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.