On July 11, 1941, President Roosevelt appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up a civilian intelligence-gathering organization. And the face of American intelligence would change forever.

An Unorganized Intelligence Scene

Before World War II, the United States had no national intelligence apparatus. Intelligence gathering was strictly on an ad hoc basis with no sharing of information between government entities.

So, at the start of the war, President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to rely on his circle of friends. His friends would travel to Europe and report on what they found directly to him. One of those people was Wild Bill Donovan. He had been awarded the Medal of Honor in WWI and although a political rival, he was a trusted friend of Roosevelt (something quite unimaginable by today’s standards).

Nevertheless, FDR was searching for more effective ways to gather intelligence to protect American interests in Europe and the Pacific. 

Upon his return from an intelligence-gathering trip to Europe, Donovan lobbied hard to Roosevelt to create a national intelligence agency. Hoover, who wanted to maintain the only pipeline to information, openly opposed this. Yet, Donovan, aided by British officials, succeeded in convincing President Roosevelt.

Wild Bill Donovan Takes the Helm

FDR appointed Donovan as coordinator of information (COI) in charge of forming a civilian intelligence organization. The coordinator of information was to “collect and analyze all information and data which may bear upon the national security” for the president and his designees. Donovan was given the authority, “with the approval of the president,” to request data from other agencies and departments. Nonetheless, he was specifically ordered not to interfere with the president’s military advisers. 

Hoover, however, insisted that the COI would not and could not conduct any intelligence gathering in South America, as that remained strictly the FBI’s domain. 

FDR split the duties of the COI between Donovan, who handled military intelligence and covert operations, and Robert Sherwood, a playwright and one of the president’s primary speechwriters. Sherwood would head up the dissemination of domestic information and foreign propaganda.

Sherwood would begin The Voice of America a radio program that would broadcast on occupied Europe and the Axis countries. The Voice of America’s pledge was that “The news may be good or bad for us — We will always tell you the truth.”

The British gave invaluable assistance to Wild Bill Donovan who modeled the COI after British practices. He centralized the analysis of information into actionable intelligence for the first time. 

Although Donovan still believed that a civilian professional intelligence service was needed, he suggested to Roosevelt that, during the war, the COI should fall under the newly formed Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to support the war effort.

The Office of Strategic Services Is Born

Wild Bill Donovan, the Grandfather of American Intelligence
Wild Bill Donovan relied heavily on the British for the model of the U.S. intelligence agency as well as with training.

President Roosevelt liked the idea. However, he wanted to keep COI’s Foreign Information Service (FIS), which conducted radio broadcasting, out of the military’s control. It was then decided that the “black” (covert) and “white” (overt) propaganda missions be separated giving FIS the official side of the business. FIS and half of COI’s staff were sent to the new Office of War Information.

The remainder of COI’s operatives were then earmarked for what was to become the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

On June 13, 1942, the OSS was formed. Donovan chose the name that reflected his sense of the strategic importance of intelligence and special operations.

The OSS was formed as an agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines for all branches of the United States Armed Forces. However, due to the wartime footing, other OSS functions included the use of propaganda, subversion, covert operations, guerrilla warfare, and post-war planning.

The WWI hero that pioneered US global intelligence

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Under the expert leadership of Wild Bill Donovan and a crash course of intelligence from the British, OSS expanded quickly. Just a few months after being formed it was instrumental in providing excellent and timely intelligence for the Operation Torch landings in North Africa in November of 1942.

Donovan had already provided the State Department with desperately needed French-speaking officers in French-held North Africa to act as “vice-consuls.” Thus, he the OSS had won the grudging respect of the State Department. With Donovan’s leadership and outstanding training by the British, OSS began to quickly build a worldwide clandestine intelligence capability.

The Glorious Amateurs and the British Teachers

The first COI/OSS officers arrived in Britain in November 1941 before the U.S. was even in the war. They leaned heavily on the British for training and information to get off the ground. The British, used to operating on more of a shoestring budget, happily partook of the seemingly endless resources of the new American unit.

The relationship was slow to blossom. The British were cautious at first, worrying that the neophyte Americans could compromise their hard-earned operatives in Occupied Europe. Despite this, the two sides grew interdependent on one another by the war’s end. The operational marriage would be extremely beneficial to both sides and lay the groundwork for the close cooperation and trust the two countries still enjoy.

Wild Bill Donovan, the Grandfather of American Intelligence
OSS officers with Wild Bill Donovan, his “Glorious Amateurs” or the collection of “PhDs who can win a barfight.”

Donovan recruited an eclectic group of volunteers that he described as “Glorious Amateurs.” 

Donovan described the perfect OSS men as “PhDs who can win a bar fight.” OSS wanted smart self-starters who could think on their feet.

At the peak of war operations in late 1944, OSS had grown to over 13,000 personnel. About one-third of whom were women.

These men and women formed the backbone of the CIA and later the U.S. Army Special Forces.

Enter the CIA

Wild Bill Donovan, the Grandfather of American Intelligence
The CIA’s seal and emblem found in the lobby of the agency’s Original Headquarters building. (CIA)

When the war ended, the handwriting was on the wall for OSS. President Truman disliked Donovan and the OSS. Donovan’s plan to keep a peacetime intelligence service was filed away but ignored. OSS was disbanded on October 1, 1945.

Two years later Truman approved the new organization called the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) until the National Security Act of 1947 turned CIG into the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA was to perform many of the missions that Wild Bill Donovan had advocated for his proposed peacetime intelligence service. CIA became what General Donovan had initially proposed.

The modern-day CIA and the U.S. Special Operations Command owe a great deal of their legacy to OSS and Wild Bill Donovan. They still employ some “PhDs that can win a bar fight.”