Alex Constantine - March 19, 2011
William J. Donovan, the Buffalo native and U. S. intelligence mastermind during World War II, had to fend off spying efforts that the Pentagon and FBI directed at him. That’s one of the revelations in Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, published last month by journalist Douglas Waller (left).
Waller is speaking about the book at 9 a. m. today in the Garret Club; noon at Buffalo City Forum; and 10:30 a. m. Wednesday at Donovan’s alma mater, Nardin Academy.
[Link to an audio file of Waller's lecture.]
Monday, the author talked about the hero to about 50 people at a lunchtime gathering in the Central Library downtown.
Donovan was born in Buffalo’s Old First Ward on New Year’s Day 1883, earned the Medal of Honor in World War I and, after marrying into the Rumsey family and establishing a successful law practice, ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York in 1932.
It was under Roosevelt during World War II that Donovan — who had earned the nickname “Wild Bill” for his daring during World War I — established the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA.
“Donovan really introduced this nation into covert operations and espionage on a wide scale that had never been seen before, and that’s his legacy,” Waller said.
As a Republican, Donovan opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, considering it “a communist plot,” Waller said. But both men shared the belief that the United States needed to become involved in the war, with Donovan fending off isolationist calls from other Republicans.
An assistant attorney general in the administration of President Calvin Coolidge, Donovan once harbored hopes of being the first Catholic attorney general and, later, president. But those hopes had been quashed by the start of the war, and both Roosevelt and Donovan agreed that the nation needed to be preparing for war and building up its defenses.
“Politically, it’s amazing that Roosevelt made Donovan his spymaster because of their past, but they had this one critical alliance,” Waller said.
Donovan eventually built his spy operation into more than 10,000 espionage agents, commandos, research analysts and administrative personnel in OSS stations around the world. That’s where the political intrigue in the highest levels of government came in. “The FBI and [Director] J. Edgar Hoover hated Donovan. They thought the group of OSS officers was the biggest band of amateurs ever seen,” Waller said.
The author’s research found that Roosevelt was monitoring Donovan’s operation just as Donovan was spying on Hoover. And the Pentagon, which had opposed the formation of the OSS and also considered the operation amateurish, had its own espionage unit, known as “the Pond.” It was unbeknown to even Donovan, and it spied not only on the enemy, but gathered personal dirt on Donovan and his aides.
Waller said he came to wonder how U. S. intelligence found the time to spy on its enemies.
“Donovan liked to tell senior officers he spent as much time fighting his friends and allies in Washington as he did Hitler overseas,” Waller said.
President Harry S. Truman wound up breaking up the OSS and parceling out its functions to the Pentagon and the State Department before forming the Central Intelligence Agency two years later. Donovan served a year as ambassador to Thailand but would never be on the national stage again.
Waller said it’s ironic that Donovan and the late Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who lived in Jamestown, are said to be under consideration for the naming of the new federal courthouse. Jackson was the lead prosecutor and Donovan his deputy for the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, but their fallout over tactics resulted in Donovan leaving in a huff before the trials began.
“If one or the other got it,” Waller said of the honor, “the other one would probably be turning over in his grave.”