- "Wild Bill Donovan" redirects here. For the baseball pitcher and manager see William Edward Donovan.
Major General William Joseph Donovan, KBE United States Army (January 1, 1883 – February 8, 1959) was an American soldier, lawyer and intelligence officer, best remembered as wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He is also widely known as the "father" of today's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Donovan was born in Buffalo
, New York
and attended St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute
and Niagara University
before starring on the football team at Columbia University
. On the field, he got the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his life, Wild Bill Donovan
. Donovan was also a member of Phi Kappa Psi
Fraternity, and he graduated from Columbia in 1905.
Donovan was a member of the New York City "Establishment," a powerful Wall Street lawyer and a Columbia Law School classmate (1908) (but credited to 1907) of Franklin D. Roosevelt, although they were not close at the time.
In 1912, Donovan formed and led a troop of cavalry of the New York State Militia, that in 1916 served on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Pancho Villa campaign.
World War I
During World War I
, Donovan organized and led a battalion of the United States Army
, designated the 165th Regiment
of the 42nd Division
, the federalized designation of the famed 69th New York Volunteers, (the "Fighting 69th
"). In France one of his charges was poet Joyce Kilmer
. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on 14 and 15 October 1918, he was awarded the Medal of Honor
. By the end of the war he received a promotion to colonel
, the Distinguished Service Cross
and three Purple Hearts
(the full text of his Medal of Honor Citation can be found further below).
Between the wars
After the war, he was the U.S. Attorney
for the Western District of New York, famous for his energetic enforcement of Prohibition
. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican
for Governor of New York
in 1932 and was soundly defeated by Democrat Herbert H. Lehman
. President Calvin Coolidge
named him to the United States Department of Justice
World War II
During the inter-war years, Donovan travelled extensively in Europe and met with foreign leaders including Adolf Hitler
of Germany. Donovan openly believed during this time that a second major European war was all but inevitable. His foreign experience and realism earned him the attention and friendship of Columbia-classmate President Franklin D. Roosevelt
. The two men were from opposing politicals parties, but they were similar in personality and Roosevelt came to highly value Donovan's insights. Following Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 and the start of World War II
in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt
began to put the United States on a war footing. This was a crisis of the sort that Donovan had predicted, and he sought out a place in the war infrastructure. On the recommendation of Donovan's friend United States Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox
, Roosevelt gave Donovan a number of increasingly important assignments. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan travelled as an informal emissary
to Britain, urged by Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain's ability to withstand Germany. Donovan during these trips met with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill
himself and the directors of Britain's intelligence services. Donovan returned to the US confident of Britain's chances and enamored with the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.
In June 1941, Donovan received his most important assignment to date when Roosevelt named him Coordinator of Information
(COI). American foreign intelligence at the time was a fragmented system. The Army, Navy, Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI), United States Department of State
, and other interests each ran in-house operations the results of which they were reluctant to share with the other departments. Donovan was now the nominal director of this unwieldy system, but he was plagued over the course of the next year with brutal jurisdictional battles. Few of the leaders in the intelligence community were willing to part with any of the power that the current ad hoc
system awarded them. The FBI, for example, under the control of Donovan's bitter rival J. Edgar Hoover
, insisted on retaining its autonomy in South America.
Donovan forged ahead, though, and began to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program. It was he who organized the COI's New York headquarters in Room 3603 of Rockefeller Center in October, 1941 and asked Allen Dulles to head it; the offices Dulles took over had been the location of the operations of Britain's MI6.
In 1942, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan was returned to active duty in his World War I rank of colonel (by war's end, he would be promoted to major general). The OSS gradually earned responsibility for espionage and sabotage in Europe and in parts of Asia. The OSS continued to be kept out of South America by Hoover's hostility to Donovan, and it was blocked out of the Philippines by the antipathy of Douglas MacArthur.
For many years, the exploits of the OSS remained secret, but in the 1970s and 1980s, significant parts of the OSS history were declassified, and the exploits of Donovan's service became public record.
As World War II began to wind to a close in 1944, Donovan began to focus on preserving the OSS beyond the end of the war. After President Roosevelt's death in 1945, however, Donovan's political position, which had thrived on his personal connection to the President, was substantially weakened. Although he argued forcefully for the OSS' retention, he now found himself opposed by numerous powerful opponents, including President Harry S Truman, who personally disliked Donovan. Public opinion turned against Donovan's efforts when conservative critics rallied against the intelligence service that they called an 'American gestapo.' Truman disbanded the OSS, effective September 1945, and Donovan was returned to civilian life. Various departments of the OSS survived the agency's dissolution, however, and less than two years later, the Central Intelligence Agency was founded, a realization of Donovan's hopes for a centralized peacetime intelligence agency.
After the war, Donovan reverted to his lifelong role as a lawyer to perform one last duty: he served as special assistant to chief prosecutor Telford Taylor
at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal
There, he had the personal satisfaction of seeing Nazi leaders responsible for the torture and murder of captured OSS agents brought to justice. For his World War II service, Donovan received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the United States military gives for service (rather than valor). He also received an honorary British knighthood.
At the conclusion of the trial, he returned to Wall Street where his law firm, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, was a powerhouse. He remained always available to the postwar Presidents who needed his counsel — or his intelligence management experience.
In 1949, he became chairman of the newly-founded American Committee on United Europe, which worked to counter the new Communist threat to Europe by promoting European political unity.
Donovan's son, David Rumsey Donovan, was a naval officer who served with distinction in WWII. His grandson William James Donovan served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam and is also buried at Arlington.
Donovan died on February 8, 1959, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. at the age of 76, and is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to him as "the Last Hero," which later became the title of a biography of him. After his death, Donovan was awarded the Freedom Award of the International Rescue Committee (not, as some biographies state, the "Medal of Freedom," a different award).
The law firm he founded, Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine was dissolved in 1998.
Major General Donovan is a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
List of honors and decorations
Medal of Honor citation
Rank and organization: Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, 165th Infantry, 42d Division. Place and date: Near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, 14-15 October 1918. Entered service at: Buffalo, N.Y. Born: 1 January 1883, Buffalo, N.Y. G.O., No.: 56, W.D., 1922.
- Lt. Col. Donovan personally led the assaulting wave in an attack upon a very strongly organized position, and when our troops were suffering heavy casualties he encouraged all near him by his example, moving among his men in exposed positions, reorganizing decimated platoons, and accompanying them forward in attacks. When he was wounded in the leg by machine-gun bullets, he refused to be evacuated and continued with his unit until it withdrew to a less exposed position.
"Espionage is not a nice thing, nor are the methods employed exemplary. Neither are demolition bombs nor poison gas.... We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him...."
"The door for intelligence work opened for me when I undertook my first secret mission while on my honeymoon in Japan in 1919. The United States Government asked me to take a two-month trip to Siberia to report on the anti-Bolshevik movement in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Well, it wasn't your usual honeymoon, but Mrs. Donovan was very understanding. The mission was successful and opened doors to many more missions for the government. I was heading down the intelligence path and I was loving it."
- Donovan is featured among other historical figures in the novel "Las Increíbles Aventuras de Rex Stark y el Holocausto Secreto" (The Incredible Adventures of Rex Stark and The Secret Holocaust) by Juan Miguel de la Torre, Devir, 2004.
- A character loosely based on Donovan appears in the film The Good Shepherd, under the name William Sullivan. It is played by Robert De Niro. This character is not to be confused with William C. Sullivan, former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation intelligence operations.
- Donovan is a central figure in the WEB Griffin series The Corps, Men at War and Honor Bound.
- Donovan is referenced in Three Days of the Condor. Higgins asks Wabash, "You served in the OSS with Colonel Donovan during the war, didn't you, sir?" Wabash replies, "I sailed the Adriatic with a movie star at the helm".
- Donovan is featured in Peter Quinn's historical novel, The Hour of the Cat.
- Donovan is featured in Gordon Stevens' novel And All the Kings Men. The novel is based in Britain during a successful Nazi invasion. In it, Donovan is credited for, among other things, persuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the Lend-Lease act and delivering intelligence about the German nuclear energy project and Nazi concentration camps.
- Donovan is a major character in the 1940 blockbuster movie "The Fighting 69th" , set during World War I. It features Pat O'Brien in one of his best roles as Father Francis P. Duffy, Jeffrey Lynn as the poet Joyce Kilmer, and George Brent as Major 'Wild Bill' Donovan.
- Col. Roy Campbell of the Metal Gear series of video games strongly references Donovan in both appearance and career.
- Donovan was portrayed by Dick O'Neill in the 1979 movie "a Man Called Intrepid." William Stephenson (MI5 code name: Intrepid) was played by David Niven.
The musician Stan Ridgway
on his album Black Diamond
included a song title "Wild Bill Donovan
". The song deals somewhat vaguely with his founding of the OSS and Cold War exploits.
- Donovan and the CIA: A History of the Establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency by Thomas F. Troy, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, 1981.
- Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero, by Anthony Cave Brown, New York: Times Books, 1982.
- OSS: The Secret History of America’s First Central Intelligence Agency, by R. Harris Smith, University of California Press, 1972.
- Allen Dulles: Master of Spies, by James Srodes, Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1999.
- Father Duffy’s Story, by Fr. Francis Patrick Duffy, George H. Doran Company, 1919.
- A Doughboy with the Fighting 69th, by Albert M. and A. Churchill Ettinger, Simon & Schuster, 1992.
- The Shamrock Battalion of the Rainbow: A Story of the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, by Martin J. Hogan, D. Appleton, 1919.
- Into Siam, by Nicol and Blake Clark, Bobbs-Merrill, 1946.
- No Banners, No Bands, by Robert Alcorn, D. McKay, 1965.
- Americans All, the Rainbow at War: The Official History of the 42nd Rainbow Division in the World War, by Henry J. Reilly, F.J. Heer, 1936.
- "A Man Called Intrepid: The Secret War" Stevenson, William, 1976.