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creating the modern spy
How “Wild Bill” Donovan Ran the OSS and Put America in the Espionage Business
by hilary parkinson
Before World War II, intelligence gathering was not institutionalized in the U.S. government as it is today. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a keen interest in what his “spies” around the world could find out for him as war clouds began to form in the late 1930s. After Pearl Harbor, FDR created an intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of today’s CIA. To run it, he chose William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who had won a Medal of Honor for his service in World War I and become rich as a Republican lawyer in New York. In running the OSS, Donovan directed his agents to do things legal and not-so-legal to scoop up intelligence for FDR and his commanders. At the same time, Donovan himself engaged in the kind of exploits that are today more commonly associated with James Bond; he could be a loose cannon but usually got the job done. In his new book on Donovan, veteran journalist Douglas Waller takes a close, detailed look at Donovan’s career, drawing in part on documents from the National Archives never before mined. Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, is the author of five previous books, including best-sellers The Commandos and BIG RED as well as a biography of Gen. Billy Mitchell, A Question of Loyalty.
Your latest book tells the story of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who founded the national intelligence agency known as the Office of Strategic Services. What prompted you to focus on the life of this unusual character? I am attracted to controversial historical figures for biographies. My previous biography, “A Question of Loyalty,” was on Gen. Billy Mitchell, the World War I hero and father of the Air Force, who demonstrated that planes could sink a battleship. People either loved or hated Billy Mitchell. No one was neutral on the guy. During the 1920s, Mitchell was courtmartialed for insubordination in advocating air power. His Washington trial was a media spectacular in its day. Thousands of pages of his trial records are stored at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, where I spent many months reviewing them. Interestingly, Wild Bill Donovan, who was an assistant attorney general in the Coolidge administration at the time, attended Mitchell’s trial. Donovan, like Mitchell, also was someone people revered or hated—a very controversial character whom I found ideal for a biography. The previous biographies of Donovan were almost 30 years old. Practically all of the OSS documents have been declassified since then and are stored at the Archives’ Maryland facility. A historical biographer quickly learns that the archivist is his best friend— particularly with a collection as huge as OSS records, which number in the millions of pages. I spent about a year at the National Archives wading through OSS records and through documents from other government agencies. Larry McDonald, an Archives expert on the OSS records, along with eight other archivists for other collections, were a godsend for my research.
In researching Donovan’s life, you went to three of the 13 presidential libraries: Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Had you done any research at the presidential libraries before? Were you able to access all the documents you requested, or were some still classified? This was the first time I had visited the Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower libraries, and it was a rewarding experience. Robert Clark, the archivist at the FDR Library, unearthed a lot of gems for me from the Roosevelt papers, all of which are declassified. Liz Safley, as she had done for countless authors, took me under her wing in the reading room of the Truman Library. She and archivist Randy Sowell dug up hundreds of Donovan—and OSS-related—papers from the Truman collections, many of them not seen by previous biographers. David Haight, an archivist at the Eisenhower Library, helped me track down Donovan records from Ike’s presidency and his days as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. A few of that library’s records were still classified, but I got them declassified. Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were very different men in their experiences and background. Did the documents in the libraries reveal an equally different attitude toward Donovan? Were there any unexpected finds? The presidential library documents reveal markedly different attitudes by their Presidents toward Donovan. Donovan had a complicated relationship with Roosevelt, who signed the orders setting up the OSS and protected him from bureaucratic rivals who wanted to shut him down. The FDR Library papers reveal that Roosevelt was
intrigued by espionage and liked Donovan’s being a spark plug for ideas in his administration. But the papers also reveal that FDR kept Donovan on a short leash (though Donovan often didn’t know he was on it), and the Democratic President never allowed this millionaire Republican lawyer from Wall Street to be an intelligence czar over the Army and Navy—as Donovan clearly wanted to be. Truman and Donovan’s relationship was pretty straightforward; neither man particularly liked the other. Randy Sowell found documents for me no one had ever seen before on how bad the blood was between these two men. One gem Randy uncovered: Three years after Truman closed down the OSS, an aide sent him the draft of a speech he was to deliver for a Sons of St. Patrick Society dinner, which listed Donovan among the country’s Irish American heroes. The document shows that Truman had crossed out Donovan’s name. Eisenhower and Donovan were always good friends. Ike thought highly of the OSS work in his European theater. When he became President, Eisenhower made Donovan his ambassador to Thailand in 1953. The Eisenhower papers were critical in reconstructing Donovan’s year in Thailand, when he was trying to build that country into a bulwark against communism in Asia. The National Security Council records that have been declassified were also extremely helpful in documenting how Donovan big-footed other ambassadors in the region. Eisenhower and Donovan had a long history together—Donovan helped Eisenhower with his presidential campaign. Were you able to learn more about the relationship between the two men? Did these documents show any significant changes? The documents did show changes in the relationship. Eisenhower had a soft spot for Donovan. The Eisenhower papers show that soft spot wasn’t always shared by other senior members of his military staff, such as Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, who thought Donovan could often be a bull in a china shop. Eisenhower retained his fondness for Donovan after the war, but that fondness went only so far, his presidential papers show. I found interesting documents in the library that showed Donovan had intermediaries lobby Ike in 1952, before he was sworn in as President, to make him CIA director. But the papers show that Allen Dulles, whose brother was John Foster and Ike’s future secretary of state, always had the inside track to lead the CIA. The ambassadorship to Thailand was sort of a consolation prize for Donovan. Then toward the end of Donovan’s life, when he was stricken with a severe form of dementia, there are touching documents in the collection that show Eisenhower and his staff arranging to have Donovan admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to live out his final year and a half.
In addition to the presidential libraries, you requested the military records of Bill’s son, David Donovan, from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis. You have written other military biographies—were you familiar with the holdings of the NPRC? What did the records of David Donovan tell you about his famous father? I am very familiar with NPRC’s records. I made a trip to St. Louis to view Gen. Billy Mitchell’s personnel records for that biography. Donovan had a distant relationship with his son, David, who wanted no part of his father’s lifestyle or the spotlight that followed him. During the war, David joined the Navy—some relatives say because he wanted to be as far away as possible from his father, who was in the Army. The NPRC records enabled me to trace David’s story in the Navy for the book, particularly when it intersected with Donovan’s career with the OSS. Donovan also participated in the Nuremberg trials, although he was eventually dismissed from the prosecuting team. Were you surprised to learn he had been attempting to impress Göring so that the Reichsmarschall could be persuaded to confess in return for a plea bargain? I was very surprised over the plea bargain deal Donovan tried to hatch with Göring: In exchange for Göring copping a plea and ratting on his fellow Nazis, the Reichsmarschall would be allowed to die by a firing squad instead of being hanged as a common criminal. Donovan had a total of 10 meetings with Göring. Donovan’s papers from his Nuremberg days are stored at Cornell University’s law library. They show that the chief prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, wanted mainly to introduce mounds of documents at the trial to convict the top Nazis. Donovan thought that reading dreary records day after day would bore everyone to tears. When Jackson learned of the plea bargain deal Donovan was cooking up, he closed down the negotiations, wanting no part of putting Göring on the stand as a prosecution witness. Donovan and Jackson ended up having a bitter falling out over trial tactics, and Donovan left Nuremberg an angry man. You come from a military family. Have you ever considered researching your own family history through the National Archives? Or do you have the subject for another book already in mind? That’s an interesting idea, although my file at NPRC from my short stint in the Army will be pretty thin. My father was a career Naval officer, so his file would be thicker. I don’t have another book in mind, although I would love for it to be another historical biography.
Authors on the Record
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