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The Spymaster’s Spymaster

February 13, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 12 Feb 2011: William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, has long been a controversial figure. If a man can be judged by the quality of his enemies, Donovan—who was cordially disliked or distrusted by Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall and especially by J. Edgar Hoover—was a giant of his era. That President Franklin Roosevelt eventually came to like and admire Donovan, a Republican enemy of the New Deal, says much for both men. As Douglas Waller makes clear in his fast-moving and well-written biography, “Wild Bill Donovan,” Roosevelt’s approval was the foundation of Donovan’s place at the center of American intelligence operations from July 1941 to September 1945.


Hailing from a poor Catholic neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., Donovan (1883-1959) won early renown as the most-decorated officer of World War I, earning the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal with two oak-leaf clusters, two Purple Hearts and the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he later sent any of his 10,000 OSS operatives into harm’s way during World War II, they knew that he was not asking anything of them that he hadn’t himself already done.


After World War I, Donovan went into the law and politics, failing to become lieutenant governor of New York in 1922 or governor in 1932. In the course of the gubernatorial campaign, he described the Democratic presidential nominee Roosevelt as “a new kind of red, white and blue dictator” with “delusions of grandeur.” Worse, when he met Mussolini in 1936 he congratulated the dictator on Italy’s “unity of spirit” and the Italian general Pietro Badoglio on his “great victory” over the poor, gassed, brutalized Abyssinian tribesmen. On German fascism, Donovan was far sounder, protesting in 1933 over the Nazis’ ill treatment of Jewish judges.


By July 1940, Donovan was one of the leading advocates of active aid to Britain and an opponent of America First isolationism, visiting London in a semi-official capacity and becoming convinced that Winston Churchill was fighting civilization’s fight. The prime minister reciprocated by praising Donovan’s “animating heart-warming flame” to FDR. With British assistance, Donovan toured Yugoslavia, Turkey, the Middle East and Spain, sending back encouraging cables. Walter Lippmann claimed that Donovan had “almost singlehandedly overcome the unmitigated defeatism which was paralyzing Washington.”


Donovan, who had come to admire FDR proposed to the president the creation of a spy and sabotage service based on Britain’s MI6, “with men calculatingly reckless with disciplined daring.” With the support of the secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, but in the teeth of the opposition of practically everyone else, Donovan was appointed “Coordinator of Information” in July 1941. Roosevelt loved the intelligence with which Donovan then deluged him—more than 200 memos in his first six months—calling him “my secret legs.”


For all the deliberate opacity of his title, the coordinator had a precise sense of his mission. He now opened a door on the world of codepads, pistols with silencers, lock-picking sets, matchbox cameras, bombs that looked like baking flour, stiletto knives, chemical and biological assassination weapons, and suicide capsules (which Donovan always carried with him, although his aides worried lest he mix them up with his identical-looking aspirin).


“Hush-Hush” Donovan hired anyone of ability, believing that “later on we’ll find out what they can do.” Future CIA directors Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby and William Casey all served under Donovan. From its headquarters at 25th & E streets on Navy Hill in Washington and at Rockefeller Center in New York, the Office of Strategic Services became America’s first world-wide intelligence service. World-wide except for Latin America, which Hoover managed to ring-fence for the FBI. Donovan and Hoover—who each kept files on the other—maintained a fiction of professionalism that barely hid their mutual detestation.


The tales of OSS derring-do—one agent, Virginia Hall, had a prosthetic leg from a prewar hunting accident but was still parachuted into Occupied France— are thrilling and none more so than the elaborate effort, in July 1941, to burgle the safe in the Spanish embassy in Washington for the diplomatic codebooks. The meticulous preparation and sheer chutzpah of the operation—infiltrating a secretary, distracting the embassy staff, sending in a safe-cracker, photographing and replacing the codebooks within hours—was extraordinary, not least because it had to be undertaken monthly when the codes changed. One can’t help sympathizing with Donovan when the OSS had to curtail its activities because the FBI turned out to be up to the same thing. (When FDR ordained that it was henceforth to be the FBI’s job to break into embassies, Donovan promptly started spying on the FBI, concluding that Hoover was “a fairy” —just as Hoover was concluding that Donovan was a serial adulterer.)


The stories of the OSS’s homelier operations are superb, too. Gland experts produced female sex hormones to inject into Hitler’s vegetable so that his mustache would fall out and his voice go soprano. Planes released bats that were fitted with time-delayed incendiary devices. They were supposed to fly under the eaves of German houses and blow them up; in fact, the poor creatures dropped like stones.


For every success Donovan could claim —such as the German agent Fritz Kolbe, who stole 1,600 documents from the foreign ministry in Berlin and took them to an OSS safe house in Switzerland—there was a failure: for example Donovan’s prediction, supposedly based on firm intelligence, that the Third Reich would “collapse . . . a few months” after D-Day.


Yet he was always an invigorating, thrusting, positive force. He insisted on taking part in the Salerno, Anzio and Normandy landings, hitting the beaches virtually in the second wave each time. At one point at Salerno, this 200-pound, 5-foot-9-inch, 60-year-old man with thickening heart muscles actually got into a firefight with an Italian patrol. It left him “happy as a clam.”


Mr. Waller, a former Newsweek and Time correspondent, makes a powerful case that Donovan was a great American. He does not, however, even attempt to make the case that the OSS significantly affected the outcome of the war. Yet Donovan had no fewer than 28 networks working in southern France by the spring of 1944, which was no mean feat.


The author is caustic about the OSS operations in Italy, citing several “bad operational breakdowns and security lapses,” not least when some OSS officers pocketed the cash intended for bribing Axis officials. Yet Donovan got a grip on the situation by the time of the fall of Rome in June 1944, setting himself up at the Grand Hotel Plaza there and sending no fewer than half his officers home. As Gen. Mark Clark fought his way up the peninsula, the OSS dropped 75 commando teams behind enemy lines, with 2,000 tons of arms and supplies, in support of the estimated 85,000 Italian partisans fighting against the Germans.


Just as he had no great respect for the inviolability of embassies, Donovan had little time for the Geneva Convention. In an operation codenamed “Sauerkraut,” he organized the recruitment of angry and disaffected German soldiers from POW camps—i.e., sour krauts—and slipped them behind enemy lines in their Wehr macht uniforms to plant subversive propaganda, gather intelligence and lower enemy morale. The scheme worked better than the absurd idea of having planes drop leaflets over Germany showing, as Donovan put it in a memo, “pictures of succulent, appetizing dishes that would make a hungry person almost go mad with longing.”


Another black propaganda wheeze was to produce fake German mailbags stuffed with poison-pen letters whose addresses were copied from prewar German phone directories. The mailbags were then air-dropped in the hope that German civilians would give them to postmen to deliver. The commitment of the OSS to getting every detail right was such that when it produced fake Polish army uniforms, the buttons had to be sewn onto coats by threading the holes parallel, in the European style, rather than crisscrossing them.


The value of Donovan’s organization is best seen at the time of Operation Overlord, when the OSS and the British Special Operations Executive dropped 10,000 tons of weaponry and equipment to the French Resistance, which put it to good use in slowing down the German counter attack. As he watched the D-Day landings from the deck of the USS Tuscaloosa, which was giving and receiving fire off Utah Beach, Donovan was in his element. His contribution to the winning of the war is necessarily hard to quantify, but by the end of Mr. Waller’s chronicle a fair-minded reader will judge it to have been considerable.


President Truman disbanded the OSS on Sept. 20, 1945, within a week of the Japanese surrender and just as the Soviet Union seemed to pose a new threat. His antipathy toward Donovan was fueled by Hoover’s disgusting (and untruthful) allegation that among Wild Bill’s many mistresses was Donovan’s own daughter-in-law. Yet such was America’s need for an OSS substitute that only two years later the organization was resuscitated with a new name —the Central Intelligence Agency—but without its great wartime leader. He deserved better.



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