Donovan: America’s Master Spy – Richard Dunlop

DonovanIn December 1963, one month after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), former President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) authored an op-ed piece in the December 22, 1963, edition of the Washington Post about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its role in America. While reflecting on what the CIA had become, he stated “there is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” The agency had been established through the National Security Act of 1947 which was intended to both centralize and simplify national defense and the intelligence apparatus. Five years before the National Security Act was signed into law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had also addressed the need for foreign intelligence and through Executive Order 9128 on July 13, 1942, he formally established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). And to lead the new agency, he turned to former director of the Coordination of Information (COI), the legendary William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan (1883-1959). Though he was never director of the CIA, Donovan is credited as being the father of intelligence. Author Richard Dunlop examines Donovan’s life in this intriguing biography and historical account of how the intelligence community came to exist.

Dunlop provides a thorough discussion of Donovan’s early life in Buffalo, New York, and it soon becomes clear that Donovan is a person of action and determination. His life changes with the start of World War I, a conflict in which Donovan would play a direct role as soldier in the U.S. Army. His exploits on the battlefield and recognition by others give credence to the name Wild Bill as readers will learn. Following his service in the military, Donovan returned home to resume his law practice. But as he would see, fate had other ideas for his life. After being appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, Donovan became a rising star in Washington circles as a prosecutor with an impeccable record. But unbeknownst to American citizens, a dark cloud was forming over Europe in the form of a young Austrian name Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and his political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (N.S.D.A.P.). As the Nazi threat became real, Washington realized that it needed information about Europe and the truth about its future. Donovan had foreseen things to come and as Dunlop explains:

“Donovan was convinced in the late 1920s that Poland would be the first European nation to be torn apart by the next war in Europe.”

As part of his duties as a traveling businessman, Donovan came face to face with individuals who later played crucial roles in World War II. One meeting in Berchtesgaden will catch the attention of readers. America did not formally enter the war until December 1941 but prior to that the White House was deeply concerned with the events unfolding. Roosevelt knew that America could not ignore the conflict. And this action he took as explained by Dunlop set the stage for the future of intelligence:

“On July 11, 1941, President Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), making Donovan its chief. When the COI was transformed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, Donovan continued as America’s wartime intelligence master.” 

On the surface it was just what America needed but as the author shows, not everyone was on board with a central agency. Readers with an affection for U.S. history will know that no one escaped the wrath of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). The tension between the two is on full display and exemplifies Hoover’s thirst for power and obsession with controlling every aspect of gathering intelligence both domestically and abroad. To say that Hoover was displeased with the new intelligence agencies would be an understatement. And his threats to the Republican party that he would release damaging information is a move all too familiar. I found this passage by the author regarding events after the attack at Pearl Harbor to be a perfect example of the disdain held by Hoover towards any type of intelligence apparatus:

“On Tuesday, December 9, Roosevelt ordered Donovan to coordinate all North American intelligence agencies, including the recalcitrant FBI. The lesson of Pearl Harbor was fresh in his mind: The welter of conflicting intelligence agencies had contributed to the tragic unpreparedness in the Pacific. But when J. Edgar Hoover refused to cooperate with Donovan, Roosevelt backed off and on December 23 lamely reaffirmed the authority of the FBI.” 

Hoover could not control the war and regardless of his personal ambitions, the war mandated a different approach to intelligence and Donovan was the man Roosevelt and Truman turned to. Dunlop discusses the triumphs of the OSS but does not fall into the trap of going into too much detail. There is sufficient information to provide readers with an understanding of its importance without taking the story away from Donovan who is the central figure. And while leading the OSS, he provided the blueprint for the CIA. His agents came from all social classes and the OSS conducted missions that were unbelievable. Donovan was far ahead of his time and realized that intelligence was a vital component if America were to remain secure and powerful.

Following the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan, the days of the OSS were numbered. However, Donovan knew that his work and that of others following his path was far from over. Truman knew that intelligence was vital and that there was no turning back. Another war was possible, and America could not afford to be caught off guard. Donovan’s importance cannot be overstated, and his legacy is captured with the author’s remark that:

“When on September 18, 1947, almost two years to the day after his OSS had been abolished, the Congress authorized the Central Intelligence Agency, Donovan was delighted. The new CIA in most important respects followed the blueprint that he had submitted to Franklin Roosevelt three years before.” 

In the wake of the dissolution of the OSS, Donovan returned to his private life but remained connected to the intelligence community, issuing warnings and advice. His statement about Vietnamese icon Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969) and his communist organization sent chills down my spine. When Donovan died on February 8, 1959, America lost one of its greatest intelligence assets. The former intelligence chief was far from perfect and the information about his personal life stands in contrast to his professional life. Tragedy, marital issues, and time away from home, took their toll on Donovan at times. But he never wavered in his service to America. This book by Dunlop is an important story that needed to be told about a man who helped change American history.

ASIN: B00I2G6RJM

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