Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage""

Genre: History
Author:Douglas Waller
Viewed from the bare bones of his life story, William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan (1883--1959) resembles a type of hero out of the mists of some fiction writer's imagination--a handsome and roguish character who was fearless in the face of enemy bullets--German or Japanese--in war and prepared to buck or go around anyone who got in his way to achieve a national or personal mission in the corridors of power.

It's the rags-to-riches story of a tough "shanty" Irish-American kid from the wrong end of the tracks. Born in the poverty stricken First Ward of Buffalo, New York, "Wild Bill" managed to work his way to a top Ivy League college (Columbia) at a time when "shanty" Irish Americans were shown a good deal of disdain, along with those of Jewish backgrounds.

He married Ruth Rumsey, a member of a elite Protestant family. By the age of thirty Donovan had a successful career as a corporate lawyer and was a rising star in the Republican Party in New York. Gifted with perhaps an excessive amount of charm and magnetism with the ladies, he enjoyed numerous affairs. The details might make for spicy reading for some, but Waller mercifully steers clear of most of it, keeping the story focused his subject's professional life. It is noted that Donovan and his wife essentially led separate lives for the remainder of the life-long marriage.

He went off to war as an officer in 1917 in a low-key border affair with Mexican rebels and later the trenches of France on the Western Front. It was in the latter theater of carnage that his courage and leadership blossomed. Donovan and his "Fighting 69th" Brigade overcame bad generalship at the top and German aggression at the front to emerge as one of the most highly decorated units in the last year of the war. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and the French Co-ix de Guerre. He refused the latter honor until a Jewish-American soldier was given his due,however, and latter dedicated his medal to the men he had served with who didn't come home.

In the 1920's Donovan became a State Attorney in New York and later ran--unsuccessfully--for the governorship of the "Empire State". By the time World War II broke out in Europe, this staunch Republican became an intimate of an old political opponent, the patrician Franklin Roosevelt.
Two men of more different backgrounds could scarcely be found in the corridors of power in those days. But they shared one thing--a certainty that German and Italian Fascism sooner or later had to be stopped and Americans had to play a key part. Roosevelt sent Donovan over to Britain in 1940 to see the situation first-hand, meet with the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and coordinate anti-Nazi activities with Canadian-born William Stephenson, another hero from the First World War and the man heading up Britain's main intelligence service. Big Bill (Stephenson) and Little Bill (Donovan) became close colleagues. Although friction developed between the fledgling American intelligence service Office of Strategic Services (the OSS) and the British Security Coordination Office (BSC), they shared common enemies. And not just Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese Empire, but also J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, who was highly suspicious of British intelligence services operating in America at any level. Hoover also kept up an internecine war with the OSS, gathering intelligence against the flamboyant Donovan and his crew of eccentric and unorthodox but often highly effective and intelligent staff members and agents.

Many Americans, including the fascist-leaning Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy thought that England was finished in 1940 . But Donovan, who was given unprecedented access by Churchill to his government and their wartime inner-establishment, thought otherwise. He also knew that it would take great deal more American aid than Congress was willing to give to help forestall a possible defeat for democracy and a Nazi death grip on the continent for decades to come.

Roosevelt would refer to Donovan as "his legs" throughout the war. This was high praise from a leader who rarely if ever confided in anyone beyond his inner, inner circle of advisers. Donovan indeed had no compunction about gathering information from any source--be they American Communists or European royalists to ferret out Axis agents. He also approved "black bag" units to go into foreign embassies in and out of Washington to crack open safes and gleam information from "neutral" countries like Vichy France, Spain and Turkey.

From the Washington Post review of the same book:

" ...six months before Pearl Harbor, Donovan sent a memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the creation of a central intelligence service. "Strategy, without information upon which it can rely, is helpless," the memo warned. Roosevelt, who badly wanted better information from abroad and regarded the military and State Department intelligence units as next to useless, embraced Donovan's idea. FDR gave him a bland interim title and in 1942 appointed him chief of the OSS.

"As the new player in town, Donovan was talented at making enemies, notably FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, but also the chief of G-2 (Army intelligence) and others. What comes through clearly is that Donovan spent as much time battling rival agencies as he did running the wartime spy service. Only his direct access to FDR saved him. And the turf wars among the spy agencies continue to this day."

This book should be highly entertaining for those interested in espionage and building an intelligence service from the ground up. The United States had Army, Naval and State Department intelligence units before the war but Roosevelt found them inadequate for actually getting in the field and doing things. In contrast, it was hard to get Bill Donovan OUT of the field. He insisted, sometimes against direct orders from higher-ups, to be in on every major Allied landing in Europe (including Utah Beach on D-Day) and came close to being killed or captured more than once. (He personally shot his way out of trouble in Sicily when ambushed by Italian soldiers, reportedly "as happy as a clam" to his military escort. Even in his fifties, Donovan exulted in being shot at. He also carried an "L" pill to use to kill himself in case he was taken alive by the enemy.

When he wasn't drawing fire and being frankly reckless, he was literally flying all over the globe during the war, from North Africa to Burma, London, Australia , Washington, Moscow, etc, to try and establish spy networks and to relieve those of his head operatives who had lost their grip.

But at the same time Waller points out Donovan's weaknesses. He was a poor administrator and could be careless with secret files. Many who worked under him found him too cavalier. And he could make enemies by never taking "no" for an answer.

After World War II and the death of Roosevelt, Donovan hoped to head up a post-war version of the OSS. It was not to happen as he and Harry Truman could never establish a good working relationship. The Cold War National Security Act of 1947 and the CIA went on without him. Except for a brief post as Ambassador to Thailand under Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950's Donovan's career in military affairs and government ended before he wanted it to.


  1. Well I'm interested in these things myself Doug, but what interests me most is what is not said, what is left out of the official story of WWII.

    What especially interests me about these heroes of the established history of the war and the sophisticated espionage game is that they never seemed to discover that Henry Ford and Edsel Ford respectively contributed money to Hitler and profited from German wartime production.

    Passed them by completely it seems.

    As did the fact that Standard Oil of New Jersey, General Electric, General Motors, and I.T.T. all made financial or technical contributions which comprise prima facie evidence of "participating in planning or carrying out Nazi enterprises."

    Not a word about this in the official account.

    While these heroes of the "special relationship" created these legends of post-colonial derring-do, but the super sleuths of the yesteryear seem to have completely missed the propaganda, intelligence, and espionage of fellows like American branch of I.G. Farben and the Rockefeller Foundation public-relations man - Ivy Lee....Amazing!

    Shortly before Ivy Lee's death in 1934, the US Congress had been investigating his work in Nazi Germany on behalf of the IG Farben but his close relationship with the Rockefeller family was never an issue for him or for them.

    On one of our previous recent subjects of 'dodgy uncles'..... it is interesting to me that Mr Lee was an uncle of William S Borroughs, perhaps then that dodgy uncles are fated to have dodgy nephews and nieces too?

    J. Edgar Hoover never apparently tumbled to the fact that the pillars of the military industrial complex had a relationship with these guys either, the other enemies like the European fascist leaders of the 30s and 40s for example, all in bed together with the American industrial elite.

    Can't help wondering if they were really so good how they missed all that going on right under their noses Doug?

    Seems strange to me anyway.

    Anyone who comes with a 'Wild' sobriquet always gives me pause for reflection and risk analysis Doug...I'm not sure any good has ever come of it yet, but I may well be wrong I suppose?

  2. LOL...Yes I agree with you there, AA. "Wild" has a taste of the Old West about it, with all the problems associated at times in telling who was the "law and order" in a settlement and who were "the bad guys".

    It should be noted that the phrase "Wild" was attached to William Donovan during his Army career training soldiers in New York State for rigorous service on the Western Front in WWI.

    He later used his outstanding service record--and that questionable moniker---to cultivate a vivid reputation. He was also good at keeping the press informed about just what he wanted them to know and using them as anti-Nazi informants if they had experience in Germany.

    . One of the surprising things about Donovan for me was how well known he was in the media at the time. For instance Donovan was played by the actor George Brent in an all-star Hollywood film called "The Fighting 69th" with James Cagney. He also in the papers a lot, as alway noted, and even a comic illustrator in syndicated newpsapers printed his life story in serial form. He had his faults but he was not the usual type of shadowy spymaster. The idea of an intelligence man with such a high profile is intriguing to me.

    The Nazi propaganda machine printed all kinds of ugly rumors about Donnovan n 1940 -41, for instance, when he was FDR's envoy to Yugoslavia and other places. His old foe J. Edgar Hoover later got a bogus rumor sent around Washington and New York that Donovan had died from a venereal disease(!), just out of spite and envy. ( It's a nice quality to me of Donovan that I might not have liked his domestic politics, but he damn sure made the right enemies. )

    To your larger point I will return. Let me just say there are other books I have read that have done as better job detailing the nature of American industrial and banking involvement in the Third Reich. That of course is a fascinating chapter in itself, one I agree has been given short shrift in too many books like this. Another book I consulted recently does a better job at it, which I will refer to presently.

  3. It is as you relate quite a major part of the WWII story, and one that has been left out of the more popular histories.

    One notable exception--the first time I recall coming across this subject other than Charles Higham's 1983 book "Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot" was in William Stevenson's book "A Man Called Intrepid", a 1976 book about Canadian-born Sir William Stephenson (no direct relation to the author) and the key role that he played heading up the BSC in Canada and the United States. "Intrepid" devotes three chapters to the same material Higham covers more thoroughly but it was clear that Stephenson and his BSC group had their work cut out for them in discrediting business and some labor leaders like coal boss John L Lewis in the USA and shutting down or at least exposing the ties that the companies with US and Nazi cooperation agreements had with one another.

    Ironically, the BSC main HQ in Nw York City was on two floors of Rockefeller Center which were leased to London as a nonrepayable loan. Nelson Rockefeller was involved in Stephenson's BSC and his own work at the Inter-American Relations project, but as your link points out he had other more private interests. He claimed to Stephenson and other he could not undo the Standard Oil--New Jersey contracts in Latin America and the pre-war ties to Farben.

    "Playing both ends" can be possible, I suppose, if you're a multi-national with a vital resource both sides desperately need.

    A good deal of this lack of "corporation ethics" by Ford, ITT, Standard Oil of New Jersey, et al, were published and there was some investigations conducted by the Truman Committee in the US Senate. Little was actually done however, as you know. A lot of the "dodgy" operations were in Latin America where there was covert efforts (some successful) by the British to pull governments like that of Brazil out of Axis cooperation.

    One of the BSC reports from Canada stated bluntly in April of 1941: "Standard Oil could be scarcely regarded as an American business machine. It is a hostile and dangerous agency of the enemy." They did publish a book called "Sequel to the Apocalypse: How Your Dimes Pay for Hitler's War" which included a chart listing all major American and German business links at the time. The book was distributed around America during its period of official neutrality, much to the displeasure of those embarrassed by the revelations. If nothing else, it made "playing both sides" more of a problem by sheer exposure.

    Roosevelt gave the BSC leeway to distribute anti-fascist propaganda and in some cases "dispose" of Axis agents on American soil. Of course, the German agents in the "Abwehr" spy rings had their own friends, some in some high places, some small fry picked up by the FBI and some useful dupes like Charles Lindbergh and Senator Burton Wheeler in the America First Committee.

    British support groups in America like Fight for Freedom and the pro-worker American Labor Committe For Aid to Britain also got BSC backing.

    It's an often ugly, sometimes dispiriting, but always fascinating time in history to me.

    Interesting about William Burroughs' uncle. Not a very avuncular chap in my book.

    Thanks for the information ,as always.

  4. I suppose in my sour-faced take on history Doug I would say that is 'cultural production' - the creation of a shared mythology that obscures the true reasons for this surfeit of profits, heroism, ingenuity and sheer bravado in times of war.

    Advertising and PR at its best, create an enemy and get everyone to pull together to use up resources at a massive rate, in order to stimulate production and therefore surplus value for the string-pulling elite's political power and personal luxury. Nice work if you can get it Doug.

    Royalty- Oligarchs they're all the same, no good. no bad - but all equally ugly..

  5. Sir William is a prototypical Anglospherical character who along with certain other key players are the semi-mythical founders of Greater Bilderbergia, the mostly privatised virtual empire that created and ran WWII and whose agents are now busily orchestrating WW III even as we type Doug.

  6. I cannot help but feel more and more that irresponsible muilti-national corporate power is the engine behind a lot of tragic events in the 20th Century and beyond.

    Until we settle once and for all the idea that a corporation canot serve an immoral standard and its owners--some of which you mentioned-- will be brought to book if they try and push a selfish agenda that leads to war and desolation for too many, history will continue this endless and brutal loop of wars and synthetic disasters.

    What you say about "framing" is very important. Were I a teacher, I would strive, as so,me of past teachers and professors did, to get peole to look past the surface history and inot the biography of men like Rockefeller and DuPont and the I G Farben represetnitives. They don't elect the monsters who promse heaven and del;ibver hell; but they make their madest desires come true. Never was that so clear as in Germany in the 1930's and in places like Nigeria today.

    Thanks for the link. The final part of the article in Thistle makes a great deal of sense.

    "I do not want to give the impression that everyone who works for these companies is a monster. The people who run these corporations are all too human, and they have chosen to put the profits of their companies and their own wealth above even the simplest human considerations. If we are ever to turn back the tide of ecological disasters and human tragedies that have been synonymous with the advance of oil, we must first acknowledge the ruthless and amoral nature of these companies and take a stand against their further consolidation of power. Only then can we hope to take back our world and begin to write our own history."

    Or, as John Lennon put it, "Give me some truth!"

  7. It's pretty clear that we need brave men and women to come to the fore in times of danger---but it is a greater good to head off the danger in the first place. That takes more than some aristocracy of business--it takes an educated populace who can smell a rat when it comes to a sales job for a war, or a candidate who is using code words to incite hatred.

    You bring up good points to be remembered, AA, on what for many millions is a time of rememberance for a man 2,000 years ago who showed the world another way, an inner revolution so to speak, one that has been often hijacked, as all good spiritual and economic ideas are, by confidence tricksters.

    Thanks for the links and bringing much to my capsule review.

  8. Most of the elite of 2012 seem more elite (and remote) from the people they wish to lead or manipulate, that is certain, AA