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.