OH SO SOCIAL WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN
By Douglas Waller (Free Press 466pp $30)
WILLIAM J DONOVAN (1883–1959) was head of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the Second World War. The OSS was the equivalent of SIS and SOE combined, and the precursor of the CIA. This hugely competent biography tells Donovan’s story.
Donovan travelled extensively during the 1930s, meeti ng key Ger man General S t a f f o f f i cer s a s well a s Mussolini, who allowed Donovan to visit the Abyssinian war zone. While these trips had a commercial agenda, Donovan was also covertly working for the US Military Intelligence Service.
Donovan was a staunch Republican, and thought the New Deal was governmental ‘racketeering’; but when Roosevelt needed to broaden his administration’s political base for the eventuality of war, he agreed (along with such men as Frank Knox and Henry Stimson) to be co-opted. Donovan was to assess Britain’s chances of survival. During a mission to London and the Mediterranean theatre in the summer of 1940 (with Ian Fleming as his designated bagman), he struck up a close relationship with Sir Stewart Menzies, MI6’s legendary ‘C’. With additional information from his Washington station chief, Menzies predicted that Donovan would become America’s spy commander, and hoped any nascent organisation would closely emulate
Donovan was the son of second-generation Ir ish immigrants. His family had progressed from the clapboard shanties of Buffalo’s rough First Ward to the relative gentility of what was called ‘lace curtain Ir ish’. William graduated in arts and t hen l aw f rom Colombia University. Charming and sexually irresistible, Donovan married into serious money in 1914: his wife, Ruth, was the daughter of a multimillionaire with a l eather and property empire in Buffalo. In late 1917 Donovan joined the 165th In f antr y Reg iment a s par t o f General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in France. Combat had no terrors for him; he felt like ‘a youngster at Halloween’. By t he t ime he returned home Donovan had won the Croix de Guerre, to which in 1922 would be added t he Congressional Medal of Honor for extraordinary heroism under fire – a l l o f which ear ned h im t he soubriquet ‘Wild Bill’.
Donovan (right) and General Mark Clark the senior British service.
He guessed right, for in July 1941 Roosevelt appointed Donovan ‘Coordinator of Information’; his mandate included ‘collecting and analysing a l l infor mation and data, which may bear on national security’, as well as any ‘supplementary activities’, such as psychological warfare and sabotage, that the President might direct him to undertake. Primed with $450,000 from Roosevelt’s secret funds, Donovan acquired offices at 25th and E Streets on Navy Hill. He began recruiting such toney figures as David K E Bruce, a Virg inian ar i s tocrat; Estelle Frankfurter, the sister of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter; Captain James Roosevelt, the President’s son; and James Phinney Baxter III, the president of Williams College. By the end
By then Donovan had become a tough prosecuting attorney in Buffalo and western New York, taking on Chinese opium dealers, strikers and coal-industry profiteers. His burgeoning political hopes as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 1932 may have failed, but the law fir m he co-founded made ser ious money from bankruptcies and mergers and acquisitions during the Depression, as well as from Hollywood clients such as Mae West and Jane Wyman.
Like many high powered lawyers who would figure in US foreign policy and espionage circles thereafter,
of 1941 he had 600 people on the payroll, including movie director John Ford, the actor Sterling Hayden, William Vanderbilt III, and the historians William Langer and Arthur Schlesinger. That line-up explains why the OSS, as it would be renamed, was known as ‘Oh so social’ – as well as ‘the bad eyes brigade’, since so many of them were swotty types who wore glasses. Donovan himself acquired a new nickname: Hush Hush.
Any new agency is like a minor volcanic eruption that disturbs the existing bureaucratic landscape. Donovan’s rise created enemies. The accountants were amazed as his budgets climbed to over $50 million annually,
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disbursed on projects that often seemed outlandish – such as a plan to attach incendiary devices to bats in the hope that they would nest in the eaves of German homes (in fact they fell like hailstones from the planes that released them). A lifelong foe was FBI director J Edgar Hoover, who aspired to lead the nation’s spies himself. After Donovan’s daughter died in a car crash, Hoover repeatedly insinuated that Donovan was having an affair with his own daughter-in-law. When Donovan died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, Hoover tried to blame his death on syphilis. Waller’s deeply researched book contains much fascinating material on Donovan himself, although it is not in the same class as Richard Harris Smith’s classic history of the OSS. It contains some marvellous stories about the practicalities of spying. My favourites include that of ‘Cynthia’, the nom de guerre of Amy Elizabeth Thorpe Pack, a sex bomb who ostentatiously copulated with a diplomat in the cor r idor of the Vichy embassy in Washington, DC in order to distract the nightwatchman while a gentleman called the ‘Georgia Cracker’ burgled the s a f e s . A Spanish-speaking s tudent ca l l ed El l a befriended a secretary in Franco’s US embassy, fixing her up with a (phoney) better paid job with IT&T so that Ella could replace her in the embassy. There Ella damaged a safe’s combination lock with a blow from a hammer, which enabled one ‘Sadie’ Cohen to repair it, and return one night to copy the contents of several code books.
quasi-paramilitary functions that proved a mixed legacy for the CIA. OSS agents were dropped into occupied Europe to arm and organise resistance groups. A single mistake in the way a shirt button was sewn on, or in the printing of identity papers, could result in the type of five-day interrogation with rubber clubs that one agent experienced at the hands of the Gestapo (three weeks later the victim had the satisfaction of seizing a gun from a guard and shooting dead the two Germans involved when he encountered them in a US holding centre). Donovan himself was not averse to a gunfight: against all orders, and despite being a heavyset man of sixty with heart trouble, he invar iably smuggled himself onto invading landing craft. On one occasion he ended up in a firefight with an Italian patrol at Salerno, which left him feeling ‘happy as clam’ after he had killed them all.
Perhaps as interesting as Donovan’s derring-do is the evidence Waller provides for the chilling of the OSS’s relationship with Soviet intelligence, on which he was already preparing to spy by December 1944 (just as the NKVD had long been spying on the US). There are also interesting sections on Donovan’s reversion to the role of prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials, and on the reasons – mainly fiscal – why Harry Truman pulled the plug on this ‘American Gestapo’.
Donovan was shunted off to the US embassy in Thailand, where he endeavoured, typically, to take over intelligence operations throughout Southeast Asia. In 1947 Truman discovered that the US needed an intelligence ser vice a f ter a l l , and the CIA was created. Following an uncertain period in which two military men, Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter and General Walter Bedell Smith, ran the CIA, it reverted to such old OSS hands as Allen Dulles and his successors.
By 1957, it was clear that something was wrong with ‘Wild Bill’ (beyond his old habit of threatening to tear opponents to pieces before throwing them out of the window). A beloved granddaughter died after accidentally drinking silver polish before a New Year party, and his daughter-in-law Mary took a lethal overdose of barbiturates. That year the
Donovan’s activities became so widespread that it is difficult to decide which of them were really vital to the Allied war effort. Keeping certain states neutral was an important part of the job, as was intelligence gathering in centres of diplomatic tittle-tattle such as the Vatican. Allen Dulles, his steely subordinate (and the third CIA director), ran a tight ship in Bern, recruiting a German Foreign Ministry agent who delivered high-grade intelligence materials on his regular tr ips to Switzerland. Dulles was also instrumental in Operation Sunr ise, which resulted in SS General Karl Wolff ’s surrender of German forces in northern Italy. There can be little doubt that agents recruited by the OSS to count trains pa s s i ng t h rough marshalling yards and to identify the insignia of German troops in bars and nightclubs played a crucial role i n Al l i ed d i s pos i t i ons . Unlike in Br itain, where SIS and SOE were carefull y de l i neated, t he OSS combined intelligence collection and analysis with
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74-year-old major-general was consigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He died there in 1959 and was bur ied in Arlington Cemetery. In 1981 William Casey, another former OSS agent turned CIA Director, unveiled the bronze statue of Wild Bill that watches over the foyer in the Agency’s Langley headquarters as bureaucrats with few of Wild Bill’s epic qualities go about their business. ❑
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