William Donovan was a man who many hats, he was a decorated soldier, diplomat, intelligence officer, as well as a lawyer. He’s best known as the founder and commander of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the forerunner to both the CIA and the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets). He is considered the “Father of U.S. Intelligence” and a statue of him resides in CIA Headquarters.

Humble Beginnings:

Donovan was born on New Year’s Day 1883 in Buffalo, New York to American-born parents but came from Irish immigrants. His father, Timothy, moved to Buffalo and for a time managed the railroad yard and later the Holy Cross Cemetery.

Donovan attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, a Catholic school where he played football, acted in plays, and won an award for oratory. He would then follow on to Niagara University, a Catholic university, and seminary where he studied pre-law. Donovan briefly considered becoming a priest but would ultimately decide against it. While at Niagra, Donovan won another oratorical contest, for presenting a speech warning of corrupt, anti-Christian forces that threatened the existence of the United States.

Looking to expand his personal horizons he transferred to Colombia University to study law but also attended religious services of the Jewish and Protestant faiths to gauge whether he wanted to change his religion. He continued to be a star athlete, starring with the football and rowing teams. He won another award for oratory and was voted the “most modest” and one of the “most handsome” members of Columbia’s graduating class of 1905.

While at Columbia, one of his classmates was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although polar opposites on the political spectrum, the two would cross paths and have a solid respectful relationship.

Donovan was a partner in a law firm in Buffalo, New York when he decided to help form and lead a unit for the New York National Guard. His unit was mobilized and sent to Mexico during the punitive campaigns to catch Pancho Villa. It was part of the “Fighting 69th, the Irish Brigade” from Civil War fame.

World War I Fame:

When Donovan returned from Mexico, he was promoted to Major and joined the 165th Regiment of the famed “Rainbow Division.” Douglas MacArthur was the Chief of Staff for the division. Donovan was an officer who always led from the front, even as a battalion commander. It was here he developed the nickname “Wild Bill” for his boundless energy. While he publicly claimed to dislike it, his wife would say, that privately, he loved it.

He was wounded by shrapnel and nearly blinded by a German mustard gas attack. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for a daring rescue under fire of a wounded soldier.

During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the 165th was in heavy action at Landres-et-St. Georges.  Donovan, now a Lt. Colonel, led one of three regiments with the objective of capturing an enemy position which was well entrenched on a steep ravine surrounded by machine guns and artillery.  

Donovan in World War I


Because of the heavy German fire and strong defensive positions, the other two supporting regiments refused to advance, but Donovan persisted and rallied his regiment and led the advance under absolutely murderous conditions.  

Donovan refused to conform to the convention of the times, by not stripping off all of his rank and insignia which was common for officers, he told his men, “They can’t hit me and they won’t hit you!” Wounded three times he refused to be evacuated until his men carried the day. He was eventually awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and 4000 veterans attended the ceremony in New York City.

At the end of World War I, Donovan was arguably the most decorated man in US military history at that time, having been awarded all of the top awards for bravery in combat. Donovan was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and several foreign awards for valor. Donovan and Teddy Roosevelt started the American Legion after the war was over.

Sowing the Seeds of Intelligence Work Between the Wars:

Despite returning to his law firm in Buffalo, Donovan combined vacation and fact-finding trips to Japan, China, and Korea, and Siberia. He also took an extended trip to Europe, where he conducted work for J. P. Morgan and gathered intelligence about international Communism.

Returning home he was appointed to be the Assistant US Attorney for Western New York and became a dedicated crime fighter, especially against bootlegging which was just recently made illegal. He ran for Lieutenant Governor unsuccessfully in 1924, and Governor in 1932 when FDR left office.

With World War II started and looking like the United States would get drawn into it, President Roosevelt who respected Donovan’s experience called on him in 1940 and 1941. Donovan was FDR’s eyes and ears, but strictly an informal observer to Britain, where he was urged by the President to gauge Britain would be able to stand alone against the Nazis.

Donovan’s travels also impressed upon him that the U.S. needed an intelligence service as the British had. He alone was of the opinion that Britain could withstand the Blitz and urged Roosevelt to help them. Churchill was impressed with Donovan and gave him access to everything, including the intelligence services.

Starting an Intelligence Service From Scratch:

In July 1941, FDR established the Office of the Coordination of Information (COI) and named Donovan as its director. This new title infuriated the Army, Navy, FBI (especially J.Edgar Hoover who hated Donovan) and the State Department, who all had terrible and non-cooperating intelligence services of their own. There WAS no coordination of effort between the agencies.

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Donovan and officers of OSS during WWII

COI set up shop in NYC in the Rockefeller Center. They were located one floor above the Brits, MI6 shop. Allen Dulles ran the operation, he would later serve as a Chief of Station in Europe and much later as the Director of CIA.

Once the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. went to a war footing and COI would soon become OSS in July 1942. Donovan was off and running and tried to recruit agents and operators from every walk of life imaginable. He was initially brought back on active duty at his previous rank of Colonel but was promoted to Brigadier General within just a few months in January 1943.

Unfortunately, his turf wars weren’t just with the other Americans. MI6 and their chief, Stewart Menzies began to try to rein in their colonial cousins, trying to protect the empire for after the war. Regardless, by 1944, OSS had spread its wings to the corners of the earth with the exception of South America, where Hoover and the FBI had insisted remain their turf, and had agents and sources in nearly every capital. One of Donovan’s best sources of information turned out to be Catholic priests who were conduits of information unknown to the Vatican.

With the war turned on the side of the Allies, Donovan went ashore with troops on both D-Day and later into Southern France. He met with the Pope in Italy and with Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia. OSS men in Rumania had found a way to funnel over 1300 downed pilots back to Allied control. With the war winding down, Donovan presented a plan to FDR for a post-war intelligence service. One copy of which ended up in the hands of a newspaper reporter who deemed Donovan’s plan akin to creating an American Gestapo.  

However, once Roosevelt died in 1945, Donovan found himself on the outs with the new President Harry Truman who disliked Donovan and the OSS. Truman at the war’s end would dissolve OSS and their agents and operators would be scattered to the winds. Donovan would help in the prosecution of the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials.  He would go back to practicing law on Wall St.

Truman would finally recognize the need for a national intelligence agency that operated abroad and not in the U.S. and signed the  National Security Act of 1947, which established the Central Intelligence Agency. Donovan’s dream had now come to fruition. Several of Donovan’s “glorious amateurs” who began in OSS would serve as directors including Dulles, James Jesus Angleton, Richard Helms, William Colby, and William Casey.

In 1953, now President Eisenhower, who was a believer in Donovan and OSS during the war, appointed him as the Ambassador to Thailand. The covert task for Donovan in Thailand was to “quietly” assume command not only of the embassy but also the propaganda, military aid, and CIA operations for Thailand. He was to build “a bastion” for democracy there and use it to fight communists overtly and covertly in the neighboring countries, which included Vietnam.  Donovan, already thinking ahead, had conferred with old OSS men who worked in Thailand and had already visited Ft. Bragg, NC to meet with the new Green Berets there, the Unconventional Warfare group, headed up by Aaron Bank was a product of his OSS. He also got the Psychological Operations people involved.

Donovan died in 1959 at the age of 76 from complications of dementia at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C. Upon his death, CIA sent out a message to all Station Chiefs, “The man more responsible than any other for the existence of the Central Intelligence Agency has passed away.”

Donovan was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 2. General Donovan was the only American to have received the nations four highest awards: the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.

After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee. He is also a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. The George Bush Center for Intelligence, inside the CIA headquarters building in Langley, Virginia, has a statue of Donovan in the lobby.

Today we remember General Donovan on what would have been his 136th birthday.

Photos: US Army

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