By David Wise
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 25, 2011; 10:59 AM
WILD BILL DONOVAN
The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage
By Douglas Waller
466 pp. $30
On the eve of the Normandy invasion in 1944, Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Navy secretary James Forrestal all ordered William J. Donovan, the chief of the Office of Strategic Services, to remain behind in London. It would not do for the head of the OSS, the nation's intelligence service, to be shot, killed or captured.
They should have known better. True to his sobriquet of "Wild Bill," Donovan wangled his way onto a heavy cruiser that was part of the invasion armada, hitched a ride on a passing landing craft and went ashore on Utah beach. He was not a man who took no for an answer.
After barely missing being strafed by four German Messerschmitts, Donovan, with a trusted aide, Col. David Bruce, walked inland hoping to make contact with his agents or the French resistance. Suddenly they found themselves in a field close to German soldiers. As they were raked by enemy machine gunfire, Donovan turned to Bruce. "You understand . . . that neither of us must be captured. We know too much." Donovan reached for his "L pill," a lethal poison that OSS agents carried in case of capture. He emptied his pockets but couldn't find it; he had left it in his room at Claridge's in London. Bruce did not have his either. The pair ran across the field and managed to make their way back to the American lines.
The episode, recounted by Douglas Waller in this superb, dramatic yet scholarly biography, tells a great deal about the man who built a far-flung intelligence organization from scratch in the midst of World War II. Courageous but reckless, always itching to be in the center of the action, Donovan was smart, tough and seemingly endowed with boundless energy.
Born in Buffalo's Irish First Ward to working-class parents, Donovan realized he was not cut out for the priesthood, and graduated from Columbia College and Columbia Law School. He was handsome, with a gift for impressing his elders and mentors. He married a rich girl (his entree into Buffalo society), was wounded in World War I, and earned the Congressional Medal of Honor - although only after political friends intervened to overturn the Army's initial refusal to award him the medal.
Soon established as a successful young lawyer, he moved to New York, lost a race for governor and six months before Pearl Harbor sent a memo to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the creation of a central intelligence service. "Strategy, without information upon which it can rely, is helpless," the memo warned. Roosevelt, who badly wanted better information from abroad and regarded the military and State Department intelligence units as next-to-useless, embraced Donovan's idea. FDR gave him a bland interim title and in 1942 appointed him chief of the OSS.
As the new player in town, Donovan was talented at making enemies, notably J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director, but also the chief of G-2 (Army intelligence) and others. What comes through clearly is that Donovan spent as much time battling rival agencies as he did running the wartime spy service. Only his direct access to FDR saved him. And the turf wars among the spy agencies continue to this day.
Although generally admiring of his subject, Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, does not hesitate to describe the OSS's failed operations or Donovan's personal flaws. Donovan met with Mussolini in 1935 and congratulated the dictator's army chief on his "great victory" in crushing Ethiopia. Donovan was a famously poor administrator, and despite many OSS successes, Waller notes, he also presided over "horrible mistakes" and "botched missions."
At times Donovan's fascination with spy gadgetry and operations behind enemy lines may have made him neglect the organization's intelligence-gathering mission. He loved the exotic weapons, explosives and schemes hatched by Stanley Lovell, the agency's equivalent of "Q" in the James Bond stories. Lovell plotted to make Hitler's mustache fall off and his voice turn soprano by injecting female hormones into the vegetables der Fuehrer ate. Now where did the CIA get the idea of making Fidel Castro's beard fall out?
A succession of women were unable to resist Donovan's Irish charm - and as a result, his wife, Ruth, well aware of his extramarital wanderings, struggled to build a life of her own. The Donovans were often apart. He lived through family tragedies - his daughter was killed in a car crash, his daughter-in-law died of an overdose of sleeping pills, and a 4-year-old granddaughter drank silver polish and died.
Through it all, he persevered. But at the end of the war, his dream of heading a new central intelligence agency was shattered. President Truman distrusted Donovan, a Republican, and disbanded the OSS. When the CIA was created two years later, Eisenhower, who admired Donovan, nevertheless appointed Allen Dulles, Donovan's wartime chief in Switzerland, director of central intelligence.
"Wild Bill Donovan" is the first carefully researched, in-depth biography of the legendary World War II spymaster. For anyone interested in the history of American intelligence, it is required reading.
David Wise is the author of "Tiger Trap: America's Secret Spy War with China," to be published this spring.