Wild Bill Donovan Book Review

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

By Douglas Waller

Hardcover in dustjacket, illustrated, 389 pages plus sources and notes

Published by Free Press, 2011

Language: English

ISBN: 978-1-4165-6744-8

Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches

William J. (Wild Bill) Donovan was a larger than life figure.  A lawyer in civilian life, he studied at Columbia Law School, a classmate of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  During the First World War Donovan served in France as the chief of staff of the 165th Regiment, where he lead the Regiment in an assault on German positions near Landres-et-Saint-Georges.  Although wounded in the leg he continued to direct his men and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.

Between the wars he founded a law firm and became a U.S. Attorney during Prohibition.  He traveled extensively overseas on behalf of influential clients, always taking extensive notes on any political and military information discovered during these trips.  He mingled in Washington society in the Justice Department under President Coolidge, and ran for Governor of New York in 1932 but was defeated.

His international excursions and overseas intelligence gathering efforts continued and he was viewed as an unofficial influencer of U.S. policy.  He met with Mussolini in 1936 and was granted permission to inspect Italian troops fighting in Ethiopia.  Roosevelt sent him on a fact finding mission to England, where Prime Minister Churchill gave him access to Britain’s intelligence services.  As the U.S. had no unified intelligence service at the time, MI6 saw an opportunity to build a subordinate service in the U.S., with the Americans as a junior partner.  Donovan saw an opportunity to build a U.S. intelligence service on the model of MI6.  President Roosevelt made Donovan a General and appointed him “Coordinator of Information” in July, 1941.  The Office of Strategic Services was born.

A great deal of political battles were fought in the competition between the various American intelligence services, J. Edger Hoover’s FBI being a constant and rather determined rival.  Constant political skullduggery ensued, with various agencies cooperating with or undermining the efforts of the OSS.  Similarly, various high ranking military commanders either welcomed Donovan’s men enthusiastically or prohibited them from operating in their theaters entirely.  Donovan, for his part, always wished to personally be in the thick of the action (whether that was a good idea or not) and often left the details of management to his subordinates.  After the war President Truman demobilized the OSS, only to realize later that such an organization was vital to U.S. interests.  The Central Intelligence Organization is modeled after the wartime OSS.

Author Douglas Waller goes into great detail on the political and inter-service rivalries which followed Donovan and the OSS.  He does not report the battlefield accomplishments of the OSS, nor does he detail the spycraft or intelligence operations unless they are the subject of a rival’s attack on Donovan.  If the reader is looking for a page-turner about spies or commandos, then this is not the book for you.  The Jedburghs are only mentioned once, the Kachin Rangers of Burma only in a single incident.  Donovan lived much of his life separated from his wife, and Donovan’s many affairs are mentioned often but only in passing – one learns that he had several affairs but not with whom nor why.  The author focuses mainly on political rivalries and writes more about memos than either military matters or mistresses.  Little is offered to further the understanding of the operations of the OSS or what drove its founder.

If you are interested in American politics in the first half of the twentieth century then this book is well researched and insightful.  If you are a fan of military history you can safely give this one a miss.

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2 thoughts on “Wild Bill Donovan Book Review

  1. I own this as well. It is safe to say that there is very little military action, but since it is about Wild Bill, I understand why. It’s not quite the CIA of today – that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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