Wild Bill Donovan: Godfather of the CIA

Wild Bill Donovan:

The Spymaster who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

By Douglas Waller

Free Press, 466 pp.

Journalist Douglas Waller’s Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage is billed as the first definitive biography of William Donovan, head FDR’s Office of Strategic Services. Donovan ran covert ops in WWII and was effectively the godfather of the CIA.

But the differences between the modern American espionage agency exposed in Ishmael Jones’s The Human Factor and the force envisioned by Donovan is evident from the book’s title. “Wild Bill” would never have allowed his agency to become a deskbound and risk-averse bureaucracy in a dangerous world where Americans are under constant threat.

What readers are most likely to take away from reading Wild Bill Donovan is that he did a truly amazing job of creating his spy agency out of whole cloth, while his country was at war — and with more opposition domestically than he faced from the enemy. Despite heroic service in WWI, Donovan’s only experiences with espionage were his pre-war travels in which he, somewhat informally, reported his findings back to FDR — despite his vocal opposition to the New Deal as a Republican candidate for governor of New York.

One might think this means that Donovan was an ultra-organized master of bureaucracy. But Waller makes it plain that Donovan was a “lousy manager” who wrestled the OSS into existence through creativity and the sheer force of will.

“Wild Bill” also earned his nickname by being a lousy husband, perhaps the least discreet public figure of his era. He also took needlessly reckless risks by “participating” in most of the amphibious landings in the European theater for no practical reason. Shortly after D-Day, he came close to capture, not only risking the lives of those around him, but of all of America’s secret operations.