have Marine Captain Jimmy Roosevelt assigned as his liaison between COI and all federal agencies. When young Roosevelt called, Donovan knew, his calls would be taken. As Life magazine put it, "To get Jimmy Roosevelt into your show is as good as a seat at the White House breakfast table." Donovan also hired Estelle Frankfurter, sister of Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court justice and FDR confidant. Donovan intuitively understood the strategies of success, even if he could not concentrate on an organization chart if someone held a gun to his head. The man's brain was fertile, not orderly...

Not everyone saw the COI as a welcome answer to the gap in America's intelligence defenses. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, a New Deal friend but isolationist foe of FDR's, complained one month after the creation of the agency, "Mr. Donovan is now head of the Gestapo in the United States. That is the proper place for him, because he knows how such things should be done..." Wheeler then ticked off a list of senators whose offices had supposedly been raided by Donovan when he was with the Justice Department in the twenties. "So he is a fitting man to head the Gestapo of the United States," the senator concluded.