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,
LITERARY REVIEW April 2011