William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan, a United States soldier, lawyer, intelligence officer, and diplomat, dies on February 8, 1959. Donovan is best remembered as the wartime head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. He is also known as the “Father of American Intelligence” and the “Father of Central Intelligence.”
Of Irish descent, Donovan is born in Buffalo, New York, to first generation immigrants Anna Letitia “Tish” Donovan (née Lennon) of Ulster and Timothy P. Donovan of County Cork. His grandfather, Timothy O’Donovan, Sr., is from the town of Skibbereen, and marries Mary Mahoney, who belongs to a propertied family of substantial means who disapprove of him. They move first to Canada and then to New York, where their son Timothy, Jr., Donovan’s father, attempts to engage in a political career but with little success.
William attend St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and Niagara University before starring on the football team at Columbia University, where he earns the nickname “Wild Bill”, which remains with him for the rest of his life. He graduates from Columbia in 1905. He then attends and graduates from Columbia Law School, after which he becomes an influential Wall Street lawyer.
In 1912, Donovan forms and leads a troop of cavalry of the New York National Guard, which is mobilized in 1916 and serves on the U.S.-Mexico border during the American government’s campaign against Pancho Villa.
During World War I, Major Donovan organizes and leads the 1st battalion of the 165th Regiment of the 42nd Division. For his service near Landres-et-St. Georges, France, on October 14-15, 1918, he receives the Medal of Honor. By the end of the war he receives a promotion to colonel, as well as the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart.
Donovan serves as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York from 1922 to 1924. Due to his energetic enforcement of Prohibition in the United States, there are a number of threats to assassinate him and to dynamite his home but he is not deterred. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge names Donovan to the United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division as a deputy assistant to Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty. Donovan runs unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of New York (1922) and for Governor of New York (1932) as a Republican.
During the years between the world wars, Donovan earns the attention and friendship of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although the two men were from opposing political parties, they were very similar in personality. In 1940 and 1941, Donovan traveled as an informal emissary to Britain, where he is urged by U.S. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Roosevelt to gauge Britain’s ability to withstand Germany’s aggression. During these trips Donovan meets with key officials in the British war effort, including Winston Churchill and the directors of Britain’s intelligence services. Donovan returns to the U.S. confident of Britain’s chances and enamored of the possibility of founding an American intelligence service modeled on that of the British.
On July 11, 1941, Donovan is named Coordinator of Information (COI) where he is to oversee America’s foreign intelligence organizations which, at the time are fragmented and isolated from each other. He is plagued over the course of the next year with jurisdictional battles as few of the leaders in the intelligence community are willing to part with any of their power. Nevertheless, Donovan begins to lay the groundwork for a centralized intelligence program.
In 1942, the COI becomes the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Donovan is returned to active duty in the U.S. Army. He is promoted to brigadier general in March 1943 and to major general in November 1944. Under his leadership the OSS eventually conducts successful espionage and sabotage operations in Europe and parts of Asia. By 1943, relations with the British are becoming increasingly strained, partly due to British concerns that OSS operations are sometimes regarded as ill-disciplined and irresponsibly managed. MI6 chief Stewart Menzies is extremely hostile towards the idea of OSS operations anywhere in the British Empire and categorically forbids them to operate within the U.K.
After the end of World War II and the death of President Roosevelt in early April 1945, Donovan’s political position is substantially weakened as he finds himself opposed by President Harry S. Truman, J. Edgar Hoover, and others. Truman disbands the OSS in September 1945 and Donovan returns to civilian life. Several departments of the OSS survive the dissolution and, less than two years later, the Central Intelligence Agency is founded.
Donovan does not have an official role in the newly formed CIA but he is instrumental in its formation. His opinions meet strong opposition from the State, War, and Navy Departments, as well as J. Edgar Hoover. President Truman is also unenthusiastic about some of Donovan’s arguments but he prevails and they are reflected in the National Security Act of 1947 and the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949.
After the end of the war ended, Donovan returns to his lifelong role as a lawyer and serves as special assistant to chief prosecutor Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in Germany. On August 3, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appoints Donovan Ambassador to Thailand and he serves in that capacity from September 4, 1953 until his resignation on August 21, 1954.
Donovan dies from complications of vascular dementia on February 8, 1959 at the age of 76, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He is buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower remarks, “What a man! We have lost the last hero.”