In an age when there’s almost nothing our two major political parties can agree about, it seems there’s one exception: besmirching General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of World War II’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency and the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), and one of America’s greatest patriots. Donovan is the only person in American history to receive our nation’s four highest decorations, including the Medal of Honor.
He was a visionary leader whose combination of intellectual and physical prowess defined the ideal OSS candidate: “A Harvard Ph.D. who can handle himself in a bar fight.” His lifelong service to the United States began in World War I and lasted until the Cold War. In creating the OSS, he formed a close alliance with President Franklin Roosevelt (who called Donovan his “secret legs” and sent him to Great Britain in 1940 as his personal emissary) despite strong political differences between the two men. Donovan fought entrenched Washington interests that were threatened by his revolutionary intelligence organization. Donovan said he had greater enemies in Washington than Hitler had in Europe.
He recruited American’s most brilliant minds and greatest warriors to serve in the OSS, including Cora Du Bois (the second woman tenured at Harvard), Col. William Eddy (the “Lawrence of America”), the sociologist Margaret Mead, Col. Aaron Bank (the founder of US Army Special Forces), Ralph Bunche (the first person of color to receive the Nobel Peace Prize), Hollywood director John Ford, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, and many others. Donovan went behind enemy lines and participated in several major invasions during World War II. It’s no wonder that when he died in 1959, President Eisenhower called him the “last hero.”
General William Donovan laid the foundation for the United States intelligence and special operations communities that still look to him and the OSS for inspiration 70 years later, which explains why the National Clandestine Service and USSOCOM both chose the OSS spearhead as their insignias. The bipartisan example between Donovan and Roosevelt was reflected in the OSS’ makeup, too, and set the apolitical model for our intelligence community. Its personnel covered the entire political spectrum to insure that no political viewpoint outweighed another. As Noel Fitch wrote in his biography of Julia Child (who also served in the OSS): “Political differences were irrelevant to the director … he valued creative intelligence, a love of adventure, and a willingness to fight the enemy.”
It is paradoxical that Donovan has become a frequent target of attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. From the pages of the left-wing New Yorker, which smeared him in an error-filled profile several years ago, to right-wing Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton, which rehashes an unfounded and absurd conspiracy theory that General Patton was killed on General Donovan’s order, it is open season on “Wild Bill.” Even fictional characters are getting into the act. David Ignatius, an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post, has General Donovan’s statue removed from CIA headquarters in his most recent novel. Why is such an inspirational, visionary, courageous, and patriotic figure being disparaged from both side of the political spectrum? The answer to this question has its roots in Donovan’s unique character and offers insights into our current politics.
Donovan was not a politician. His biographer, Corey Ford, wrote that although “Donovan craved success … he refused to achieve it by courting favor … he was never on intimate social terms with the president or the chiefs of staff, and no personal note was permitted to creep into his official correspondence … he [stated] his case factually, even bluntly, and [avoided] unctuous phrases to gain his point. That same reluctance to indulge in campaign oratory or glittering campaign promises [when he ran for governor of New York] was his political undoing. Because of his unwillingness to compromise with the voters, he never won elective office. His coolness under fire – not only in war but in government service – was the result of stern self-discipline. The very qualities which made him a leader also served to set him apart.” Most significantly, Ford wrote that “caught between the attacks of the extreme right and the extreme left, he forced himself to remain objective and calm.”
Seventy years after the end of World War II, Donovan is still under attack by those on the political extremes. Were he alive today, I have no doubt he would remain cool under fire.