Bill Donovan, America’s Titanic Spy Who Helped Destroy The Nazis

‘Wild Bill” Donovan earned his nickname leading recklessly successful charges against the Germans in World War I.

For that he became the most-decorated American soldier, receiving the Medal of Honor, two Distinguished Service Crosses, the Distinguished Service Medal and two Purple Hearts, among his many medals.

But that was nothing compared with his service during World War II, when he created the Office of Strategic Services and pioneered spying and sabotage techniques that laid the foundation for the CIA and Navy SEALs.

His visit to assess Britain’s war needs in July 1940 was “one of the most momentous missions ever undertaken by any agent in the history of Western civilization,” wrote William Stephenson, the British security coordinator, in the foreword to “Donovan: America’s Master Spy” by Richard Dunlop. “He was one of the most significant men of our century.”

The Law Man

Donovan (1883-1959) was born in Buffalo, N.Y. He was a mediocre young student but became serious by the time he entered Columbia University, graduating from its law school in 1908.

He returned to Buffalo to work for a prestigious law firm, then left to form a partnership in 1912.

Two years later he married Ruth Ramsey, the daughter of a wealthy Buffalo man. They would have a son, David, and daughter, Patricia.

At the start of 1916, Donovan was tasked by the John D. Rockefeller Foundation to undertake a humanitarian mission to try to have food delivered to starving German-occupied Eastern Europe. The Germans said no, but the experience was valuable in dealing in foreign affairs.

In April 1917, America declared war on Germany, and Maj. Donovan took command of the Army’s 1st Battalion of the 165th Infantry Division. He trained his men rigorously, and in February 1918, he landed with them at the front in Luneville, France. They were the first U.S. unit to recover ground permanently and were often in the advance of offensives.

“He was the calmest man under fire I ever saw,” recalled Sgt. Dick O’Neill. “Once the men realized the major was going to remain calm no matter what happened, they began to count on him to do the right thing.”

Donovan was promoted to lieutenant colonel just before the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in October, when he was wounded a second time and sent to a hospital.

Legal Eagle

Back in Buffalo in April 1919, five months after World War I ended, Donovan formed a new law practice. Three years later he was appointed U.S. attorney for western New York, but after shocking friends by going after bootleggers during Prohibition, he was soon ousted. He then was named assistant attorney general in the Justice Department in charge of the criminal division.

“Donovan was always after the truth, determined to get at the facts and exhausting every conceivable way of unearthing them,” wrote Dunlop. “He amassed incredible mountains of facts and figures and marshaled all of his evidence in clear and logical ways that foreshadowed his vast intelligence undertakings of the future.”

After receiving the Medal of Honor in 1923, Donovan visited Berlin, where he was briefed on a rising troublemaker, Adolf Hitler (who, after taking over Germany in 1933, told aides he hated Donovan more than any other American).

In 1925, Donovan took charge of the federal antitrust division before moving to New York City to form a law firm just before the October 1929 stock market crash.

“Donovan soon found a niche, handling legal details for the many mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies that come with an economic downturn, while defending trade associations, oil companies and coal mine owners facing antitrust suits,” Douglas Waller, author of “Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage,” told IBD.

Inventing The OSS

A millionaire by 1932, Donovan waged political battles with President Franklin Roosevelt through the decade. But they shared a growing recognition of the Nazi threat and the need for an organization to gather global intelligence. FDR sent him to Britain that summer of 1940 to determine if sending material aid made sense if the war was about to be lost.

“I arranged ample time with (British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill, and (Donovan) spoke with industrial leaders and representatives of all classes,” wrote Stephenson. “He learned that it was true — that defying the Nazis was no mere bold facade, but the very heart of Britain, which was still beating strongly.”

America began delivering ships, weapons, ammunition, aircraft and food to Britain, initially covertly due to the desire of Congress to stay neutral, then under the Lend-Lease program, protected by Navy convoys.

Roosevelt appointed Donovan to create the OSS from scratch in July 1941. The lawyer-turned-spy persuaded companies to have representatives around the world provide information, and he began sending the president the first of 7,500 wartime memos.

When asked what he was looking for in the ideal recruit, Donovan quipped, “A Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.”

“Donovan’s key trait was his restless energy, always seeking action and thrusting himself into dangerous situations, heedless of risk and without seeking credit,” said Vejas Liulevicius, author of the Teaching Co. audiovisual course “Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History.” “His dynamism led to unceasing experimentation in operations and was the prime reason he could build up an intelligence service from nothing, despite formidable bureaucratic resistance.”

Wild Bill’s A-Team

Patrick O’Donnell, author of “Operatives, Spies and Saboteurs: The Unknown Story of the Men and Women of WWII’s OSS,” calls Donovan “the ultimate leadership story” and offers suggestions on how 21st century organizations can thrive in global chaos.

Donovan came through, says O’Donnell, by:

Teaming up agile, dynamic leaders in a flat organization and throwing rank out the window.

Empowering agents to make decisions and improvise.

Creating multidisciplinary teams with cross-functional responsibilities.

Encouraging constant innovation, with no punishment for failure.

Using resources efficiently, making do with whatever was available.

Anticipating the unexpected.

OSS technologists developed everything from tiny cameras and guns that looked like tobacco pipes to fake Gestapo badges and the precursor of scuba gear for underwater demolition. Operatives working with resistance movements tied down enemy forces from France to Greece and recruited agents inside enemy governments.

The first big test was the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, with the OSS providing critical intelligence and helping sabotage enemy equipment and subdue garrisons. Donovan was forbidden to be on the ground but went anyway.

He likewise ignored the ban on landing with the troops on D-Day in June 1944, an Allied triumph partly because of the OSS’s preparatory work.

Donovan’s outfit also paved the way for the landing on the southern coast of France a few months later, helping save the lives of 10,000 Allied soldiers.

 By the end of the war, Donovan was a major general, and the OSS had 13,500 men and women, about the size of an infantry division. Few were killed, and collectively they earned 2,000 medals for valor.

After The War

The OSS chief’s power was based on his relationship with Roosevelt, but that changed when the president died in April 1945. The new president, Harry Truman, disbanded the OSS five months later, and Donovan returned to his law practice.

Later in the decade, Donovan helped Allied prosecutors make the cases against Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal.

When Truman signed the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949, Donovan’s ideas and his proteges, such as future director Allen Dulles, prevailed. “OSS’s greatest contribution may have been to win the Cold War, replacing gentlemanly intelligence traditions with the tools to fight totalitarian regimes effectively,” said O’Donnell.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Donovan to be the ambassador to Thailand, a cover to gather intelligence on communist movements in Southeast Asia. A year later, the old spy stepped down because of early symptoms of dementia.

In 1957, the National Security Medal was pinned on him at his New York City home, where the still-alert Donovan was receiving nursing care. That made him the only individual to receive all four top military honors.

He died two years later at 76. Eisenhower called him “the last hero.”

Donovan’s Keys

Founded the Office of Strategic Services to conduct spying and sabotage in World War II.

Overcame: Almost a complete lack of resources to start.

Lesson: Creativity can overcome every obstacle.

“Strategy without information on which it can rely is helpless.”

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