Wild Bill Donovan: Godfather of the CIA

Waller has a villain for his story too — FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover is basically a cartoon character in this book, which is unfortunate since Donovan’s antics did give anyone who thought of him as an amateur in his field a valid point. This OSS was no MI-6, and Donovan was no Stewart Menzies.

Waller is dismissive of the late great Anthony Cave Brown’s epic biography Wild Bill Donovan: the Last American Hero as being “wildly speculative” in parts and containing “numerous errors.” But at least Cave Brown covered the activities of the OSS (too exhaustively for some critics) enough to put Donovan’s contribution in perspective. Waller focuses so much on the personal that one might wonder what all the fuss is about. He also is not error free. In his discussion of the Valkyrie plot (which Cave Brown does much better), Waller misidentifies resistance stalwart Count von Helldorf (the man played by Kenneth Branagh in the film) as a “longtime Nazi.”

Donovan’s achievements during the war were somewhat modest — burgling the embassies of neutral embassies to steal the keys to codes and arming the Maquis to delay the German’s reinforcement of Normandy stand out. His intelligence network in Istanbul, run by a handpicked agent, was a complete and corrupt disaster, however.

While the OSS was disbanded because Harry Truman feared a central intelligence agency would become an American “Gestapo,” Donovan was active in the prosecution of German war criminals — only he had foreseen the need to collect evidence and dossiers as the war ended — and he finished his career as the staunchly anti-communist ambassador to Thailand. There, he was ironically working more like a CIA station chief than an ambassador, and supervised by his former underling, Allen Dulles, director of the CIA.

Despite the OSS’s mistaken assessment of Ho Chi Minh as merely a “nationalist” during WWII, Donovan became a vocal advocate of fighting his Communist movement in Southeast Asia.

At times, Waller’s narrative seems as disorganized and wrongly focused as its subject was wont to be. However, it is a valuable — and mostly fascinating — look at a woefully under-reported subject. When you consider sheer volume of WWII literature and the numerous biographies of minor characters and generals that fill the shelves, it’s almost criminal that Wild Bill Donovan would be so neglected.