A World War I hero and Wall Street attorney who founded and directed America’s first central intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), during World War II.
General Donovan, commonly known as “Wild Bill” Donovan, was born in Buffalo, New York on January 1, 1883. He graduated from Niagara University in 1903, Columbia College in 1905 and Columbia University Law School in 1908. He then returned to Buffalo to practice law. In 1912, however, he formed his own cavalry troop and led it in Mexican border skirmishes. During World War I, Donovan organized and led a battalion of the U.S. Army, the 69th New York Volunteers (known as the “Fighting 69th”). He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France on October 14 and 15, 1918, and by the end of the war he was promoted to Colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and three Purple Hearts.
Donovan led his unit in the New York City victory parade in 1919. That same year he was sent to Siberia as a presidential secret intelligence envoy to report on anti-Bolshevik operations and the actions of the Japanese.
On a July day in 1919, an extraordinary train pulled out of the Vladivostok railway station. On its cars and on top of the locomotive the soldiers of the United States’s Siberian Expeditionary Force stood with their rifles and machine guns at the ready. On a flatcar rode a Cadillac automobile belonging to Major-General William Graves, the commander of the U.S. forces in Siberia. General Graves rode to the city of Omsk to meet with Admiral Kolchak, the commander of the Russian “White” forces in Siberia.
One of his companions was Donovan, dressed in his U.S. Army uniform. Fifty years later Donovan’s biographer, Richard Dunlop, would write: “The roots of America’s World War II Office of Strategic Services and of the CIA, which was to succeed it, run deep through the history of the 20th century. It may be said that the taproot reached back to this train and this man.” 1
Back home from his first mission as a presidential intelligence agent, Donovan served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York and was subsequently appointed to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. He ran for Governor of New York on the Republican ticket in 1932 but was defeated. Working as a Wall Street lawyer during the 1930s, Donovan traveled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders in Ethiopia in 1935-1936, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and elsewhere. His foreign experience and grasp of international politics earned him the attention of his Columbia classmate Franklin D. Roosevelt. Following the start of World War II in Europe, President Roosevelt sent Donovan to Britain, continental Europe and the Middle East. Donovan’s meetings with key officials in the British war effort convinced him that the United States needed to found an American intelligence service on the British model.
Donovan’s missions abroad led to his appointment in June 1941 as the United States’s civilian coordinator of information (COI). In 1942, when the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Donovan was recalled to active duty in his World War I rank of Colonel and appointed head the military OSS. Under Donovan’s leadership, the OSS conducted successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia. By war’s end, he had been promoted to Major General. For his World War II service, Donovan was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal — the highest American military decoration for outstanding non-combat service. He also received an honorary British knighthood.
After the end of World War II, President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS in September 1945, and Donovan returned to civilian life. His hope for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency was realized less than two years later, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created. Meanwhile, Donovan, who had returned to his legal practice, served as special assistant to the chief prosecutor at several trials following the main Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany. After completing this mission, he returned to his Wall Street law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine. In 1953 he was appointed Ambassador to Thailand and served in that capacity until his resignation in 1954.
At his death in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower called Donovan “the Last Hero.” Posthumously, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee and became a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. General Donovan is the only American to have received the nation’s four highest decorations.
- America’s Master Spy, by Richard Dunlop. Rand McNally, 1982. ↩